The Best Young Australian Novelists 1997

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday January 11, 1997

EMMA TOM

The '90s have seen an eruption of young writing talent in Australia. The Herald presents 10 young novelists voted the best in the crowd by our judges, and will showcase them at the Sydney Writers' Festival this month. They spoke to EMMA TOM about the pains and pleasures of being under 35, in print and in demand.

MANDY SAYER

Age: 33.

Publication list: Mood Indigo, Allen & Unwin (1990), Blind Luck, University of Queensland Press (1993), The Cross, HarperCollins (1995).

Genre/style: Sayer describes her style as literary, saying she "tap dances the fine line between tragedy and comedy".

Awards: 1989 Australian/Vogel Literary Award for Mood Indigo.

Day job: Casual journalism, "academia".

Work in progress: A historical novel about a female jazz orchestra, set in Sydney during World War II.

What the critics said: "Little escapes Sayer's gimlet eye"; "laconic, tight-lipped tour of hell"; "soars in her evocation of the city".

Quotable quotes: "Her mother walked across to the table. 'Now don't you go bunging on an act Rose. Just be normal.' 'You told me to be nice.' 'That's right. Nice. Normal. Sit up straight. Be nice and normal.' Rose nodded. Her mother went back to the stove. 'I don't normally sit up straight.'" - from Mood Indigo.

MANDY Sayer is in the surreal state that exists between books. Just before Christmas, she finished Dreamtime Alice - a memoir she has been working on for a decade and thought she'd never get right. "I feel relief," she says. "But I got up the day after I finished it and thought, 'What the hell will I do now'?" Sayer was born in Marrickville and had a tumultuous childhood living in Victoria Street, Kings Cross, before touring the US as a tap dancer with her jazz drummer father when she was 20 and he was 63. This type of background makes her ridicule the notion that young writers "haven't lived". "My father still practises eight hours a day," she says with affection. "He's a maniac." Useless author trivia No 135: Sayer wrote her first three novels - including the Vogel-winning Mood Indigo - in longhand in bed.

CATHERINE FORD

Age: 35.

Publication list: Dirt and Other Stories, Text (1996).

Genre/style: Ford describes her work as "realist women's fiction".

Day jobs: Mother of two, freelance journalist.

Work in progress: A novel set in America and Australia.

What the critics said: "Wry intelligence"; "(sometimes) lacks a point"; "candid sensuousness"; "devotion to the ordinary".

Quotable quotes: "I like a bit of a mess. I like dirt. This is how life works: you're born, you walk around for a while and then your cells pack up. Your body degrades and turns into dust. This is what's natural. Dirt relaxes me." - from the short story Dirt.

THE ROOM Ford rents for writing is nine floors up in an old office block in Melbourne. Two of the windows have views, but her desk faces the wall. There is a map of New York and a few photographs of her family pinned to the walls; apart from that it looks like a prison cell. But it's good like this. It's good that it takes so long to get in and out. It's the frontline of her defence against the great enemy, distraction. "The effort to actually go down the elevator to street level to go and eat or drink something is so huge that I may as well stay put," she says. Ford began writing fiction at university and was encouraged by her older sister, Helen Garner, with whom she was inevitably compared and to whose ex-husband she is now wed. (A fictionalised version of this real-life tale of musical marriages can be found in Garner's script for the Gillian Armstrong film The Last Days of Chez Nous.) In her new novel, Ford hopes to move away from the family tradition of relying so heavily on autobiography: "Sometimes it's so thinly disguised that even I have been shocked because I have unconsciously used someone's real name. I think, 'Christ, that's terrible' and go through the baby books and find another one."

FOTINI EPANOMITIS

Age: 27.

Publication list: The Mule's Foal, Allen & Unwin (1993).

Genre/style: Magic realism, fable.

Awards: 1992 Australian/Vogel Literary Award.

Day job: Casual journalism, part-time university lecturer.

Work in progress: A novel set in Western Australia.

What the critics said: "The explosive fusion of a Greek family background and an Australian upbringing"; "passionate, mystical, savage"; "astonishing and original".

