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International research: It’s enough to give you a nosebleed

November 21, 2012

By Pepi Ronalds

When I was in Japan earlier this year I tried to interview a local friend of mine. I’d hoped to capture her story on audio for later use in some kind of podcast or radio documentary. She’d already spoken about her experience in English (her second language) with great depth and lucidity. When I asked her if I could record an interview she was pleased. And then she said, ‘Would it be OK if you gave me the questions first, so that I can write the answers and read them to you?’

She wasn’t prepared to go on the record without perfect English, yet  I wasn’t interested in a perfect answer. It was an awkward situation both practically and culturally.

It’s not all blue skies in international research. Thanks totswartz for use of this image, Airplane Wing, under Creative Commons.

As I pursued that ill-fated international story I frequently found myself in quagmires of cultural difference. I came to the conclusion that I’d best improve my processes before I visit the country again.

At NonfictioNow this Saturday, four writers (Benjamin Law, Desmond Barry, Mieke Eerkens and Stephanie Elizondo Griest with David Carlin) will front a session, International Research and the Nonfiction Writer. They’ll provide us with practical information and encouragement on writing and researching in lands far away.

Australian writer, Benjamin Law (The Family Law,Gaysia) is fast becoming an expert on researching and writing overseas. For his most recent book, Gaysia he traveled to seven different countries over 18 months, ‘I got used to writing the book in windowless hostel rooms in Malaysia, overnight train compartments in India and airports,’ he says.

Traveling in itself can be food for frustration. Add to that the desire to research a story and you need to develop a high level of flexibility. Language and cultural barriers can take you to the wrong place. Like the train Law accidentally took in India, ‘Think: kids in the luggage compartment, peanut shells all over the floor, human shit on the toilet walls (no joke) and such a density of people that grown men insisted on sitting on my lap.’

But frustration and inspiration often come hand-in-hand. ‘That sort of stuff was hilarious too, and I can remember laughing like a madman throughout it all, thinking it’d make for great material,’ says Law. (Indeed, in writing this post, I’ve just rehashed my own frustration in my first paragraph).

Those of us who are interested in international stories are also interested in being overseas. ‘Going to a country I’ve never been to before makes me feel 10-years-old over again. Everything is interesting and new and stimulating, and the people you meet are constantly surprising. It’s enough to give you a nosebleed,’ Law says.

In a bid to ensure he understands the fundamentals before leaving home, Law reads up a lot. He organises a quota interviews including one close to his arrival, ‘with someone who could give me the lay of the land… [and] more stories and leads to follow,’ he says. When he knows he’s traveling a lot he buys a year of travel insurance.

Like me, Law has been frustrated by language. ‘Good interpreters and translators are expensive, and sometimes the subject matter calls for people who are sensitive to what you’re writing about,’ he says. And then there’s budget. Even with an advance on his book Law, ‘also dug deep into my savings. By the time I’d filed the final edit, I was the poorest I’d ever been.’

Writing and researching overseas ‘is sort of humbling too… it was a good reminder that writers are supremely lucky… All I needed was my laptop, my notepad, pens, backpack, good plumbing and a lockable room every night,’ says Law.

This session could be a corker for anyone planning or writing stories away from home. (Speaking with Law has alone buoyed my plans for another Japanese story).

Researching internationally isn’t easy. But Law insists we must not be discouraged. A good story is a good story, no matter where it is. ‘I’ve got two ideas for follow-up books… that are driving me insane every time I think of the logistics, but screw it – they have to be written!’

Benjamin Law will be presenting in the session International Research and the Nonfiction Writer with Desmond Barry, Mieke Eerkens and Stephanie Elizondo Griest and David Carlin on Saturday 24 November at 10.00am.

Follow @futurelongform on Twitter (or its writer, Pepi Ronalds on Facebook) for more stories about writing and publishing long form non-fiction.

Visit the NonfictioNow website for more detail.


A Family Place

November 20, 2012

By Alice Robinson


At Casuarina with friends. I am at far left.
Photo by Steph Tout:

Since 2008 I have been intensively thinking and writing about land, home and family. I set out to write a novel and exegesis about the disastrous impacts of climate change on Australia. I ended up writing, in part, about my own relationships to Australian lands as they have been shaped by contact with Casuarina, my father’s property.

Casuarina is in Wallan, north of Melbourne. My father first moved there with his family as a boy in 1956. The farm was subdivided in the 1970s and my father developed ten acres for himself. I grew up on that land with him, as well as in inner city Melbourne with my American mother. Although my father is quick to point out that two or three generations of contact is very little in the context of Indigenous connection to country, and even far less than many rural settler families can claim in other parts of Australia, it is a connection of a longevity more enduring than any other about which I personally know. While I thought I could shrug off that connection and move on to more exciting shores, in practice, I could not. Far from “getting away”, my attempt to move to England precipitated four years of Australian-centric writing, and research.

