Saturday 22 December 2012

Pox: Genius, Madness and the Mysteries of Syphilis – Deborah Hayden (2003)

Before the antibiotic era syphilis was one of the most feared diseases on the planet. Now of course a dose of penicillin is enough to cure an infection. Yet as the author notes, syphilis still persists even though it has not become resistant to antibiotics, although the worst it can do is rarely seen in the modern age. After reading this book I’m grateful to be living in the antibiotic era (the right side of 1945). Pox tells the story of many famous men and women who suffered from syphilis and the mercury ‘cures’ that were almost worse than the disease itself. The blurb on the dust jacket also promised to reveal the extent of syphilis’s influence on art, achievement and thought since the fifteenth century, something that influenced my decision to read the book.
It’s easy to see syphilis as the New World’s ultimate revenge for its brutal colonization by European powers. The first major historical figure examined is Christopher Columbus, who was almost certainly one of the first syphilitic Europeans. Europeans introduced a multitude of new diseases into the native populations of the New World, but the one they brought back with them would curse Europe for centuries to come. When Columbus and his men sailed back into Spain in 1493 the syphilis plague began soon after, with the first major outbreak in Naples in 1495.

The intriguing case of Columbus and his men is just the first of many. In chronological order the supposed syphilitic lives of such historical figures as Beethoven, Schubert, Abraham Lincoln, Vincent van Gogh, Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Adolf Hitler are examined. It makes for a disturbing yet fascinating read.

Hayden is a quality writer, described as an “independent scholar” on the inside of the dust jacket; she manages to avoid the academic solipsism that can ruin some non-fiction. The short introductionary piece called Cactus Flower – Portrait of a Syphilitic, creatively reveals what it would have been like before the anti-biotic era to contract syphilis – the horror, the desperation, the futile attempts to find a cure and the crippling need for secrecy. During the course of the book the nefarious power of the disease is revealed; the initial infection, the often long secondary phase in which syphilis mimics many other diseases and finally the tertiary phase of euphoria and insanity. It’s the last phase that elicits the most fascination and makes you wonder about what kind of symbiotic relationship the spirochete has had with these important historical figures.

Ludwig van Beethoven is a fascinating case. Although is it not absolutely certain that he had syphilis, the evidence is strong. His deafness, rages, cardiac arrhythmias (something he apparently set to music – piano sonata opus 81a les adieux) and general ill health could all be attributed to syphilis. Hayden notes that Beethoven was often seen “wildly stomping” around the streets of Vienna during the last years of his life with hair flying and looking like a tramp – behavior that can be attributed to tertiary syphilis.

Less certain though, is the matter of Beethoven’s musical genius. Could his creative powers be ascribed in part to the influence of the syphilitic spirochete? The same question can be asked about van Gough’s intense paintings. What about Oscar Wilde’s beautiful writing and mordant wit, or James Joyce’s groundbreaking prose? Initially Pox does seem to promise answers, but in fact Hayden skirts around trying to establish such a premise and mainly concentrates on establishing whether these individuals did in fact have syphilis. Pox is basically an academic retrospective detective story featuring some of history’s most influential characters. It’s fascinating stuff, but not as controversial as it initially promises to be. However it doesn’t take much consideration to come to the conclusion that if Hayden had attempted to establish that some of history’s greatest creative minds had owed their inspiration to the syphilis spirochete, then she would have left herself open to severe criticism.

Hayden ends her gallery of syphilitics with Adolf Hitler, which ironically makes the question of syphilis’s influence more pressing. Hayden reveals Hitler as having all the hallmarks of syphilis and examines the theory that a Jewish prostitute possibly infected Hitler when he was a young man. The evidence Hayden presents is certainly compelling. What does this mean regarding how we think about the Holocaust and WWII itself? Would the holocaust had of eventuated if Hitler had not made a fateful visit to a prostitute? If antibiotics had been invented just a few decades earlier would the worst of WWII have been avoided? Of course it’s far more complex than that, but overall Hayden leaves the reader with much to consider, including a new macabre respect for syphilis and its almost symbiotic relationship with those it infects.

Monday 3 December 2012

White Noise – Don DeLillo (1985)

Was it a coincidence that I had to abandon reading Pox, a book about syphilis and how it influenced certain historical figures, at the chapter about Hitler so I could begin White Noise in time for my book club? Most likely, but somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was significant that White Noise’s protagonist - Jack Gadney, happened to be a professor of Hitler studies. It was also just the kind of trivial coincidence that is elevated to profound significance throughout the novel. Jack and his academic colleague - Murray, would have been suitably impressed and pondered its meaning over many paragraphs.

