Melbourne by night. Photo credit: Kevin Rabalais

Conversation/Kōrero: Pip Adam and Kevin Rabalais

 

 

Pip Adam

Pip Adam

 

ANZL member Pip Adam’s short stories have been widely anthologised, and her first collection of short stories Everything We Hoped For  (2010) won the award for best first book of fiction at the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Following a PhD project exploring how engineers describe the built environment, her first novel, I’m Working on a Building, was published in 2013. In her Better Off Read podcast, she talks with authors about writing and reading.

 

Kevin Rabalais photo Sabina Hopfer

Kevin Rabalais. Photo credit: Sabina Hopfer

 

Kevin Rabalais was born in Louisiana and now lives in Melbourne. For his debut novel, The Landscape of Desire (2008), he received a Sydney Morning Herald Award for Best Young Novelist. His work has appeared in Tin HouseBrickThe Kenyon Review  and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He edits the on-line literary website Sacred Trespasses.

 

This conversation took place via email in August 2016.

 

Pip Adam:

I’ve just finished reading through a draft of a long thing I’m working on, so thought I’d take a break and write to you.

I’m working up in our loft. It’s a mess. The ceiling is low. I barely fit. You can also see the washing rack which is beside me – I work in among the washing drying. There is a skylight above me which lets in the light and the sun; it’s pretty cool when it rains. The other day it hailed. My child is home from school. She is downstairs watching old episodes of Pokemon. So this is how I write and work, in among the washing with ‘Pikachu’ repeatedly in my ear-shot.

That’s a copy of Annie Dillard’s The Abundance under a copy of Janet Frame’s Intensive Care which I haven’t taken out of the paper bag they put it in when I bought it. I’ve read it. It’s fucking great. Like I always thought, ‘Yeah, Janet Frame, she’s good.’ But then I started reading some of these later novels and my mind is just kind of blown. Intensive Care is a touchstone for the long thing I’m writing. I bought this copy to try and keep me on track. I am like a magpie always diverted by the new shiny shiny things. Commitment is not my strong suit.

Anyway, I’m up here and I’m pretty grateful for some time to be up here and to be writing – well, rewriting. I kind of love this part but also find it hard with a longer thing because I am moving much bigger things around. My last novel was very – erm – let’s say ‘fragmented’: that’s a thing people say, eh? So I was always moving bite-sized pieces around in the revising stages but wow, this is a lot hard, I have these BIG chunks which I have to sort of manoeuvre like huge fishing ships.

What are you up to? What’s it like where you’re typing from?

This thing I’m writing is not really behaving itself. I went to a talk yesterday with Tracey Slaughter and Sue Orr. Tracey Slaughter was talking about short story writers, that transition to writing novels for ‘market reasons’, and how sometimes the novels aren’t very good – that somehow they lack the intensity of the short story. I have been playing hooky from this big thing all year – cheating on it with short stories. I love short fiction so much. I’m not sure I have any idea how to sustain a story, how to write in all that connective tissue that a novel seems to need. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I am just trying to find reasons not to finish this long thing – even the fact I won’t call it a ‘novel’ makes me suspicious. Do you have different novel-writing and short story-writing heads? What is the mysterious weirdness that happens between the page-lengths?

I am in love with short novels – which is a lie, because I also love long novels. This year I was taken by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. I so loved the way there was so much more ‘inside’ the books than the sum of the size of them. The Landscape of Desire is 280 pages long. I just found that out.

Is length the thing? Is Heart of Darkness a novel? What is the difference that isn’t length? Tracey Slaughter also said yesterday, ‘A novel wants to befriend you – a short story never does.’ Which got me thinking about Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice, the way he points out the difference in the protagonist in the short story how he is ‘brother’ but in a novel he is ‘me’. I really do think that when I pretend to write novels I’m really just writing lots of short stories.

I’m reading A Little Life at the moment and have just finished The Mare by Mary Gaitskill which blew my mind. In a workshop a lot of what was great about it might have been ‘tidied up’. It’s a hard book, possibly a mean book, but boy, it moved me. It was pretty amazing.