What I take from this experience is that you can sit down to write about any topic you desire, but the story you eventually tell will the one inside you, acknowledged or not as it may be. (Likewise, perhaps you can set out to live any life you like, but the one you will make for yourself is the one you inherit?) As I was crafting the PhD – and particularly as I laboured over the novel, finding myself time and again lost in characters and plot, unsure of what I was doing – I brought myself back to task with a simple directive: this is a story about how the past comes into the present and shapes the future. For me, the pastis (ever)present. In the novel, I wanted to explore the ways in which we are free (or not) to disregard our pasts and move in unprecedented ways through the world. I wanted to explore the connections to place that make us who we are, asking who we become when such ties are severed – and when they are upheld. If home is where the heart is, if home grounds us and ascribes us some kind of identity, what happens when that home is destroyed, or irrevocably altered? At what cost do we maintain connections to home places, sometimes despite the odds? How much of ourselves and our lives should we subjugate to the task of maintaining historical, familial places? Do we even have a choice in the matter?

The future of Casuarina has been an undercurrent in my life since I was old enough to understand its history, and appreciate the deep meaning it holds in, and for, my father’s life and my own. As a teenager and young adult, though I always loved that piece of land and felt connected to it, I found the weight of my potential responsibility suffocating, in that my future then appeared ready-charted, not by my own agency and decisions, but by circumstances determined by someone else, someplace else. When I imagined my life as it might unfold if I took up the work my father had begun, I was forced to acknowledge that I would most likely never grow old in Paris, or New York, or even Melbourne, but would have a particular kind of life, one that was not surprising and exotic, but largely familiar. In accepting the responsibility of custodianship, I would retain and preserve my history, but forfeit any number of potential futures…

It should perhaps come as no surprise, considering the headspace I have been inhabiting for the last years (you could say a lifetime, more accurately) that Leila Philip’s 2001 work A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family sparked my interest. Yet in reading this remarkable narrative, I was indeed surprised, overcome even, to find that a writer on the other side of the globe had been considering, in their own way, the very issues I had for so long been grappling with. Of course, I know full well (after reading around the topic for so long) that Philips and myself are not the only writers to have dwelled on issues of home and land and inheritance and history. But somehow when you are working on something so intensely and for so long, the concerns of the work become very personal. At least, that was my experience. The issues and ideas start to feel unique to an isolating degree. It is, therefore, deeply touching and even invigorating to discover a narrative that, in some way, mirrors ones own work and experience. Philip’s book is wholly different to my work in form and content, but the questions she poses about property and history resonated strongly, delightfully. That being said, I have no doubt that regardless of a reader’s particular interests, A Family Place would intrigue and satisfy. Philip’s story – which is really the story of her family’s estate Talavera – is extraordinary.
Belonging to her family for at least three-hundred years, Philip’s connection to Talavera makes my connection to Casuarina appear ridiculously fleeting, brief. That Philip’s family have been shaping their family place for half a century longer than Europeans have been in Australia brings another kind of disconcerting perspective to the longevity of their ownership. It is difficult to conceive the scope of such inter-generational inhabitation on one piece of land. Considering the at least 40,000 year relationship Indigenous peoples have held with Australian lands is even more mind boggling. I don’t know a great deal about American Indigenous peoples’ relationships with their country prior to European settlement, but I imagine that it is comparably long. Talking about land “ownership” and connections to land (or country, as Australian Indigenous peoples call it) is complex and fraught in settler nations like Australia and, I wager, in America. I was therefore gratified to find that Philip makes mention of the previous custodians of the land that becomes Talavera in the opening pages of her book:

My family has owned this land since 1732, but that is only European time. For generations before the arrival of Henry Hudson and then my own family, Mohican Indians lived here, hunting and fishing along Claverack Creek and farming in a small way. That is, until 1649, when the Mohican chief Keesieway began to exchange his lands…for the pathetic payment of ten fathoms of cloth, ten kettles, ten axes, ten adzes, ten swords, ten necklaces of strung beads, ten knives and one firelock gun.