Quotable quotes: "Meta knocked him to the floor and ... stuck cloves of garlic up the orifices of his body till he lost consciousness. She then went to the shed by the fields and made a punching bag out of a sack of wheat and practised her boxing till dusk. Stefanos was found unconscious by his youngest son, but after the cloves of garlic were removed he made a full recovery, except for a ruined eardrum." - The Mule's Foal

WHEN The Mule's Foal won the Vogel, it was widely reported that her bizarre "history" of a violently superstitious Greek village was based on stories told to Epanomitis by her family. This, she says, is not quite true. Yes, there were family tales, but it wasn't the subject matter she thieved for her novel. It was the style. "I have heard quite horrendous stories told to me in a completely straight voice," she says. "And that's the same sort of method of storytelling that's in The Mule's Foal. The stories themselves are made up." Epanomitis grew up in inner-city Perth, but at 12 lived for a year with her grandparents on their farm near a small village in northern Greece. In contrast to her powerful narrative style, she does not seem particularly confident in conversation. "I am one of those neurotic people who write things down and then tear them out," she says. "After the success of the first book I was really, really nervous to write again."

ANDREW McGAHAN

Age: 30.

Publication list: Praise (1992), 1988 (1995), Allen & Unwin.

Genre/style: Many would call it grunge or dirty realism, but McGahan says it's "just normal writing, just normal books".

Awards: 1991 Australian/Vogel Literary Award for Praise.

Day job: Writing the screenplays for Praise and for one of his short stories, Kill The Old.

Work in progress: Psyching himself up for a third novel.

What the critics said: "Dry and deadpan sense of humour"; "a very accomplished book indeed"; "all the characters want to do is smoke dope and have sex".

Quotable quotes: "I was no good in bed. My penis was very small and I always came quickly." - Gordon from 1988.

McGAHAN'S second novel is about to be published in the United States. Some writers would find this an exciting development, but McGahan is nonplussed. He can't remember the name of his publisher, or his New York agent, or even too much of what the book is about. But that's just the kind of guy he is. "Praise was published (in the US) years ago and it died completely," he says cheerfully, explaining that Americans prefer their down-and-outers to be rich and on cocaine. Contrary to the paralysing introspection of Gordon Buchanan, the asthmatic main character in both his novels, Brisbane's most famous bottleshop attendant seems pervertedly un-angstridden about the writing process and life in general. He's an assured, radio-voiced bloke who talks so fast his words fall over each other in a kind of confident man's stutter. McGahan says he wrote his first book - a Stephen King-style horror story set in Australia - at the age of 19, and has continued to claim he doesn't have much else to say ever since: "I just don't think there's that many books I can really write."

FIONA McGREGOR

Age: 31.

Publication list: Au Pair, McPhee Gribble (1993), Suck My Toes, Allen & Unwin (1994).

Genre/style: Realism.

Awards: 1995 Steele Rudd Award.

Day job: Barmaid, dance party organiser.

Work in progress: None.

What the critics said: "Dirty realism with an awesome sense of humour: filthy and wickedly witty"; "a work of delicious good fun and alarming talent".

Quotable quotes: "They kissed. Teresa's hands, still wet, hovered above the satin, then landed. It was a bumpy ride down Sally's back to the tops of her thighs. Teresa felt the waxiness of lipstick spread around her mouth; she tasted the sweet rotten gin they'd been drinking all night, and the sharpness of limes." - from Suck My Toes.

FIONA McGregor hasn't written for a year and hasn't worked on a book of her own for two. Her writer's block has become so severe she no longer refers to herself as a writer. McGregor doesn't know when the problem began or why. All she knows is that it is an excruciatingly painful experience with no immediately apparent remedies. "It just crept up on me," she says. "I had requests for anthologies building up and I couldn't deliver, so I f---ed it all off. I am less traumatised now than I was." Both McGregor's books - the first about an Australian au pair in Paris, the second a series of interlinked short stories set in Sydney - received overwhelmingly positive reviews, but she says everything she has tried to write since then has gone nowhere. She has ideas for two Sydney-based novels, one of which she has already researched, but has no idea when or if she will ever start work on them. "I'd rather call myself a kitchen hand or a cellar hand, because the word 'writer' demands explanation that I can't really give," she says. "I can only talk about it in the past or the future: what I have done or what I might do. A lot of writing is done in your head - it's not a job you can calculate the hours of - so for all I know I could still be working. When and if I ever write again, I might have some wisdom in hindsight."

MATTHEW CONDON

Age: 34.

Publication list: The Motorcycle Cafe (1989), Usher (1991), The Ancient Guild of Tycoons (1994), all University of Queensland Press, A Night at the Pink Poodle (1995), The Lulu Magnet (1996), both Vintage. Also co-editor of the anthology Smashed (1996), Random House.

