Brisbane Writers Festival Dazzles

Analogue MenThe  2014 Brisbane Writers Festival had an inspiring launch on Thursday night when author/publisher Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What is the What – about the lost boys of Sudan) told a full tent  about the genesis of McSweeney’s publishing company and its 826 Valencia Writing Centres. The tutoring behind these pirate, superhero and other themed storefronts has helped countless children with their writing. Groups doing similar work in Australia are Sydney’s Story Factory with its Martian Embassy, Melbourne’s 100 Story Building, and Book Links in Queensland is working towards its own centre.

My next session was ‘Dangerous Allies’ where Robert Manne interviewed Malcolm Fraser in front of a capacity crowd. The insights about Australia’s alliance with the US were provocative and chilling.

‘Zen and the Art of Tea’ was a light-hearted exploration of tea by Morris Gleitzman and Josephine Moon. Josephine’s tip about brewing lavender, garlic or basil to make teas sounds worth trying and Morris – a literary Geoffrey Rush – was hilarious. He personified coffee as a bully, and tea as a whispering lover.

David Hunt was in fine form discussing his Indies Book winner, Girt which is a retelling of Australian history with a comedic eye.

It was fun to cross paths with David Malouf (for the second time in two weeks), Jennifer Byrne, Will Kostakis, Pamela Rushby and Tristan Bancks. If only there was more time for more sessions … I would have loved to see YA writers such as A.J. Betts, Isobelle Carmody and Jackie French but they were either offsite or clashed with my events. Andy Griffiths was so popular he had his own signing area after the other children’s writers’ part of the program had finished. Chairing Andy and John Boyne (Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) a few years ago was one of the funniest times of my life.

Forgotten Rebels of EurekaThis year I was privileged to moderate sessions with Clare Wright on The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text) and Nick Earls on Analogue Men (Vintage). Clare must be the world’s most informed person in her field of women at Eureka. Her book deservedly won the Stella Prize this year. It is compulsive, engaging reading, notwithstanding its 500+ pages.

Nick was as funny as expected and revealed a secret about Analogue Men. We learned that his favourite Dr Who is Jon Pertwee and his favourite tech device Bluetooth. I explained how I laughed out loud repeatedly over one scene that I read on instant replay and Nick implied that my brain is like that of a goldfish. But no – it really was the skilful writing. It was wonderful to hear the laughing throughout this session and see the animated audiences in both these events.

Many thanks to the authors involved in the Festival, particularly Clare and Nick, and to the incredible BWF staff and volunteers led by Kate Eltham.

Literature’s Bono: A One-Man Zeitgest

One Man ZeitgeistI tried to obtain a review copy of Caroline Hamilton’s One Man Zeitgeist: Dave Eggers, Publishing and Publicity when it was first released as a prohibitively expensive hardcover in 2010.

And I was, I’ll admit, summarily miffed that the publisher wasn’t even polite enough to issue me a ‘nice try, but you can pay for it in full’ reply.

I caved and bought One Man Zeitgeist in recent weeks because I needed it for my university research and because I discovered that it’s finally out in a more affordable paperback format.

Almost incontrollable itching to hyphenate the title aside, I actually laughed when the book arrived. It was so slim Boomerang Books had to pack the mailbag with some extra cardboard lest its flimsy pages get minced beyond readable recognition in transit.

I’m not implying that Hamilton’s work is flimsy—far from it—just that the book is a lot thinner than I, after three years of attempting to get a hold of it, expected. It is, as the cover tells us, the ‘first extensive analysis of the works of Dave Eggers, a man who has grown from a small-time media upstart into one of the most influential author-publishers of the twenty-first century’.

I fell in love with Eggers from the opening pages of his breakout memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and have developed a near-obsessive fascination with and respect for him and his career and humanitarian work ever since.

McSweeney’s is a hipster-worthy publication, but it’s posted some fantastic monologues in its time, not least I’m Comic Sans, Asshole. It’s also beautifully presented. Eggers is one of the few authors, Hamilton writes, whose work it possible to identify ‘on the basis of typeface alone’.

ZeitounBetween his wresting back of the publishing ownership and power from the big guys, his determination to give back via his work and his work’s proceeds, and, well, every single outstanding and bestselling text he’s since published, Eggers is pretty much my hero.

Even if he hadn’t been, Zeitoun would have made him so. That book rocked my world and re-reinvented (he seems to have undergone multiple reinventions) Eggers’ career and ethos. In fact, the book arguably cemented his abilities to make the world a better place through words.

