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Men vs Books: A Melbourne Writers Festival Review

Ghost Cities and Ghost Futures: A Conversation with Siang Lu and Laura Jean McKay

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Melbourne over the last few years has developed its own uniquely uncharming affliction: the men are everywhere and they all want to take you camping. I have come to the conclusion that this recreational camping as a ‘date’ has been devised by men in order to determine early on just how elementary a quality of life a woman will tolerate within a relationship with them.

Enter Charlie*– one of those fantastic Melbourne painters who manages to somehow maintain a brilliant lifestyle despite not selling a single work of art. He possessed certain radical ideas, which is a polite way of saying that he would have liked to have been able to have inconsequential sex with as many women as possible without calling them back. He invited me for such a camping escapade along the coast two weeks ago. In my defence, he had targeted me when I am at my most vulnerable — that is to say, I agreed to his proposition while I was high on sambuca and sweat on his balcony, which in the moment really did feel very rustic and survivalist —what with all the nudity and the sounds of birds — so I decided I could tolerate two nights in a tent for a man who had a collection of semi-nude paintings on his walls and used words like delirium and appetite in casual conversation. In retrospect, I am reminded once more to never form my impressions of a man around only his most fascinating attributes.

When I woke up the next day, I was immediately reckoning with the consequences of my own uncanny capacity to convince myself that there can be Romance inherent to almost anything. Thankfully, fate had her own plans, and delivered a serendipitous escape hatch: instead of braving the wilderness in his Toyota Corolla, I was spontaneously offered to take a friend’s place reviewing a panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival that same weekend.

In the conversation fostered by Sofija Stefanovic (Miss Ex-Yugoslavia), prize-winning writers Laura Jean McKay (Gunflower) and Siang Lu (Ghost Cities) would discuss their ‘daring and surreal new novels’ — both provocative works of fiction that envision a new kind of world — with a focus on literary craft.

As a disclaimer, generally speaking I am convinced that there is, at any given moment, wherever I am not, some glittering carnival in the sky that I am missing out on. It is for this reason that I do not befit rural environments, nor Talks on ‘Craft’ in which I need to turn my phone off for an extended period of time and listen to a group of balding middle-aged men reference things like oxford commas and the muse and how they wake up at 4:30 AM to write 56 pages of sparkling prose before not calling a girl back and thinking about Picasso. If I wanted to have a really invigorating conversation surrounding how people go about difficult things in the pursuit of beauty  I would simply talk to my girlfriends about Tinder.

I like to read because I am attracted to anything that will put me in the firing line of that glittering carnival. When I enter the State Library Theatrette instead of a tent on that Saturday afternoon, the room does not promise me this. It is mostly Anglo academics who look annoyed when they need to stand up for me to pass them in the audience. I tell the woman next to me that I like her earrings (and I did!) and she says nothing. I am bored already. I look at Charlie, now sitting next to me, and am again confused as to why he has insisted on coming with me instead of simply camping alone, which only bolsters my earlier theory regarding the ulterior motives behind the gesture. I wonder if I am obligated to get a drink with him after this because he is supporting my career aspirations. I think I would rather get the drink alone and finish reading Siang Lu’s Ghost Cities, which I had picked up at Readings the day before in preparation for the panel and had even dreamed about the night earlier for all its deliciousness and vigour. Looking at Charlie I realise it’s no wonder he thinks about naked people so much — he’s never read a really good book. My pensiveness grows. I refuse his offer of a tamari almond; I am not hungry. Men vs Books: to which do I owe my time?

I’m not saying that I have a difficult dating life because I like to read — that would be ridiculous. It’s just that the more I pursue these two things that take up my time and interest, the more I feel they are in conflict. So, in the second row from the front, I found myself reinvigorated by the premise of both no longer spending three days without a proper shower, and at that of opening myself up to some intellectual stimulation. Never one to not take a moment for everything it can give me, I decided to extricate as much wisdom available to me as possible. By the end of this talk, I would have the question answered for me.

Below are my notes from that afternoon.

Ghost Cities and Ghost Futures: A Conversation with Siang Lu and Laura Jean McKay

Lu finds writing lonely.

“Because of that,” he says, “it's about trying to amuse myself. It's about picking apart the thread [in a story] that makes you laugh or giggle or think of it as really interesting —and just kind of following your curiosity.     

“For me, writing is a question of wondering how I am going to occupy my own thoughts.”

 I decide I like Lu already. I too shape my personal and professional endeavours around what will provide me with the most entertainment for the most extensive period possible.