Genre/style: Mainly discontinuous narrative or novels in stories.

Awards: 1996 Steele Rudd Award.

Day job: Journalist at The Sun- Herald.

Work in progress: Another novel.

What the critics said: "Interestingly rambling"; "ambitious, though sometimes wayward"; "some beautifully conceived images of modern life".

Quotable quotes: "Edward Peel woke up in his own bed, somehow, with just 394,143 hours left to live. It took him a while to focus on the the clock because one eye was swollen shut. He stared and stared at the clock and eventually the green lights came on and it said to him: 'You have 8,716 hours left til you're fully rehabilitated'." - from The Lulu Magnet.

THE "death clock" in Matthew Condon's new book, The Lulu Magnet, is based on an actual American device designed to motivate people into grabbing life by the cajones by reminding them how little time they have left to do it in. Obviously the manufacturer did not account for the character of Edward Peel, who, like any normal and only marginally disturbed citizen, becomes decidedly downwardly demotivated by such reminders. It should also be noted that - at the age of 34 1/2 - Condon himself may have many hours in which to live and be rehabilitated but only 4,032 left as an official young writer. This does not worry him. Other things that he says don't worry him include: whether he gets good reviews; how many books he sells; the ancient debate about whether journalists can make decent fiction writers; and the fact that he was once the world's worst teenage poet. While he doesn't approve of the trend for image-led publishing, it has to be said that the author photograph in his latest book does inhabit one of the larger plots of publishing real estate: the entire inside cover. Condon's only defence is that at least he doesn't have a good haircut.

BERNARD COHEN

Age: 33.

Publication list: Tourism, Picador (1992). The Blindman's Hat will be published by Allen & Unwin later this year.

Genre/style: Cohen won't say and I'm not sure anyone else could either.

Awards: 1996 Australian/Vogel Literary Award for The Blindman's Hat.

Day job: None.

Work in progress: A "migration tale", a collection of short stories and a book of fictional essays called The Antibiography of Robert F---ing Menzies.

What the critics said: "Cohen has done something dead weird to the guide book"; "refreshingly paranoid"; "off-beat satire on big-city crimes and misdemeanours"; "gosh".

Quotable quotes: "This is a dirty doubledealing knifeintheback town. This town is costlycostly. The town cannot be trusted by us, alone or in groups. It's a whisperinginthegrassinthesleeve wallshaveears town." - from Tourism

FOR A WHILE back in the early '90s, the name Bernard Cohen was synonymous with the entry for Newcastle in his not-a-guidebook Tourism: "?ary! aries!," it begins. ""age!* ages! $ism! isms! %ate! ated! Recalcitrance. (etc, for nearly a page)". Needless to say, response to his first "novel" was mixed. "But I was expecting a more engaged response," Cohen says from the Australia Council's Keesing Studio in Paris. "I thought people would argue with what I was trying to do, but some of the responses were quite literal. One person spent two-thirds of the review talking about what a nice time he'd had in Singleton." Since he won the Vogel, the entry for Newcastle is now well and truly behind him. The Blindman's Hat - a comic novel about an Australian journalist living in New York, who leaves his job in order to devote himself totally to love - is apparently extremely plot-driven. Cohen, who usually resides in the Blue Mountains, has also recently finished another novel, Snowdome, which switches between the lives of a group of young inner-city dwellers and a futuristic Sydney which has been "emptied out by economic forces and reopened as a museum".

CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS

Age: 31.

Publication list: Loaded (1995) and Jump Cuts, with Sasha Soldatow (1996), both Random House

Genre/style: Realism.

Day job: Works behind a counter at a film and video joint called Cinemedia.

Work in progress: A novel called The Jesus Man, about religion.

What the critics said: "A chronicle of lust, boredom, evasion, self-destruction, anguish and frustration"; "some blistering attacks on our society"; "will make some people throw up but will change other people's lives".

Quotable quotes: "As we got into Princes Bridge station I was imagining the apocalypse. I was getting so excited it was making my dick hard." - Ari in Loaded.