That the land known for so long as Talavera once belonged to the Mohicans – and was taken from them unjustly – is just one of the troubling historical undercurrents that Philip grapples with as she goes about uncovering and setting down her family’s story. Slavery too, unfortunately and necessarily, features in Philip’s family narrative because it features in the history of the place she writes so beautifully about. While Philip makes a heroic effort not to judge with contemporary understandings the actions and lives of her ancestors at Talavera, slavery existed, and the writer cannot help but cringe at the ways in which her family members perceived, in particular, their relationship to Tom, a freed slave who followed John Van Ness – Philip’s great-great uncle – into the civil war. Yet as Philip discovers and articulates so gorgeously, the past is unwieldy and complex. The story that one must tell about it, if it is to be truthful, is the story that exists, not the one we might so fervently wish for.

What did such things tell me about my family other than that the closet reflected the confusion I felt?…I had the impulse not to record these details, but to revise history as I went. Who would ever know? This is the nonfiction writer’s greatest temptation, tinkering with the facts: “If it’s not there, put it in…If it doesn’t seem to fit, take it out.” But I reminded myself that I was not here to make a story. I was here to find the story that waited.

I couldn’t help but think time and again just how lucky Philip was as a writer and researcher, how much easier her task was made by sheer ease of access to so much historical material: farm records, diaries and journals, letters, all lying about and stored in the house at Talavera. Because so many generations of the family had lived in the same house for so long – the house Philip herself grew up in – and because the family threw very little away but lived with the weight of history all around them, all Philip needed to do in order to begin her journey back in time was open a few cupboards. From these initial searches, Philip ends up with ‘twenty-five boxes of papers…a huge cache of letters, diaries, journals and other farm and family papers.’ It is hard to imagine such personal and historical bounty being so readily available. Once again, I am reminded how remarkable it must be to live a life so steeped, and grounded, in lives that have come before. Importantly, as Philip goes about reconstructing the events and lives that have proceeded her at Talavera, she notices that some histories are more whole and readily available than others. Specifically, the men of the family have been memorialised far more pervasively than the the women, many of whom appear to have lead fascinating, rebellious, independent lives in their own right – the lack of detail regarding the specificities of their experiences is therefore a terrible, though perhaps not surprising, loss.

The blank spaces These erasures of personal history that time and my family had wrought on these women’s lives was in such stark contrast with the detailed way the lives of the family’s men had been recorded that I wanted to recover these women, my aunts, my past.

Intertwined with Philip’s historical research is her own story, that of the contemporary farm at Talavera where Philip’s mother still lives, and Philip often goes to stay and work. In this way, the past and the present are braided together across A Family Place, as they are across the lives of all those who have lived there. I found the passages in which Philip describes the landscape of the property to be some of the most compelling and sensitively written sections of the book. It is clear from the way that Philip describes the orchards, the buildings, the light, the lie of the land, that Talavera is not only dear to her, but in her: ‘this place that had always whispered, “This is who you are.”‘ Though Philip discovers that the past is messy, contradictory, sometimes surprising, what is implicit in her journey and the narrative she constructs from it, is that the connections that bind people to home places are strong. So strong in fact, that they endure across many generations. So important, that time and again Philip’s family members will struggle to maintain them, even in the most dire of circumstances.

Leila Philip will be speaking at NonfictioNow at 10:30am on Thursday the 22nd of November, alongside Ross Gibson andDavid Carlin. Their panel is titled Picturing the Essay. Fellow NonfictioNow blogger Pepi Ronalds from The Future of Longform has conducted a wonderful interview with Philip, in which the writer discusses her most recent work and the upcoming panel. Read it here.


My Melbourne: Bookshops, Books and Cafés

November 20, 2012

By Pepi Ronalds

As I sit in my hometown of Melbourne, I know that those I am yet-to-meet at NonfictioNow are busy packing bags and wondering what awaits them here. You’re checking lists and tickets, some of you are on airplanes already, others waiting in gate lounges. I hope you’re looking forward to being here. We’re certainly glad to welcome you.

Given that you’re all writers, and we’re a UNESCO City of Literature, I’ve compiled this guide of bookshops, books and cafés to get you started on discovering our city.

Readings, Carlton by Snipergirl


Within walking distance of the conference venues you will find a few of our city’s favourites:

  • Readings at the State Library : in the foyer of the State Library, Swanston St, Melbourne  – just across the road from RMIT.
  • Embiggen Books : Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne – Opposite the Wheeler Centre.
  • Readings: Carlton : Lygon Street, Carlton – a longer walk but one that will involve a gelato or cannoli as you walk through our Italian district.
  • The Paperback : Bourke St, Melbourne – also a longer walk, but through the city up to our Parliament and what we call the ‘Paris End’ of Melbourne. Also has a great coffee / apple strudel / pasta spot, Pelligrini’s right next door.