DeLillo is considered to be a significant postmodern novelist, and White Noise is his most postmodern novel. The book touches on almost every significant postmodern concept available to literature and this is undoubtedly the key to understanding the novel. White Noise utilizes meta concepts, hyperreality, irony, parody, deconstruction, media saturation, cultural fragmentation and the nefarious influence of high capitalism on culture. The novel could also very well be a parody of postmodernism itself (I strongly suspect that this is the case). White Noise is also an extremely funny book and perhaps a bit too clever for its own good, which in this case is a good thing. Perhaps it is pretentious, but personally I love a good dose of pretension.

The Gadney clan sits at the centre of the narrative, a fragmented family of children from three or more different marriages. The children are, for much of the time, more adult than Jack and his blonde bombshell wife - Babette. Their son - Heinrich, is a fast-talking deconstructionalist who argues with Jack about whether the rain outside the car actually exists, particularly if the radio has stated that it wasn’t going to rain. DeLillo uses the Gladney family as a means to explore both the decline of the traditional family unit and the lack of certainty that comes with it. Jack Gladney neurotically searches for meaning in a modern world in which meaning is constantly shifting.

In the first of three titled sections - Waves and Radiation, Jack discovers that Babette is secretly taking a mysterious drug. Both Jack and Babette also suffer from a profound fear of death. The adult Gadneys are obsessed with death and the many new ways of dying that the modern world has manifested all around them. They argue over who will not cope the most if the other dies, but meanwhile they take great pleasure in watching disaster footage on television, totally divorced from the reality of what they are witnessing.

Hyperreality, in which simulations of reality are mistaken for the real thing, is a concept that dominates White Noise. Babette reads absurd pulp magazine articles to the blind and no one questions their validity. In the second section - The Air-Born Toxic Event, the disaster management organisation called SIMUVAC regards the real disaster merely as good preparation for the future simulations they plan. When they do carry out a successful disaster simulation that features noxious gas, there is an actual noxious gas cloud the very next day, but no one responds because it doesn’t seem real.

The dubious truths presented by the media also feature prominently, with Babette’s addiction to talkback radio and the frequent non-sequitur interactions from the TV that masquerade as mystical messages.  Murray only seems to talk in theories, deconstructing the world whilst also negating it with his hyperreal academic argot. Murray is also obsessed with the plain packaging isle at the supermarket, which are hyperreal versions of ‘real’ food. In many ways Murray is the most significant character in White Noise – he is a bullshit artist and genuine at the same time, like a personification of postmodernism.

Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of White Noise is the parody of academia. Jack is the professor of Hitler studies, but can’t speak German. Murray is trying to establish himself as professor of Elvis studies. The meaning of “Hitler’s achievements” (as Jack un-ironically states) is subverted into meaningless pop academia in a superb scene in which Jack trades off comparisons between the two figures with Murray in a lecture that ends with the two being mobbed by the students, as if they themselves were rock stars. Jack’s fellow academics also argue frequently about trivial cultural experiences and act like petulant teenagers, rather than serious academics.

There is so much crammed into this amazing book that a lengthy essay is needed just to begin to address its significance. DeLillo playfully parodies academia, but at the same time he wrote the perfect book to be studied by English Literature students. This is how I first came to read White Noise and now having read it for the third time I remain just as impressed. If you decide to read White Noise you’ll find out what Dylar is, why Jack and Babette covert baby Wilder’s company, the significance of atheist nuns and why it’s always a good idea to have a full tank of fuel in the car in case of air-born toxic events. Out of all the DeLillo novels I’ve read, White Noise is his most fully realized. If you read just one DeLillo novel, make it this one.

Monday 5 November 2012

The City and the City – China Mieville (2009)

China Mieville’s books have intrigued me for a long time. Not only does he have a cool name but he’s also won the Arthur C Clarke Award three times, a list that includes The City and the City. The novel also won the Hugo Award in 2010 (actually sharing the award with Bacigulup’s The Windup Girl). Mieville is also part of the literary movement dubbed the New Weird  - writers who blend horror, science fiction, fantasy and the surreal. He’s also recently had some interesting things to say about the future of the novel and I found myself agreeing with his insights, in particular his notion that novelists should be paid a wage rather than royalties.

Mieville has stated that he aims to write a novel in every genre. With The City and the City his genre of choice is the crime novel with noir elements. True to the New Weird tag the novel is not a straight crime novel, but falls somewhere between crime and science fiction. At the heart of the narrative is the brilliant idea of two separate cities existing in the same geographical space, but estranged from each other to the extent that their citizens are forbidden to interact. It’s a great idea that Mieville riffs on throughout the novel, but it ends up being both a strength and a weakness. The detail involved in making the premise of two city-states living side by side in isolation believable comes at a cost, when at the half way point A.S Byatt’s notion of narrative greed begins to creep in. Whilst the sometimes slow narrative pacing is certainly a flaw, it is thankfully a minor one.

