Wednesday, February 22, 2017

My Brother is a Beast: Out Soon


Some years ago, while Nikos was in kindergarten, I had an idea for a children's book: about a ninja. That eventually became My Nanna is a Ninja, which came out in 2014, and was welcomed with great gusto. (Thanks, folks.)

My son is now in his last year of primary school, and my fourth children's picture book will be out in a week: My Brother is a Beast.

A brilliantly boisterous picture book celebrating brothers everywhere.
Some brothers tap tambourines 
as the drummers keep the beat. 
But my brother is a beast … 
he pounds pianos with his feet.
All brothers are different. But what if your brother was really different? What if your brother was a beast?

You can find My Brother is a Beast in all good bookshops, or online. IF HE DOESN'T FIND YOU FIRST.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Art of Fight Writing

Statue of Bruce Lee, HK. Photo: Sherpas 428
I like fighting.

As a sport, an existential discipline, and an entertainment, the combat arts thrill me. I've spoken previously about the intellectual value of martial arts and written about allure of cage fighting. I'm also the editor, with Graham Priest, of two volumes of essays: Philosophy and the Martial Arts: Engagement and Martial Arts and Philosophy: Beating and Nothingness.

I believe superhero comics are kinds of 'articulate violence', and my first children's picture book was about ninjas. 

Look, I was even in a Jackie Chan film.

But what about the craft of portraying fighting in literature? It's one thing to deliver a ridge-hand to someone's snoot, quite another to make it exciting on the page. How can we translate combat into words?

I asked author and martial artist Alan Baxter for his thoughts on writing fight scenes. 

***

The Art of Fight Writing

A lot of books and stories feature fighting. Conflict is, after all, an essential part of a good story, so it’s natural the conflict will occasionally take the form of flying fists. If you write genre fiction like I do, punch-ups tend to happen a lot. But a bad fight scene can really bring a book down. So that prompts the question – how do you write a good one?

I’m a speculative fiction writer and a martial arts instructor, so hopefully I have good insight on this subject. As more of my work was published, I began to develop a reputation for writing good fight scenes. I eventually wrote the Alex Caine series (currently a trilogy of supernatural thriller novels) with a career martial artist as the main character so I was able to draw on all that knowledge of fighting I have (an example from the first book is dissected below). While I would never presume to tell anyone how to write, I can hopefully share some information you can use. I call it The Art of Fight Writing.

A poorly-written fight scene can really pull me out of a story. Even for the uninitiated, a badly-written fight in an otherwise well-written book can be very distracting. It’s not the author’s fault – as writers we’re always told to “write what you know”. I’m rare among writers in that I know fighting. Most writers, thankfully, have no experience of it. The trouble is, that shows in their fiction. The majority of people draw on the only experience they do have, which is garnered from watching TV and movies, and they perpetuate that, essentially transcribing that kind of choreographed action. But the fighting you see in movies is designed for that medium – there’s a turn by turn nature so people can see what’s happening, and very little attention is paid to the nitty gritty of inside fighting, and the all-important emotional content of a scrap. With writing we have the advantage of being able to write from inside our character’s heads. We can describe emotions, fears, the tiny details that don’t show up on film. In other words, we can write a realistic fight.

In the same way that a badly-written fight scene might distract a reader, even if they don’t know why it’s bad, a well-written fight scene can have the opposite effect. A reader may know nothing about fighting, but when an author writes with knowledge, it gives the scene a certain authenticity on which the reader picks up.

My top tip, from a writing perspective? Try to keep fight scenes short, because real fights are short. Don’t labour away at it trying to get too much detail down. Fights are fast and furious things and should be written that way.

The truth is, a real fight is a lot more exciting and visceral an experience than a movie fight. When you get that vibe into your fiction, readers will respond to it and you’ll draw them more deeply into your story, and that’s what you want. Too often a poorly-written fight scene can slow a story down and drag it out when it should be at its most frenetic. The last thing you want is slow, unconvincing action in your action scenes. 