For both writers, this means seizing upon the first flicker within a story that immediately occupies their curiosity, and pursuing it with uncompromising vigour. In Lu’s case, this is often a matter of chasing a problem that obsesses him — his recent novel Ghost Cities, for example, was born of his growing fixation with how many times he could reinvent the game of chess. McKay, however, who studied photography, says that her “hook” into a story usually arrives to her in the form of an image. In the case of her most recent novel, Gunflower, the image was that of “a woman standing alone on a road with a dog.”                

“I saw this image for years before I found the story,” McKay says.“I see an image, clutch the photograph to my heart, close my eyes and run into a forest with something chasing me.”

Whilst I on the other hand had devised, over the previous 48 hours, a plan that would allow me to run away from a forest, her words reminded me of something the Irish author Paul Murray had said in his talk the evening before: “You need to give yourself the space to go mad... to work not from the head, but from the interior.” His 2023 Booker Award shortlisted novel The Bee Sting includes an epigraph with a line from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: “Those are my best days, when I shake with fear.”

It’s a line that springs to mind organically for me as I listen to them both speak. Perhaps the best work is not over-intellectualised, but instead emerges from a commitment to a kind of rigorous play — from not always operating from the head, but rather from the interior. It’s that unplaceable sensation familiar to most writers: when words cease being simple lines, dots, curves and edges on a page, and instead begin to implode organically in blissful pulps of random associations and opportunities for a good chase.                                 

In short, as McKay puts it: “You begin to get obsessed.”At this point in the discussion, Sonya references a line drawn from Michael Cuningham’s opening address at the festival a few nights earlier: “He said that maybe one third [of writing] is sort of planned or intentional. One third is intuitive... and one third is random things that kind of just arrive.”

You can’t concentrate your way to a good story, I write down. But you can be vulnerable enough to allow anything and everything to happen to you. And then keep following what moves you the most.

Sonya references James Baldwin’s 1984 interview with The Paris Review: “When you're writing, you're trying to find out something which you don't know.”              

“And I really like writing where the author is trying to get to the bottom of something,” she says, “and they're taking us along for the ride. So you kind of feel like you're part of this journey where someone is digging at something...when they’re trying to get out of a hole by working something out.”    

McKay agrees — for her, it’s a matter of finding the material that speaks the most directly to you as a writer: “You find the questions you’re fascinated by, and you do the work.”

Lu goes on to insist that ‘doing the work’ means adhering to an essential rule he himself follows: “Make sure there’s at least one gem on every single page.”                                       

For Lu, the gem can be funny, it can be beautiful, or it can simply be clever —and this makes sense. I’ve always considered really good writing to follow the same rules as really good conversation: remember that you’re occupying someone’s leisure time, and always leave them wanting more.

I really like Siang Lu, and now I like him even more.

I have been called frivolous before; usually by men who think my interests are negligible because they don’t involve them. Of course, I don’t pretend that my Men vs Books predicament is as noble as Lu’s century-spanning novel grappling with identity and language, but I do know that in this moment, looking over at Charlie, who is sifting through Hinge notifications on his phone next to me, that the question is simply fixating me. I cannot help but wonder: is it possible that I am squandering my delightful gems?

If there is anything I have taken from this talk it’s to sniff out what really turns you inside out and tolerate nothing less than the pursuit of it.

I discovered a long time ago that you can only really write for so many hours every day — so what else is there to do but think about writing? Likewise, life is only going to present itself to you as extraordinary every once in a while, so what is there to do in the time between all that but to think about the act of it: let it obsess you, lead you astray, compel you — charm you?          

By the time the lights go up I know what is, at least for the moment, obsessing me. I want to read.

Leaving the State Library, Charlie says that he thinks I have an attitude. After listening to this particular talk, however, I have come to understand that attitude is just a word usually given to people who know what is interesting to them and do not compromise on spending time with that. So, with me having no problem with this particular opinion of his, we kiss goodbye in the polite European way and I walk in the opposite direction to go finish Lu’s book, alone, in a bar.

When you think about it, it’s a wonder women have anything to do with men at all, and so it’s no surprise that men have devised all kinds of schemes such as camping to keep women as far away as possible from anything in civilised society that might interest them even a little more than their love does. I mean, if you had the choice of something talking at you or talking with you, what would you choose? That is, provided they both provided the same amount of entertainment.

 

                                                           

*an alias, obvi.

 

Monique Marani is a writer and professional picaresque heroine living on unceded Wurundjeri land. Her work has been published in Farrago, Allegory Ridge, Lighthouse Magazine, and FrockUp Press. She writes the Substack column ‘love, ars poetica.’ to over 4,000 monthly readers. Monique is currently completing her Bachelor of Arts at The University of Melbourne. You can get her attention via @moniquemarani.jpg or @lovearspoetica

 
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