Written in the first person, Mieville’s economical writing suits this reinvention of the crime novel. Mieville takes the tropes of the crime novel and runs with them gleefully. The novel opens with the description of a crime scene in which a dead body has been found. The no nonsense protagonist – Borlu, gets called “boss” by Corwi, his slightly naive but tough underling. The initial crime opens up many unanswered questions and a cover-up ensues. Borlu has to cross the ‘border’ into the foreign city of Ul Qoma to work with Qussim Dhatt, an equally tough and shrewd detective. Mieville takes such clichés and manages to make them new again against the backdrop of the two divided cities somewhere on the edge of Europe.

The citizens of Beszel have to ‘unsee’ the buildings and citizens of Ul Qoma and vice versa. If there is any significant illegal interaction between the two then in steps Breach – an all-powerful presence that exists in the shadows, policing the invisible borders. This unique premise resulted in me practicing ‘unseeing’ buildings and people on the other side of the road as I walked through Subiaco to work. I discovered that what might sound like a far-fetched idea is actually quite easy to do in practice. Actually I suspect that the premise is an analogy for the unseen (avoided at all costs etc) elements of big cities – the homeless and the under-classes that no one wants or cares about. Is The City and the City a novel with a political agenda? Perhaps, but if so then thankfully Mieville does not labor the point.

The mystery at the heart of The City and the City goes deep and should be enough to satisfy most readers, even those who exist on a literary diet of mystery thrillers. In Borlu Mieville has created a convincing protagonist, even though he sometimes flirts with cliché – or is it respectful parody? Either way you still care about what happens to him in the end, giving the book an emotional impact that gives its somewhat outré concepts a very human framework to hang off. I’m sure that Mieville fans will have their own opinions about how to approach his oeuvre, but The City and the City certainly is a fine place to begin if you are, like me, a New Weird novice. 

Saturday 27 October 2012

The Red House – Mark Haddon (2012)

The Red House is a very adult novel from an author who had principally produced books for children. His big literary hit came with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), a book that was marketed to both adults and young adults. It is notable due to the narrator being a boy with Aspergers syndrome. The Red House seems to be the complete opposite, with its themes of familial dysfunction and frustrated desires. But with closer inspection it is apparent that Haddon is still exploring the subjectivity of individual perspective and the alienation this can engender.

Siblings Richard and Angela were estranged, but the death of their alcoholic mother brings them together and at Richard’s behest they embark on a seven-day holiday in the Welsh county-side in order to bring the family together. An ensemble of eight family members makes for a complicated representation of humanity. In fact the whole human life cycle is covered and it is almost like Haddon wanted use this family to examine each age group’s particular problems. There’s a stillborn baby; Benjy is a typical eight year-old; Daisy, Melissa and Alex represent the teenage years and middle age by Dominic, Lauren and Angela. Old age is covered by the adults parents, which they often refer to and blame for most of their problems.

Using a third person omniscient point of view, Haddon switches back and forth between characters, revealing their thoughts and desires, most of which are thwarted ones. Haddon takes his cues from Modernism, with thoughts and dialogue giving the impression of flowing together and merging with the often abstract narration. This anachronistic form takes a bit of getting used to, as often it is not obvious which character is present in the narrative. The dialogue is presented in italics, rather then in quotations, a convention that further enhances the blurred narrative boundaries.

The Red House is not overtly plot-driven; instead it’s a vehicle for an exploration of the characters particular problems. There’s the usual palette of human dysfunctions, frustrations and yearnings. The younger characters are the strongest; Daisey, Melissa and Alex are convincing teenagers complete with sexual confusion, identity issues and a general disconnect with their parents worlds. Haddon explores outright teenage lust via Alex’s fantasies and clumsy attempts to seduce Melissa and flirt with Richard’s middle-aged wife – Lauren. It’s all pretty accurate stuff.

The adults are curiously bland, although Angela is the most convincing due to her strong back-story, which involves a stillborn baby and a troubled childhood. As the adults muddle through their problems a certain level of tedium develops and when Richard is injured and caught in a storm whilst out jogging the reader is a passive observer rather than emotionally involved with his plight. The characters are not psychologically interesting enough and the writing does not quite live up to Haddon’s Modernist ambitions.

In comparison other books I’ve read recently that explore the theme of familial dysfunction were compelling and intense. The Man Who Loved Children (1940) is both unique and intensely psychologically disturbing. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010) featured convincing characters with problems that connected with the wider dysfunction of the nation. The Red House unfortunately pales in comparison. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by the quality of the above-mentioned novels, but The Red House failed to spark the synapses and was merely an exercise in reading rather than a compelling engagement with a strong narrative. This was a book club book and true to form some people thought the novel was absolutely brilliant, which is very different to my point of view, but if the Modernists were anything to go by then each viewpoint is equally valid.