Maybe it’s the space that I write in that’s making it hard to write long? Maybe if it didn’t feel like an ‘everything’ space it might feel like a place to lay down roots and settle in for the long haul.

How did you come to write a novel about Australia? What’s that place about?

 

Pip Adam's desk.

Pip Adam’s desk.

 

Kevin Rabalais:

Last night while returning home from an evening at the cinema in Melbourne, my wife and I, along with a dear friend, the novelist Daniel Stephensen, started talking about our favourite passages in the work of Clarice Lispector. We all eventually pointed to the second paragraph of A Breath of Life: ‘I write as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own.’ Change the word ‘write’ to ‘read’, and I would only have to make one further amendment: certainly my own.

I’ve always thought of writing as a means to fill that empty space on the bookshelf—to write, that is, so that you may at last be able to read the book you’ve always wanted (perhaps the word is needed) to encounter.

It’s nice to meet you this way, over e-mail, though I’ve always had this notion that readers move through a realm where there are no borders and that, in the shared heat and passion of our endeavour, we all know things about one another that non-readers never will. We read and know that we are not alone; we share this world with others, and it’s most likely that we also share similar dreams—me, a proud native of Louisiana (a third-world country in the Gulf of Mexico, much more Caribbean than American) who now lives in Australia, and a Palestinian grandmother living in Ramallah.

Having said that, I can be obsessive about national literatures. By chance, the day before your message arrived, a friend gave me a copy of Auckland University Press’s Anthology of New Zealand Literature, edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams. ‘Everything is connected in the end,’ DeLillo writes at the end of Underworld. I look forward to getting to know you and your work, Pip.

And thank you for the Janet Frame recommendations. I like writers whose prose has a physical effect on me. Her sentences certainly make me feel in ways that, now that I realise I haven’t read her in years, force me to wonder what I’ve been doing with my time. And ah, yes, the wondrous Annie Dillard. Reading Annie Dillard makes me think of an interview I had with William H. Gass, circa 1999. We were talking about Colette. You read her, he said, and think, yes, please give me another taste.

May you have memorable days (to borrow from James Salter) and many hours of intense writing.

 

Pip Adam:

Melbourne is such an awesome city. I had such a great week there last year with Laurence Fearnley. Her friend Louis who works at the Johnston Collection showed us around and took us up to Castlemaine and Hanging Rock on a very hot day. I liked it a lot.

My friend Kirsten McDougall has written an incredible short story called ‘A Visitation’ about Clarice Lispector visiting a narrator very similar to Kirsten at a home very similar to Kirsten’s. It’s so great. So everything is connected in the end.

I just finished reading your reflections on Sebastião Salgado. So great. I love reading writers talking about reading. In the talk I mentioned yesterday, Tracey Slaughter said reading fills her up with language and then it brims over into her own writing. Then Sue Orr spoke about how she often finds the solution to a writing problem she is having while she is reading, even when she is reading something simply for pleasure. I wonder if the pleasure is part of the alchemy.

I love your ideas about Salgado’s photography helping us comprehend the major events of our time and ‘showing us not only the glories of our planet but also the crimes we have committed against it’. Comprehend is such a great word and I love seeing it associated with an art form with no words. As a bookish type I always think of words being the tools to understanding but really, if I think about it, when my writing is at its most political what I’m really trying to do is make pictures, in an attempt to escape words which can be argued against and manipulated and just show some pure experience which says, ‘Hey, this is life on earth. Let’s help each other.’

As a person who has, at very close proximity, a person who is non-lexical, for whom words don’t make sense, I’m really interested in this act we call ‘reading’ and I think that’s what I’m trying to Underworld-connect here – your ideas about what reading gives us and the way you talk about the power of the image. Is it a narrative power?