By far the best way to get that from mind to page to reader is, of course, to experience fighting. And ideally, you’d experience fighting in the controlled confines of a martial arts gym or boxing ring. I know I’m biased, but I honestly can’t recommend martial arts classes enough. Apart from the obvious benefits of learning the martial art, you also get fit, strong, flexible, make friends, and so much more. It’s a lifestyle change for the better.

But even if you don’t do that, you can still act out what you’re writing to test its validity. I have no idea how many times I’ve been crashing around in my study acting out two parts of a fight scene to see if it all gels together properly. Try it next time you write a fight scene – pause, get off your chair, and walk through a few of the things you’ve written. Imagine yourself an expert and question how realistic it is.

Another consideration is that when a person is fighting, they’re in their most base, natural state. There’s no room for veneers and swagger – it’s all real and right there. Putting your characters in that situation offers excellent opportunities for character development. Trainers will tell you that you’ll learn a lot about yourself in a fight. It’s true. So readers can learn a lot about your characters that way too. Are they quiet and introverted, but fight like a furious Tasmanian Devil? Are they all bluster, but crumple to weak knees and blubbering when physically threatened? There are numerous possibilities. Fighting is a way to explore these deeper aspects of a character’s psyche. So make sure when you write that your characters don’t all blur into one under duress and only show their character at other times. Their true selves should be more clearly on show in a fight than at any other time.

I’ve written a longer work on this subject, called Write The Fight Right, which is available as an ebook, so look that up if you want more detail. But for a quick example, let's turn to Bound: Alex Caine Book 1, which opens with a scrap. 


Read the scene first time without reading the bits in italics. Then go back to see how I’ve broken it down. This is the first ~500 words:
A distant roar rose and fell, rose again. Dark grey concrete underfoot, bloodstained, hard. Alex circled to the left. He peripherally registered each panel of chain-link, each steel upright, never taking his eyes from the figure in front of him. The man known as Bull Finley.
Below a heavy brow Bull stared back, cautious. But not scared. He exuded feral, predatory strength, a calm resolve. His hands, raised before his face, were calloused and rough, like Alex’s. [Here we set up both characters in broad strokes.] Bull’s energy pulsed. Alex watched the man’s shades, the aura of his intentions, shifting around him, saw purpose swell, muscles bunch. [Here I establish a hint of the supernatural in Alex’s ability.] One of Bull’s meaty hands swept within an inch of Alex’s nose, breath grunting out between clenched teeth, forward momentum carrying him through. Alex let him go by, twisted, gathered and whipped out a leg in a turning kick to the ribs. [Short, sharp action, no extraneous description. Let the reader fill in the blanks.]
Bull’s exhalation finished its escape in a rush, his face registering shock more than pain. [Emotion, not just physicality.] Alex pressed the advantage, following in, hands a blur of strikes and counterstrikes. Bull blocked well, but not well enough, his upper lip and nose flowered scarlet. [Again, not slowing down with flowery descriptions or technical terms. Just action.]
His intent changed, a slight desperation entering his mind. Alex saw the shades move, felt the man’s desire to grapple, take the fight down to the hard stone floor. He disengaged, slipped out of reach even as his opponent made the conscious decision to grab. That surprised expression again. Confidence to surprise, surprise to concern, concern to fear, fear to defeat. A journey Alex had seen play out time and again. His opponent’s eyes widened slightly, the corners of his mouth twitching downwards. Surprise to concern. Alex smiled inside. So it begins. [This paragraph enhances the hint of Alex’s extra abilities and also reveals his style of fighting, his emotional strategy.]
For several seconds they circled, the roar rising, falling, rising, falling. Bull’s bulky frame heaved with his breath. Alex, leaner, more athletic, waited. He was calm. Bull looked for an opening, a gap that wasn’t there. Alex feinted in and out, his opponent flinching, lips tight. Concern to fear. [The pace of the fight rising and falling in concert with the nebulous crowd to give shape and environment to the fight.]
The tension grew. Alex drew his breath in deep, sank his energy low, gathered himself. A deliberate drawing away, taunting his opponent to follow him in, to attack. Fear brought with it a lack of focus, lack of patience, a desperate desire to take back control. That desire pulsed off Bull like a wave. [Here we explore the nature of a psychological advantage in a fight and Alex exploiting that.] Alex moved in and to one side exactly as Bull made his assault. A clumsy move, all physical strength, no breath, no finesse. The man closed the gap to where Alex had been, launching fast punches. Alex exhaled, struck back across Bull’s arms, drove a knee up hard and sharp. The big man’s nose and ribs cracked almost simultaneously, pain escaping in red and black waves. As his opponent stumbled, Alex whipped in one last punch and a kick to finish him. [Again, let the reader fill in the gaps. Only give enough information for direction, not excruciating detail.] Broken and unconscious, Bull collapsed against the chain-link fencing as though his skeleton had been removed.
Alex turned away as the dull roar boomed into his ears. He honoured his opponent by not relishing the defeat as he let the rest of the world back in. The stench of steel and concrete, blood, sweat and popcorn. The glare of overhead halogens, the stamping of hundreds of feet on wooden stands, hundreds of throats screaming approval, baying for blood. A loud, brash voice burst over loudspeakers and Alex walked past the man with the microphone, as he always did. [And here we establish more of Alex’s credo as a fighter, more of his character, and move on into the greater story.]
Now go back and read the scene again pausing to read the notes in italics. Hopefully it gives some shape to all this.