ONE of the hardest things Tsiolkas ever had to do was translate his novel Loaded into Greek and read it aloud to his non-English-reading parents. While the Melbourne writer maintained the - ahem - integrity of the work, he did skip over some of the more explicit sections. Interestingly enough, though, the media were far more parental about the drug and sex references than his mother and father were. "(My parents) were excited that I said the things I said about class and ethnic communities," he says. "They focused on the things that were important to me as well, although my mum did say, 'Why do you have to use so many bad words?' They're nervous for me but also proud. I grew up in a working-class background, so I think there was a fear about how I would survive economically as a writer." Tsiolkas seems passionately principled compared with the nihilistic character of Ari (who he stresses was a fictional creation) and says one of the big disappointments he experienced once published was being dismissed as just another slacker grunge hound. "I think that if you were under 35 and you'd written anything, regardless of what it was, they were going to call it grunge. Even if it was about 13th-century Albania."

BETH YAHP

Age: 32.

Publication list: The Crocodile Fury, HarperCollins (1992). Anthologies Yahp has edited or co-edited include Nothing Interesting About Cross Street, Angus & Robertson (1996); Family Pictures, Angus & Robertson (1994), and Picador New Writing 3 (1995).

Genre/style: Some would say magic realism. Yahp, however, prefers "idiosyncratic" or "pretty strange".

Awards: 1993 Victorian Premier's Prize for First Fiction, 1993 Ethnic Affairs Commission Award.

Day job: Editing.

Work in progress: A second novel which she refuses to speak about for superstitious reasons.

What the critics said: "Mesmeric"; "deeply mystical"; "her sentences take off like motorbikes".

Quotable quotes: "Never cut yourself in the jungle by accident, never leave blood droplets on a basement floor. If jungle or basement ghosts are lurking, this will rush them out with bulging eyes and tongues wildly lapping. Never leave used sanitary pads lying around. If a toilet ghost devours one, the unlucky person will die soon after." - from The Crocodile Fury.

BETH Yahp's hands are destroyed. It was The Crocodile Fury that took them. After typing eight to 12 hours to finish the book on time, her RSI become so severe that for months she couldn't even look at a keyboard. These days she still has trouble, she still can't write longhand, she still has to "hasten slowly", as a doctor told her after she was struck down by glandular fever not long afterwards. But at least she's writing. Yahp drew inspiration for The Crocodile Fury from the contemporary-style of ghost stories told in Malaysia, where she grew up. It's a short story that rebelled and grew long, and is also a "cannibalisation" of an earlier novel she discarded. The book was greeted with passion by reviewers and has been translated and published in Singapore, the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK and Spain. "But a lot of people don't think writing is a real job, including my family, which is a bit of a strain."

GILLIAN MEARS

Age: 33.

Publication list: Ride a Cock Horse, Pascoe Publishing (1988); Fineflour, University of Queensland Press (1990); The Mint Lawn, Allen & Unwin (1991); The Grass Sister, Random House (1995).

Genre/style: Mears says her writing comes from a love of images and language rather than storytelling.

Awards: 1989 Commonwealth Writers Regional First Book Award, 1990 Australian/Vogel Literary Award, 1996 Commonwealth Writers Regional Award.

Day job: None. Full-time writer.

Works in progress: A photo essay with

Sydney photographer Sandy Edwards; a novel called Remnants, about early environmental and spiritual movements.

What the critics said: "Unflinching vision"; "deeply inward"; "tender and fecund"; "only yesterday have I learned from Gillian Mears that women are overwhelmed by lust, that young women are obsessed by their genitals, use the flute for ends other than musical, ogle their sisters' breasts, find older men physically repulsive ..."

Quotable quotes: "Our dog died on Christmas Day and Dad made us dig the hole. You would've needed a crowbar to get it deep enough, the ground was that hard ... so Dingus was popped into the back corner of the garden and at the time it hadn't seemed to matter that his legs stuck out. He was a tall dog. It was too hot to cry." - from Mothers and Old Lovers in Fineflour.

MEARS is known in the industry as a difficult interview. She's not, as a matter of fact. It's just the legacy of a career spent dodging publicity to the point where she's become a legend (in fellow writer Andrew McGahan's mind at least) for saying "no" nicely. "I felt incapable of talking lucidly to journalists," Mears recalls, noting that these days she feels she has struck a balance between her "naturally very shy" nature and the need to do at least a little promotion. "I used to be quite a big drinker and once when I was very young I drank half a bottle of gin before a radio interview." As a point of interest, Mears has written only two things she can still bear to read: Fineflour and her essay in Drusilla Modjeska's Sisters. Mention The Mint Lawn - the book that won her the Vogel - and she practically gags. "I hate The Mint Lawn," she says. "It's so excessive. Too much sex and too much anger."