Oh, and then he kicked off 826 Valencia, a charitable arm that sees writers volunteer their time to tutor children from underprivileged backgrounds. As Hamilton quotes Eggers in the book from something he reportedly said while speaking to a journalist: ‘I felt like I was back where I knew what I was doing on the planet. I was liberated by a sense of obligation. I knew how I could be useful.’ Useful? Yes. Heroic and inspiring? Yes, indeed.

‘Through sheer weight of media coverage alone, Eggers has earned the rather extraordinary accolade of being a “one man zeitgeist”’, Hamilton tells us. It’s also seen him dubbed, backhandedly, as the ‘Bono of Literature’. It’s a scathing indictment, but one that reeks too of tall poppy syndrome and jealousy.

Eggers’ is a career that confounds most of us—fans or foes—but Hamilton’s book brings us the most comprehensive understanding to date of a career that’s undoubtedly going to continue to influence the way the author–publisher and the industry as operates. One Man Zeitgeist reads like a PhD thesis, which is arguably what it was.

But kudos to Hamilton for getting it published as a commercially available book that has some chance of being read by someone other than her supervisors and her mum—that’s the ultimate (and arguably very Eggers) outcome for postgraduate students. I’ll be keen to read future instalments from her—surely Eggers’ life and career will warrant further study (and yes, I’m aware I’ll likely have to wait for the paperback versions and pay for them too).

The (Brisbane) Flood

Flood_1I’m back in my apartment and online after—to use the most overused term in Brisbane these days—surreal turn of events: the 2011 Brisbane flood, which kicked off on 11/1/11 and blurred the next week or so’s worth of sleepless, stressful days.

My much-loved apartment was in one of the suburbs that was in the firing line—indeed, my near-water street was named straight up as one from which you needed to move yourself and your stuff—and I’ve struggled to comprehend and explain just what transpired a week ago. I’ve included below an excerpt of a blog I wrote to try to process it (it should give you some indication of the experience if you didn’t happen to be in Brisbane at that time) and, at the end, the book I think that most closely relates to the experience.

The Apartment Background

My brother recently moved into the investment property we’ve part owned for about six years and, after a year of discussing options (because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that no brother and sister can seriously share a place without the sister wanting to kill the brother), it was decided that he’d buy me out and I’d go find a one-bedroom apartment on my own.

We were tossing up between two apartments: one at Wooloowin and one at Windsor and I opted for the Windsor unit. It’s in a beautiful house that was built in the 1930s, that has frescoed (if that’s a word) ceilings, and that was divided into six apartments. It also happens to be on the very edge of and up the hill from—and on principle I feel the need to stress ‘on the very edge of’ and ‘up the hill from’—a flood plain.

The building was affected by the benchmark 1974 flood, but we researched the property and reasoned that:

  • Wivenhoe had been built so that the ‘74 floods would never ever happen again
  • half of Brisbane was inundated in ‘74 so my property wasn’t overly more prone than many others
  • they’d done work around the Clem so the tunnel wouldn’t flood, ergo Windsor wouldn’t flood
  • the building is something like four blocks and a community farm away from the creek that runs directly off the Brisbane River (I mean, compost and straw can be counted on to hold back water)
  • my apartment is up high on the top floor
  • it was a one-off apartment and I really, really loved it. Did I mention it has frescos?

So, my two now infamous remarks, issued as I got on a plane to South America in September, were:

  1. For me to be in trouble, half of Brisbane has to be in trouble.
  2. How often does it rain in Queensland anyway?

I know. It’s hilarious in a blackly comic kind of way.


The Flood

The stormwater drains out the front of my place went before the creek/river did, which was more than a little freaky. I met the local and non-local, sightseeing crackpots who espoused their flood theories. I spent a lot of time wandering the neighbourhood in my pyjamas. I spent many, many hours outside watching the water creep up on my place, and I got sunburnt, because I’d forgotten that the sun ever shone in Queensland, and because who thinks to grab sunscreen when you’re stuffing things into a bag to escape rising flood waters that are predicted to be of biblical proportions?

I realised that floods mean a shortage of food for possums, although power shortages result in a boon of emptied fridges. I was raided by the friendly neighbourhood possum at 2am on the Wednesday and he was not only not afraid of me, he looked me in the eye as he ferreted through my bin, ate all of the organic strawberries (whoever said possums don’t have good taste?) and bread crusts (I know, I know, but I’ve recently decided that I’m no longer five and if I don’t like crusts, I’m not going to eat them). He then did a lap of my apartment and called my wussy bluff by half-heartedly running towards me when I shook an empty Diet Coke bottle at him and told him he really needed to leave.

