Online Only

Writing Lessons: Settings

away from a place to write about a place

 

I BEGIN THE first draft of my new book, a memoir of cities and frienships, while living in Rome for six months. But I can't finish the chapters about Rome until I leave Rome. Rome is where I wrote for the first time, about another place...

 

 

 

You show up every morning: Between Careers

 

HALF MY LIFE in Rome I began writing the first draft of my first book. The book itself is set in Sydney, that's one of the first things I knew about it. In  the late 1970s, a place described not only by its physical geography but the hedonistic spirit of the times; its Coda is set in the early 1980s, AIDS a mysterious new factor but the era still one of easy living, available pleasures. We're just lucky, says the narrator, we live in a golden age, we are living in a time that myths will be made up about and people will wish they'd been there.

For the Sydney setting to work in the novel, it had to become a place in imagination. If I had remained in Sydney I would have been part of it, it part of me. The daily interaction would preclude the perspective, the sense of distance and separation, that enabled it to become a fictive Sydney, a novel's setting, rather than – or besides – a real place. I was establishing a modus operandi, though I couldn't have known, placing myself away from the novel's setting to write it.

The setting of the novel is dated: an era that is no more, an era that is already passing in the novel's final section, the Coda. The nostalgia for, or mythologising of, the 70s was beginning:  the era where sex was a safe recreational activity, one in which extravagant expense accounts were prevalent, a time when it was actually amazing that a well-educated women with plenty of choice would take up prostitution.

Hidden in the pages of Between Careers is a memory of the place where I write a sprawling first draft of my first novel, then called A Waste of Shame after Sonnet 129. That dark living room in a rented apartment on the outskirts of Rome, crammed with dark heavy furniture, where I sleep in a corner and sometimes others also sleep in another corner. When everyone's left for the day, I sit at the large polished-wood table and begin to learn how a novel is written. You show up every morning, I knew that much, and get something done. Later you can go for a walk. It's a suburban neighbourhood of brick apartment blocks, but there is a bar, a small Italian bar, on a nearby corner, serving espresso and cornetti to locals, colourful bottles of aperitifs and digestivs on glass shelves behind the metal counter, men sitting at tiny tables in the sunshine. I'm always going to love this about Italy, the bar you always find. Sometimes I take a bus into town and wander the ancient streets and monuments.

Here I first learn the rhythm of daily work, the momentum and impetus it provides and requires, some kind of choice between life and work, the experience of living in an imagined world more engrossing than the material world, an imagined world that distances you from the material world even in Rome.

Eventually I took that over-long hand-written first draft back to Sydney with me. At the Sydney Women Writers Group I read my short prose work to others for the first time. I would later call this event my coming out as a writer. I rewrote the novel, throwing a lot of it out. Writers are said to be either putter-inners or taker-outers; I've always best liked taking words out, though I have just put in this remark.

Sasha came over one day and showed me how to edit, then took the manuscript away with him. He wasn't meant to show it to anyone else but one day Tom Thomson went over to visit Sasha and saw my manuscript lying around and read it. I don't know if I knew that then. Years later Tom was hired to create a new literary fiction list at Collins publishers and got in touch to ask what happened to it. Those were the days, new literary fiction lists. Tom published that and my next few books also.  Seven years it took, from finishingBetween Careers to its publication. In those years I'd been through all kinds of palaver with film producers who thought they might make a film version.

 

 

I could always get a coffee: The Saddest Pleasure

 

IN THOSE YEARS I added to the short prose pieces I'd first read to (and published with) the Sydney Women Writers Group and the slender three-part collection became my second book The Saddest Pleasure.

One of the pieces in ‘Stories", Jean, was written in Kashmir, the conditions of its writing described by another piece, in ‘Travel Diaries", Snow-capped Peaks. It's ages since I've read it but I enjoy the memory of writing in my houseboat on the lake, a memory now corresponding to that story, because to write a story is to make a memory or displace a memory. Jean is set in Kings Cross, the part of Sydney that would become the setting for my next novel, Pagan.

