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.

The Silent History

The Silent History Entry ScreenI’ve been reading and hearing about an award-winning transmedia app created by former McSweeney’s managing editor Eli Horowitz. Suffice to say, I was both intrigued enough to want to download this app, but wary enough that it might be so hipster I’d want to avoid it.

I gave it a whirl after finding out The Silent History (please excuse my dodgy phone pics) was partially free for a short time—the classic first-hit’s-free way to turn you into a junkie. I have to say it’s worked. Last night I caved and bought the remaining instalments. Then I shirked work and responsibilities to plough through to the novel’s end.

The app design, with its beautiful, functional, and communication design-considered circles and complementary navigation is fantastic. And, as a typography-obsessed nerd from way back, the fonts and layout are like crack.

Crucially, though, underpinning all of this is a compelling story that combines serialised, multi-narrated, interview-based testimonials detailing a generation of children born silent but not stupid. Basically, Horowitz and co. have assembled an app around a good tale, not tried to tack on tales to high-tech tools.

The story begins with an emerging phenomenon: people start giving birth to Silents, or people who are born without language or any ability or willingness to obtain it (some characters disparagingly and politically incorrectly refer to them as ‘mutetards’). It’s new, it’s widespread; no one quite knows what’s ‘wrong’ with these people or what to do with them. Some people consider them freaks; others try to save them; still others try to take advantage of them for their own purposes.

The story is told through 120 individual testimonials that equate to about 500 hundred pages of text. These contained, snapshot-like segments subjectively narrated by parents, teachers, friends, doctors, opportunists, and impostors—an array of characters touched by the silent phenomenon, each with their own agenda and point of view; none entirely (or not clearly) reliable.

Complementing the testimonials are field reports, or short, site-specific stories that expand on, and are related to, the main story. You have to physically be at the location (i.e. your device recognises the GPS co-ordinates) to unlock these reports. Being in Australia, I’m clearly a long way away from doing so, although I didn’t mind—the story was meaty enough without these and I’m often annoyed by periphery.

The Silent HistoryBesides, I was too gripped by the testimonial writing, which is incredibly strong. Many of them are reminiscent of McSweeney’s monologues: understated, finely crafted, and containing incisive, view-altering insights that sucker punch you.

It’s impossible to convey some such entries here, although I will say I loved their reference to a ‘pet-friendly gambling park’ and how two characters hire a car for a dollar as long as they’re willing to be injected by microchips that make them thirsty every time they see a drink called Slush (these premises are beyond the realm of comprehension, and yet they aren’t).

The McSweeney’s monologue-isms were especially strong in the middle of the app, presumably because the writers had gotten the scene-setting aspects out of the way and could flex their creativity. Which they do, writing characters that are at times entirely unlikeable, bona fide crazy, and yet impossible to turn pages past.

Having finished the novel quickly and having read it chronologically, I’d be interested to go back and cherry pick characters’ versions and re-read them from the start. But I’m time poor and, I’ll admit, wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending. It was—spoiler alert—not really an ending, slightly cop out-y and certainly without any concrete answers to what caused the Silents and more.

Still, The Silent History has set the future-of-storytelling benchmark high and it’s given me plenty of food for thought for my own attempts at transmedia work. I recommend checking it out (even if it’s only the first section while it’s free).

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).

Monday McSweeney’s

Technology-induced complete loss of zen means only one thing: retreating to the stationery cupboard and re-reading some fave books. I’m too time poor to revisit whole books, especially after spending over six hours yesterday trying to get a PDF to a readable stage on my iPad Mini. It’s an issue I blogged (read: ranted) about yesterday and which I still haven’t been able to, for the record, resolve.

My happy-place happy medium then will have to be McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’ genius of an online journal. It will specifically have to be the following four entries.

The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do

The title itself guarantees that every doubt-wracked writer will click on the link in the hope of finding snippets of writing-tip gold. And horrifying, vaguely hysterical chuckling-inducing gold snippets it indeed contains, not least:

Think of your laptop as a machine like the one at the gym where you open and close your inner thighs in front of everyone, exposing both your insecurities and your genitals. Because that is what writing is all about.

For the record, I wrote this blog wearing pants. Many thanks to Judi for making me aware of this guide’s existence.