Monday 15 October 2012

Charles Bukowski’s Scarlet: A Memoir - Pamela “Cupcakes” Wood (2010)

Bukowski and Wood

During the 1970’s Charles Bukowski had gained enough notoriety from his street-smart writing to attract the attention of ‘fans’ that wanted to meet him, party with him or in the case of some women, to find out if he really was a dirty old man. Although Bukowski was essentially a misanthropic loner, he mostly let these people into his life and many of these experiences ended up in his writing. In Absence of the Hero (2010) he knowingly refers to this period as ‘research.’

Pamela Wood first met Charles Bukowski in 1975 when her and her friend, Georgia, were out late at night celebrating the latter’s birthday. Inspired by her friend’s love of Bukowski’s writing she rang him from a public phone booth and Bukowski invited them around. That night began two years of involvement in Bukowski’s life and Wood went on to be featured in his great novel Women (1978), inspired a volume of love poems called Scarlet (1976) and many other poems that featured in books such as Love is a Dog From Hell (1977).

Scarlet is a fascinating memoir for Bukowski fans because Wood tells us the story from the other side. Bukowski’s writing was essentially autobiographical, so we know his side of the story only too well. When Pamela Wood met Bukowski she was a young mother struggling to make sense of her life and was partying hard on uppers and alcohol. What you learn from Scarlet is both how Wood changed as a person during the years she knew Bukowski and also the intimate minutiae of her relationship with Bukowski. As fascinating as her time with Bukowski is, Scarlet is also about Wood’s life and like Bukowski she is perceptive and honest about herself and the people in her life at that time.

Bukowski with Georgia

Wood wrote Scarlet herself and although she is no great stylist she manages to project what it was like for a young woman to be thrust into the intense world of Charles Bukowski without resorting to sensationalism. Scarlet helps to bring Bukowski further into focus as a sensitive and complex man who also had a no bullshit attitude. There’s pathos, bathos and serial dysfunction throughout the memoir, but what is interesting is that it mostly comes from Georgia, Wood and her brother, Larry. In fact Bukowski emerges as a voice of reason; admonishing Wood for not being careful with her money, being a stickler for punctuality and displaying a strong work ethic. He did have his flaws of course, such as his irrational jealousy and his alcoholism – of which Wood recalls without much judgment.

Scarlet offers many joys for the Bukowski fan. Wood recounts several poetry readings she attended, where she took pride of place at the front, giving the reader valuable insight into Bukowski the reluctant performer. At one poetry reading in New York Bukowski gives a visiting poet short shrift and at another Wood drinks too much and ends up making a fool of herself in front of the great Jack Nitzsche (Nitzsche also turns up at Bukowski’s bungalow – the two seemed to be great friends.) There are also many intimate photos throughout the book, many of them unseen and taken with the Polaroid camera bought by Bukowski for Wood.

Wood entered Bukowski’s life just after Linda King and Bukowski parted ways for the final time. Bukowski tells an amazed Wood about King’s jealous rage, in which she smashed his beloved typewriter, all caused by Bukowski talking about Wood to King. Of course anyone who has read Women will be already familiar with this and many of the other events Wood recalls. That book almost ruined a relationship for Wood, when years later her soon to be husband read the book and nearly called off the wedding because of her portrayal as a wild and sexy pill popper.

Despite the dysfunction and general craziness of Bukowski and Wood’s relationship, Wood ends up looking back with genuine fondness for Bukowski. Bukowski suffered a great deal because of his love for Wood, which she acknowledges without coming over as being defensive - in fact Wood is both insightful and genuine. At the end it is extremely touching when she talks about how it felt to hear about Bukowski’s death on the radio after having not seen him for nearly twenty years. She went from someone who couldn’t understand why people loved his writing to someone who was angered when the radio announcer referred to Bukowski as a “pornographic poet.” Wood, like Bukowski’s admirers, knew that he was much more than that and through Scarlet she confirms this fact emphatically.

You know who this is...

Sunday 7 October 2012


Two nights ago I went and checked out Nathaniel Moncrieff’s play – Tinkertown. I’m no theatre critic but I know what I like. The play ran for an hour and quarter and was tightly scripted and directed. The dialogue was funny and was delivered extremely well by the actors. The pacing was excellent and I ended up being surprised when I realized that it was about to end. Felicity Groom’s music complemented the action perfectly, particularly in an extended scene in which Chester was trying out his hold up moves in some appropriately eerie light. Towards the end of the play it was a bit unnerving to have a gun, even one that was prop, pointed in my direction by Tammy. I must have been convinced by the excellent makeup in the previous scene.