From a technical perspective, consider this example of tight writing versus loose writing. Fights and action should always be tight.
The verbose fighter:
Bob clenched his fist tight and threw a long cross to Bill’s chin. Bill dodged backwards, using a sweeping forearm block to intercept the punch. As he moved he lifted his knee and drove a sidekick towards Bob’s ribs. Bob leapt backwards into an orthodox boxer’s stance, his left hand checking the kick down harmlessly to the ground. 
The succinct fighter:
Bob threw a heavy punch. Bill dodged back, blocking, tried to thrust out a kick. Bob danced back, slapping the kick aside.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either paragraph above. But the first one uses a lot of description, setting up details for the reader to visualise the fight. That fight has hardly started and already it’s close to sixty words, and it’s pretty boring.

The second paragraph says all the same stuff, but like a fight it’s quick, sharp, alive. At around twenty words it’s a third as much to read as the first one. It gives the writer room to keep the pace up, but also to include more emotional content as the fight progresses, more adrenaline, gritty in-fighting, the five senses and descriptions of movement and the environment they’re in – all essential components. 

Imagine each of those examples expanded out to five times the length to cover the whole fight and think about which will give the reader a more visceral and realistic experience of what the characters are going through. Hopefully this combined with the Alex Caine excerpt above gives you plenty of examples to draw from.
Other than those generalities, here’s a checklist of some other things to consider to get you under way:
  • People fighting are never still.
  • There’s nothing rhythmic and ordered about fighting.
  • A good fighter is always aware of their surroundings.
  • When you fight, you can never plan ahead; fighting is constantly responding to chaos.
  • Something unexpected is likely to happen almost immediately.
  • The best block is not being there.
  • A smaller, skilled fighter can dominate a bigger, less skilled opponent, but they are always at a disadvantage.
  • Sight. Touch. Sound. Smell. Taste. Use them all.
  • When a person is about to fight they get what’s called an adrenaline dump. When adrenaline dumps, a person’s fine motor skills go out the window. Their vision narrows, affecting the use of peripheral vision, and their memory is shot. The more experienced the fighter, the better they are at dealing with the adrenaline dump.
  • Getting hit, properly socked in the jaw, is a shocking experience.
  • It’s not unusual for someone who’s had a fight to remember very little or even nothing of it.
  • The more a fighter trains and the more they fight, the better they are at controlling adrenaline and fear and using them to their advantage.
  • All fighters are scared.
  • One clean crack that really rings the bell means it’s usually game over.
Finally, for realism, remember the old martial arts adage:
 “When two tigers fight, one limps away, terribly wounded. The other is dead.”
And if you ever get the chance, ask me about The Knockout Myth. Or read the ebook I mentioned earlier.