For variety, I recommend you pick up one of our local, independently published journals. There are wads of them. These are just a few (descriptions sourced from their websites or that of the Small Press Network):

  • Meanjin : ‘Reflects the breadth of contemporary thinking, be it on literature, other art forms, or the broader issues of the times.’
  • Kill Your Darlings : ‘Fresh, clever writing that combines intellect with intrigue – a blend of fiction and non-fiction, including essays, creative non-fiction, reviews and retrospectives.’
  • The Lifted Brow : ‘Freeform bi-monthly arts, culture, and fiction magazine, from Australia and the world.’
  • Overland : ‘Committed to engaging with important literary, cultural and political issues in contemporary Australia.’
  • Quarterly Essay : ‘Australia’s leading current affairs journal.’
  • The Monthly : ‘A national magazine of politics, society and the arts.’

As far as other books go, no doubt local conference delegates or bookstore staff (probably writers themselves) can help you choose. Here are a few ideas:

  • For nonfiction, grab the just-published Best Australian Essays 2012.
  • If you go to Readings, pick up one (or all) of the ‘Most Underrated Book Awards’ finalists and receive a 20% discount in November.
  • Contemporary local writers include Alice Pung, Marieke Hardy, Anna Funder and Nam Le (Oh if I had the room to include them all – there are so many more in both fiction and nonfiction).
  • If you’re interested in our ‘backlist’ of literature and writers, buy a Text Classic. This imprint publishes ‘books by Australia’s most-loved writers’ including Helen Garner, NonfictioNow conference Keynote Speaker.

Cafés / Bars:

Now you have a book in hand, here are some of my favourite café / bar spots for reading / watching / daydreaming, close to the conference venue:

  • The Moat: A relative newcomer to the café scene. Because it’s close to the Wheeler Centre it’s popular with literary types. Good for food, tea (loose-leaf thank you) and coffee.
  • Rue Bebelons: One of Melbourne’s longstanding laneway bars. On any given evening you might stumble upon writerly types who work at the Wheeler Centre.
  • Pellegrini’s: A Melbourne legend. Practically unchanged for over 60 years. Arguably the best coffee in Melbourne (although the tea comes in bags). Hearty and reasonably priced pasta, brilliant apple strudel. Right next to The Paperback bookstore.
  • Mr Tulk: Attached to the State Library. Only open during the day but a good place to watch the world go by, or take a break between conference events.


Depending on what you’re into and how long you’ll be here there’s plenty more I can tell you. Please contact me if you want some local information or are interested in a free local guide.

If you want any more info re Melbourne please contact Pepi Ronalds.

The Boy Who Loved Apples

November 16, 2012

By Alice Robinson


When Amanda Webster’s memoir The Boy Who Loved Apples: a mother’s battle with her son’s anorexia was published this year, I came across it in a bookshop and read the first couple of chapters standing in the aisle. What caught my attention was Webster’s offering of an unusual perspective on an (unfortunately) common story: the fact that it was her son, not daughter, who had suffered from the disease. As Webster articulates time and time again in the book as she tries to find adequate care and treatment for her son, anorexia is more commonly perceived as a “women’s illness”, even though boys and men do suffer from it. In line with this, I’ve read several memoirs written by women about their battles with anorexia, but none by or about men. And certainly none about a sufferer as young as Webster’s son, Riche, who was still only a child when his anorexia manifested. I was intrigued to uncover the ways in which Riche experienced the illness similarly, or not, to those women I had read about. Equally as interesting to me was the fact that it was the perspective of the mother, Webster, and not the anorexic himself, who commanded the narrative. In all, The Boy Who Loved Apples promised quite a different take on starvation, family, mental health and body image than the other narratives of anorexia that I was familiar with.

There is no doubt that Webster has provided a gripping read, the central tension of which revolves around the increasing stress Riche’s illness places on his frail and failing body, on his mother as sole carer, and on the fractured family unit. Desperate to keep Riche out of hospital, Webster moves away from their idyllic home in Mullumbimby in Northern New South Wales. Taking Riche to Brisbane in search of treatment, Webster is forced to leave her two younger, healthier children, host of animals and her elderly parents in the hands of friends and carers. Coming under the strain of distance, her marriage to Kevin (drawn rather unsympathetically as a kind of workaholic man-child) also suffers, as do their finances, stretched by the formidable cost of Riche’s outpatient care. While undoubtedly deeply touching, this is definitely a story deeply situated in the upper middle-class experience. As Webster points out, the courses of action she takes to keep Riche alive and improve his health, costing thousands each week, are only available to the lucky few, Webster among them, for whom money is no object.