Tinkertown is running until Saturday 13th of October, so if you live in Perth and feel like trying out some theatre, then head down to The Blue Room in Northbridge, you will not regret it.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Tinkertown: an interview with Nathaniel Moncrieff and Sam Farringdon

Last week I caught up with Perth playwright Nathaniel Moncrieff and producer and co-director Sam Farringdon, who talked at length about Nathaniel’s new play – Tinkertown. Tinkertown follows on from Sleepyhead, which was both a critical and commercial success when it was performed at the Blue Room earlier this year.

Tinkertown is a tragic comedy with plenty of dark humour and combines car chases with dysfunctional father/daughter bonding, music and yaks, apparently. Oh, and nudity – so be warned!

You can check out Tinkertown at The Blue Room between September 25 and October 13. Visit the website for tickets and relevant information.

What’s the inspiration behind Tinkertown?


       Tinkertown was written about two years ago; it came after I had written Sleepyhead. Sleepyhead started getting attention; it had picked up an award and was short listed for the Griffin Award and after that the attention had gone to my head and I had spent six months or more working on an epic Victorian horror piece that was a weird combination of Kafka and Henry James…

         And self indulgence.

N & S: laughs

N:     …and Oscar Wilde, and when that wasn’t getting positive reactions from the people I sent it to, I decided I needed to write something more contained. I worked on an idea I had been tossing around for a while, which was pitched somewhere between Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and a 70’s road movie, and that was what was to become Tinkertown. I wrote the first draft in about a week and it came after a bad time in my life, so the original draft was a strange amalgam of heavy emotions and also…

S:     Trademarked Moncrieffian bleakness.

N & S: laughs

N:     …humour, I was going to say! So that’s how Tinkertown initially came about. I sent that around and it got a lot of interest from a few people. Sam really liked it and that spurred me on in terms of subsequent drafts. Eventually I was to hone it to what it is now.

During our last interview you mentioned that Tinkertown was meant as a companion to Sleepyhead. Is that still the case, and if so can you elaborate on that?

N:      I think that Tinkertown and Sleepyhead are stylistically similar and in   some other respects…

S:      Thematically as well, because they are about family relationships.           

N:      Yeah, thematically both are concerned in some ways with father/daughter dynamics and I think even from the outset I wanted to write another piece that would complement the style of Sleepyhead. I think while some of the themes and the dialogue and certain aspects of the world of the play cross over with Sleepyhead, Tinkertown differs in terms of being much lighter in tone. Whereas Sleepyhead was a very claustrophobic piece, Tinkertown is much more expansive in its setting, and the journey that takes place is a much more physical one, compared to the metaphorical one in Sleepyhead. 

S:      Tinkertown is a lot more accessible I think.

N:      Yeah, a lot of people will find Tinkertown more enjoyable and accessible than Sleepyhead.

Would you say it’s a progression from Sleepyhead? 

N:      I learned a lot from Sleepyhead about how audiences react to work and interpret a work. How you convey narrative elements to an audience, what needs to be explained, what doesn’t need to be explained, but also how to write humour as well. I always thought Sleepyhead was a very funny play, but as the play was so dark audiences tended to miss the humour. So that was very important to me when I wrote Tinkertown – how to incorporate the dark elements whilst not interfering with the humour.

Tinkertown has been performed in Melbourne, how did that go?

N:      I very much liked what MKA did with the play. MKA are, to my mind, one of the most exciting companies producing works in Australia at the moment. I feel privileged that they have now done two of my plays. What was unfortunate was that I don’t think Tinkertown was quite at the stage that it is now when it was produced, so while MKA did the best they could with the play, at that stage I had not yet heard the play read aloud or seen it performed live, so after I went over to Melbourne to see it performed. I immediately went back and re-worked a lot of it, so the Perth production will be a lot more finely honed.

So, that was my next question, is the Perth production very different to the Melbourne production? 

S:      Just about every week! laughs

N:      Yeah. It’s been great working on the play as co-director because it’s given me free reign to re-work and re-write the elements that I didn’t think were working or could be improved. I am quite a perfectionist when it comes to my writing, so I have been a bit of an annoyance at times to Sam and some of the actors, in terms of cutting lines and adding lines. I think that ultimately that will be a huge benefit to the script; it’s a much sharper, tighter work than it would have been had I not directed it.

Nathaniel and Sam

Tinkertown is being co-directed with Sam Farringdon. Sam - how did that come about and what did you contribute as co-director?