I learned that harsh reality that even if your apartment is on the top floor, you’re (almost) as screwed as if you’re on the ground if the ground floor goes under. I realised that the idea to fill my cupboards with books and not food was good only when there wasn’t a flood that may leave me stranded. I learned equally that people are stupid at the mere suggestion of an impending natural disaster. Sure, I may not understand because I drink soy, but what is it with bread and milk, people? And why would you buy perishables that, as the name suggests, don’t last long and last even less time when you don’t have power?

We had to talk down a rubbernecking idiot in a 4WD who was going to joyride through the water immediately out the front of our place. His efforts would have pushed the water over the doorsteps and into the apartments it was lapping and would have quite possibly seen someone pull him from his vehicle to punch him. There were reports of attempted looters who were busted a street away, although I should say that that report came from the close-talking crazy chick who smelled strongly of alcohol and who kept touching me. She may have harassed people who were legitimately checking out their property.

Flood_3I moved more than a million sandbags, as I helped sandbag and then un-sandbag the entire building (I now expect compliments on my guns and shoulders of steel). I learned that ants will crawl up your legs as they search desperately for higher ground and that if you don’t encourage them to move to other higher ground quickly, they will end up in your underpants.

I waded through murky brown, potentially sewage-infested water and didn’t freak out, especially not during the pitch blackness of the 4am peak when my father was a way ahead of me with the torch, everyone was on edge, and that screaming about the something suspiciously resembling the feeling and shape of a snake wrapped around my submerged leg would have seen all hell break loose.

I was horrified and outraged that not everyone looked after their pets during the flood, but I was also heartened that people rushed in to help foster the animals at the flood-swamped RSPCA. I can now confirm that trying to rid your place of sludge is like pushing sh*t uphill. Literally and figuratively. I also found that time expanded and contracted in ways I’ll never be able to articulate, much less understand.

I wondered what to say to neighbours that you know know that you do nudie runs between your bedroom and your bathroom. I did my best what-you-talkin’-about-Willis? face when someone suggested putting a sandbag in my toilet to prevent what I had previously never even known was possible: sewage backflow.

I found that you shouldn’t look at photos of your street from the ’74 flood. Or listen to the stories of the locals who experienced it and who are only too happy to show and tell you how your place went—and will go—under. After days of soggy, wrinkled feet, a phone that didn’t work, and mail servers that had crashed or been taken offline, I realised that I should own a pair of gumboots and a wind-up radio. And that I should buy shares in companies that make them. If I were smart, I’d be going out now to stock up on deodoriser things to mask the rancid sludge smell. And carrier pigeons. A flock of carrier pigeons.

I learned that every millimetre counts, with the difference between euphoria and disaster (we got lucky with the water lapping the doorways but for the most part not spilling over). I found that the most random things end up in your yard once the water subsides. Say, for example, a log and a vegetable peeler. I also wondered why they (they being the people who design and build things, as opposed to the people like me who write about them) would put electricity, hot water, and gas fitting thingys down low.

I’m relieved that the water didn’t go as high as they’d predicted, because I’d have truly been in trouble. But I also feel a little embarrassed that it didn’t go higher and we weren’t as affected as we could or should have been—the relatively minimal damage to my apartment block is inversely proportional to the outpouring of care and concern everyone’s shown. I quickly realised that although I mastered the art of sandbagging, I have yet to master the art of shovelling. I am grateful that while my parents did note that Wooloowin wasn’t flood affected, they didn’t say ‘We told you so.’

I came to realise that there’s no such thing as too much flood footage, particularly when you’re watching things you’ve spent a lot of time on or in float down the river. I was reminded that it’s ok to cry in public and that you’ll do it over things like tug boats saving the day. I was reminded that we all—me included—have too much stuff. I’m disturbed that the money being generously donated will go back into buying more stuff neither we nor the environment need. I felt (and feel) guilty that we’re getting so much attention while the disaster in Brazil is much worse and much less cared about. And I worry that this warm-and-fuzzy feeling won’t last and everyone will be back to mass and mindless consumption and road rage before we’ve cleaned up the last street. As a side note, the property my brother now solely owns is high, dry, and in perfect, un-flooded health.