***

Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes supernatural thrillers and urban horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He lives among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, dog and cat. He’s the multi-award-winning author of several novels and over seventy short stories and novellas. So far. 

Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – http://www.alanbaxteronline.com/ – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter and Facebook, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Thief of Time


I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine: 'The Thief of Time'.

Something of a companion to my book Distraction, this piece explores procrastination, and what it says about human time and value:
If procrastination is the thief of time, then William James knew this criminal intimately—as a detective, not as an accessory to burglary. The philosopher and psychologist described one dilly-dallier doing everything but his job: stoking the fire, dusting specks, nudging around furniture, skimming pages from the library. He will ‘waste the morning anyhow… simply because the only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noon-day lesson in formal logic which he detests.’ James argued that what marks off the idler from the doer is not force of will, but inventiveness and curiosity. The genius will find ways to make tedium more novel, but the slacker will seek relief in trivia. The result: the first sticks with his labours, the second avoids them. 
This is a noteworthy observation about concentration, but it also illuminates our relationship to time. To procrastinate is not simply to lack verve or potency. It is also to put todays’ pleasure—or, just as often, avoidance of pain—ahead of tomorrow’s. William James’ lecturer who turns up to the hall without notes will fail to teach well, and this will be far worse than the dullness of writing. In this, he knows exactly what to do, and how to do it—but the threat of misery to come is faint and fleeting next to the ennui of his study. To paraphrase Augustine of Hippo: please give me curiosity and industry—but not yet.
The essay features thinkers including William James, David Hume, David Harvey and Martin Heidegger.

You can subscribe to New Philosopher here, or grab a copy from good bookshops and newsagents.

(Photo: Vic)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016 and beyond


In 2016, I added a handful of new spines to this shelf. (Missing: UK editions of Distraction and Philosophy in the Garden.)

It's still a pleasure to see these variations of script, language, design and colour. More to come in 2017 and 2018 from Australia, UK, Germany, Turkey, China and other territories. Some new nonfiction. Some new fiction.

Better get writing.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Happy eighth birthday Sophia

Sophia at Batman Day, as Harley Quinn
Earlier this month, our little girl turned eight.

The black spikes of her newborn hair are now auburn ringlets. Her toddler pudge is lengthening. But she has the same stare: which looks and looks and only looks away once she is victorious. (In her mind, at least.)
Being fabulous
Sophia crafts like a demon, cosplays with panache, obsesses over fashion (as do I, obviously), and has a sweet tooth the size of a megalodon's. And never. Stops. Talking.

Happy birthday, creature.

The punisher and the Punisher, Ubud, Bali

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Batman: between camp and nihilism