I spoke with my friend Aaron Lister about my obsession for photography the other day. He compared a sculptor, Glen Hayward, with Fiona Pardington, the photographer we were talking about, to try and get to what my obsession might be about. In an interview in the Pantograph Punch he said they’re ‘both exploring that relationship between art, that veil, or that space between an art experience and a real world experience which is really interesting terrain for a variety of reasons. Photography provides an interesting route into that, but it’s not the only route.’

I’m really interested in realism at the moment. I have a class of 12 intelligent young people who seem to have very little interest in it. I had a student a few years ago say to me, ‘Why would I want to write about what’s real when I could just look out the window?’ I feel really enthusiastic about this excitement for new worlds and am intensely interested in ‘getting to the bottom’ of what that’s about. It is so great to send them to Jorge Luis Borges and Stanislaw Lem and sort of re-ignite that other tradition, and it’s exciting when they bring authors to me, stories that move them. Games they’ve played, films and television they’ve watched, music they’ve heard or made.

I just thought about how much I love José Saramago. Like there was just a flash in my body of his story ‘The Centaur’ and that ignited a memory of those opening scenes of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. These things come back to my body, not my mind, sometimes.

Today I have been listening to an interview with Ivan Coyote, who is coming to Christchurch soon, and thinking about what ‘public’ means. I’m just about to read ‘Sea Oak’ by George Saunders again for the workshop we have on Friday.

 

Kevin Rabalais:

Your note about realism reminds me of why I failed to answer some of the questions you asked in a previous letter. What’s real, in this era of strange politics, has assumed the charge of the surreal. I’m thinking, namely, of a certain candidate in this American presidential election. I wake each day bracing for what he’s done now. This man (he doesn’t even deserve to be named, much less consideration of a vote) has rattled me so much—all of this attention to a vulgar human being who in saner times wouldn’t deserve the time it takes us to utter the two words he became famous for delivering on his reality television show—that I find myself dropping obligations. For the first time, I’m having trouble concentrating, which means (for the first time) that I’m having to reread almost every paragraph my eyes drift over.

For that reason, perhaps more than at any other time in my life, I find myself clinging to the bookshelves, seeking the sanctuary of literature. If there’s any moment to question the validity to this notion I’ve devoted my life to—that literature can change our lives, that it can offer us sustenance and guidance, and that (at the absolute least) a few lines of verse or prose can enhance the quality of our days—then this is it. I won’t say much more about politics, only to note that as an American, and as a human being, I am frightened and disgusted and ashamed to witness the rise of this man (here I wink at Robert Musil) without a soul.

It didn’t surprise me to find that a novelist, rather than a political pundit, has offered the most memorable detail about this man’s physical appearance. In a recent Harper’s article, Martin Amis wrote about this candidate’s ‘omelet of makeup’. The detail made me stop thinking  (thankfully, mercifully) about this candidate and remember the undeniably elegant nature of great prose and how it provides us with details we never forget. It allows us—begs us, at times forces us—to rethink the way we view the world.

All of this makes me fear that Neil Postman was correct when, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, he declared Huxley, rather than Orwell, the true prophet: ‘What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be “drowned in a sea of irrelevance”’.

The truth, of course, will always be there for those who are strong enough to continue asking questions, for those who aren’t afraid to step out of the chaotic rush and look at things for a long time. To look at them, that is, in that way that Raymond Carver said writers must, not caring that others might think we’re being foolish.

I’m tucking away some of those good questions of yours which I’ve failed, still, to answer. I promise to do my best to think of them thoughtfully, to paraphrase something I once heard the wondrous Bill Manhire say.

 

Centre Way Bride. Photo credit: Kevin Rabalais

Centre Way Bride. Photo credit: Kevin Rabalais.

 

Pip Adam:

So great to get your email and the photograph. What a magnificent image. I love the way it seems to hold different times in it. At first I saw the straight tie and blonde crew cut and thought you’d sent me to the fifties, then there was this wonderful blossoming of the contemporary – the Souvlaki, that cell phone, the T-shirt. It’s so great.

