Past, Present and Future is a (mostly) fortnightly series of posts in which a very special guest comes time travelling with me.
The idea is surprisingly simple – every second Monday, I ask someone bookish to spill the beans on the book they’ve just read, what they’re reading right now and what they’re planning to read next.
This fortnight’s guest is none other than Graeme Simsion, author of the wildly successful (not to mention incredibly enjoyable) smash hit The Rosie Project, and its much-anticipated sequel, The Rosie Effect – which I just so happen to be reading right now!
Curious? Of course you are! I know I am! Here’s what Graeme’s been reading…
When I took a comedy class with Doug Anthony All Stars legend Tim Ferguson a few years ago, he warned us, ‘You may never laugh again.’ There is a general truth here: once you know how the trick is done, it loses its power. And artists look at others’ work with a professional eye.
Reading has not been the same for me since I became a novelist and, and, particularly, an editor of my own and others’ work. I’m constantly examining the craft. What techniques is Ms Tartt using to hold my attention? Why the sudden change of point of view, Mr Larssen? Are all those colons and semicolons a deliberate stylistic choice, Ms Mantel?
For relaxation, as distinct from education, I’m more inclined to pick up non-fiction, or fiction that’s a long way from what I’m trying to write myself. My kids gave me a copy of The Annotated Alice (Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with notes by mathematician Martin Gardner) for my birthday, and it filled both criteria.
But, as it happens, my last book was a novel. So…
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The cover of my edition has a bet each way: “One of the best twists in years – Stylist magazine” and “Shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2014”. Maybe that confused positioning is why it has apparently disappointed many readers, who have given it a rating of 3.5 stars on the Australian Amazon site. Perhaps they were expecting a thriller (which it isn’t) or a more literary style of writing.
But it’s a five star book as far as I’m concerned. Effortless, clean writing, a distinct and sassy voice (it’s in first person) and a highly original premise that provides a base for an emotional journey, reflections on the human condition and liberal doses of comedy. A family makes a big, and in hindsight, disastrous, decision and does its best to manage the consequences. It was a situation I was familiar with from non-fiction. Beside Ourselves brings a different –and arguably more pertinent—perspective.
I can’t write much more about the plot without revealing the twist (many of the reviews contain the relevant spoiler, so read them later). That said, I had been made aware of it before I started reading, and, beyond missing out on one ‘whoa’ moment in many hours of reading, I didn’t feel my reading experience was compromised. Of all the books I’ve read this year, it’s the one I’d most like to have written.
Twists… They’re a vital part of plots in certain genres, but a big twist does not a story make, at least not for me, and the author needs to be careful not to break faith with the reader by being seen to withhold information that should have come out in the normal course of narration. Beside Ourselves’ twist breaks this rule – in spades – but it happens early and we are given a good reason for the deception. I bought it, but not everyone will.
The outstanding “twist-based” success of recent years has been Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and, again, the twist has pulled attention from what a good thriller – and intelligent study of narcissism – this book actually is. In fact, I’d argue that the mid-way twist denies us the possibility of empathising with the Amy character, and that the book is weaker for it. I’d have killed that darling – but it’s hard to argue with that grip it’s got on the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list.
I can’t write as much – or as reflectively – about what I’m reading now. It takes time to absorb a book, and sometimes years to understand its impact. I read Albert Camus’ The Plague when I was fifteen, and still reflect on it. But when I was briefly addicted to Robert Ludlum thrillers, I’d have been hard pressed to recall the plots a week later.
I’m a parallel processor. The stack of books beside my bed is embarrassing (in height, not content). I’m dipping into Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher but tonight I’ll resume reading How Plays Work by David Edgar. It’s one of several ‘craft’ books beside the bed, including two on comedy writing and one on screenplay.
I’ve always been interested in the theory, the foundations of what I’m doing. That’s not to dismiss the value of intuition or the unexplained moment of inspiration but I want to save my limited creative resources for when they’re needed. The more I can do consciously, purposefully and in a way I can understand myself, the better. And it gives me a language to discuss what I’m doing, and to coach others.
Next on my list is a manuscript I’ve been asked to read. In the last year I’ve done this for my partner (Anne Buist) and a member of my writers’ group (Tania Chandler). Their novels, respectively Medea’s Curse (Text) and Grunge (Scribe) will be published next year. Reviewing manuscripts constructively is a big job, and I only do it for people I know well (or owe a favour!). I suspect this sort of work is what’s made me such a picky reader, but, truth to tell, it’s good for my own writing.
After that, I’ll probably pick up Ian Bell’s two-volume Lives of Bob Dylan. I’m a Dylan aficionado (falling short of Dylan tragic, I hope), and recently selected his album “Live 1966: The ‘Albert Hall’ Concert” as a favourite work of art to discuss on Radio National’s Masterpiece programme.
As a baby boomer, it’s hardly original to have Dylan as my creative hero, but he provides a model for reinvention and for continuing to do fine work as he ages (I’m talking about the song-writing and recordings – I won’t argue about the concerts!). And every time I prepare to do another bookshop talk, I remind myself that he’s getting up on stage every night at 72.
Thanks for stopping by to take part in Past, Present and Future, Graeme!
What do you think of Graeme’s choices? Are you a fan of novels (or short stories, for that matter) with plot twists? And how out of control is the stack of unread books beside your bed? Seriously, if mine collapsed on me during the night, I might not survive… (but what a way to go!)