Still, there is no doubt that Webster’s dedication to her son, her attempts to save his life, are heroic. Riche’s illness in its combination of obsessive-compulsive behaviour and refusal to eat are ghastly to watch, even vicariously, and Webster’s portrayal of that dark time and its effect on her own mental and physical health are deeply troubling. That she and Kevin make many mistakes in the course of Riche’s recovery, that they are flawed, often cruel to one another, fearful and weak, only makes them appear more human and sympathetic. If at times they appear unlikeable, I accepted their foibles, not the least because Webster is almost self-flaggelatingly honest about her own shortcomings. At the same time, Webster demonstrates pervasively the ways in which darkness can descend on the most ordinary and unsuspecting of families without any solid, identifiable justification. She demonstrates the lengths a mother will go to in order to secure the wellbeing of her child, the great, inexorable scope of maternal love.

The unresolved puzzle in the book – and indeed, in Webster’s experience it seems – is what set Riche’s anorexia in motion. While she spends a great deal of time blaming Kevin and herself and is unflinching in her account of their many parental failings, ultimately no one event or cause can ever be identified. That question, Why did this happen? haunts Webster throughout. It is ultimately unanswerable.

While I certainly found The Boy Who Loved Apples compelling for all the reasons I had hoped it might be, the fact that we never see the illness through Riche’s eyes means that the ins and outs of his experience – and eventual recovery – remain a little distant and perplexing. The internal logic driving his refusal to eat, the way he experiences his obsessive-compulsive routines and failing health, along with any real insight into the many sessions with healthcare professionals he endures, all remain at arms length to the reader. We can only know what Webster knows, after all, and I’m not convinced that hers is the most interesting or illuminating perspective in the story.

This is a mother’s story though, not a sufferer’s, and in this context it is beautifully told. It is a story of redemption, not only of Riche from the depths of his illness, but of his mother, who works so admirably hard to bring him back from the brink.

Amanda Webster will be appearing at this year’s NonfictioNow conference, presenting on a panel titled Memoir, the Self and the Face-blanket on Friday 23rd of November alongside Patrick Madden and Ira Sukrungruang.

Demystifying Helen Garner: Part Two

November 16, 2012

By Alice Robinson

When it comes to arguing about the similarities, differences, cross-overs and relationships between fiction and non-fiction writing, there really isn’t a better poster girl for the debate than Helen Garner. Almost every interview about, or review of, her writing worries at whether the book in question – be it Monkey Grip, The Spare RoomJoe Cinque’s Consolation or any of her other troubling, category-resistant works – is really rooted fiction, or fact.

There exists a deep and seemingly inexhaustable readerly interest in the factuality of particular texts. Readers seem to desire some kind of assurance regarding the precise impact of the writer on the way they have represented real people, ideas and events in their work. Readers want to know exactly which parts of a work are true (a fraught notion in of itself), and with which the writer has taken “liberties”. The desire to pin down the boundaries between what is true and what has been embellished or made up is particularly strong if a work is marketed as memoir, in which case there is an expectation that adherence to some kind of “reality” has been observed. Some writers – like Robin Hemley, and in quite a different way, Dave Eggers – address the uncertainty around representing a definitive, universal reality or truth head on in the way they construct their texts. But it seems to me that most writers who set out to write about life struggle to articulate exactly how they have impacted the construction of the events they have set down. Some magical alchemy occurs in the writing process. Reality, memory and language collide, terraforming new versions of the past. It can be a difficult task to articulate exactly in what way those new versions are, or are not, aligned with the lived experience (and whose lived experience, exactly?)

When it comes to fiction writing, all the same readerly anxieties apply, only in reverse. If a work is marketed as fiction then the reader can safely assume that the narrative and characters are the work of the writer’s imagination…or can they? If there is any hint whatsoever that the writer has drawn upon their own life to construct their novel or story, then readers go berserk for uncovering which parts of the seemingly fictional text are “true”, and to what extent. As a case in point, I think it is fair to say that readers and reviewers found Garner’s novel The Spare Room particularly troubling, particularly since the protagonist, though not necessarily Garner herself, was named Helen. To complicate matters further, Garner was open about the fact that she had drawn upon her experience with a sick friend in order to write the “novel”. There is a great discussion of Garner’s writing and its failure to satisfactorily or comfortably fit as either fiction or nonfiction here, in The Monthly.