Recently I’ve been talking a bit to friends about the idea that time is circular rather than linear. That maybe we stand with all time past and present rather than being at a point in it. It’s not science fiction that’s led me to this but Patricia Grace and some study I’ve been doing about whakapapa. I love how whakapapa is about so much more than just who my grandmother was; I love how it forms connections with people now and how it is added to by each generation, and how the word comes with a sense of being grounded in something. The amazing writer and artist Rachel O’Neill came to talk to our undergraduate workshop last year and she talked about how she had been thinking about whakapapa in terms of where her work was grounded, where she was grounded as an artist.

For a long time I had this idea that writing should be about some kind of Byronic impulse and that it should flow out of me unwitnessed. That to ask of it anything was blasphemy. But I loved the way Rachel talked about questioning where my writing was grounded. About thinking about where it stood and where it came from and what it was adding.

The theatre-makers Victor Rodger and Nina Nawalowalo were at the Writers on Mondays series at Te Papa yesterday  and Victor talked about the place of arts in these worrying times. He talked about arts ability to name something, to hold it up for inspection and challenge and I think this is why Martin Amis and other writers (I love George Saunders’ New Yorker piece ‘Who are all these Trump Supporters?’) resound as they do when their art is turned on politics.

It’s funny, in my own writing I feel like I have always ‘written politically’ but I have felt more and more inclined toward the didactic recently. Like, I used to think I needed to be arch so people could clearly see what I was getting at and that if I ‘got at it’ to head-on people would be turned off. But I have been feeling so desperate that I feel like I’ve turned the volume up and up. Overland were kind enough to publish this. I felt as though I was SCREAMING in this but for some reason it felt right for the moment.

I went to a couple of conversations about politics in the arts last year and people kept saying for a political work to be successful as art it needs to be not-didactic – and I always thought that but recently I have been questioning myself about that. I love George Saunders. Each year as a bit of a temperature-taking, I get the undergraduate class to read ‘Sea Oak’. When I first read it, the class was very clear about the predicament of the characters – how little choice they had, how completely the American dream was out of their reach – but, and this is totally unscientific, over the years I’ve noticed a real shift in sympathy. I’ve had more than one student say, ‘I hate it when people won’t help themselves – it’s frustrating. Why don’t they just move or get another job?’

It may say something about the narrowing of the student population due to the cost of university education but I reckon it is more to do with the neoliberal catastrophe we’re living in. The idea that it is a level playing field and people just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We have working families in New Zealand living in cars and on the streets, and I think this terrifies all New Zealand and I think the most dangerous people are scared people.

I think what neoliberalism offers is the assurance that if you work hard enough you will never live on the streets and if you are living on the streets you just haven’t worked hard enough yet. I think this is a great comfort for people not living on the streets – it’s not their fault that other people are living on the streets, they get to ‘keep theirs’ because they ‘earned theirs’. They are in complete control of their destiny, and it is through their power alone that they have kept their family off the streets.

And I get that. It’s good news for a terrifying time, and I completely understand the appeal of the neoliberal agenda and the climate-denying agenda – I really hope those people saying there’s no such thing as climate change are right. But it just doesn’t seem to be true, and experience and facts don’t seem to support this idea. We have a ‘self-made’ Prime Minister here and it seems to have infected Aotearoa from head to toe. Our government is not very fond of the truth.

Despite the reading of the situation of the characters I keep asking people to read ‘Sea Oak’ largely because it names something, and that frustration some of the readers feel seems as important as the sympathy others feel. It annoys them in a way that I hope keeps itching and itching at them.

I really enjoyed your piece on Harold Brodsky. He is so great!

 

Kevin Rabalais:

I’ve been thinking about your ideas about the flow of time, namely, as you write, ‘That maybe we stand with all time past and present rather than being at a point in it’. I mentioned, in my previous letter, a mounting inability to concentrate on reading, one of the things I hold dearest in life, this act of reading that provides so much sanctuary, so much sustenance. Your letter has made me think about how much time we spend falling back into the past, moving around inside the fading heat of our memories. Either that, or we seem to step out of the current in order to plan for the future, as though we could possibly have control over such things. (Man thinks, God laughs, the Jewish maxim has it, something I learned from Milan Kundera.)

Your thoughts on time and whakapapa have led me back to one of my favourite passages in the work of V.S. Naipaul—the final paragraph of the prologue to A Way in the World: ‘But we all go back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings’. And so thank you for sending me back to Naipaul, which then led me to Kundera’s opening passages of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he writes of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. I first read that novel as an eighteen-year-old university student on spring break. I was in southern California for the first time. I can still feel the energy of Santa Monica, I can tell you everything you don’t want to know about the weather, what the friend I travelled with wore and said and ate, when he laughed, all of it held together, in memory, by Kundera’s ideas and characters.

That kind of voice and vision seems to be rare, all the more valuable for it, of course. I’ve always been in awe, if that’s the correct word, of the way we’re able to recognize whether one writer is meant for us. It’s there, a certain charge, in the first lines; we feel it or we don’t; and when we do, the work arrives as though it has been handed down to us as a gift—the beautiful gift of a book or poem or story that didn’t live, didn’t thrive, until someone took the time to consign it to the page. Such gifts give infinity a much-needed level of privacy.

You mention George Saunders, one writer whose sentences and paragraphs a reader could easily pick out of a line up, I think. I admire such writers and am reading one of them now: Bob Shacochis, whose most recent novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, continues to haunt me after a second read. As for Saunders, I’ve always wanted to read more of his work. I’ll begin again with ‘Sea Oak’, a story I could read on-line, I’ve just discovered, if only I knew how to use this computer as something more than a typewriter. And I like your reference to Patricia Grace. I’m about to read Potiki again for a long article I’ve been asked to write. Please send any other recommendations.

 

Pip Adam:

I so love reading you talking about reading. It really is a gift, eh? I never really cottoned on to reading until I was at least in my late twenties. I had read, at times, but stopped at some point, not really realising the impact it would have. I think it might have been due to that lack of finding books that were ‘meant for me’. I so love that idea. When I was younger, at home, at high school – maybe even primary school – I read nothing but S.E. Hinton. I read the books over and over again. I was so interested in this place where only boys lived. I got my grandmother to cut off the sleeves of one of my sweatshirts and gave a speech about The Outsiders at primary school. I also made a poster about Rumble Fish at high school. I was so obsessed with this place where the only adult in your house is an older brother. I am sure there is something Freudian in the mix. So wanting to be a boy, so wanting to be with boys.

Then I left school and started working and I just don’t think I found another book that was ‘meant for me’. Until I went to university in my twenties and discovered poetry. That blew my mind! And then I wanted to be a poet. I think it was the music in poetry that I responded to so much. In one poetry paper we got to do Laurie Anderson and Bob Dylan and Talking Heads and I was like, ‘I have arrived!’ And then I left university and started working again and I don’t think it was much later until I read another book. I think it was Emma by Jane Austen. I wanted to be brainy, I worked pretty menial jobs and I wanted to sort of elevate myself above it all – so I read Austen, because I knew Austen was for brainy people.

But yes, that thing when a work ‘arrives’ to us. I love how you put that. I have this theory that this is the only way to teach creative writing. To teach people to notice that moment when they read so that they will hear/feel it when they are reading their own work. I always think of it as a noise. Like art outside me makes a noise and something inside me makes a noise and sometimes the two noises harmonise or really rattle each other in a useful way. Like that way your teeth are set on edge when cicadas hit that right tone.

I just did this odd thing today on the radio.

And coincidentally, it got me thinking about how books are tied up with memories, like your Santa Monica experience. As I took Infinite Jest off the shelf I could almost smell the train I used to take while I was reading it. And Vanity Fair reminds me always of summer in Auckland. I was wondering if this was only with some books.

 

Pip reading with her dog.

Pip reading with her dog.

