Drowning Brisbane, or, why I love my writing buddies

watermarks in cosmos 57: art by joe whyte, story by jason nahrung

In 2007, I wrote a short story in which Brisbane had been inundated by risen sea levels, and where the poor squat in flooded high rises under the threat of solar irradiation while the rich survive high and dry in air conditioned comfort. But the yarn wasn’t working. Hence it’s home in the folder for unfinished yarns.

This year, I dredged that story up, ditched some unnecessary scenes and then … It still wasn’t working. So I flung it to my writing group, Supernova, who identified structural and prose problems, chiefly a plot element that wasn’t working, ill-defined characters, great puddles of lazy prose. It was, as I admitted shamefacedly as I asked them to help me fix this broken thing, a setting in need of a story.

cosmos 57 magazineSo I ran the changes and … It still wasn’t working.

Luckily, a few pals (Rob, Kate and Mark, to give credit where it’s due) from my former Queensland writing group were down for a writerly getaway and I ran the rewrite past them and Kirstyn (again). As previously, I didn’t take all the advice from everyone, some of it just didn’t fit, but some of it was gold. Pure gold.

I realised what the story was and who it was about. Structure emerged from the fog.

With the Android Lust album Crater Vol.1 on repeat, I added the detail to breathe some life into a formerly pallid world — detail is king — and, hooray, the story, now called ‘Watermarks’, has sold, to this month’s Cosmos magazine, issue 57. That sensational artwork above, for the cover page for the story, is by Melbourne-based Joe Whyte. (I’m now a fan. It’s the use of light, I think. Seriously, check this out!)

To have a group of like-minded writers able to tease at a story and make constructive suggestions, to brainstorm with, is just so valuable. I love my writing buddies.

And the good thing is, in writing this story, I’ve realised just how huge its world is. There’s more to come — I just hope it doesn’t take another seven years.

The First 30 and other poems

the first 30 by graham nunnThe First 30 and other poems, by Brisbane’s Graham Nunn, arrived in the mail today. A wonderful collection of thoughtful, sparsely drawn, emotive poetry dedicated to the arrival of his first child in November last year. At the front there are love poems to other people and places — the opener, ‘A Brisbane Affair’, I could relate to well — and elsewhere there are other chords being strummed, too. But in this otherwise fairly pacific collection there’s this one poem, written for the unborn Thomas, that carries this line: Crows sing ill omen and the flame tree turns to blood. It’s freaking awesome, isn’t it?

Graham launches The First 30 and other poems on Sunday at Queensland Writers Centre at the State Library of Queensland.

Brisbane launch in pictures

jason nahrung launches salvageA quick flashback to the Brisbane launch of Salvage at Avid Reader on August 10. More pix, by Kirstyn McDermott, are here.

And a final reminder that Salvage has one more outing, in very fine company indeed, at Melbourne Writers Festival on Sunday. Ten writers on stage, with readings, music and damn good cheer. All welcome.

Secret Gardens: fantasy on page and in paint

oracle of azura by gail collins

‘Oracle of Azura’ by Gail Collins

garden of the two moons by caz mcdougall

‘Garden of the Two Moons’ by Caz McDougall

the blood stones of poora singh by annie higgins

‘The Blood Stones of Poora Singh’ by Annie Higgins

Four years after conception, the Secret Gardens project is finally about to be unveiled in Brisbane.

Three artists from northern New South Wales – Gail Collins, Annie Higgins and Caz McDougall – have been inspired to translate Australian fantasy stories onto canvas.

Books by Kim Wilkins, Paul Brandon, Louise Cusack, Karen Brooks, Melaina Faranda, Alison Goodman, Cecilia Dart Thornton, Kim Falconer, Anita Bell, Caiseal Mor, Annie’s husband Simon Higgins and yours truly (The Darkness Within, Annie tells me, but no sneak peek!) have been given the treatment – some more than once.

The trio didn’t stop there, though. As well as contributing six paintings inspired by published works, each has painted their own fantasy landscape, pictured above. They are running a short story contest to coincide with the exhibition, in which they invite short stories to 500 words based on one of the three paintings. The prize is a limited edition print of the painting. The contest closes on August 30 and is free; you can enter by email.