Batman: a hero with spine
I've an essay in the new Meanjin magazine, 'Get Your Kicks in Batman '66'. I'm discussing the transition from camp 'sixties Batman to the nihilistic Dark Knight of the recent DC films. A sample:
I watch a dull grey sea. Below, a submarine commanded by thugs. Above, two officers of the law, stranded on a buoy. Without weapons, without armour, they are helpless. Torpedoes rush at them, detonating safely only at the last second. A third is launched, and the victims try to save themselves. But, no. Teeth clenched, the elder tells his partner that they are out of time. The consequences are obvious: this deputy and his ward will die. An explosion rocks the waves, and the criminals gloat over the ‘watery remains’. Sure enough, the two men are gone. 
Am I emptied out by grief? Or flushed with righteous anger? Or at least pausing at this loss? 
No. This is 1966’s Batman: The Movie. Everything is safe—except plausibility. 
Cut to the Batboat speeding away, Batman and Robin safe after all. ‘Gosh, Batman,’ the Boy Wonder says. ‘The nobility of the almost-human porpoise.’ A brief pause, and then: ‘True, Robin. It was noble of that animal to hurl himself into the path of that final torpedo. He gave his life for ours.’ 
Fifty years since Batman: The Movie was released, it has lost none of its absurdity. To begin, its world is populated with overtly silly things. Batman fights off a (rubber) shark with his fists, then with shark repellant. This spray is stocked with whale repellant in the ‘Oceanic Repellant Bat Sprays’ shelf. The Batcave is full of these labels, including ‘drinking water dispenser’, a sign that seems superfluous, but is actually an occupational health and safety failure: the tap also pours atomic heavy water. To enter this hideout, Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson jump down poles (Bruce’s is thicker) from the drawing room, pulling a lever that changes them into their costumes automatically. Batman’s outfit has white eyebrows drawn onto the cowl. The production is also dodgy. During a climactic fight scene, featuring choreography so bad it looks like the actors are cut and pasted from various films, we can see folds in the sky’s painted fabric. The film’s dialogue moves from pantomime melodrama to pure nonsense. Rhapsodising the hopefulness of eggs; criticising the sale of a surplus war submarine to a supervillain; defending the dignity of dockside alcoholics (‘They may be drinkers, Robin, but they're also human beings.’)—all spoken in a breathy deadpan. 
It is easy to trivialize this Batman as the work of innocence: childish fun for children and other naïfs. The words ‘simpler time’ are used regularly to suggest these earlier decades enjoyed a less fraught existence. This is false in general: there was no age without anxiety, cruelty—or irony. And it is false in particular. Not long before Batman: The Movie was playing Soviet détente gags in cinemas, Mao Zedong began the Cultural Revolution in communist China, and the United States was prosecuting Viet Cong sympathisers. 1966 saw massacres, mass shootings, coups, murder, torture, starvation—and so on. The point is straightforward enough: however surreal these stories seem, they arise from conflicted and compromised reality.  We cannot infer arcadia from a satyr play.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Away with the white dudes

No white dudes, presided over by the white dudes
Since May 2016, I've been avoiding myself. Well, not quite: I've been avoiding white dudes in my leisure reading. 

Why? What did I read? And how was it? Here's my feature in this weekend's Sydney Morning Herald: 'Away with the white dudes'.  A sample:
Europe seemed to exemplify civilisation in my childhood household. Most authors in my bed's drawers were from east of the Atlantic: Arthur Conan Doyle, A. A. Milne, Enid Blyton, Roger Hargreaves, Goscinny & Uderzo. My Little Golden Books were edited in blue Biro to change American spelling to English ("checkers" to "draughts", and so on). The atmosphere was of violent but jolly adventures, undertaken by flawed but fun white folks. 
At the Sydney Writers Festival earlier this year, I was interviewed about my book The Art of Reading by author Jane Gleeson-White, who remarked on the Englishness of my tastes. Afterwards, a number of interviewers, readers and listeners suggested a similar palate: from Borges and Heidegger in the first chapter, to Woolf and Joyce in the last, my references rarely strayed from western Europe. 
I was omnivorous with genres in The Art of Reading: philosophy, sociology, poetry, science fiction, westerns, superhero comics. But my featured authors, I realised, were chiefly European or American men. I resolved to read differently for leisure: for six months at least, no white dudes. 
The point was not punitive, as if I was taking revenge against Aristotle, Ernest Hemingway or Frank Miller for indulgent machismo. Aside from making a tiny investment in a more egalitarian publishing industry, the point was not instrumental at all. Instead, it was an experiment without a hypothesis: resisting my usual appetites, and seeing what I discovered. I took recommendations in festival green rooms, nudged friends for their favourites, received gifts. Sometimes just took a punt in a bookshop. What I offer here is an all-too-brief, partial report of the adventure so far.
(There's a slight error in the feature: someone has put quote marks around my words, suggesting they're Anna Spargo-Ryan's -- hopefully they'll fix this on the online version.)

My #nowhitedudes caper is continuing. I've just finished Eka Kurniawan's Beauty is a Wound (we were on a panel together here), and now I'm reading Julie Koh's Portable Curiosities.