 

Kevin Rabalais:

Yes, ‘to hear/feel’ the moment, as you write. The more I read, the more covetous I grow of my time. That is, I want the work before me to become more than words merely consigned to the page. I want an arrangement on the page that moves beyond the possibilities of speech, beyond first or even third thoughts. (I say arrangement, though performance might just as well do. I think, here, of what Les Murray writes in ‘The Instrument’: writing permits the means of ‘working always beyond your own intelligence’. Perhaps there’s already too much clutter in the world to let anything less pass.)

I do, however, understand the danger of this: writing in a way that looks like, well, writing. It seems that the work itself may always be an attempt to achieve what Lispector writes about in The Hour of the Star: ‘Remember that, no matter what I write, my basic material is the word. So this story will consist of words that form phrases from which there emanates a secret meaning that exceeds both words and phrases’.

Back to your idea (which I admire) about seeking to ‘hear/feel’ the work—your own or that of someone else. I never really understood why you would do drugs if you could read Beckett. That overwhelming physical power of his prose. I have a soft spot for writers whose work strives to create a physical sensation in the reader, writers whose sentences cut and wound and soothe, all within a paragraph. I like the way, for instance, that Nadine Gordimer punches me in the gut with one sentence and then embraces me with the next.

I enjoyed hearing your interview on RNZ. I particularly like how you label yourself a slow reader. I always figure I’m one of the slowest. Then again, I sometimes wonder if there is any other way … Also: the way you say that reading should feel like an adventure. I love how, mercifully, I forget the plots of books, even the ones I reread every year. I’m less curious about what happens than in where the writer leads me, how she does it. And in the palms of a great writer, I’m happy to go anywhere, no matter the subject. A great story with mediocre writing, on the other hand …

For now, thanks for leading me to your wonderful interview and all of the ‘long’ books under discussion. It has given me confidence to embark on my third attempt to read Carlos Fuentes’s Terra Nostra, a novel that haunts and confuses and inspires me.

 

Pip Adam:

I loved reading your last email. Especially the bit about ‘working always beyond your own intelligence’. It got me thinking about how reading is such a physical thing. I loved the reminder of books that ‘punch me in the gut’. I’m really interested in how the body is involved with reading and writing – about how the word feels in the mouth and how the memory of that feeling lives in the muscle memory even when’re reading without engaging our mouths. How long ‘o’s make us make that kissing shape with our lips and set the tongue down low in a way that always feels sexy to me. The way long ‘e’s pull the lips back into a smile that could be happy but is more like we are showing our teeth like an animal cornered. I also love the way a book – black scratches on white – can make me sick to my stomach, or terrified or cry. That just never ceases to amaze me. When I was reading Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, I felt as though I was reading it at such a distance – as though I could see all its mechanics and felt very unengaged from it emotionally – when suddenly, and inexplicably to my conscious self, I found myself crying. It was incredible – it felt like a moment of a book working beyond my intelligence. Just out of my reach, behind my mind and without my permission. While I was looking at what I thought the book was doing, it was doing something completely different.

So great to hear you talk about Beckett. I read Murphy years ago for an English paper and I still have the feeling of that book in me. As soon as I read the name in your email I was there, tied to a rocking chair, chess games in my head. Whenever I think of Beckett I think of those drawers in Krapp’s Last Tape. The weight of the banana and the reel that sits in them those moments before Krapp opens them.

 

etal01 Et Al. exhibition I talk about. It's from here httpwww.art-newzealand.comIssue110eta

Et al exhibition.

 

One of my favourite New Zealand artists is the collective Et Al. In 2003 I went to a collection of their work at the Govett-Brewster Gallery called abnormal mass delusions? which included an installation piled high with books. The books were bolted shut but they held a weight, and there was something about them that hummed. An exhibition note explained that P. Mule (one of the collective) had written on every page of each of the books and even though I couldn’t see this I felt it. All of this I’m telling you from memory. A memory I return to and make up over and over again.

