Close and Personal
Interviews with local and visiting talent
31 May 2016
How to write an opinion piece with Van Badham
By Stephanie Eslake
Have you ever felt moved by an issue and wanted to share your opinion with hundreds, even thousands of readers? Van Badham has. The columnist shares her views on social, political, and environmental issues through Guardian Australia and is heading to Tasmania this month to show us how it’s done in this masterclass.
Van had an early start as editor of the Tertangala, the University of Wollongong’s student magazine. “I learned a lot of lessons young about the impact of words committed to publication, and that the influence of opinion comes with great responsibility,” Van says. “I’ve carried them with me.”
After graduating, she travelled to the United Kingdom to pursue a theatrical career. There for a decade, she returned to Australia in 2011 for a residency and started writing opinion for The Drum – formulating a direct response to the media’s comments about women in the military. She was approached by The Guardian two years later, had a column published in the first edition of Guardian Australia, and has contributed her opinion weekly ever since.
When did you first feel the urge to share a written opinion piece?
Ha. I think I had the urge to share my opinion when I was still in the womb; I grew up in Sydney and my parents were devout readers of the Sydney Morning Herald – my dad used to read some of the commentary (and whatever delighted him on the letters page) aloud to us in the loungeroom, usually with a chuckle and the catchphrase: ‘I love these guys!’ when the pieces amused him. I think it’s why I refer to my dad so much when I write opinion; it’s something I associate so closely with him.
What are some of the things a writer should consider when translating a strong personal view into a column?
In my Guardian masterclasses, I emphasise the point that op-ed is not reportage; you’re not there to present a balance of other people’s considerations on a subject – you are the person whose consideration it’s up to other people to balance. I am a feminist, an environmentalist and have strong, hard left political beliefs, so my opinion is always offered as a rationalisation of an issue within these paradigms, ie: Does this tax reform positively or negative affect women? What is the impact of this factory closure on the working class? Is this decision good or bad for the environment, and what is to be done about it? Alas, I’ve discovered that insisting that all human beings are born equal, that society should allocate resources fairly, and that the planet is a finite resource, engenders ongoing controversy. Anyone considering contributing commentary to the public discourse should be aware that the success of a column is how many of its targets will appear to attack its author.
As writers and readers, how can we distinguish between a quality column and an impassioned rant?
The difference between a quality column and an impassioned rant is the same as that between great art and hobbycraft; how original it is in its consideration and how well it is executed as a work of literature. In my work, I’m always conscious of a need to add a fresh perspective to the analysis of an issue – I’m not so interested in what other commentators are writing about as much as I am what they’re not writing about, which is why I most of all enjoy writing pieces about working class people, unions, the unemployed and the effects of government policy and corporate activity on the kind of suburban and regional folk who are like my own family and community. It’s also crucial to strive for clarity of expression when you’re writing; poorly expressed ideas will not be understood, let alone shared and adopted.
Have you ever felt fear when it comes to sharing your views or having them challenged? If so, how have you built confidence – and if not, why don’t you care?
Oh, I love having my views challenged – I’d hardly bother to engage the fray of public discourse if I did not. I cherish a cohort of critics who have sometimes perfectly oppositional views to my own; there’s a conservative commentator called Mark Fletcher who tweets via @clothedvillainly and I rely on his ability to needle my assumptions because he forces me to interrogate whether I am expressing principles or prejudice. That kind of critical engagement with someone you respect obliges you to work hard and be ruthless in your research and rigorous in your conclusions – sometimes, the resulting insights are surprising.
As a columnist seeking to influence public opinion, you want to witness in yourself the capacity for your position to change, as it demonstrates your ability for the work you do to effect similar transformations in other people. Also, as I’ve now been writing commentary for three years, I’ve come to appreciate how contexts, particularly political ones, are fluid; what was the correct analysis of a policy position a year ago may be incorrect in the present moment due to any number of shifting circumstances.
I do get anxious every time I write a column, because I want to make sure my writing is good, my research is rigorous and that my analysis is correct. As I’ve usually only got a couple of hours to commit something to the keyboard, it is an intense and exhausting process. The internet also means that the tiniest typo or error will be seized upon by your critics as a means to discredit your entire analysis and, while it happens to all writers from time to time, it’s never easy to bear.
Those first 10 minutes after the piece comes out are always agonising for waiting to discover what you may have missed. It’s when my opponents react to a piece with an ad hominem attack or paste up a blog speculating on my sexuality, weight, or personal life that I know I’ve done my job. Learning how to process that kind of criticism was a challenge when I started publishing but now I understand it as the inevitable reaction of a target well-hit. I’m very lucky that I have brilliant editors and support at The Guardian, a generous partner, a wise mentor who always takes my calls and a dedicated girl-gang of other women in public life who can annihilate any antagonist with an arsenal of sarcastic gifs and feminist slapdowns. It reminds me that, while writing itself is always lonely, if you have the love of a community, you are never alone.
The Tasmanian Writers Centre and The Guardian are teaming up to host the masterclass: How to Write an Opinion Column with Van Badham. It takes place at the Moonah Arts Centre on June 20. For more info and tickets visit the events page here.