S:      I just imposed myself on Nathaniel’s work (laughs) and he just lets me do that. Obviously I read the very first draft of the script and immediately I fell in love with it. I had read a lot of Nathaniel’s previous scripts, they were mostly film scripts at that point, and when I read Tinkertown I immediately recognised that it was the most accessible thing he’d ever written. It’s funny, because I actually went back and read the first draft a couple of weeks ago, and compared to where it is now, the thing is actually a mess – but that’s only in the context of what I know the script to be now, in the process of the last year and a half of it being re-tooled. So I think that it really was quite something when I first read it, and that’s something that has carried on until now. In terms of my role in our relationship, I joked before that Nat brings the creativity and I bring the organisation and the practicality, and that’s really quite true to a certain extent. Nathaniel and I work very well together because we share a lot of the same artistic passions and ideas, and we bounce of each other quite well. We can throw ideas back and forth and reign in each other’s more outlandish ideas, or recast them as something that works a lot better for both of us. 

You produced Sleepyhead, is directing more of a challenge?

S:      Well I am producing Tinkertown as well. Producing and directing is a huge challenge in that it’s essentially twice the amount of work, but the way that we had planned it was that I was always going to produce and provide assistance in terms of direction, and Nathaniel would take on the most of the direction. That’s pretty much how it’s worked, but at the same time the direction has been collaborative and that’s something that I have really enjoyed. It has been really quite difficult at times, but it has been made considerably easier with the support we got from The Blue Room and also the support from our mentor, Mark Storen. He’s an amazing actor, writer and director in his own right…

N:      An incredible person all round…

S:      Yeah, he’s an incredible guy. The actors that we’ve had: Phil Moilin, Tessa Carmody, Hannah Day and Jeremy Levi – they interpret our vague, overlapping ideas and messy direction and deliver them to a tee, giving us what we want.

Sam - has this given you any ideas of your own, in terms of writing?

S:       It’s certainly inspired me. I have always written stuff, I just never really shared it with people, and I always tended to write more poetry and short prose rather than plays. It certainly has inspired me, and working with Nathaniel and Mark and Phil, Tessa, Hannah and Jeremy has inspired me to work on something of my own writing. I am really just happy to be involved in the whole creative process; it’s just fantastic to be among creative people and to be creating a piece of art. That’s exciting in itself and I hope to continue that. Regardless whether I continue to write, as long as I am around these creations, the creative process and these creative people I am quite content.

Nathaniel, Tinkertown has been described as a tragic comedy. Are you attracted to this genre or is it more of a means to get across what you are trying to say?

N:      I think all my work ends up being incredibly dark one way or another, it’s just the kinds of characters I’m attracted to, the kinds of stories I want to tell, so even if I aim to do a light comedy, which I aimed for with Tinkertown, it ends up being something quite twisted and quite dark. I don’t intend to write tragedies; just often the stories that linger in my mind and end up coming to fruition end up being grim in nature.

S:      Well, all the anecdotes that you tell, the stories from your own life are tragic comedies as well…

N:      Yeah, I think my sense of humour is kind of bent - I have a very dark sense of humour and that is reflected in my work. Even Sleepyhead, I thought that was a very funny play, it turned out that not that many people thought it was quite as funny as I did.

S:      The comedy in Sleepyhead was much more subtle, you have to be looking for it to find it in parts of it.

N:      This play gives the audience more permission to laugh. I think in Sleepyhead, because from the outset it’s such a grim world with characters that are so irredeemably messed up, that when the humour enters into the picture it’s harder for the audience to realize they’re allowed to laugh. I think Tinkertown from it’s very first line tells the audience what sort of play it is going to be and what sort of humour it’s going to possess. I think audiences will have a much easier time enjoying the comedy in this play.

Phil Miolin as Chester

Tell me about the character Chester?

N:      Chester is a character that is looking for redemption. He wants to fix his failed existence – he’s murdered his wife, he’s spent most of his life behind bars, and so he’s come out and he wants to make things right with his daughter. He’s such a fuck up, for want of a better term, that he just keeps making situations worse for himself. The reunion with his daughter just doesn’t go to plan, and that’s where we begin the play. From there it’s all downhill, one mistake after another.

S:      His intentions are always good, but he just doesn’t think things through enough for them to happen quite the way he intends them to.

N:      Yeah, he’s got a skewed way of thinking and he’s got a very skewed sense of honour, which…

S:      Which probably comes from his life behind bars and having to justify his way of life.

Tell me about Tammy, Chester’s daughter?

N:      Tammy is the antithesis of Chester because she’s been estranged from him since she was a baby, and was raised by her mother’s sister, who was a strict religious woman. She was raised in a very morally upright environment, so when they meet at the beginning of the play they are at complete odds in terms of beliefs and ethics. That sets the dynamic for the rest of the play, in terms of these characters who want to get along but just can’t, because they’re different in almost every respect.