* The Best Young Australian Novelists were chosen through a poll of writers and critics. The Herald would like to thank the following people for their thoughtful opinions and enthusiastic support of our project: Debra Adelaide, Don Anderson, Caroline Baum, Jose Borghino, Peter Craven, Brian Dibble, Peter Goldsworthy, Kate Grenville, Helen Daniel, Linda Jaivin, Neil James, Nigel Krauth, Jan McKemmish, Drusilla Modjeska, Andrew Riemer, Rosie Scott, Andrea Stretton, Brenda Walker, Elizabeth Webby and Michael Wilding.

* Thanks, also, to the entrants in the Herald's Best Young Australian Novelists competition. Readers were asked to name three novelists aged 35 or younger. The winner - whose entry was the first drawn to include the most writers on our list - is Ann-Louise Crotty of Neutral Bay. She wins a set of books by the young writers, given by their publishers, and two tickets to the reading at the Lyric Theatre, East Sydney, on January 23. Pairs of tickets go to two runners-up - Leslie Pace of Randwick and Nikki Fuda of Lismore Heights. The most popular writer among our judges and readers was Fotini Epanomitis.

BEST-SELLERS

FICTION

1. Last Orders by Graham Swift, Picador, $16.95. Four Londoners carry out the final wishes of their deceased friend. (Booker Prize winner) (9*)

2. Keys to the street by Ruth Rendell, Hutchinson, $19.95. A charitable act drives a middle-class woman into the abyss of the poor and deranged. (7)

3. Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell, Little, Brown, $22.95. A gruesome murder takes medical examiner Kay Scarpetta below the river's surface. (8)

4. Quiver by Tobsha Learner, Viking, $19.95. A series of inter-connected erotic vignettes. (9)

5. The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard, HarperCollins, $19.95. A young boy disappears, and a family is thrown into crisis. (1)

6. Mad Cows by Kathy Lette, Picador, $16.95. Maddy's first day out with her newborn finds her arrested for shoplifting at Harrods. (6)

7. Airframe by Michael Crichton, Century, $35. An airline crash results in major casualties, and the subsequent investigation reveals an industry in crisis. (1)

8. Executive Orders by Tom Clancy, HarperCollins, $35. Jack Ryan takes over when an air crash kills the President and most of Congress. (3)

9. The Conversations at Curlow Creek by David Malouf, Chatto & Windus, $29.95. Conversations between a captured bushranger and his guard. (4)

10. The Witch of Exmoor by Margaret Drabble, Viking,$19.95. An eccentric mother wreaks havoc on her family from afar in this millennial tragicomedy. (2)

NON- FICTION

1. Short Notes from a Long History of Happiness by Michael Leunig, Viking, $19.95. Leunig uses drawings and poetry to explore life's happy moments. (4)

2. Longitude by Dava Sobel, Fourth Estate, $14.95. 17th-century scientist's

40-year quest to solve the great scientific problem of his time. (9)

3. SMH Good Food Guide by Terry Durack & Jill Dupleix, Anne O'Donovan, $16.95. Twelfth edition of the guide to Sydney's best restaurants. (9)

4. The Liver Cleansing Diet by Sandra Cabot, MD, WHAS, $19.95. Guide to good health through a clean liver. (7)

5. Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb, Duffy & Snellgrove, $19.95. Crime, food and history mingle in this view of a corrupt contemporary Italy. (7)

6. Love You to Bits and Pieces by Gillian Helfgott, Penguin, $16.95. A memoir by the wife of concert pianist David Helfgott. (2)

7. Penguin Book of More Australian Jokes by Phillip Adams & Patrice Newell, Penguin, $16.95. The sequel with more jokes than you can poke a stick at. (4)

8. Notes from a small island by Bill Bryson, Bantam, $16.95. Satirist Bryson travels Britain, revisiting the places he first went to 20 years before. (9)

9. 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions by Kenji Kawakani, HarperCollins, $14.95. Inventions that have broken free from uselessness to achieve the highly impractical. (1)

10. My Dark Places by James Ellroy, Century, $19.95. Ellroy explores the impact of his traumatic childhood on a life of crime writing. (4)

The Sydney Morning Herald weekly Best-sellers List was compiled with the

assistance of Sydney independent, chain and franchise booksellers including Ariel (Paddington), Shearers (Gordon), Dymocks (George St), Megalong Books (Leura) and Pages & Pages (Belrose)

Compiled by Joel Becker

© 1997 Sydney Morning Herald

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