There were probably only a couple of books; they probably weren’t bolted shut at all. I probably didn’t feel ‘the weight’ until I read the note. I am very sure that P. Mule had appeared at the opening, written on some pages which they ripped from a book and then sold and I am probably forcing the two stories together to fit with my mistake that we get told what’s in Krapp’s drawers in stage directions but never see them (I checked, Krapp has that banana and tape out of the draw before the curtain’s barely up). But surely there is a power in the work behind the work. Like surely the scraping away that Beckett did – the increasing minimalism of his work – is only possible if there is something to be discarded? Isn’t the waste also implicit in the work? Surely the hundreds of years of comedy are part of what makes it possible for an audience to ‘read’ Waiting for Godot or Louise or Lady Dynamite or any of the comedy that isn’t funny which I love so much. Q for Pip: is this Lady Dynamite the TV show or the music act? What is Louise?

I am obsessed with comedy that isn’t funny because I am always interested in how much of something you can take away before it stops being what it is. It all started when I studied Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Paintings – black on the wall. The idea of taking narrative out of painting because narrative comes from the technology of literature not the technology of painting. Trying to produce work that comes completely from the tools that create it. I guess that’s where my obsession with narrative comes from. What is a book without narrative? Is it even possible? Is narrative something innate in the mechanics of writing and reading or can we escape it? Are our minds patter-making, story-making machines because they work that way or do we train them with our incessant ordering of life into time and logic and feeling order?

There’s a writer who lives about fifteen minutes drive from here called Geoff Cochrane. He’s one of my favourite writers and it’s his work where I feel most free of narrative – or rather where I see a new way of ordering the world. His fiction is amazing – especially his short fiction – but he also writes the most incredible poetry. My body is rebelling with the word ‘incredible’. It is winding at the fact I can’t find a better word. It is sort of tapping at my insides saying, ‘This is what Geoff’s poetry is!’ but I don’t have words for it. But the way it moves is at once satisfying and completely un-pin-downable. Although I haven’t tried hard. I’m sure somewhere, someone can explain the way it moves, the way each books seems to be greater than the sum of its parts but I don’t want to know. I want it to keep playing at me.

 

Kevin Rabalais:

I’m curious about the kind of work that you write about, fiction which is free of narrative. I always tell myself that I need to read more promiscuously. There are times, and I’ve recently fallen into one of them, when I grow too comfortable in my reading. I revisit the same writers I’ve followed for years—lately, V.S. Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Denis Johnson, Norman Rush and Joan Didion. I’m still learning from them. I know that I’ll still be learning from them years from now. But I also know that it’s necessary to stand before the unexpected, to open myself to the kind of work that will point me toward new possibilities.

Your note has also reminded me of what I’ve read about your own work as being ‘a kind of post-post modern fiction—nothing meta, no irony, no narrative arc, no insights or character transformations’. I want to feel, as a reader, what Paul Bowles hoped to experience in his travels: to visit, on each journey, places unlike any I’ve encountered before. Please send some of your work, which I very much look forward to reading. I’ve been meaning to ask you to do so for some time.

My own reading life has come to such a halt that it can mean only one thing: it’s time to get serious about the project that I’ve been putting off for too long. There are books we must write and years in which we must write them, to paraphrase James Salter, who writes it much more elegantly in his miraculous ‘recollection’, Burning the Days. I felt this way (this gets back to one of your earliest questions) about the story that led me to Australia and which became my first novel. Sitting in a New Orleans café during one of those afternoon thunderstorms strong enough to set off car alarms and which New Orleanians can set their clocks by, I read about the Burke and Wills Expedition. It was a brief passage from Mark Twain’s travels to Australia—a place, he claimed, where history ‘does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies’

And so, as I did then, I’ve found myself at the start of something new, that invigorating place in the work where anything is possible. Each day, I keep in mind (I would probably benefit from making cards to slip inside my wallet, on the refrigerator, the bathroom mirror, one pasted to the back of my hand) Isak Dinesen’s words about how we should write each day ‘without hope, without despair’.

 

Swans at SK Breakwater 2516

Swans on Melbourne shore. Photo credit: Kevin Rabalais

 

 

'The thirty-five of us were in the country of dream-merchants, and strange things were bound to happen.' - Anne Kennedy

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