Come Back Soon

Henrietta LacksThe adage that you don’t know what you’ve got until its gone rings incredibly true. But I’m not sure what the apt adage is for knowing and appreciating what you’ve got when you’ve got it and then knowing and appreciating it even more when it’s gone. Whatever it is, it should be applied to Richard Fidler, the former Doug Anthony All Star and current ABC Radio host.

He’s only gone temporarily—I feel I should get that in early lest I freak anyone out—but even temporarily is too interminably long. It appears Fidler’s taking a research sabbatical courtesy of a hallowed Churchill Fellowship and is visiting some of the top radio shows in London and New York. Melodramatic as it sounds, his absence is, for me at least, a giant, gaping, nothing-comes-near-to-replacing-him hole.

Conversations with Richard Fidler is, hands down, the highlight of my day. Five days a week (I’d like to make it seven), he interviews a guest for an hour and manages to draw out some of the most fascinating, compelling tales I’ve ever heard. The show’s motto is ‘things you’re interested in and things you don’t know you’re interested in’, and his guests are incredibly varied. Some are famous, but many more are not. It makes them no less interesting. Sometimes their ‘ordinariness’ and the fact that we’d otherwise not hear their tale makes them more so.

Fidler has a lot to do with this, of course, and the show in anyone else’s hands wouldn’t work as well. We see this with the Conversation Hour in Melbourne, which sells itself as being a similar product, but is actually an unstructured hour of nothing much that drives me batty.

The Good SoldiersFidler (ably supported by his behind-the-scenes team, of course) is effectively the radio version of Andrew Denton. His interviewing skills have reduced me to tears on more than one occasion—in a good way, of course.

There’s a real and nuanced skill to interviewing that I’m coming to increasingly appreciate. Fidler manages to get people to open up and tell the stories without getting in the way. He’s incredibly clever and well read, but never comes across as a know-it-all. It’s something that I think neither Ramona Koval, host of ABC Radio National’s The Book Show, nor Jennifer Byrne, host of the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, manage to do. They too, I’m afraid, drive me batty.

For me, they get in the way of the interview, imposing their thoughts and opinions on it. I say that not as someone being hypercritical, but as someone who hasn’t anywhere near yet mastered Fidler’s interviewing skills, but who hopes and dreams of one day doing so. I also can’t help but think that Koval and Byrne wish that they were the ones being interviewed.

ConfessionsAnd yes, I couldn’t help but note the irony that Koval, held up as an authority on the area, released a book about interviewing techniques and then had a mega interview debacle with Bret Easton ‘Delta Goodrem’ Ellis at the 2010 Byron Bay Writers Festival.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write that I can barely wait for Fidler to return. No really. My weeks without him just haven’t been the same. He’s also a magnificent book recommenderer (that’s a technical term). Through him, I’ve discovered some truly incredible books and/or authors. Say, for example:

You’d think his absence would have given me some time to tackle the tower of unread books teetering precariously on my bedside table, but sadly no. That pile just seems to continue to lean and grow. Fidler should be back in early November and there should be a new stack of books for me to salivate over and acquire. I cannae wait!

White Coats, White Slips

Little White SlipsThere are some authors at whose sheer, unrivalled way with words you marvel. Then there are some at whose ability to both craft works of art with words while accomplishing other, on-their-own-incredible feats. Debut author Karen Hitchcock falls into the latter camp, having not only wowed us with her collection of short stories published in book form, but having done so while being a doctor, a triathlete, and a mother to four-year-old twins. I know. Part of you wants to know how she does it. Part of you wants to hate her.

I first heard about Hitchcock when she was interviewed by ABC Radio’s brilliant, brilliant Richard Fidler, and what struck me first and most was how unbelievably funny she was. Hitchcock has that inherent ability to tell a story in a gripping, perfectly timed and perfectly pitched manner. She was absolutely p*&s funny. And wild. Which kind of seemed at odds with how you expect doctors to be.

Hearing her back story I realised that she’s not your average doctor—she almost failed her HSC, ran away to America for a year for an ill-fated, short-lived marriage that saw them both working in a fruit shop for $4 an hour, returned to complete an arts degree, and landed in medicine only because Newcastle uni adopted a novel recruitment style. They opened the course up to students from non-scientific backgrounds, reasoning that science and medicine could be taught, but good communication skills and bedside manner not so much.

It’s taken me almost six months to finally get around to reading Hitchcock’s book, Little White Slips, for the most part because my backlog of to-be-read books is multiplying like rabbits and the read pile seems, contrary to logic, to be dwindling (that or I’m getting old because the only book I can ever recall reading is the one I’m currently on—every other book goes into a blank, forgotten-book abyss the moment anyone asks me what I’ve read ‘lately’).

There was also, I have to admit, a slight reluctance to crack the spine lest I be made to feel even worse about myself as a writer. You know, I struggle to commit anything coherent or witty to a page and here Hitchcock is doing it while working as a doctor, while being married and raising young twins, while training for triathlons. Oh, and while she completed a PhD in creative writing. Yep, some of these short stories were completed as part of a doctorate that now makes her a doctor doctor.

But I kept thinking about how funny she was during the Richard Fidler interview and figured I needed to get over myself. Ironically, a recurring theme throughout Hitchcock’s book is women’s insecurity with their bodies and their competition with each other.

Told from a female, omniscient-narrator perspective, Hitchcock’s stories examine the marriage problems, frenemy-style undercurrents to women’s friendships, and the stresses of work, family, and weight. She peppers some of the stories with medical references, and I have to say that these stories were by far my favourites. Her opening story, in particular, which is about studying for a specialty, the craziness of the study regime, and the distractions of an oh-so-tempting, unmarried study partner, sets the story bar high.

I don’t think the rest of the stories live up to quite the same standard, but I was still sufficiently impressed with the others to read all the way to the end of them and then the book. I kept thinking that I’d like to see her extend some of the stories into long-form pieces, and Google tells me that she signed a two-book deal with Picador, the second of which is a novel and which she’s working on now. If it’s a long-form version that’s of the ilk of her first story, sign me up to read it.