I've also been reading comics in the same way, but I didn't have words to spare in my feature. I hope do write up a quick sketch in the new year.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Trip of Two Cities: 2016

Australische filosoof and schrijver onstage at "Storytellers" in Amsterdam 
This month the Dutch translation of The Art of Reading came out: De Goede Lezer, or The Good Reader.

I flew to Amsterdam as a guest of my publishers Ten Have, and the magazine Filosofie. The flight, which stopped in Abu Dhabi, was nothing to report on: long, desiccating, dull. (I did watch the new Bourne film, which was not desiccating.)

Hello, I am in Abu Dhabi and this is my new hat
My first official destination was London, after a blink-and-you-miss-it Easyjet over the waters. I stayed in a little hotel in Bloomsbury, the Harlingford. Breakfast was exactly what I needed after the flight.
All the major food groups: protein, oil and chitin
I had time to say a very quick hello to the lovely Signe Johansen, and buy myself a new Scottish lambswool beanie.
Jetlagged with a toasty skull (actual new hat)
I met my UK publishers Scribe for lunch and dinner, caught up with Anita Sethi, and chatted to independent booksellers about the UK edition of The Good Reader. I also... cough... bought more books. Thanks to the London Review Bookshop, Daunt Books, Foyles and Belgravia Books for this haul of goodies. (Except for Winter, which was a gift from its excellent editor, Melissa Harrison.)

Well-travelled codexes -- mostly #nowhitedudes reads
Then back to the Netherlands for press interviews, lunch and dinner with publishers past and present, and a few gigs. I stayed at the Ambassade Hotel, a luxurious literary spot by the Herengracht. Breakfast was fantastic, and another highlight was the library, filled with books from author guests (including yours truly).

Where books come to stay: the Ambassade's library
Signing De Goede Lezer in my well-appointed dungeon
Writing by the Herengracht
Meanwhile, the Amsterdam Light Festival was on, which made for some kitsch but still delightful vistas.

Figure in a landscape
Just the landscape
My first event was an "Art of Reading" class for Amsterdam's School of Life. I delivered two short lectures, we read some Henry James and Borges, then chatted about patience and curiosity.

Good readers by the Herengracht (canal)

I took some time to visit the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk: a modern art and design gallery. The Stedelijk was outstanding: a beautiful, open building with some of the greats of fin de siecle, twentieth century and contemporary art.

Martial Raysse, "High Voltage Painting" (1965)
Barnett Newman, "Cathedra" (1951)
Leo Gestel, "Reclining Nude" (1913)
Henry Matisse, "Odalisque" (1920-1)
Jean Tinguely, untitled
The next day I was at Filosofie magazine's Storytellers festival. Held in the panoramic Tollhuistuin, I gave a very casual talk about The Good Reader, chatting about my reasons for writing the book, and its main ideas.
"And so, I wanted to write about the audience, not the man onstage..." he said, onstage
My final event on Sunday was a writing masterclass, "Narratives in Nonfiction". I discussed the important role of narrative in human consciousness and society, suggested a common structure of nonfiction works, then explained how various kinds of stories fit into this structure.

Dutch prose? Can't help you. General principles of structure? I'm on it.
Then I was done, and left the Tollhuis straight for Centraal Station and Schiphol airport. Then all that was left was the long trip home, through Singapore. I described the muzak in Changi airport as "a faux-cheery hypodermic needle made of jazz, slowly draining my élan vital."

And with that, after some thirty festival events and lectures, my 2016 events calendar is officially finished. I don't have to get on a plane again until February.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Think West and Word For Word festivals 2016

A vanity of Damons: a display at VU Footscray's TSOL pop-up
A couple of western adventures...

Last weekend I tripped off to Footscray to run an "Art of Reading" workshop at Newport Community Hub, part of the new Think West Festival.

I gave a couple of lectures on reading and its virtues, then we examined two texts -- from Henry James and Jorge Luis Borges -- in light of these. Some excellent conversation about varieties of patience and curiosity. For example, some believed Borges was genuinely curious, others curious but narrow (he rarely read women), and others still who believed narrow curiosity was not curiosity at all.
"And you get a virtue, and you get a virtue, virtues for everyone..."
Then off to Victoria University Footscray, where I first indulged in a glorious kebab, dip (cacik and chilli), pide and salad.