All of this is, in part, why I get my students to read Garner’s work every semester as part of my Writing Fiction class. Her work makes for such fertile grounds for discussion (and argument). Is the writing fiction, or nonfiction? How do we define either one and who has the right to categorise? Why do we care either way? All you’re gunning for as a university lecturer in a tutorial situation is to get some good, hearty discussion going. Often, achieving this is no small task, particularly as the semester grinds on and students become weighed down by all the pressures of school work, and life. However, I find that when we read Garner’s work my job is made far easier. The conversation is rich and easy, a pleasure to behold.

I’ve been teaching Writing Fiction for some time, and while I ensure that much of the material changes from semester to semester, I almost always encourage my students to read one particular set of stories as part of the course. The stories form what I like to think of as a literary spat or intrigue, one chartered across published short fiction and essay. They are so compelling because they seem to sum up many of the issues around defining fiction and nonfiction I’ve outlined above…and more I haven’t, including for example, questions of ownership over particular lives and narratives, and the writer’s boundaries and responsibilities when it comes to representing other people in text.

The first story we look at is Helen Garner’s ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’, published in Postcards from Surfers in 1985. This is a crisp little love story of sorts. In it, the protagonist, a single mother, has an affair with a married man, Philip, depicted as a kind of charming man-child. I wanted to say to him, to someone, ‘Listen. Listen. I am hopelessly in love.’ But I hung on, the protagonist says at the end of the story, arguably resigned to Philip’s inadequacies but helpless in the face of them, anyway.

The second story we look at is Kate Jennings’ ‘Mistakes, Too Many to Mention’ – published several years after the Garner story in 1990 – in Jenning’s collection of stories, Women Falling Down in the Street. The story opens like this:

Philip. Yes, I knew Philip. I was one of the women who had their hearts broken by him. Or broke their hearts over him, a distinction that did not escape the notice of a famous Australian woman writer in a recent short story…What surprised me most about her story was that she did not bother to change Philip’s name.

Jennings goes on to dissect Garner’s version of events, and of Philip: The writer depicts Philip in her story as a footloose wanderer traversing the dark nights of the soul. I beg to differ. Philip was a hustler. Now the students are really interested. Jennings has published something outing Garner’s so-called fiction as fact! Philip exists! But which version of this Philip character is correct? And in writing their version of events, which writer has conducted themselves in the right way? Should Garner have used Philip’s name? Should Jennings have responded to Garner’s story as she did? Where is the truth of the matter in these two pieces?

The third piece we look at is another of Jennings’, an essay titled ‘Moral Trouble’, from her book Bad Manners,published a few years later still in 1993. In this piece Jennings reflects on the many issues that can arise between writers and readers when the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are unclear, or are open to interpretation.

When I was preparing my book of short stories, Women Falling Down in the Street, for publication, I toyed with the idea of using a sentence from a novel by Tim O’Brien as an epigraph: ‘A thing may happen and be a total lie; another may not happen and be truer than the truth’. It would have been a signal to the reader not to take the book at face value. In the end, I left it out, but I rather wish I hadn’t, because many people took the stories as being the unvarnished truth.

Now the students are wondering whether ‘Mistakes, Too Many to Mention’ is really all it appears to be – is Jennings’ account fictional, or fact? Which did she intend it to be at the time? Is this new essay merely an attempt to soothe some of the feelings hurt by what she originally wrote? This question, in particular, is always of interest to the students. Is ‘Moral Trouble’ an explanation, an alibi or an apology, if any of the above? Jennings goes on to addresses the fallout from ‘Mistakes, Too Many to Mention’ when she writes: ‘Several years back a boyfriend, circa 1974, threatened to sue me’. We take it that she means Philip. The plot thickens.

The fourth piece we look at is an article that writer Caroline Baum published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003. In this piece, Baum describes how she was sent the proofs for Women Falling Down in the Street for an advanced reading. She mentioned to the friend she was staying with at the time that she thought Jennings had written about Helen Garner and a man called Philip F. The friend, another writer, ‘looked extremely uncomfortable. Philip F could only be one man. “He is one of our closest friends.”‘ Baum’s friend immediately asked to read the story, but as it hadn’t yet been published, Baum balked. The friend read it anyway behind Baum’s back and immediately called Philip F, who threatened to sue Jennings for defamation. Of all this, Baum writes, ‘An unrepentant Jennings says now: “That whole story was a satire sending up people who write so close to life and let imagination take a holiday’. We can assume that she is having a dig at Garner, but what is really interesting about all this is that reach of the fiasco; how, when “real life” is written about (or at least, when readers think that “real life” is being represented) just how many people are affected and implicated. Not only those who are appropriated for the page, but also their friends and acquaintances, even readers and reviewers.