S:      Tammy’s moral compass is a bit skewed as well, but it’s skewed towards righteousness, that’s where a lot of the conflict arises.

N:      Tammy has a lot of her father in her, but she’s in denial of that fact. The more she spends time with Chester the more her darker side comes out.

Felicity Groom

The music is performed by Felicity Groom, how did that collaboration come about? Does she perform live?

S:      Yes, she performs live. When we started talking about Tinkertown as a Blue Room show we were really adamant that it would be scored by live music, as music was a huge part of the influence for Nathaniel. I could hear the sounds for the music echo throughout the script. That was a reason that I think it resonated with me so much. Felicity was an acquaintance of mine, and when we were throwing ideas around as to how we could approach the live music her name came up because we really thought that her music had a haunting, ethereal quality to it that was fitting to the landscape and mood of the piece.

She’d worked on something for Renee Newman-Storen, Mark Storen’s wife at the Blue Room, which was received really well. So we arranged a meeting with her and she’s really lovely and very hardworking and was very passionate about the project as soon as she’d read the script. So all the stars aligned and it worked out for the best.

N:      When I wrote Tinkertown I was listening to a lot of folk music and a lot of blues and country music. Stuff like Jackson C. Frank and Townes Van Zandt – artists like that, and so the first draft of the script were very much littered with a lot of musical references and so music was very important to the world of the play. When we conceived the piece we really wanted a songwriter to come along and not only enhance the mood of the piece, but to also compliment the narrative. The example that comes to mind is Curtis Mayfield and the Superfly soundtrack, in which the film and the soundtrack are almost synonymous because the lyrics heighten the narrative and they really add a lot of depth and convey a lot of different angles and elements to the audience.

S:      It’s important to know that when Felicity’s on stage she’s a part of the world; very much omnipresent within the world, and her music expresses the mood and landscape of the piece. That was really important to colour the play. It’s not a case of her tacking on her music in between scenes, her music lives and breathes within the scenes and it gives the show as much life as the characters of Tammy and Chester do.

N:      Yeah, Felicity really has a knack of connecting with the play, her music and her lyrics really tapped into what I was going for when I wrote the piece. A lot of aspects of the characterisation that I didn’t discuss with her, she just automatically picked up upon. She’s done a fantastic job.

What else have you been working on? How’s Turn of the Screw coming along? Have you given up on it?

N:      The Turn of the Screw play I think is a tremendous piece of work, it’s sort of like Victorian Gothic Psychedelia.

S:      If that’s even a genre? It’s Moncrieffian! 

N:      It’s incredibly grotesque work and I’m not sure at this point in my career that it would be wise to unleash it – it’s experimental and certainly my most fucked up play. Not to mention that it would also be an incredibly costly piece of work. If any supremely well-funded organisations showed interest and were willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a play and potentially lose it, then I’d say I’d have one piece of work for them to see. It might fall by the wayside. But I have been working on another epic, completely uncommercial piece of work.

S:      I wouldn’t call it uncommercial, it’s just very very black.

N:      It’s almost at its first draft stage and I’m very happy with the way it’s going. It’s based on a true story so I’ve had to do a lot of research and work hard to combine the real life and fictionalized elements. It will be by far my ambitious work. It will be quite a few months before anyone will get to look at it, besides Sam I guess.

Is there anything else you’d like to say in general or about Tinkertown? Come and see it?
S:      It’s worth mentioning that we’ve had a huge amount of love and support from everyone involved at The Blue Room: Susannah, Thom, Kerry Roger and Sally. They’ve been hugely supportive from the beginning. As first time director doing their first show we are extremely grateful. It’s great to work under the banner of a theatre company that is recognized for excellent work. It’s a huge honour.

N:      We are very grateful. Also we wouldn’t be talking now if it weren’t for MKA and their ongoing support, both with Sleepyhead and this play. The Blue Room have been hugely supportive. We have an amazing crew as well.

S:      They’ve worked with enthusiasm and commitment. We really have the most talented people and it’s mind boggling just how great it is to work with these people and it will hopefully all show through in the final result.

Credits: Photographs of Nathaniel, Sam, Phil Miolin and Felicity Groom by Sophia Muoio

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Victor Lavalle interview at Bookslut

Over at Bookslut there is a great interview with author Victor Lavalle. I've seen his books around but I'm yet to read his work. The interview reveals Lavalle to be an extremely interesting writer and I'm going to try and read one of his books soon. What he has to say about realism in literature is fascinating and his philosophy is one I can totally connect with:

"It has always seemed to me that realism attempts to describe what daily life looks like while the fantastic attempts to express what daily life feels like. Getting evicted from your home -- I mean genuine court-ordered, City Marshal enforced eviction -- can feel like an episode from a piece of Gothic fiction. The reportorial aspects of realism just aren't going to capture the matter. I can't fathom how only one type of writing -- whether realism, the fantastic, romance, mystery, etc. -- can ever summarize life on its own. Using all of it -- within the same book, sometimes within the same sentence -- seems like the only sensible way to try and capture the whole spectrum of human experience."