Secret Gardens shows at Jugglers Art Space, 103 Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane from September 26 to October 2, with a grand opening night on Friday September 28 from 6pm. I can’t wait to see what these three have cooked up.

Salvage charts in Brisbane!

Great news from the weekend: Salvage has made #8 on the Brisbane Independent booksellers bestsellers list as published in the Courier-Mail newspaper. Kudos to Pulp Fiction and especially Avid Reader, who hosted the launch on August 10, and to all those who slapped down their hard-earned for a copy this past week.

salvage charts in brisbane

Salvage has one more outing coming up, at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Sunday in the very fine company of eight — count’em! — Twelfth Planet Press authors, with Talie Helene laying down some smooth grooves and Kerry Greenwood breaking a bottle of bubbly over the bow of the Twelve Planets series of awesomeness. It should be an absolute hoot.

Bookings open for Salvage Queensland events in August

Salvage by Jason NahrungBookings are now open for those able to attend my chat at Caloundra Library on Monday August 13 at 10-11am and at Noosa Library on Tuesday August 14 4-5.30pm. Expect to hear about the writing and publishing process, landscape as character and inspiration, and vampires, of course. Given that Salvage was primarily written on (and is kind of set on) Bribie Island and polished off at Noosa, it’s something of a homecoming.

You can also rsvp for the Brisbane launch at Avid Reader, 6 for 6.30pm, on Friday August 10 by emailing events @ avidreader.com.au or phoning 3846 3422, or drop me a line and I’ll pass it on. Kim Wilkins will be doing the honours.

You can also book in for the Darkness Down Under panel, with Kirstyn McDermott, Angela Slatter and myself, at Logan North Library on Saturday August 11 at 1.30-3pm. If you like reading or writing horror and dark fantasy, there should be something in this for you.

All events are free. Copies of Salvage will be available. There will be coffee and time for chinwagging. I’m looking forward to it!

Snapshot 2012: Stephen M Irwin

australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logo
STEPHEN M Irwin’s debut novel, supernatural thriller The Dead Path, was published in the UK, the USA, Germany and China. It was named Top Horror Novel in the American Library Association’s RUSA Reading List (2011) and won the Book of the Month Club’s First Fiction Award (2010).

Stephen’s second novel, thriller The Broken Ones, was launched in Australia in 2011 to excellent reviews, including being named the Sydney Morning Herald Fiction Pick of the Week. It will be released in the USA by DoubleDay in August 2012, and has also been selected by the Book of the Month Club for its catalogues which service 8 million members.

Stephen’s short stories have won competitions nationally and internationally, with several published in notable anthologies. Stephen is also an award-winning filmmaker, and has written and directed television documentaries and short films. He is currently working with several Australian producers developing feature and television material, including a screen adaptation of The Dead Path.

Stephen lives in Brisbane’s inner-west with his wife and two young children. Find him online at stephenmirwin.com.

Two novels down, and twice you’ve brought some shudders to Brisbane town. What is it about the city that lends itself to a site for nightmare occurrences?
I hope that I’m able to write with a degree of veracity about lots of places, and certainly a bit of my first novel was set in London, and a recent screenplay I worked on had some scenes set in New York and Canada. However, Brisbane is home and I know certain of its suburbs well, some of its hiding places, how it feels through different seasons, where it feels authentic and where it feels like it’s wearing too much makeup. My first two books had to be set somewhere, and while I don’t live or die by the axiom ‘write what you know’, it made sense to set the books in a place that I know. I figured that I was asking the readers to suspend any disbelief they may have in magic and ghosts, so if the setting felt solid, I could buy a bit more latitude to explore the fantastical.
Even if it wasn’t home, though, Brisbane is a great setting because there is more to it than meets the eye. It is a pleasant and friendly place, but it was born essentially as a penal settlement, so it has some unpleasant bones. It is sunny and warm, and its winters are divine, but as we’ve seen in the recent past, it can turn nasty quickly with streets flooding and disaster unfolding in a matter of hours. As a setting, this contrast is appealing, and has worked well for other authors, too (Jeff Lindsay used Miami as a setting for the dark deeds of his killer, Dexter). Just because a house has fresh paint doesn’t mean it’s not haunted; just because a city is sun-drenched and ‘livable’ doesn’t mean horrible things can’t happen there. Let’s face it, the least expected and most horrific crimes are those performed in broad daylight.