 

PIECES IN BOTH ‘Travel Diaries' and ‘Stories' are set in places I had travelled to. Including a few paragraphs on my first time in Rome. The third section in the collection is a novella, ‘Pearl of the Orient", set, like some of the earlier pieces in the ‘Travel Diaries' section, in Penang, with descriptions of the scents of spices, incense and pungent fruit, and with nods to self-consciousness about our constructs of the Orient, about writing that is Orientalist (not in a bad way).

Completed in Sydney the collection contains, in another sense, over a decade of living in a flat in Elizabeth Bay. Sydney is one of the major loves of my life. I felt that that Sydney was part of me and I was part of it. We never actually broke up; when I moved away I always meant to live there again. I came back for as many visits per year as I could manage, and when I did went to my yoga school daily, had dates with my friends, hung out in neighbourhoods I knew well.

I moved into the building in Elizabeth Bay in 1980, ‘foreign-returned' as they say in India. I had a few notebooks and a sprawling, over-written first draft of my first novel. When I left Sydney, at the end of 1991, I had just delivered my fourth book to my publisher. There were many times in the intervening years, and they seemed long at the time, where there seemed to be too many obstacles to making a life as a writer. It took seven years after its completion before my first novel would be published. At least by then I had done a lot of work on a very different second novel, which came out a year later. Still, I published four books while I applied for grants for ten years without success. I'd burned my bridges as far as most employment. Sometimes I had to sub-let my flat just to get by. Sometimes I would try to defy fate or change my mind but I always ended in deciding that as long as I could keep working I could keep living and as long as I could get a coffee I could continue to work and somehow I could always get a coffee. And now, brief cinematic images from those years flicker, Sydney friends, my oldest friendships, the wonderful places we lived in and how very much we entertained and consoled each other.

 

 

separation from my everyday world: Pagan

 

I HAD WANTED to investigate the era in which my family no longer could claim Europe as its home, the era of emigrating to Australia and trying to assimilate. Writing a novel set in Sydney in the 1950s was an adventure in research, into ‘the new migrations, the new music, the old magick' (as the cover blurb of Pagansays).

I found people from the worlds of art, music, society, bohemia, newspapers, the police, witchcraft and paganism and travelled all over Sydney to meet them. I read 1950s newspapers, magazines and novels. I lived in the area where the novel is set. The Cross, that even then wasn't as wicked as people made out, not as glamorous, nor as cosmopolitan. But

There were mansions with huge gardens, and there were terrace houses with cheap bedsits. There were families who'd been there since the colony was founded; there were rooms you could rent by the hour. All of Sydney's artists must have lived there at some time. It was the place for men with no fixed address, it was the place for women escaping the kitchen sink; it was the place for juvenile delinquents to parade their pseudo-American clothes... Other languages besides English were heard in its streets and cafes...

 

SYDNEY'S KINGS CROSS had changed, of course, in forty years, but still I saw The Cross I was writing about as I walked through it on the way home every day, discernible besides the then present of the 1980s. The Cross still had a certain air of sleaze and bohemia, even as gentrification was changing it.

Like many writers, I craved a refuge, a separation from my everyday world, and total intimacy with my work. It was a way of, in effect, putting everything I was in Sydney on hold – all of my relationships with its people and places– while I removed myself to a new physical setting. There I would live quite a different life, and be someone else, my only duty to the novel, only the novel to talk to, quarrel with, embrace. I'm completing parts of this book at writers' retreats that are created to offer this experience.

To finish writing Pagan I spent five months at a country property, near Mudgee, beyond the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.  Friends of mine had bought land on the next door property, that's how it came about. Jolieske, also from the city, who had only recently bought the country property, left for the winter to earn her living as a tour leader in warm adventure travel destinations and needed a house-sitter. An old stone house was set on seven hundred acres of natural bush and cleared land. There were horses to look after and hug after their morning feed, and an intense, solitary and strict routine.

I got up before sunrise and lit the fire in the room where I slept and wrote; the ashes were still warm from the fire I went to sleep beside and I wrote in its presence. The fire was a magical being, a presence with character and sentience. After a clear night full of stars a white frost covered the ground outside. In the afternoons I walked over the hills, through paddocks and bushland. Autumn became winter and eventually there were signs of spring. I was immersed in a rare way in the novel and in the nature around me, its peace and beauty seeming not clichés at all but revelations.