It's worth both reading this interview and checking out this great site. Enjoy.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Absence of the Hero: Uncollected Stories and Essays, Volume 2 1946 - 1992 – Charles Bukowski (2010)

The unearthing of Bukowski’s writing continues and Absence of the Hero does not disappoint. I’ll get right to the point, rather like Bukowski himself, and advise all admirers of his work to get your hands on this collection because it is just brilliant. As for those who view Bukowski with distaste or have never heard of him – I’ll get to you later.

I’m not usually one for quoting, but on the rear cover of this book Tom Waits sums things up best: “He loads his head full of coal and diamonds shoot out of his finger tips.” Absence of the Hero features some of his earliest stories, unseen Notes of a Dirty Old Man columns that were originally published in underground papers, and most fascinating of all, critiques of other writers’ works and commentary about writing.

Two of the early highlights of this collection both play with perception. Cacoethes Scribendi is a rare third person excursion that finds an editor visiting a writer suspiciously like Bukowski himself. The Rapist’s Story gives you a tale of innocence from the rapist’s point of view. It lures the reader into being sympathetic towards the rapist, until you realize at the end that it’s all a matter of perception and that your own has been played with, with disturbing results. For seasoned Bukowski readers these two stories are surprisingly untypical and that’s the great pleasure of this collection – it presents another side of Bukowski.

A side of Bukowski that I’ve never read before are the critical essays and his ruminations about writing. As usual they are peppered with his succinct brilliance. It’s fascinating to read his critique of Alan Ginsburg’s work, in which he manages to examine both Ginsburg’s writing and the psychology of reviewing other writers. Hilariously he refers to Ginsburg as a “…bearded half-monk, kind of lighted with bedroom infractions and stinking nightmares of India and Cuba and coffeehouses, this flumping spread of hair that is Allen Ginsburg.” All aspiring writers need to read House of Horrors, in which Bukowski lays down the truth about writing. At the end he concludes that: “For after some years of writing, the soul, the person, the creature becomes useless to operate in any other capacity. He is unemployable. He is a bird in a land of cats. I’d never advise anybody to become a writer, only if writing is the only thing which keeps you from going insane. Then, perhaps, it’s worth it.” I hear you Bukowski.

More typical is Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Open City December 8 1967 in which Bukowski reveals that he was an American who fully understood irony when he twists an argument that he is a racist back onto the accuser, in a beautiful and succinct way of course. Another Notes of a Dirty Old Man, this time published in Free Press November 1975, is a hilarious misanthropic meditation about cars and people. There is also the usual stories about drunkenness – being drunk at poetry readings, on the way to poetry readings and after poetry readings, oh, and in the middle of the night, afternoon and morning, with or without other people, usually with hilarious results and with a dash of pathos thrown in. There’s sex and as usual it’s very masculine, but take note all you women reading Fifty Shades of F**king Grey (they’ll change its title to this in the future), it’s erotic in a powerful way and it will give you a thrill, not a cheap one though. Start with Vern’s Wife, page 140.

The thing about Charles Bukowski’s writing is that you can be feeling terrible and you read him and then you feel good again. Bukowski speaks directly to the hurt part of your soul; his humanity is palpable because it came directly out of his brain and onto the page unfiltered. No doubt his writing was like therapy to him and it certainly has that effect on the reader. Another thing is that his brand of existentialism is way better than, say, Sartre’s. I have no doubt that Bukowski would have thought that Sartre was a pussy, but he would have at least had a drink with Camus.

As for those of you who accuse Bukowski of misogyny, I’m afraid that you are sadly mistaken – he was a misanthrope. Read his work and after a while you realize that the men in his stories come in for some rough treatment. He loved to reveal the awful stupidity of men and he didn’t spare him-self from such treatment either. Besides, no one else has quite summed up the effect of a beautiful woman quite like this: “She walked in. Shining gold. Flare of eye in wild painting. Centuries of men killing for the like. I mean, you know, I was at last overcome.” It still didn’t get him laid though.

As for those of you who have never read Bukowski, hear this – every man and woman, but perhaps not child (teenagers are a grey area) should read Bukowski. Everyone should at least read Post Office (1971) and Women (1978). Quite frankly if you don’t read Bukowski then you will die having never experienced literature that comes from the core and reveals the essence of what it is to be human. Don’t miss out.