Interviews With Hamsters

McSweeney’s has truly mastered the Onion-like art of delivery hilarity completely deadpan. Case in point, realistic-sound interviews with hamsters:

There’s really only so long that a hamster can sleep each day, you know? […] I like to groom myself, and others, of course. But I’ve often got a spare ten minutes and once you’ve read the newspaper lining the cage, you’ve got to do something with your time, right?

and

It’s the one time that I get to think, just for myself. Between the repetitive motions and the squeak of the bearings, my mind just kind of goes blank, and I don’t worry so much about everyday things: will we get fed, where is the cat, has someone pooped in my corner, you know? Stuff like that.

From The Complete Guide to the Care and Training of the Writer in Your Life

I discovered this one only recently thanks (or rather, no thanks) to McSweeney’s dangerous rabbit hole of Suggested Reads, which lurks just below the end of its stellar articles. It yields such gems as:

The arrival of a baby can be a joyous experience for the entire family. However, [… writers] can find it difficult when a new member enters the ‘writer’s group’, especially if the new member is perceived as being of higher status or as a drain on writing time and resources. Never leave the writer alone with the baby. Ever.

I’m Comic Sans, Asshole

Then there’s my favourite favourite, I’m Comic Sans, Asshole (belated warning, there’s a bit of coarse language and innuendo contained within these entries).

It opens with:

Listen up. I know the [sh%t] you’ve been saying behind my back. You think I’m stupid. You think I’m immature. You think I’m a malformed, pathetic excuse for a font. Well think again, nerdhole, because I’m Comic Sans, and I’m the best thing to happen to typography since Johannes [f&%king] Gutenberg.

It subsequently moves on to oneliners such as:

‘While Gotham is at the science fair, I’m banging the prom queen behind the woodshop.’ and ‘I am a sans serif Superman and my only kryptonite is pretentious buzzkills like you.’

Happy (but hopefully Comic Sans-free) Monday, everyone.

I’m Comic Sans, A$$hole (Warning: Swearwords and Adult Themes)

Continuing this weekend’s theme of friend-and-colleague-recommended interwebs-based hilarity* is McSweeney’s monologue, I’m Comic Sans, Asshole.

My loathing for the pesky font that just won’t die has been long-ranted and long-written (even on this here very blog). In this instance, however, Comic Sans strikes back at those of us who’ve had it and anyone who uses it in the bad-taste crosshairs.

The blog opens with this (and here I feel that I should issue a language warning—this blog is not suitable for those under the age acceptable to read swearwords and those who are easily offended by such words or adult themes):

Listen up. I know the shit you’ve been saying behind my back. You think I’m stupid. You think I’m immature. You think I’m a malformed, pathetic excuse for a font. Well think again, nerdhole, because I’m Comic Sans, and I’m the best thing to happen to typography since Johannes fucking Gutenberg.

It follows with so much gold I want to copy and paste the entire thing right here. But I’d better help you out by chuckling to myself, quoting ‘I am a sans serif Superman and my only kryptonite is pretentious buzzkills like you, and sending you to the post itself. 

The monologue is by Mike Lacher, an author previously unfamiliar to me but who is, it appears from just one handy hyperlink, an entirely piss-funny guy. First-person monologues are clearly his forte. If you’re keen to keep clicking (and who isn’t, especially if you’re mid-assignment procrastinatorating?), I’d also recommend the following posts.

A Response By An Aspiring Screenwriter Whose Screenplay Was Turned Down Because It’s Exactly Like Robocop

But I do not think that just because my protagonist is named ‘Alex K. Murphy’ and _Robocop_’s is named ‘Alex J. Murphy’ is a sign of ‘unabashed, shameless copying.’ A lot of people have similar names. Case in point: there were three other ‘Michael’s’ in my fifth grade class.

A Message of Apology from the Commander of Undersea EnviroDome 25-B

I know that our current situation is rather bleak, trapped in this EnviroDome miles beneath the sea without supplies and under constant attack by genetically-modified smart eels.

The Only Thing That Can Stop This Asteroid is Your Liberal Arts Degree

Sure, we’ve got dozens of astronauts, physicists, and demolitions experts. I’ll be damned if we didn’t try to train our best men for this mission. But just because they can fly a shuttle and understand higher-level astrophysics doesn’t mean they can execute a unique mission like this.

If you’re still procrata-clicking, the interwebs and McSweeney’s just keep giving. I’d also recommend these two, particularly the latter.

McSweeney’s Airline Passengers As Explained By Their Pants

Klingon Personal Ads (I again feel the need to stress the ‘adult themes’ warning with this one)

Do you feel lucky? Humorless widow seeks husband number 10. Must enjoy nights at the opera, long walks on the beach, and defending my honor against every imaginable slight, no matter what the odds. Let’s grow slightly older together.

Happy reading.

*This blog came recommended via the talented designer Steph Jong.