In that location I was able to fill in the only missing part from my research, the background of the character Patrick, the country boy who went to work on a newspaper in the Big Smoke of Sydney and who, it was suddenly clear, came from around here. This was his home, and the local paper was where he'd started out. Nature was a perfect inspiration for a novel of paganism, and so was the return to Sydney, novel completed, to put on black leather and red lipstick to celebrate the evolved, living paganism of the Sleaze Ball. Place becomes setting, life enters imagination and creates fiction, experience is devoured by narrative.

 

 

having to make a choice: The Edge of Bali

 

AFTER MY TWO-MONTH research trip in Bali in early 1990 I began writing a novel set in Bali in Venice, Italy. I had been given the use of a ‘studio' for two months, which turned out to be a filthy dingy apartment. It got cleaned eventually, but remained dark on the brightest spring day and my sleep there was full of nightmares. There I began to map out the novel, penetrate its characters, write passages to be discarded. I walked and walked and walked over Venice, in daylight and darkness, overwhelmed, ravished by its extravagant, artificial beauty and imposing history. There were memories of a younger self who had briefly visited Venice  and who had vowed one vivid moment, as someone opened shutters at an overhead window in a Venetian walkway, that one day I would live here for a while, that would be me.

Fresh from Bali, I pondered museum culture and living culture. It was impossible to keep regular hours. I rested in campi and on fondamente and in churches. I felt like a ghost but now the memory of this time has melded  with or adhered to the Venice of my subsequent novel Sheila Power where the experience of a poor Australian writer in Venice is transformed into fantasy (an affair with a gondolier,  an affair with a countess). At the time, though, I had no idea of any such thing. The transformation from real city to imagined city begins later, in the memory. At the time I was still struggling to both be in Venice and use Venice to write of somewhere quite other.

The Venice effect on the Bali novel (its title came later, from listening to a radio program on poetry with poets talking about the word edge) seemed, for a while, to make the novel improbable, the imaginative work too difficult in such a place, a place that seemed more of the imagination than the real world. But I doggedly sat at the desk every day – for once at random times of day or night – and later found that the notes I made there were, indeed, a substantial start to the Bali novel.

And then this time it was Sydney that provided the writer's setting, distinctly different from the novel's setting, Bali in the world of tourism, where tourists' own customs and rituals are set beside the ceremonies they have come to witness.

I finished writing The Edge of Bali during my last days living in Sydney. I was paying the rent with a part-time teaching job, putting other expenses on a credit card and working on the novel. I went to my yoga school six mornings a week, as I had done whenever I'd been in Sydney for the last few years, and did not realise that this was preparing me for practising alone for far longer than I could know. I didn't know that when I left Sydney I'd still be away a decade later, and longer, and with no certainty of living there again, but I knew I had to leave. Part-time teaching jobs were disappearing, and I needed to do something new, worthwhile. My life in Sydney took on the sharp clarity and that before-the-fact nostalgia that colours days you know are ending in a place you love. That's a state I've been in a few times since then. Leaving Rome while writing this book. Leaving Australia so I could write it.

While I wrote the last pages the character Tyler was having to make a choice about what to do next and my phone rang. I was offered a job in Papua New Guinea by Australian Volunteers Abroad. Suddenly both Tyler and I found that we knew exactly what we were going to do, something that felt not like choosing more like finding out what you'd chosen. A choice you could only understand by finding out what it led to.

Sometimes a life moment is identical to a novel moment. I completed The Edge of Bali while I prepared to place my life in quite another setting.

 

 

you're safe here: Rascal Rain

 

MY FIRST NON-FICTION book is set in Papua New Guinea, in the world of the intersection of very old cultures with the very latest in western religion, mining and development philosophies.

They were beautiful, these mountains, these highlands. I now knew a little about them, the same things everyone first knew. There, white man's first penetration was notably recent. There, for untold centuries people had lived the same way, or might have, with their stone axes, their digging sticks and the ceremonial body decorations which were said to be their only art form. There, the introduction of steel axes and matches began a story of change and social upheaval so drastic that the country was renowned mainly for its unrest and disorder.