How the west was won: noshing like a champion
Fuelled by grilled meat and very black coffee, I then read My Sister is a Superhero.

The expanding family: Pop, Sister, Nanna, at The School of Life, VU Footscray
Today I took an early train to Geelong for the Word For Word nonfiction festival, in Geelong's striking domed Library and Heritage Centre.

Geelong Library's Sue Noonan hosted a conversation about The Art of Reading with me and Shirley Bateman, from the Melbourne City Library Service. It was a great, wide-ranging chat, which touched on ideas from my book, but also reflected more generally about reading in a "post-fact" era, the conceit of popular political discourse, and more. It was fascinating to hear about Shirley's curation of the new Melbourne libraries, including Docklands.

Three bibiliophiles and a microphone stand: SB, DY, SN
Thanks very much to the Think West and Word For Word teams for their enthusiasm and administrative yakka.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2016

Not exactly a cubicle: writing in the Desa Visesa restaurant
This morning we -- my sallow, heavy-lidded family of nostoi -- arrived home from Bali, Indonesia. For a week, I was a guest of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF).

We landed in Denpasar last Tuesday, both Nikos and Sophia overwhelmed by the humidity. They're used to Melbourne's 40ºC spells, but 30ºC and humid is another universe of sweat altogether.

Bali is hot, and we inhabited an odd region of gratitude (Melbourne was 8ºC when we arrived today) and exhaustion (now I understand Pokari Sweat).

After an hour and a bit in the car, we arrived at our hotel: Desa Visesa, the Royal Tulip. I say 'hotel', but it is a resort. An enormous world within a world, with its own permaculture farm, fish ponds, rice paddies, cows and more. And this is before you get to the villa, with its private infinity pool, gorgeous Balinese carvings, huge four-poster beds, outdoor bath and shower, and population of custodial geckos on the walls and ceilings.
Pool fountains, Desa Visesa villa
Sunset, Ubud
A welcoming table, Desa Visesa
Later that day, my first official function was drinks at the stunning Amandari--I rocked up to this gorgeous, architecturally designed hotel in my best formal wear: cargo pants (fresh off the plane) and a Transformers t-shirt.

Epic envelopment: the Amandari pool and valley
On Wednesday, while the kids played with Balinese puzzles and flew kites, Ruth and I had lunch with Annabel Smith, author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. Annabel generously introduced us to a few words of Balinese, and we chatted about writing, parenting and other rewarding trials. Marvellous to finally catch up in the flesh.

Later was the festival's gala opening, which featured snacks from local hotels and restaurants: from raw chocolate fudge, to perfectly crisp spring rolls, to a smoked salmon cone that tasted like happiness. (If you don't believe me, ask Anita Heiss.) After some speeches, the opening hosted a new performance by a Balinese playwright: a dance and musical show celebrating the traditional Balinese village, marked by intricate syncopation of claps and shouts, and some powerful singing. (The lead female soloist was incredible.)

Opening night gala performance
Then we had a delicious dinner at Casa Luna, where I enjoyed a chat with journalist and novelist Suki Kim, author of, most recently, Without You, There Is No Us (we first met in Brisbane -- yes, that Brisbane).

On Thursday my gigs began. First was "The Art of Reading", which saw me discussing my latest nonfiction book with Jeni Caffin (former director of Byron Writers Festival, former international program director of UWRF).

The Art of Reading, Indus restaurant.
Photo: Greg Saunders
The Art of Reading conversation, Indus restaurant: JC, DY
Jeni steered the conversation well, drawing me out as a reader and parent of readers, and reflecting on her own literary idiosyncrasies. One of the audience questions was about translation, and how I feel when my words appear on the page in another language. My experience so far is that this adds to the existing alienation of writing (that a finished book no longer feels like it's yours), and congenial powerlessness. All authors take a risk, and must give up some sovereignty--but translation makes this more intense.