What is it you’ve enjoyed most about the transition from writing screenplays to novels?
I think what’s enjoyable is the feeling that the transition continues. I’m still writing screenplays and television material while working on more long-form fiction. Each mode of writing enriches the other. Since writing a couple of novels, I feel I’m now able to bring to my screenplay writing a better understanding of character, because I’ve drilled so much more deeply into characters’ minds and motivations for the books. And for me, screenwriting helped make the novels more enjoyable because I’ve learned something about conventional story structure from screenwriting. Screenwriting has helped broaden my understanding about pacing scenes and building suspense; I learned through experience that a scene that lasts more than a few minutes on screen risks becoming deathly boring, and every scene has to help advance the story. These rules have a place in the kinds of books I write. Very importantly, screenwriting forced me to learn visual shorthand: how to paint a clear picture or mood very economically. In a screenplay of just 100 pages, you can’t devote a whole page describing a room or a person –- you get a sentence for that. The lessons about economical writing have been helpful, because if you know the essence of what you want to say, then it is more enjoyable to dress it up. Putting in is always more fun than taking out.

Another thing that surprises some people is that a significant amount of my screenwork has been comedic. Right now I am working on a comedy feature I’ve been commissioned to write for an Australian producer. I hope that a few sparks of levity have found their way into the novels.

There was a noirish feel to The Broken Ones — is crime writing something you’d like to explore further, or do you find the supernatural an irresistible attraction?
I am a sucker for good crime, in literature, film, and television, and I’ve been a fan of noir since seeing The Third Man in my first year at art college. I’m a dedicated fan of the gurus like Chandler, maestros like Cruz Smith, and seasoned experts like the late, great Robert B Parker. It’s delightful to think that some of my love for crime writing has rubbed off into The Broken Ones, which is ostensibly a detective story. I’m certainly continuing to work on more crime material –- my next novel, while not a police procedural, has strong crime elements, and I’m developing with a talented production company a new crime miniseries. It’s great fun. Chandler knew how to entertain, and he knew that everything had a dark side. ‘It is not a fragrant world.’

As for the supernatural, I can resist it -… but only for so long. My nightmares, when I have them, are inevitably about angry spirits. I think some writers write to exorcise, and it helps when I do.

What Australian works have you loved recently?
I really enjoyed The Diggers Rest Hotel by Geoff McGeachin. It is set soon after the Second World War in country Victoria. My father was a serviceman in WWII, and no doubt his sensibilities were formed by his time as a young man, and remained with him for me to see and learn from. Geoff captured the spirit of the time beautifully, and had me almost nostalgic for an era I only knew about second hand. Apart from that, it was a great crime story with a smart, wounded protagonist. Right up my alley.

Claire Corbett’s futuristic novel When We Have Wings was highly inventive and very lovely.

And as a writer of stories with ghosts, I am a huge fan of Karina Machado’s non-fiction books about hauntings: Spirit Sisters and Where Spirits Dwell. The Australian spec fic scene is rich and varied right now, with some huge talents who are getting some well deserved recognition.

What have been some of the biggest changes in the Australian speculative fiction scene in the past two years?
I think the Australian market as a whole is responding to the same changes that the whole publishing world is facing with regard to digital books. While this new form is a phoenix to some and a spectre to others, I am delighted to see that it seems to have sparked a re-emerging interest from writers and readers in the novella. This is a form I’ve loved since adolescence when I first read seminal works like Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men and The Old Man and the Sea. Given that a novella can be created in a third the time or less that it takes to craft a novel, the rich excitement of furious creation can often be sensed on the page. A story has a life of its own, and to be effectively told it needs to fill into its own body without constraint or artificial inflation –- some stories are simply too long for to be a ‘short’, and too contained to warrant novel length. I think since the 1980s, the bang-for-buck book purchasing mindset has made it increasingly difficult for publishers to justify the printing and marketing of the novella form, but the e-book format is making it much easier for publishers to price the form back into popularity, and also for self-publishers to get their works to market. I am delighted that a number of authors I know are working in this form right now. It is good news that this important middle sibling is coming back in force.

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THIS interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’re blogging interviews from 1-8 June and archiving them at Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus. You can read interviews at: