Why Sheppard (and Others) Say Geronimo

The success at last week’s ARIA awards of Brisbane band Sheppard and their irresistible hit Geronimo got me thinking – why does anyone shout ‘Geronimo’ before a leap into danger? Wasn’t Geronimo a 19th-century Native American warrior? Was his name shouted then? Why did the practice persist? The amateur etymologist in me couldn’t resist doing a little sleuthing. Here’s what I’ve found. As is sometimes the case (eg, with the word ‘okay’), something brought the new expression about, but it’s likely it took a sequence of events to keep it alive.

Yes, Geronimo was a Native American warrior. He was born in 1829 and given the name Goyathlay (‘the one who yawns’) in the Mescalero-Chiricahua language. In 1851, after Mexican soldiers massacred his camp while he and other men were in town trading, he was involved in tracking and attacking the soldiers. He went into battle with a knife and, regardless of the gunfire, repeatedly threw himself at the enemy. This battle is where the name ‘Geronimo’ began, either as a repeated panicked call from the soldiers to Saint Jerome (‘Geronimo’ in Spanish) to save them from this apparently unstoppable warrior, or from their mispronunciation of his name.

From that time, there are stories (some might be true, some apocryphal) of his name being shouted out during the daring attacks and escapes that were a feature of his decades of armed resistance to the Mexicans and then to US forces. In 1886, his band of 38 became one of the last to end their resistance and surrender.

He became a prisoner, and his story might have ended there, but for an unexpected turn early in the 20th century. Well into his seventies, Geronimo became a celebrity. While still a prisoner, he was invited to participate in the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair and, with presidential permission, he did. From there, his fame grew. He rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905 and dictated an autobiography.

All this probably kept the interest in him and his story going after his death in 1909. With his story popular and well documented, in 1939 it was turned into a movie. There was also a song of the name around at the time.

Coincidentally, it was around this time that the parachute came to be seen not just as something to be used in emergencies, but also as a way to drop troops into action. Some of the first jumps occurred at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1940 and it was there that the troops – with the movie and/or song and Geronimo’s bold deeds in their heads – took to shouting ‘Geronimo’ when they jumped. By 1941, with the permission of Geronimo’s family, ‘Geronimo’ was incorporated into the insignia of the US Army’s first parachute regiment (the 501st infantry) and war coverage of the exploits of paratroopers had made their call of ‘Geronimo’ common knowledge.

That fixed it in the public mind for at least decades. And then Sheppard came along and pushed the name up in the public consciousness again.

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On cuts to the ABC …

Last year, I had the chance to be involved in the development of a TV series. I was flown to Sydney for two days in the offices of a big production company. I worked with people I respected, I learned plenty and, I hope, I contributed something. But there was a moment mid-morning on the first day that stood out, probably only to me.

We had the network bosses there for an hour or two and one of them, as we were talking through the practicalities of the show said, ‘One of the great things about this is that it could be be set anywhere. Literally anywhere. Sydney or Melbourne.’ For once, in the face of comments like this, I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t point out that Australia isn’t a country comprising two cities only, total population 9 million. (Yes, that’s right, the broader Australian definition of ‘literally anywhere’ includes almost 15 million other people, ie, 60% of the population.) But the speaker works for a commercial TV network. He has no obligation to think otherwise. He has an obligation to shareholders. It’s possible he only thinks about places as far away as Parramatta because people have TVs there and he needs them to be watching his network. He knows how to make a TV series in Sydney or Melbourne, he knows the people he would use, so why wouldn’t those two places be at the top of his mind?

This is partly why we need the ABC, and partly why we should be resourcing it to do more, and to broaden its geographic production reach, rather than making changes that are going to narrow its scope further. From where I sit, I’m already not sure it’s able to do its job. As far as TV goes, it already feels rather too focused on the 9 million than on the whole almost 24 million of us. Other than news and current affairs, it already has only one TV production unit outside Sydney and Melbourne, and that will now close.

When the ABC stretched to create channel 24 without any additional expenditure, the result was mostly impressive for a zero budget channel, but at times the constraints showed. The breakfast news program offers the best news coverage going, but there have been occasions when I’ve preferred to think of it as In Melbourne Today. The regular in-studio commentators seemed to all be from Melbourne, and I have to admit I once stopped watching for months after one of them referred to the Australia beyond NSW and Victoria as ‘the outlying states’. It was enough to make me veer unwillingly towards becoming one of those grumps who places far too much importance on place-name pronunciation (the Warrego River isn’t pronounced to scan like or rhyme with ‘virago’ – the emphasis is on the first syllable, dammit). That’s what happens when you’re continually getting the message that you’re from somewhere of less importance.

Why does this matter now? Because Malcolm Turnbull says the ABC budget can be cut without affecting programming and Mark Scott says it can’t. That suggests at least one of them doesn’t know how to run a national broadcaster. Mark Scott is cutting, and one of the things to go is the state-based 7.30 shows. This show should be state-based every night of the week – and once was – drawing on the most relevant and important stories from other states. It’s more recently been national, with a state-based show on Friday nights only. It’s going to be cut. Here’s one instance of why it’s important.

When the LNP was elected in Qld in 2012, the Barrett Centre – the state’s specialist inpatient psychiatric facility for adolescents – was scheduled to move to a new facility which had yet to be built but for which land had been allocated. Under the LNP government, that land has been sold and the Barrett Centre closed, despite protests and warnings (from stakeholders and experts) that lives were at stake. It was a centre of last resort for teenagers with significant mental illness. In its 30 years of operation, no Barret inpatient or recently discharged patient took their own lives. Within months of the new government’s closure of the centre, despite reassurances that Barret patients would receive top-quality care, three of them had suicided.

The national 7.30 show had four nights a week to cover that story, but I haven’t seen it do it. The state-based 7.30 team have treated it as the serious story it is, covering it twice that I know of, performing multiple interviews and using right-to-information laws to reveal behind-the-scenes details. The coroner is now investigating.

This is what journalism is for. It’s what the ABC is for. It’s one of the things we will lose with these cuts. If that were not the case, 7.30 could have given it national coverage on just about any Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday this year. It didn’t.

Perhaps the national 7.30 show meets the needs of the member for Wentworth and the member for Warringah, but the ABC doesn’t belong only to them, or to the other 9 million people in Sydney and Melbourne. As far as I’m aware, we’re all funding it.

The ABC needs to be national, state- and territory-based and even local in both its base and its reach. It needs that for news, current affairs, drama and everything else. I can accept when a commercial network drama boss doesn’t think to make a city-based show outside Sydney and Melbourne – I don’t like it, but I can accept it – but the ABC should be the exception.

Am I saying there’s no scope to do things more economically at the ABC? No. I don’t know the organisation’s finances inside out. The only work I’ve done for the ABC has been on local radio, where I can say staffing levels are lean and pay packets don’t match the commercial equivalents. People in ABC local radio aren’t in it for the money, and they provide a service that no one else comes close to duplicating.

I’ve seen pieces saying that Fairfax faced bigger cuts, so the ABC should suck it up. Fairfax is not the ABC. Fairfax is a for-profit company that has old media at its foundations and the rivers of gold of classified advertising have dried up. It’s a different suite of products, a different model and it serves different masters.

And don’t get me started on election promises, and how this funding cut isn’t a broken one.

Here’s Tony Abbott in 2011, when in opposition: ‘It is an absolute principle of democracy that governments should not and must not say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards.’

Tony Abbott on election eve in 2013: ‘no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.’

Tony Abbott today: ‘This a government which has fundamentally kept faith with the Australian people … Members opposite thought that the ABC was the one institution that shouldn’t be subject to an efficiency dividend. We think it should be subject to the efficiency dividend. The ABC should not be exempted from the kind of measures that are being applied to almost every other part of government. We never promised special treatment for the ABC or the SBS.’

You promised ‘no cuts’, and don’t go telling me I’m too stupid to understand the meaning of something as clear and unequivocal as that. Even if it was reasonable for Malcolm Turnbull to find room for interpretation in a guarantee two words long, his justification was that Tony Abbot meant no cuts to services. And the direct response to the budget cut is a cut to services. This is not merely some back-office tinkering.

Centralising of our urban dramas, the closure of the last non-news TV production unit outside Sydney and Melbourne, loss of state 7.30s, the shunting of Lateline – these are not efficiency dividends. They are cuts to programming, a narrowing of scope and out of keeping with the charter of the ABC. They might not all have an impact in Sydney’s northern beaches or eastern suburbs or Ultimo, but a lot of us – most of us – live elsewhere. News, drama and every other kind of content happen where we are too. The ABC has an obligation to be part of that.

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Cats and the Internet – a Review

Of all the unintended consequences of progress – or perhaps that’s just change – I don’t think any of us could have predicted the impact of the internet on cats. Yes, cats.

Just when they’d breathed a collective sigh of relief that they were no longer widespread subjects of suspicion as medieval witches’ familiars, black cats have found themselves in trouble again. Apparently, they don’t work out as well in selfies, and this is seeing them dumped in increasing numbers for allegedly more selfie-genic tabbies and gingers. Among the burgeoning universe of First World Problems, having to turf your wrong-coloured kitty onto the roadside in order to crank up your selfie virality must rate pretty highly.

Displaced onto a mountaintop in northern Iraq with no food or water and extremists closing in to massacre you? Sure, that’d suck. But when I take a photo of my cat all you can see are its eyes, dammit. Can’t you feel my pain?

Maybe the pressure on cats to boost the appeal of their owners’ selfies wouldn’t be quite so great if it hadn’t been for their dominance in another corner of the internet. While quirky cats pics go back almost to the birth of photography – the Victorians were right into it, putting cats in crinoline skirts and captioning whimsically – it wasn’t until 2007 that a cat first lolled us with a line as winning as ‘I can haz cheezburger’.

It was only with the arrival of the internet that we learned (a) cats can talk (b) thay don no sheet about gramr and spayling and (c) that combo is pretty much a guaranteed crack-up. The web now has close to 15 million hits worth of lolcats. Seriously, if you’re a cat and you’re not lolling, you’re not up to much. Expect to be kicked to the kerb.

But lolcats don’t just haz cheezburger. They’re into everything now. Ceiling Cat is no longer merely watching you attend to your personal needs – Ceiling Cat now has a Bible in her/his language. That’s right. By 2010, the Bible had been translated into lolcat. It’s only a matter of time before, among the John 3:16 crowd clustered at the 18th green at Augusta, we see a tabby holding a sign that reads ‘So liek teh Ceiling Kitteh lieks teh ppl lots and he sez “Oh hai I givez u me only kitteh and ifs u beleeves him u wont evr diez no moar, kthxbai!”’

Is this what the founding parents of the webz were thinking when they bunged together a bunch of networks in the early seventies and realised they’d begun a thing they called ‘internetworking’?

No. Surely they were thinking, hey, if this works out really well, maybe a bunch of people like us will get together over the wires and do something awesomely useful like … translate the Bible into Klingon. Not to worry. Work on that mighty task began in 1994 and continues to this day, though hampered somewhat by the wiki crowd being distracted by hilarious pics of non-black cats, and Klingons lacking any concept of, or word for, God.

(This piece first appeared in Monday’s mX in Australia.)

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Travelling Tight – Three Work Travel Habits I Finally Need to Share (or Confess)

A work life involving a lot of plane travel and hotels can throw a lot of routines out. Or entrench them, and add a few more. For better or worse, I’m in the latter category.

At home I aim to get a run in every day. On a work trip I plan and scheme and go to far more trouble to make it happen, even if I find myself heading at night to the hotel gym, or getting dressed in my hotel room in Melbourne in July waiting for just enough of a hint of dawn to let me head out into the single degree temps for a brisk lap of the Tan.

I’ve made no secret of the running, but here are three valuable things I’ve learned through book tours that I think it’s time I passed on. It’s probably no coincidence that each of them either saves money or gets me something for nothing.

1. The Shampoo Cocktail
Let’s face it – if you’ve got straightforward hair, the differences between most shampoos get down to advertising, and where they erroneously place the acute symbol to make the name look French (try to at least pick a vowel, please). Other than that, I accept that some are creamy and some are clear. But, inconsequential tweaks in fragrance aside, that’s about it.

On the advice of an expert publicist late last century, I keep a toilet bag permanently packed, since it’s much easier than rounding up the individual items each time. Actually, I have two – a seriously compact one for two- or three-days trips and a full one for longer. In neither do I have room for massive amounts of shampoo.

Welcome to the shampoo cocktail. Four- and five-star hotels will always provide shampoo. Even quite a few motels do. So, my first step on arriving in any hotel room with a free creamy shampoo – I prefer creamy over clear – is to top up the bottle in my toilet bag, if it needs it.

Not only is the hair wash no different, but I try to kid myself into thinking the subtle shift of the fragrance with each addition keeps things interesting. And of course, it comes with my preferred budgetary implications: it’s free. In a year in which both the hotels and I are on top of our games, my travel shampoo budget is zero.

2. The Hot Chocolate
The four- or five-star hotel room comes with a notoriously over-priced minibar and a selection of free beverages – regulation teabags, coffee sachets or perhaps a vacuum-sealed lump of coffee for a plunger and two plump sachets of gourmet hot chocolate powder.

Step two after arrival, once my shampoo is topped up, is to place the two hot chocolate sachets in my bag. I tell myself I’m taking them home as a gift for my four-year-old son. And then, in transit, I decide the last thing he needs in his life is more hot chocolate. So, when I get home, I sneak them into the pantry behind the little-accessed Obscure Teas of the World section and from time to time, when it’s just me here on a workday, I drink the hot chocolates myself.

If you think I’m being mean to my son, tell yourself I bought him a dinosaur at the airport. Or a Mr Men book.

The point is, the gourmet hot chocolate in your room is yours to keep. The hotel wants you to take it. Don’t make them sad.

3. Room Laundry
I’ve saved the best till last. I run every day I can so, even on a short work trip, I generate my share of stinky clothes. Do I ask the hotel to launder them? No. At their prices, it would be cheaper for me to bin them and buy new ones but, even if that wasn’t a consideration, there’s every chance I’m moving on the next day, and I can’t tour the country leaving unfinished laundry in my wake. So, that means room laundry.

Room laundry is a science, and should be approached as such. It works for many items, but is at its best for manky running clothes. The return is huge (they’re not great if left unwashed) and, for running clothes, laundry standards don’t have to be particularly high to be more than good enough. On a longer trip, I might have some travel laundry detergent and handwash other items, but for running clothes on shortish trips, I take them in the shower after the run, rinse them in the soap/shampoo run-off, while stamping all over them and continuing until the water runs clear.

Then I wring them out good and hard, and here’s the bit you have to play close attention to: next, I spread a fresh towel out on the floor, spread my clothes out flat on the towel and then roll it up tightly lengthwise. Then I put a foot on one end of the towel, pick up the other and stand and twist the towel, putting some effort into it.

Then I shake the clothes from the towel and they’re most of the way to dry. If you can hang them overnight, they’ll dry every time. If you have to leave right away, you’re packing them merely damp in a plastic bag, and hanging them out can be agenda item 3 in your next hotel room later that day.

This system is close to perfect, but there’s one warning I have to give. The stamping, wringing and towel-twisting all involve exertion. If you’ve just been for a run and get dressed before the wringing and towel-twisting, there’s a real risk you’ll drench your fresh clothes with a new load of sweat. In the interests of not sweating out your clothes and not overheating and sweating when you least want to, room laundry is best performed nude.

Over-sharing? I’m not including pictures.

It’s a great system, but there is a risk. There’s always the fear that a well-intentioned staff member will appear while you’re mid-twist, and you’ll look like you’re doing some strange erotic dance, naked and wrestling a white towel snake of your own making. It’s not easy to explain anything to a stranger while fully nude, and particularly not easy to explain this.

In real life, I will continue to claim I have avoided such an encounter, though I’ve come dangerously close at times. I should really give a lot more thought to the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door, but when I get to my room on a tour I don’t have much mind left.

In fiction, though, I could go beyond the near miss. In making Andrew Van Fleet in Analogue Men a work-travel veteran, I could give him my approach to room laundry, but also give myself the liberty of a very different set of consequences …

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My Half-Arsed Book Cover Idea That You’ll Never See

With every book in the months before publication, there’s a wholehearted debate about the cover that no one else ever gets to hear about. This time, for the first time for me, that debate involved buttocks. Buttocks play a role in Analogue Men. Several roles, but this was more than that. I’d done that thing no one really wants the author to do. I’d had a cover idea.

Australians of a certain age might remember the archetypal compilation album of the 70s, Ripper ’76. For those of a non-Australian disposition, let me hasten to clarify that ‘ripper’ is, or was, actually a good thing. Not a late-19th-century murderer of London sex workers, or anything else untoward. Back in the 70s in Australia, to say something was a ripper meant that you approved of it highly.

Which meant that, when Polystar was rounding up twenty of the hottest hits of that year for an album, Ripper ’76 seemed like a ripper of a title. And that created the cover opportunity that led to this:

Ripper 76 Front Cover

It was bursting with wrongness, it was the landmark crass compilation album cover of its time and it was the closest a 13-year-old boy could get to having porn legitimately in the house. The album, sure, it was a great way to have all those songs for one price, but the cover … whoah.

Here’s how it goes in the novel, when my character finds the album in the present, aged 49:

It’s my first close look at it in years, and you can see goosebumps on the cover model’s skin. It was long before photoshop, so the track titles are probably actual writing on an actual buttock, exposed by a savage tear in the short white shorts. In the mid-70s, that album cover bore the promise of some great seamy life waiting in a cooler place beyond the trap of the suburbs. Hip people, shredding clothes, scrawling on butt. Guys lounging in spas with awesome moustaches and proud animal coats of body hair, girls who only ever bought the bottom halves of bikinis and lost them soon enough. All of them high on the kinds of stuff we were lectured about at school, with the record player in the corner pumping out the seductive beats of Ripper ’76.

At some point – and this is where it gets dangerous – an idea occurred to me about something other than the words. A cover idea. An idea that would be striking and familiar to some, and that would send the comedy signal loud and clear, and turn the sexism of Ripper ’76 on its head. And take ageism down at the same time. I wanted a book cover just like Ripper ’76, but with a 49-year-old male buttock emerging from the shredded shorts, with ‘Analogue Men’ written across it.

Not my buttock obviously, since it’s spectacularly toned from all that running and would send entirely the wrong message. A somewhat saggy stunt buttock. A buttock of some anonymous Random House gent of appropriate vintage, because that’s the way publishers used to do it, back when they shot book covers rather than going to image libraries. (One of my editors actually appears on one of my older novels and, long before Underbelly and Offspring, Kat Stewart’s eye apparently featured on one Penguin book cover when she was a publicist there.)

I knew the cover would have its risks. It would only be recognised by some people in their 40s and 50s and the book, I hope, has a readership older and younger than that too. Even then, it was no guaranteed winner whether you recognised it or not. It’d certainly stand out, but would it stand out even slightly in a good way? Also, the discount department stores would run a mile, and they’re 30% of the book industry here now. But would they take the book even with a DDS-friendly cover? That’s maybe a separate question, but why put great effort into meeting their cover expectations if they weren’t going to stock the book anyway? Go for broke. Give the indies something genuinely indie. So the logic went.

Whatever. Once the idea was had, it was had, and it wouldn’t go back in its box. I couldn’t keep quiet and idly accept a straightforward cover when the most dramatic, most noticeable and possibly most awful cover ever was in my head.

I put it to my publisher, and I backed it to the hilt. I told her I wanted her to take it to a covers meeting. If it was going to go down, it was going to down with smoke and flames gushing from its one remaining short leg. It wasn’t just going to peter out in an email exchange between two people and glide silently out of view.

Okay, I knew it would probably never get up, but I wanted it raised anyway. I wanted to send a clear signal within Random House of the kind of book this was and how I wanted to to be handled, and that I wanted something that would really stand out on shelves.

So, how did it fare?

A few of the Ripper-era people in the covers meeting laughed and the younger people were appalled. That’s the actual word used – appalled. There’s no reason not to speak frankly about these things. Apparently, no one in the meeting would pick up a book with a bare male buttock on the cover. It wasn’t the time to ask if the same would apply to female buttocks.

Here’s the cover the book got instead:

analogue men cover

That’s the result of exploring my second idea, that of working with the title. My actual suggestion had been to create an eye-catching logical inconsistency by, for example, having a man using the mouthpiece and earpiece of a circa-1900 phone, with the leads connected to a smartphone instead of a walnut box with a rotary dial. But an image library could give us the guy and the cracked tablet, so we went for that. It’s eye-catching. It’s ‘guy versus tech’, or at least perplexed by it. It tells you something about what’s inside.

But what would have happened if that Random House covers meeting had inexplicably embraced my idea, taken pen to age-appropriate male butt and given me the cover I’d suggested?

You’d notice it, but would you run a mile? Would you think I’d lost it?

How do you think the book might have fared?

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How a Book Tour Really Works: a Story in Three Meals

BREAKFAST – SOFITEL ON COLLINS, MELBOURNE
Terence, the guest relations manager, has welcomed you with a hand-written note, chocolates and a fruit platter. You ate most of it the night before, but take the final two chocolates with you as you head to the lift for your morning run, when there’s just enough light outside. On the way out of the hotel, and again half an hour later after your lap of the Tan, the top-hatted concierge greets you by name.

Before you shower, you order the Japanese breakfast to be delivered to your room. It turns out to be perfect, and here’s how it looks.
IMG_4011
This is the book tour, right? It’s the book tour fantasy, and it’s true enough, but it’s not the whole story.

LUNCH – BP SERVO, SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE GEELONG
You’re cutting it fine on tour, always. Time is money, not because they’re paying you anything but because everything else costs plenty – you have a publicist on the road, two hotel rooms everywhere you stay, meals, cabs, the author jagging an extra coffee or snack at every opportunity. Field one question too many at the end of an event and the clock’s against you.

You stand with your publicist in the carpark outside a Geelong shopping centre neither of you has ever been to before. There’s a Macca’s and a Gloria Jeans. The Aldi might do takeaway salads – some do – but it turns out this one doesn’t. They do want to check your backpack thoroughly on the way out though, so now the clock’s even more against you. It’s after two, the spectacular Japanese breakfast was a while ago and you have a plane to catch. So you drive, and you’ll figure it out along the way.

You have 5 minutes to stop and buy food, but not 10 to stop and eat it. A BP servo appears. You pick up a chilli chicken rap – 3 of your 5 minutes is allocated to the toasting of the wrap – and your publicist buys a bag of chips for later, since she’ll be at the wheel. It didn’t seem plausible that you could feel even slightly like a diva because of a chilli chicken wrap from a BP servo, but you do, because only one of you gets to eat something resembling a meal, and the tour code says it’s you. And, all credit to the BP servo, the wrap’s pretty tasty.

DINNER – SKY INDIAN RESTAURANT, AUCHENFLOWER, BRISBANE
You get to the airport with minutes to spare, only to discover your departure’s delayed 15 minutes and then 25. They say there’s a tailwind, so they’ll make most of it up in the air. You know they will do that, but still just miss their slot and therefore do several laps of Brisbane before landing, thereby negating any advantage from the tailwind. You are half an hour late off the plane. The big family dinner started 40 minutes before. You knew you’d be late, but hoped you’d miss the ordering rather than the food.

Everyone’s finished when you get there, but the staff microwave a plate of food that’s thoughtfully been set aside for you. Your family waits patiently while you shove it down. It’s ten minutes in a parallel universe. They’re up to post-meal chat, you’ve just got your plate. You’re a table of one who has just arrived, co-located with a table of 10 who will soon be leaving. There’s a half-glass of wine left in a nearby bottle and 1cm of water in a jug, so you claim them both.

And that, in one day’s meals, is the book tour. Luxury, expediency and dislocation. Sure, there’s the job going on as well (interviews, events, bookstores, meeting people who actually like your work …), but the life of the book tour takes up the time around it.

Years ago, I’d fantasised about the book tour and what it would be like. The fantasy is precisely true, for a smallish percentage of the time. As high a percentage as the publicist can manage, but the itinerary doesn’t make it easy. So each day swings between five-star and ‘would you like unleaded with that?’ and stumbling back in late to family life.

But the problems are all first-world problems, I realise, and the Japanese breakfast was real and, yes, Sofitel on Collins, I’d be happy to say it couldn’t really have been better. And authors have imaginations. In the author’s mind, that can be the whole tour and the author a comfortably-dressed emperor gliding through it from one spectacular meal, one top-hatted concierge, to the next.

At one level, just about every author is a wannabe rockstar, and these are the fleeting moments when we can tell ourselves it’s true. Even if the rockstars trash the room, and we leave it barely untidy, putting some vaguely undesirable character in there later when the room finds its way into our fiction. Some misanthrope or narcissist, getting big big ideas about themselves on account of a well-made breakfast.

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Fixing a Novel in a Changing Time – and Getting the Body Hair Right

‘Why do headphones have to be so damned small?!?!’ That’s a line from a festival session blurb connected with my novel Analogue Men and the fear and grumpiness that comes with the feeling that technology is outpacing us. Why the fear and grumpiness? If technology is outpacing us, then so perhaps are younger people, fashion, work, language, cuisine, etiquette and who knows what else. And that line stands out from the blurb because headphones have already bigged up again. It’s a classic analogue moment, railing against a change that’s already changed again.

Analogue Men features iPads and other devices with earbud headphones. In the planning stages, a few years ago, earbud headphones spoke clearly of young people. In those early notes, they might even have been attached to iPods rather than iPads. At the same time, Jimmy Iovine (a 61-year-old who’s as digital as can be) and Dr Dre were ramping up Beats Electronics, rebelling against the crappy bud sound and building some mighty sets of cans that looked retro but gave amazing audio. When I wrote the novel, their early models were starting to get come traction. When I edited it I looked at the earbuds and thought ‘Would Jack be using Beats by now?’

But questions like that are a recipe for tail-chasing – a novel has a time and a place, and that’s okay. My kind of novel – at least the kind like Zigzag Street, Bachelor Kisses, Perfect Skin or Analogue Men – has to be written to take a snapshot of its now, and then it has to take its chances, both in the moment it’s published and the months and years to follow.

We are vain, naïve or recklessly optimistic if we set out to write for posterity at all, because posterity doesn’t take an interest in much. I’m lucky enough that Zigzag Street is still finding new readers as a book soon to turn 18. In it, Jerry Seinfeld rates a mention, along with discussion of his girlfriend, with whom he broke up the following year. No one in 2014 throws the book at a wall because that fact stopped being a fact in 1997.

Still, publishers are sometimes anxious about books dating, despite most of them now having the shelf-life of yoghurt (the books, not the publishers, mostly).

Early in Analogue Men, the central character turns up to start his new job managing a radio station. Behind the reception desk is Venice (pronounced Vuh-neece). Early in the planning of the novel, Venice was wearing tight low-rider jeans which, when crouching, revealed a tramp stamp tattoo and G-string T-bar. Andrew, the central character, can’t help but have his eyes drawn in that direction. Awkwardness might ensue. I was focused on the (admittedly minor) awkward comic potential, and forgot to factor in the change in fashion between planning and writing. My publisher picked it up. The meaning of Venice’s fashion choice had changed. To have her dressed that way now (2013, the ‘now’ of the novel) would mark her as out of date, unaware. It would be telling people something I wasn’t setting out to tell them. So the low-riders and the T-bar needed to go.

But our bigger debate concerned pubic hair. There’s discussion of pubic hair removal in the novel. Widespread removal of pubic hair is one of the things that perplexes Andrew about the contemporary world – Gwyneth Paltrow having recently been in possession of some was news at the time (news: having pubic hair recently was news) – and I had a variety of ways I could make the topic pay off in the novel. But my publisher told me pubic hair is back. In fact she said “When our [insert title of senior Random House staff member here] returned from her summer holidays in January 2012 she said ‘what is wrong with young women now, they have gone all untidy.’ When we enquired, she meant they no longer went to the waxing extremes that had been around for a while. Anecdotally, younger people don’t seem as afraid of pubic hair as Gen Y’s and some X’s were.”

So I did what I did when my agent suggested removing the fart jokes from Zigzag Street, but I knew they had to stay. I called for reinforcements. In Zigzag Street I went for the noble history of the fart joke extending at least as far back as Rabelais. In Analogue Men, I called on Robyn, Andrew’s GP wife, who can quote genuine studies saying that the pubic louse is at risk in the US due to widespread pubic depilation among college students. While some cool young people might be going old-school down there, there are waxing salons all over the place keeping this topic in business, for now at least.

So, in Analogue Men, iPads are invading the house, the headphones are still earbuds, the future of commercial radio (of many things) is the subject of debate, the old Gold Coast Hospital is run-down but not yet shut, Amanda Bynes has recently made that unfortunate remark about a rapper and her intimate parts, Justin Bieber has just outed himself as the world’s least appropriate monkey owner. It’s 2013 in the inner western suburbs of Brisbane and at the Gold Coast, and that’s how it is.

It will still make complete sense in 2014. It will still work as a version of now. I can’t say how much of it will work in 2032 and how much will be like referring to Jerry Seinfeld as dating Shoshanna Lonstein. Of course I’ll be happy if it still works at all for new readers then, but the job I faced was to write it for now. For us, now. Same plan as with Zigzag Street in 1995.

And how is it working now? I’ve just seen this review from Carolyn, an avid Dymocks Adelaide reader:
‘Have you found yourself gazing out of café windows wishing you were more interesting to your companion that the latest celebrity tweet that keeps them glued to their phone screen over coffee? Or maybe you think that life might just be too short to perfect the lighting and plating up of your latest steak and chips so you don’t miss a photo-op and the all-important chance to increase the number of ‘friends’ who ‘like’ your dinner. Don’t worry, you are not the only one wondering if the modern world is really all it’s cracked up to be – Nick Earls gets it. In Nick’s latest novel – Analogue Men – Andrew Van Fleet is struggling to reconnect with his techno-savvy wife, kids and even his dad, who buys iPads in 6-packs. His family has passionately embraced the Digital Age, leaving him way behind while he has been absent overseas for work. Andrew is trying desperately to find a relevant place for himself within his family as he rapidly approaches 50 – his ‘wagyu years’. This is an extremely funny novel and very entertaining. So if you actually remember what it feels like to laugh out loud before it became a tired acronym – this book is for you.’

So, no guarantees, but there’s some author relief in knowing that, at least once, it’s worked exactly the way it said on the box.

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