The book was written in a house near Cairns in Far North Queensland, where I tried to make sense of the chaotic experiences of the year before, painfully chronicling its anxieties and disappointments.

Still, there was much pleasure, for a lover of tropical places, finally to be in the Australian tropics. I wore a sarong, sat under ceiling fans, ate plenty of fresh papaya. The tropical sea lay across the road from the house, its warm flat waters bordered on the horizon by the Great Barrier Reef. Out the back of the house I looked onto a large parched paddock. The monsoon rains came, thundering for three days straight, and the dry, silent paddock became a lake, bursting with life and noise, inhabited by bands of frogs, symphonies of birds and flocks of thrumming, whirring insects.

The thrilling monsoon rain would play its part in the yet-unimagined Neem Dreams, as part of Pandora's memories of childhood in the Top End.

At the time, it was part of the discovery of the beauty of Far North Queensland, new to me. It was part, too, of a sense of security and safety that was as if new to me too. One day as I walked out onto the beach I caught myself carefully checking out who was there, their distance from me, whether the vibe was friendly, escape routes, and realised with a shock that the constant menace of my time in the Papua New Guinea Highlands had changed me. I had previously been carefree, even reckless, wherever I walked. But ‘security' had been a main issue of my life in Enga Province, and now, as I realised what I was doing, and told myself, ‘But you're safe here!' the sense of release made me free to write of a time I could never say that.

The writing of Rascal Rain was the least pleasant of all my writing experiences; partly because of the uneasy distance between the narrating I and the I of the story, and because of the fears and failures that had made up a great deal of its content.

I had been sent to work in ‘women's development' in an area where there was a nominal Women's Council that somehow was both an NGO and totally answerable to the government. The space age suddenly had arrived to a stone age culture, that was the cliché that had actuality. Whatever fancy theories you might offer about the practice of paying bride price, the men considered that they had bought their wives and could treat them as they wished, and other women too, and too many of them wished to beat them and rape them. In the culture of the volunteer organization, you were meant to go and have a great time and advance your career, and bask in your colleagues' appreciation. I was there to work on behalf of women who told me one thing when I was alone with them and when a man entered cowered and retracted.  I was subject to threats and abuse. That's just the work part of it, it was amazing being there, in those beautiful, wild highlands, full of adventure and brilliant people.

It was the start of my friendship with Jeff and Stuart who have promised to love me even while I write this.

Back in Australia living in Cairns, and the shared house I lived in, with endless comings and goings,  an open house where people dropped in and there was always a group for dinner, all that was, as I now look back on it, a time of healing and nurturing. I began teaching yoga, which forced me to do yoga in a new way, to think about how to articulate asana and its implications. This chapter in my life allowed Rascal Rain to be written, and so to create the possibility of moving on.

 

 

over-ripened expectation: Sheila Power

 

I BEGAN WRITING a novel to be called Sheila Power in a strange fit in late 1990, when I still lived in Sydney. It was a unique frenzy of writing 10,000 words in one go and mapping out the whole novel. No one was interested (‘you don't write that kind of book") and I went back to completing the Bali novel in my more usual slow way. Sheila got taken out again after Rascal Rain was completed, the pleasure of immersion in its made-up world a reward for enduring the dirty realism of my own life.

Sheila Power is the third of my Sydney novels.

[Sheila] knew, before the world knew, that to live in this city was to be among the most privileged people on the planet. It had a glittery beauty, a superb climate and a thriving cosmopolitan culture. If you had a harbour view and sufficient money you'd regret nothing.

And one third of the novel is set in Venice:

The city built on water, this astonishing hallucination of canals and bridges and walkways through these fairytale buildings. Could mortal people have invented this?

‘The greediest, cunningest, most ruthless people in Europe'...

I took the near-completed manuscript to New York in 1994 and ‘95. My old (but younger) friend Matthew, who was working in web design and was way advanced in the new arts of technology. I needed him to check out my rendering of the last of the past lives sex scenes in the novel. The scene is set in the future and involves a futuristic version of Virtual Reality. (Sheila, as narrator of her past lives, during her ‘past lives sex therapy'sessions, within her narration of the novel, travels ahead in time in one session, to have virtual sex in a Venice of the future with someone who combines author, actor and character [from the novel and the film within the novel], and, simultaneously, with someone I trust the reader to recognise as Shakespeare on a research trip for a play, the one that would be The Merchant of Venice.)

Matthew cleared up a couple of things, but I seem to have imagined it pretty much as if I knew what I was talking about, and reading that section years later, more experienced with explorations into technology's future, it seemed credible. And so apposite to contemporary notions of gender fluidity, sexual flexibility, unstable identity, cyber-androgyny and role-playing. His even younger gay friends passed the manuscript around and convincingly declared themselves both vastly entertained and also appreciative of the, as they said, ‘cultural critique stuff'. It was the year you couldn't even have a drink in a bar without it being cultural critique. An agent in New York made like she was real enthusiastic over representing me. ‘It's like Vanity Fair,' she said, ‘it's like Dawn Powell.' Vanity Fair magazine, had, as it happened, been part of the research for the world of Sheila; the novels of Dawn Powell were then a yet undiscovered pleasure but totally the kind of thing.

But the moment I left New York the agent forgot I existed.

New York, as it turned out, would become part of the background of two characters in Neem Dreams, Jade and Meenakshi. It already was a (smaller) part of the background of Sheila Power herself, and most of that had been created before I ever travelled there in fact, for I had been travelling there in fantasy for most of my life. The city turned out to exceed even my over-ripened expectations.

When I try now to resolve where Sheila Power mainly was written, I can't be sure. I worked on it in between 1990 and 1996, in short bursts between other projects. Sydney, Goroka in Papua New Guinea, that first house near Cairns, the university in Townsville where I was a visiting writer for a couple of months, a sub-let in Chelsea in New York, a flat right in Cairns while I was writer-in-residence at a project called Flightpathsbased at the airport – all of these places provided a setting for the writer. Sheila Power is set in a postmodern world of indeterminacy; its characters move around the globe at a moment's notice; the novel challenges boundaries between genres and between literary and popular fiction, and, like cyberspace itself, between real and imagined places.  Memory and imagination blend in the settings written of, even as the writer's unconscious work makes of her own place of work a future fiction's fictive setting.

 

 

Something completely different: Neem Dreamst

 

NEXT FOR SOMETHING completely different, now revealed to be my only literary constant.

Neem Dreams contains the experience of many times in India which I'm not going to even  start getting into here, I've now decided to write another book as a memoir of my times in India.

Neem Dreams took three quite different drafts, which I will call The Island, The City, The Coast.

 

 

dead ends and false trails : The Island draft

 

I WENT TO Prince of Wales (Muralag) island in the Torres Strait in August 1995, to live with my then partner Hans who had a job based on Thursday Island. Except for a few months in USA in 1996 and seven weeks in India in early 1997, otherwise I lived on the island until the end of 1997.

It was very beautiful and very isolated; its beauty and its peculiarity were fascinating; sometimes there was a kind of rapture of the deep; sometimes a kind of cabin fever; sometimes a simple contentment. Life there was a source of intense feeling. It was strange having so many experiences of extreme beauty alone. On many solitary evenings I lit oil lamps and candles rather than starting up the generator. On moonlit nights there were the blues of the semi-darkness, part charcoal and grey and black. Or there were the days Hans and I, maybe with some visitors too, would go out in the dinghy to explore little islands and coral reefs, seeming to be inside a huge bowl of blue glass, the water and the sky swirling blue around us, the horizon indistinct, inside a globe of many shades of blue.

The border between Australia and Papua New Guinea passes through the Torres Strait, a line on a map that has no reality to the people who have always lived there. We'd see the planes and boats of the Coast Watch looking out for smugglers and illegal crossings but we'd know they couldn't see them all and they could not necessarily know whether they were looking at legal or illegal crossings.

I get a little thrill out of a cheesy pop song often played at the time – ‘My Island Home', sung by Christine Anu who came from a Torres Strait family but had to live Down South to make a career.  ‘How was Down South?' the neighbourhood kids would ask me, whether I was returning from Cairns or New York or Bombay. My neighbourhood was a stretch of beach a dinghy ride from Thursday Island. Or a ride in the school boat. No electricity, no shop, no traditional ‘community' (Muralag traditionally had not been an inhabited island and therefore had no Island Council). The school boat's afternoon arrival marked the moment the day began to cool down a bit, and I'd go down to the beach to meet it, like the other neighbours did. The kids were a big part of my life there. They took me fishing and for bushwalks; I helped them with their homework. They hadn't much chance of a career if they didn't move south.

Once I left the island I wrote a novella set there but while I was there I was working on the ‘neem' novel.

It was all about beginnings there: finding the story, the characters. It was the in-the-dark ignorant stage of the novel. Reams of pages were discarded as I played endless games of ‘what if?' Characters' names were changed, their back stories were changed, the paths that took four people to a single district in southern India at the same time in the mid 1990s took me down many dead ends and false trails. It was the most difficult, complex novel I would ever write and it would take a long time before I could lighten it.

I took up drawing, only while I lived there, loving the mental sensation it produced, the stillness and perception. I occasionally taught yoga, and practised most days, often not very easily. When Hans or other friends were around, I cooked painstaking meals in the afternoons, grinding spices for curries while I listened to the radio, thankful that Radio National had recently acquired a local station. I read In Search of Lost Timeover the three years on the island and tried, without success, to write a good Proustian sentence. I watched my neem tree grow.

Jenny visited. That rarest being, a suitable reader for the work in progress., just when it seemed impossible to go on without this kind of input: an understanding response, critical suggestions. It was she who made me know that the character Andy would have to be English and the novel would be called Neem Dreams. What remains is the memory of the relief to find affirmation that Neem Dreams did have an existence, that its characters did live, proven when I could gossip and speculate about them with someone else,  a sign that I might yet turn all this groping uncertainty into a novel.

 

 

unemployment benefits: The City draft

 

EVENTUALLY BRISBANE WAS the best idea. January 1998. I rented a flat in a good area – art deco, high ceilings, polished wood floors. Dark though. A promising new start with dark passages.

I was afraid I had ended up. I felt part of myself was dead or deadened. I made an effort to assume the posture of optimism and confidence. Sometimes I didn't get up for days on end. I found a part-time job teaching writing. If you're a writer who needs a job, this has a lot going for it. Teaching is learning.  And fun. (Except for the assessments.)

There I was in Brisbane, broke and alone and certain I'd never have sex again, and yet it was the start of a new period of the deep pleasures of work and friendship, which was what I had moved to the city for. My small group of friends were Sydney connections, other exiles in the northern state. Finally, near the end of the year, I was unemployed at last. Unemployment benefits have made possible a lot of Australian art. I had two or three months for the novel, finally to produce a draft with an ending.

The problem of endings never ends. Up close on a passage, zoom out to a wide view of the whole. But still the novel was not ready to be completed. It would be almost another year before I could give the novel my complete attention again.

 

 

on the right track: The Coast draft

 

IT TOOK TOO but then it was just what I'd planned: finally finding a rentable flat by the sea and another long break between teaching semesters, nothing I had to do but write, run across the road for a dip, a walk on the beach, write. I felt myself lightening, the novel lightening, I loved it again.

This time I wrote the entire novel, all of it, once more, knowing that I was pushing each character to some kind of ending. There had to be an ending to this version. And as I pushed towards it, there was a sense of all obstacles crumbling as events in the real world revealed that I had been on the right track all along, tuned into the zeitgesit.  In December 1999 The News told everyone about huge, well organised demonstrations in Seattle.The anti-globalisation demonstrations were synchronistic with a related scene in Neem Dreams, one I was trying to write at that time. They gave articulation and context to my sense of the novel; I discovered patterns that created relationships between various elements of the novel, perhaps in a way only the writer will ever see. I was still making changes to scenes that had been there from the start, and pushing towards a sense of crescendo if not exactly closure. I would say it was done and then make some changes again. When does a novel end?

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review