Anyone who thinks that writing is an innocent, contained act cannot possibly hope to hold onto that notion after following the paper trail I’ve just outlined. Writing is a fascinating, sometimes dangerous, minefield. At the end of the class, my students certainly leave with plenty to think about.

So, this brings me to the question I asked Garner. Considering the above, what I really wanted to know was what she had made of all of this. After all, it was her story ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ that provoked the ensuing series of (litigious) publications, spanning almost a decade, and entangled so many people in the complex contact zones between fiction and nonfiction writing, and exposed poor Philip to so much writing and rewriting.

As Garner was preparing to leave the workshop, I took my chance.
“Excuse me, Helen? Can I ask you a question?”
I hastily explained that I got my students to read her story in class every year, and that we always debated it heartily in of itself, and in relation to the Jennings and Baum pieces that followed it.
“I’d really love to know what you think about that whole thing,” I said. “I mean, I’m curious to know why you used Philip’s real name to begin with, and what you made of Jennings portrayal of you and he later on.” At first, Garner seemed perplexed, unsure of which story I meant.
“There’s always someone called Philip in my stories,” she said. I was mildly surprised that this fascinating literary feud, something that had so engrossed my students and I, was so peripheral to her – but also, I wasn’t. It seemed to fit. (Recently I’ve heard a number of writers deride academic ponderings of their writing and its so-called meanings, but that’s a post in of itself). In any case, I went into considerable detail in order to jog Garner’s memory.
“I mean that story Jennings responded to,” I concluded. “You know. About your boyfriend, Philip.”
Garner appraised me, thinking. Then she broke into a smile. “Oh, that one. I don’t know what all that was about. My story was entirely made up.”

I had to laugh. That we had spent so long debating a story we had read as partly, if not entirely, autobiographical – alongside Jennings and Baum – when it was, according to its author, just a work of fiction.

Helen Garner is giving a keynote speech on the 22nd of November as part of NonfictioNow. You can purchase stand alone tickets for her event through The Wheeler Centre, or attend one or all three days of the conference if you’re keen to soak up the wisdom of the other exciting and esteemed panelists as well.

Leveret in the Corn

November 16, 2012

By Gemma de Choisy


My backpack has been to Uganda. (I haven’t)

The TSA stickers on my Kelty trail pack are stamped ABB – Addis Ababba – that means John must have had a layover in Ethiopia before flying back to the States from Uganda last Spring. John is the husband of a friend, Keisha, whom I met  during the year I moved to Virginia, a place I had never been before. I moved south right after graduating from college, right before I picked up a copy of Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land at a Barnes and Noble in the only mall worth shopping at in Roanoke.

John and Keisha are both back in Uganda now, saving mothers’ and babies’ lives with nonprofit health care, photographing and filming, but my backpack is lying on my kitchen floor, empty. It’s used to being that way. I got it as an early graduation gift in 2010, and it stayed like that for what feels like forever: unused, pristine. “I’ll hike when I get out of school,” I said but I never got around to it.

On Saturday, my backpack is going to Australia. (This time, I’m traveling with it.)


I’m not the only one leaving the US for Australia on Saturday, I’m one of eleven students in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program who will fly into Melbourne on Monday, in preparation for the 2012 Bedell NonfictionNOW conference, hosted by RMIT.

The conference will run from Wednesday November 21 to Saturday November 24. Apart from attending the event and mingle with other writers I get to contribute to the conference blog, thanks to a staggeringly generous donation from Barbara Bedell.

Dear Ms. Bedell, next Thursday on Thanksgiving, at the NFN rooftop barbeque, reflecting on the panels on Radio Nonfiction and Contemporary approaches to writing Memoir, I will be thanking you and all philanthropists like you. Because yours is a gift I can’t begin to appraise.


Last week, it rained for six straight days in Iowa City. In Melbourne, they had sun. I have only three cities programmed in my phone’s weather app: the city I live in (today: 37°F and sunny), the town my dad lives in (Glastonbury: 40°F and soggy), and the city I’m going to.

It’s 19°C and cloudy in Melbourne today. On Monday, the forecast is for 21°C and a cloudless sky. On Tuesday, it will be 28°C.


To Pack and Wear:

2 skirts

1 pair of shorts

3 T-shirts

1 dress

Dr. Bronner’s soap

SPF 75 sunblock

mascara, lipstick (red)

To Carry:

College sweatshirt

Laptop and charger

2 notebooks, mechanical pencil, extra graphite refills

Reality Hunger, David Sheilds

Things that Are, Amy Leach

?????? (find a third book)


Passports (both UK and US)

This is an appropriation of a list that was taped inside Joan Didion’s closet door for a few years. This list has been taped to the wall above my kitchen sink for two days. Didion packed to dress for anonymity; I’m packing for ease.