Flood_4I noticed that despite owning the vehicle of choice for war-ravaged terrain or its equivalent, not a single Hummer driver was out using their vehicle in the clean up. I was also puzzled and saddened that finger pointing and calls for enquiries have already started, as if we can completely control mother nature and it’s someone’s fault that we had so much rain and that they should have known to release water from Wivenhoe sooner. Indeed, we seem to have collective selective memories. We criticised them for releasing water just a few weeks ago.

But on a happier note, I discovered that one of the best text messages you can ever receive is that someone’s place is high, dry, still has power, and that you’re welcome to come over to recharge your phone or yourself. I was reminded that there’s humour to be found in even the darkest moments, with my neighbours engaging in some sandbag-placement bets as to where the high point would be. And I discovered that it’s possible to basically not sleep for four or five days. Then you’ll be struck by a post-stress, post-adrenalin fatigue that’s so sudden and so overwhelming it borders on narcolepsy.

I now know what the apocalypse, should it happen, will be like. That The Road and whatever that Will Smith movie is are pretty much spot on (who thought Will Smith would ever be in a realistic-ish film?). I found that ‘surreal’ became the most overused expression to describe the experience, but that it was also the most apt. I found that everyone will prairie dog it, pausing, head high, to sniff the smell of cooking toast in the air when you’ve been without power for days. I also found that there are few things as blissful as having a hot shower and then dry, clean feet.

I learned that, however clichéd it may sound, friends and family and friends who are like family are pretty goddamn awesome. I’ve been overwhelmed by how many people have contacted me and offered support from all around the world and all around Australia and all around Brisbane. It’s been incredible and humbling and I can’t thank everyone enough. Especially not without breaking down into choked up sobs and awkward hugs.

And if I had to recommend a book to read that would go part way to explaining what transpired here (that is, a book that’s already been published as opposed to be the flood-inspired books that will emerge in coming months and years) it would be Dave EggersZeitoun. It’s a brilliant work of non-fiction that captures the aftermath of a man who stayed behind in New Orleans to protect his business and help during Hurricane Katrina. I’ve blogged about it here before and won’t go into details for this reason and because this blog is already enormously long. We didn’t experience anything quite so drastic in terms of law-enforcement reactions (I won’t say anything more for fear of ruining the story), but the rest of the story holds true. I highly recommend Zeitoun and will keep you posted about any works that come out of this flood experience.

The Goldilocks Guide To Good Reading

ZeitounRecommending books is often more miss than hit, so I feel a little nervous when I’m asked to suggest ‘a good book’ to read. After all, one person’s ‘good’ is another person’s ‘awful’. Add into the ‘good’ book request mix an immediate under-pressure terror to recommend something suitable for people who otherwise might not be avid readers and I, well, draw a blank. How are you supposed to narrow down the books you read to pick a ‘favourite’? How are you supposed to then select one that might become someone else’s favourite too?

I understand why people look for recommendations—in fact, more often than not I look for them too. We’re time poor and books require a not insignificant time and financial investment, so we want to get it right the first time, every time. But if you’ve ever been a member of a bookclub, you’ll know that reaching consensus on whether a book is good is nigh on impossible. I’ve never been so outraged and so willing to shake someone as I was the night my bookclub did Dave EggersZeitoun, an exceptional, simple, hauntingly-good non-fiction book about a New Orleans businessman who stayed behind to help during Hurricane Katrina.

One guy who shall remain nameless went against the consensus grain that Eggers had crafted a masterpiece and that the American legal system (and, arguably, psyche) is deeply flawed. Without ruining the story for those of you who haven’t yet read it (you should—it’s excellent; and yes, I’m aware of the irony that I’m recommending a book when I’ve just said it’s incredibly difficult to do so), he argued that Zeitoun well and truly deserved what he got. How that guy got out of there alive that night I’ll never know. And anyone who says bookclubs are for the meek and mild should spend a night at ours.

These days I tend to think of reading experiences not as one-size-fits-all book selection, but as being more akin to that of the Goldilocks fairytale—the protagonist tries out things that are too big, too small, too hot, and too cold until they find things that are, for them and them alone, ‘just right’. Which I why I’ll no longer recommend a single book. Instead I apply a kind of Goldilocks Guide to Good Reading and recommend something big, something small, something hot, and something cold to given them a broad and varied selection. My hope is that they find something in the mix that they consider ‘good’ or even ‘great’.