17 May 2016
The complexities of character with Lauren Daniels
By Stephanie Eslake
According to published writer and editor Lauren Daniels, a powerful character can reflect “the deepest themes of humanity”.
Whether you’re writing creative non-fiction or mapping out a novel, it’s important to consider the psychology behind your leading star. Lauren will visit Hobart to show us how for her June 18 workshop Character Maps and Models: The Hero’s Journey.
The Brisbane Writers Workshop director has served on the board for the Erica Bell Foundation, taught writing at the University of Queensland, and worked as a published writer since ’87 and editor for 16 years.
Who is the most powerful literary character you’ve encountered?
Powerful characters can be measured by how well they wrangle with the complexity that makes us who we are, whether heroic or disastrous; or better yet a bit of both. In my mind, the strongest writers circle this complexity and behold the mystery without indulging the temptation to solve it. While these are vastly different examples, Colonel Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Kafka’s Joseph K, and Don Quixote are utterly unsolved straight to their ends.
Then there are characters who articulate an evolution or devolution before our eyes. They serve as inspiration or warning as they expand their consciousness or sink further into their brokenness. How many married women trace Anna Karenina’s fall and are cautioned by the intricate desperation of her character arch? Or take Ken Kesey’s two core characters of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – McMurphy and the Chief – who mirror each other as the former falls into “the Combine” of the mechanised mental health system while the latter, the silent witness to all, finally musters his tremendous strength to escape it.
Overall, I think powerful characters take up residence within us. They reflect the deepest themes of humanity and once we meet them, good heavens, they never leave.
What can good character development do to enhance a story or novel?
We don’t fall in love with angles or plots. It’s the characters who throw open the doors of a story and invite us in. How characters develop, or even hole-up in their refusal to grow, paints something of ourselves – our impulses, desires, flaws, you name it.
In a story, characterisation begins with conflict which spurs the plot. From there, what our characters say and do is underscored by how they say and do these things. The fairy dust, I think, is often in the how over the what, and watching a character act true to form. Even if the speech and actions surprise readers, are they still seen by readers as authentic?
If writers are looking to craft solid characters, Chekhov is an enduring master. What and how his characters think, speak and act is a perpetually live demonstration of humanity because they’re messy and in conflict just like the rest of us.
How can we recognise if the characters in our own stories are in need of some work?
Well, we all do outlines where we bullet character participation in plot points. We look at dialogue and ask how conflict and theme are laced through each conversation. We list character traits, beliefs, pet peeves, etc., even if many of these never enter the narrative…but I have a secret trick to measure the strength of my characters.
When you’ve got your first working draft, play casting agent. Match the most suitable actors you can imagine to your characters. Look at each character arch, the dialogue and the task before the make-up crew. Then imagine pitching your roles to these actors, asking them to research and perform them. Try to step outside of the story as you ask if the actors would feel bored or excited. Would they see a range of their talents showcased or would they feel limited? Would there be suggestions for edits?
Something concretises my characters when I imagine professionals engaging them. Asking an actor to play a role I’ve written induces a sense of responsibility for what I’m asking of the audience. A character’s unwritten gaps or literary weaknesses can light right up and I can see some of what needs fixing. It can also keep the revision process playful, which is extremely helpful for writers.
In your upcoming workshop, you’re exploring various techniques to create a character (from Jung’s views on personality types to the characterisation map). Do you think the creation of a character should be a calculated process, as opposed to letting the personality evolve naturally?
In fiction, I think calculating comes later, under the banner of editing. The most organic characters seem to evolve naturally for writers; with so many of us saying how the strongest characters just stepped out of the ether. I don’t know why that is, but I’ve experienced it and it’s marvellous. Once these personalities are gathered into a story, however, I think an understanding of psychological models helps deepen them.
For creative non-fiction and the development of characters drawn from life, I believe that models can help us understand more about the people we’re trying to capture in a dimensional portrait. Models and personality patterns don’t solve the mystery of human nature but they shed more light on motivation and the shadowy aspects.
What advice would you give to writers to help them with their character development?
READ READ READ.
When I was seventeen, I wrote to Stephen King and asked him how to become a writer. He typed on an index card: ‘Write every day and READ READ READ’.
He meant read as a writer and study every move characters make. If something works, ask why. If something doesn’t, ask why. Dig into technique; pull it apart. Part the veil to see the authors behind the curtain and note precisely what chains and levers they’re pulling to make their golems dance.
Meet Lauren Daniels on June 18 for her Tasmanian Writers’ Centre workshop at the Moonah Arts Centre. Bookings can be made here.
13 May 2016
Vale Margaret Forster
It is with heavy hearts that we acknowledge the death of one of our members Margaret Forster.
Margaret had a severe stroke and very sadly passed away last Thursday.
Her short story, My First Volcano was one of three Tasmanian stories to be selected for the Forty South Short Story Anthology 2016.
We know that Margaret was passionate about her writing and we so enjoyed seeing her at Festival and Centre functions.