Then I was on a panel entitled "Origin Stories", with Indonesian authors Eka Kurniawan and Sidik Nugroho. Our deft host Kirsti Melville nudged us to revisit our childhood literature, with one obvious cross-cultural theme: teenage sex and violence. But we also discussed Enid Blyton novels and Asterix comics (both very popular in Indonesia, it seems), and the importance of supernatural stories. One man asked, in Bahasa Indonesia (so I can only go by the translation), one of my very favourite audience questions. It began with a short lecture on the tropes of Javanese horror, and ended with a direct query: did Sidik plan to depart from these genre cliches? I plan to read Eka's Beauty is a Wound soon, as part of my ongoing #nowhitedudes reading adventure. Eka also recommended Pramoedya Ananta Toer's quartet.

Translator, SN, EK, DY, KM
Don't believe the hype
After a short video interview, I tripped back to Desa Visesa for another UWRF dinner -- this time with just Ruth and I together on a table, chatting like we were on a date. A date with frogs and swallows and bats.

Saturday was Nikos' eleventh birthday, and we began the day with a surprise song and cake from the hotel restaurant. Then Nikos continued with his usual holiday breakfast: bacon, sausages, hash browns, eggs, two doughnuts and a chocolate brownie, washed down with fruit juices.

Birthday breakfast
Birthday cake
Birthday boy
Then I strolled off to my next event: a workshop with high school students from Cikal Amri, Jakarta. The theme was superheroes -- because of my latest children's book -- but the class itself was about poetry composition and illustration. This was an enthusiastic and articulate group of students, among whom were some talented writers and artists. I expect a few will feature in the UWRF in years to come.
That subtle superpower, prosody: teaching the Cikal Amri students
My final event was a 'jalan jalan', or walk. A group of about forty festival attendees strolled with authors around the alleys and backstreets of Ubud (itself a fascinating trail) to Moksa. This plant-based restaurant has its own permaculture garden, complete with huge rainwater tanks and water recycling systems, compost, worm farm. There was elephant dung (this is not a metaphor). While we snacked on Moksa's treats, we authors read briefly from our books. There were passages from Charlotte Wood, Lionel Shriver, Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, Paul Hardisty, Susana Moriera Marques, and me.
Mad, bad, plaid: on the walk
Philosophy in the Garden, in the garden: Moksa restaurant
More Moksa (more audience)
My favourite reading was from Susana, whose Now and At the Hour of Our Death looks haunting and beautiful. No copies were available in Bali, but I will find a copy soon.

The next day, Ruth dropped in on two sessions: 'The Look of the Book' and Hannah Kent's 'The Good People'. Meanwhile, I took Nikos and Sophia to the Monkey Forest. It is aptly named, and a primal scene of appetites: food, violence and the other thing.

Born from a drinking fountain on a mountain top: Monkey Forest dweller
Irrepressible
Hairless monkeys
I've not described the swimming -- sublime, of course -- or eating, but both were enjoyed in abundance. Bali has brilliant local food (from the island itself and the whole Indonesian archipelago), as well as fine quality meals from around the world -- Nikos gorged on penne bolognese. The coffee was fantastic: earthy, nutty, and without the antsy twitch of many Melbourne brews.

Boy and infinity
Nasi campur in full effect
Coffee, ink and other forms of liquid happiness
There is also that Bali hallmark: shopping. I spread the sambal of consumption very thinly, stopping only to buy Ruth a silk scarf. But Sophia revelled in the crafts, picking herself up a lovely wristband and dress, amongst other things.

The Punisher and her father
This was a luxurious trip, rich in literature, conversation, food and drink. Congratulations to UWRF director Janet DeNeefe and other festival staff, with special thanks to Donica Bettanin, Petra Kamula, Imroatun Nafi'ah and Fian Rakhmania Arrafiana. Thanks also to the festival volunteers, who went above and beyond to help. I'm also grateful to Desa Visesa management and staff for their hospitality: we all felt very welcome.