I’m also packing as a dual citizen.

I’m American-born (Beaverdam, Wisconsin: Home of 16,000 Busy Beavers…) and American-raised, though for a while I lived with my Dad in the UK, where I also hold citizenship and where that side of my family has lived for generations.

Which means that I am also packing some colonialist baggage.

It cannot be unpacked in the single week I will be spending in Melbourne; it weighs noticeably more than the restricted 20 kilograms of checked luggage.


The third book.

You tell me. I’ll be in the air for 23 hours. What should I be reading?

Mini-Magazines and Long Form Distribution

November 16, 2012



There’s a session at the NonfictioNOW conference that couldn’t be more appropriate for this blog: ‘Longform Nonfiction and Online Distribution’. Four emerging practitioners of the non-fiction form will, ‘explore the role that reading and writing online have [in influencing their] work, while engaging in a form of cultural activism, in which writers are found fighting for more space for longer works of nonfiction,’ (from the precis).

As the words ‘activism’ and ‘fighting’ imply, there is a certain chutzpah involved in pursuing long form these days. Aggregate sites like and as well as initiatives such as Kindle SinglesThe Atavist and Byliner have provided new US-based venues for writers. The presence of these and other digital-first publishing initiatives (like Editia in Australia) have given me cause for celebration. But, as writer Elmo Keep reminds me, things aren’t ideal in the Australian context.

Success with social media can be like riding a really wild tide on the internet says Elmo Keep. Thanks to SVTHERLAND for use of this photo, Empty Pipe, under Creative Commons.

‘In terms of traditional mastheads where there’s a focus on extremely high-quality long form investigative-based journalism, we don’t really have many places to choose from in Australia. We’ve got a really rich and very alive literary journal tradition here. But that’s different to magazines. There are very few options to Australian non-fiction writers who want to write long, get published and get paid,’ Keep says.

Writers like Keep have successfully pursued overseas markets to publish their long form work. But pitching to overseas publications – such as those in the US – can be restrictive for Australians. ‘Unless it’s an exceptional Australian story that resonates universally [those stories getting published are] probably going to be something that appeals to American audiences,’ says Keep.

The US market is particularly strong (compared to Australia which can boast just a handful of print publications that publish long form work). ‘We do have places where our stories go but they’re niche places. We have nothing like a national magazine with the reach of The New Yorker for example,’ Keep says.

Keep values the opportunities overseas publications can give to Australian writers, but she is concerned about a trickle-down effect. There could be ‘a poverty of people writing Australian stories.’ The session at NonfictioNOW will consider the climate for publishing long form non-fiction in Australia. ‘We’ll be talking about that, about why our magazine culture is what it is or isn’t, and about how you can get your work out,’ says Keep.

These days, finding a publisher is just one challenge to establishing a career for new and emerging writers of long form non-fiction (this Venues and Resources page can be helpful). Another is in facing the call to ‘build’ an online ‘brand’ or ‘platform’ from which to promote our work (and/or determine how necessary this really is). To my mind, Keep has built her writerly brand relatively well. She has a strong online presence and over 3,000 Twitter followers.

Keep says acquiring this presence was organic. She’s a self-described nerd who has been online since 1995 (when the Internet was mostly about community). She was there, ‘before brands invaded the space. Before the idea of a personal brand was even a thing that someone would say.’

‘I just wanted to be someone on Twitter who you would want to follow because that person was always sharing things that were interesting or funny or hilarious… Just being like a miniature magazine,’ she says.

Having an online presence never hurts says Keep. ‘It can lead to great opportunities and it can lead to meeting great people.’ It’s useful for research, interviewing and being part of a community. But she warns that, ‘there can be a little bit of snake oil that goes around. The only thing that’s ever going to be good is [good writing. The writer’s ‘brand’] is always going to be auxiliary to everything else that goes into publicising a book. It’s not a replacement for being interviewed on Radio National or getting reviewed in The Australian,’ she says.

Using these platforms successfully is, ‘about catching a really wild tide on the Internet – which you can’t create. If you’re pouring all your time into that and not pouring that time into doing meaningful work then it’s completely self defeating.’

Elmo Keep will be presenting in the session Longform Nonfiction and Online Distribution with John Proctor, Ronnie Scott, Sam Twyford-Moore and Steve Grimwade on Friday 23 November at 3.00pm.

Future of Long Form will live-tweet this session. Follow @futurelongform on Twitter (or its writer, Pepi Ronalds on Facebook).

Visit the NonfictioNOW website for more detail.