We will miss her.
4 May 2016
The three selves of Gina Mercer
By Leigh Rigozzi and Stephanie Eslake
Author and former Island editor Gina Mercer has been named the 2016 recipient of our Prince Edward Island residency program, and it’ll see her work on a collection of eco-poetry and interviews all around the theme of water.
Gina has spent three decades teaching creative writing and literature and has been published through her poetry collections, academic books, and novel Parachute Silk (2001).
You’re a writer, teacher and author. How do you juggle the various strands of your career?
Well, most times my three professional selves get along just fine. In fact, they feed each other, nurture each other. I learn things through the process of teaching, for example, which then sparks something which proves vital for my writing. I get so much joy from releasing, working with other people’s creativity.
The trickiest one of the three is my editor-self. She can be so bossy. So if she enters the room and starts getting too bolshie when I’m trying to write, I have to lock her in the bathroom for a while. Later, after the free-flowing writing is accomplished, I invite her back in to do her wonderfully necessary work of analysis and shaping.
What are the main concerns you explore in your writing?
One of my students once said rather quizzically: ‘Gina, you’ll write a poem about anything’. That was after reading one of my poems about a dental hygienist. Not sure if it was a compliment. But it’s true – I think anything can be the kernel for a poem.
Currently, I’m exploring the emerging field of eco-poetry. So I’m writing poems which celebrate (and sometimes lament) our natural environment. There’s a strong awareness of climate change and its horrifying potential beneath the surface of my writing at the moment. My latest book Weaving Nests with Smoke and Stone (2015) pays close attention to the diverse and amazing lives of birds. Can you imagine a world without their daily companionship?
What are your plans during the Prince Edward Island exchange? What do you hope to accomplish during the residency?
I’ll be working on a collection of ecopoetry around the theme of water: swimming, tears, stingrays, ice melt, seals, scuba diving, jellyfish, lakes, fishers, shoals, underwater communities, rain (and its percussion); all will burble their way into what I hope will be a brimming collection. While I’m on Prince Edward Island, I would also like to interview people who work with water or on the water and then develop some monologues in their voice. I have a passion for monologues.
Am also really looking forward to connecting with other writers on this fascinating island on the other side of the world. Conversations with writers are my favourite food.
For more achievements in writing visit our Good News page here.
20 April 2016
Jon Doust’s ‘peak tweaks’ and other truths
By Leigh Rigozzi and Stephanie Eslake
Ever wanted to write about your life, but worry what your friends or family will think when they appear in your revealing tales?
Jon Doust is no stranger to the feeling. It didn’t stop the writer-comedian from producing two novels inspired by personal stories, and he has two more in the works.
Boy on a Wire (2009) was his first, in which he delved into his memories of boarding school. It awarded him a place on the 2010 Miles Franklin longlist. The second book To the Highlands came out in 2012, and Doust is in the process of wrapping up the next, Durban Poison, which recalls his time in Southern Africa.
Doust is set to share his secret to sharing secrets when he visits Hobart for the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre May 8 event Tweaking the Truth with Jon Doust.
Ahead of his visit, Doust talks us through defamation, storytelling…and his grandfather’s underclothes.
Have you ever found yourself in trouble for writing about someone you know?
I once got into big trouble with an aunt for writing about my grandfather’s lack of underwear. He didn’t like the encumbered nature of the underpant, and she was vicious in her short, sharp, bitter note to me. I can write about her now because she, like my grandfather, has left the scene of my crime (planet Earth). I found it strange because she hated him and didn’t attend his funeral, or the funeral of her brother, my father.
But even the tweaked truth is not without its dangers. Some have read my first book, claimed I have written about them – even I know it isn’t them and others I know remain convinced the tweak is minor and they remain clear and present and will never speak to me again.
A lot of writers are concerned about the legal implications of using people they know in their writing. Where does the line fall between defamation and telling a ripping yarn?
Legal reasons are important considerations, and lawyers have so far been early readers of my books. But so have the historical fact-checkers. Having been a journalist for about 15 years, this was not new to me and did not faze me.
I always make sure I change names, sometimes genders, certainly situations, and often places. When the big picture looks quite different, you can free yourself up to get on with the rip of the yarn. Like any natural storyteller, I have always believed that a universal, timeless, innate truth is much more important than an actual truth.
But, to be fair and honest, I have a few tricks to help. And confuse.
What’s the main takeaway you think people will get from your workshop?
Okay, sorry, probably not cake, but the courage to write about cake if necessary, and about the mother that made cake but nothing else, but not call it cake, call it moussaka. And that was all she could make and the family lived on moussaka and nothing else – no roasts, no shortbread biscuits, just endless meals of moussaka – sweet moussaka, cold moussaka. And she wasn’t Greek but a woman of German heritage from the Adelaide hills, where she grew up with her five brothers, three cats and a fence post she called Nigel.
There will, of course, be handouts. I love handouts.
See Jon Doust from 10am-1pm, May 8 in the Salamanca Arts Centre Meeting Room. For more info and tickets, click here.