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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Some New Books (new to the non-ANZ world at least)

Almost three years ago, I turned my hand to crime. Crime fiction, at least. Actually, not even precisely crime fiction. Fiction with a crime in it. The idea had been on my mind for years, on and off, but in mid-2011 the end result was published in Australia and New Zealand as the novel The Fix.

In one sense, it sends my kind of character into a place characters like mine don’t usually go, and that’s a good reason to become interested in writing something. I wanted it to have its comic moments, I wanted to get the characters right, but in this case I also wanted to weave in a kind of storyline I’d never tried before.

At first, I wrote it as a film script, since I could picture it, from its opening chopper shot to its awkward conversations in city offices to its minigolf at the Gold Coast. But the producer wanted to get more out of that chopper if he was paying for it, and from that came a much more interesting ending and a sudden clear understanding of the novel it might be.

Here’s how the Australian reviewed it and the Sydney Morning Herald wrote about it in 2011.

So why am I bringing it up now? Amazon approached me late last year asking if I’d do something directly with them. They wanted to release it – whatever it was to be – as an ebook and print-on-demand, and they had a promotional plan. And I thought it was time to give The Fix a run in the 200-ish countries in which it hadn’t yet appeared.

So what happened next? Interesting process. I mailed a paperback copy to Luxembourg (who’d have thought?) for coding, selected an Amazon cover template and, rather than leaving it in their hands, I bought the kind of cover image I’d always wanted to try for the book (or at least the closest I could get, without having to stage a photoshoot or spend my year trawling through image libraries).

Here’s how it looks on the US Amazon Kindle store (though it’s also in the UK, German, French versions, etc, of Amazon, in English).

I got to nominate the pricepoints, and that’s a subject Will Entrekin at Exciting Press and I talk about quite a bit. I settled on $4.99 for the ebook and $8.99 for the paperback, with comparable prices in other markets.

Amazon is soon to start promoting it, but I thought I’d let non-ANZ readers know now.

On the subject of Will and Exciting Press, does this Amazon signing mean I’m no longer working with Will? Not at all. I plan to do plenty more with Will. The Amazon opportunity just seemed like one not to pass up, and it’s not blowing too big a secret to say that this could be a chance to draw new readers to my Exciting Press books. Speaking of which, a new one is due out in less than two weeks.

Will has worked out that, not only is Perfect Skin a sequel to Bachelor Kisses, it’s no coincidence that the two Ricks who appears in Zigzag Street (as the lead) and Bachelor Kisses (as the housemate) have things in common. Maybe they’re the same person, telling you his own story in 1995 and in the background of someone else’s in 1989.

With Will having successfully published Perfect Skin as an ebook in 2012 and then Zigzag Street in 2013, he realised that publishing Bachelor Kisses in 2014 would complete this undeclared trilogy in reverse chronological order. So, as of now, he’s putting its loose triloginess right out into the open, acknowledging the reverse publishing and calling the package Brisbane Rewound. The rewinding, and the trilogy, will be complete with the publication of Bachelor Kisses on May 15.

But that’s not all. (By now you’re picturing me as a blatant infomercialler on one of those channels you choose to flick through at high speed. I’ve just showcased my patented fat-free griller, I’ve thrown in some tongs and a fork and I’m about to add an apron with my face on it for the people lucky enough to be the first 100 callers to read their credit card number to me all the way to the 16th digit.)

My 25,000-ish word novella The Heart of Robert the Bruce is now also available outside Australia. There’s quite a story behind it, which I can now update. Next month, a paper copy of Welcome to Normal, the Australian collection featuring the novella, will be added to the collection at the Teba Museum in Spain, becoming itself a small footnote to a fascinating piece of history. Plus, the novella is now available outside ANZ in two ways. It’s free from Gary Montague if you stay at his B&B – anyone who takes the trouble to go to Andalucia to pick up a story set there deserves to save their three bucks – while for anyone not in Gary’s villa, Australia or New Zealand, it’s now available as an Exciting Press ebook, formatted for a range of devices.

For anyone in Australia or New Zealand who is tired of reading about works not brand new in their countries, I’ll have a new novel for you in eight weeks. It’ll be called Analogue Men and it’ll be a comedy. I’m finally ready to play around again with a version of my turn-of-the-millennium style, this time with a character in his 40s.

Thanks for lasting this long. Please enjoy the apron with my face on it. Okay, there’s no apron, but the first 20 purchasers of The Fix will at least have the warm feeling of knowing they helped pay for the photo I bought for the cover. Thanks for that.

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Four Times a Knight is Barely Enough

Okay, I admit I’ve dallied with republicanism (more than dallied – you might have seen the pictures of the two us?), but now that there are serious gongs on offer up to four times a year, I’m of course prepared to reconsider. And don’t try telling me I’m the only republican doing that.

Here’s my problem. No, here are my two problems. The first is specific to only a few of us. I already have a family name that outranks a knight, so Sir Nick Earls risks feeling like a bit of a downgrade. To acknowledge pre-eminent contribution in my peculiar circumstances, I’ll have to be made at least a Marquess. Don’t get me started on what to do with people called King. You’d be better off leaving now.

This leads me, sort of, to problem number two. While the Prime Minister’s grace note trilled as majestically as a hymn in the throat of an ageing English vicar, if it please you, Sir Tony, might it only be the start? Why stop at knights and dames, and a maximum of four of them a year, when centuries of somewhat dusty chivalry are waiting to be polished up anew?

Fortunately, at least one further step might already be underway. Today Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy called for Queensland to resume naming its own knights and dames. Before any of you fine-print fiends start pointing out that state governments can’t appoint anyone to the Order of Australia and the whole K&D thing is entirely in the PM’s back pocket (because that’s our democratico-feudal system at its best), there’s plenty of scope for Queensland’s adventurously retro government to do their bit.

The British have the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, used to reward the great contributions of many worthy citizens (as well as an excellent chance to slap a badge on the chest of a prince just because, and an opportunity to recognise the statespersonship of international leaders such as Josip Tito and Robert Mugabe). We’re into showers more than baths in Queensland, so maybe we could start up the Most Honourable Order of the Shower, with the most humble rank, Companion of the Shower to be awarded to all those rugby league stars who spend their hard-earned on one of those his’n’hers double showers you always seem to see in the real estate ads when they sell their mansions.

Or maybe we could make a move on the Order of St Patrick, still in existence but sadly effectively dormant since the Irish opted to go their own way on 1921. Not quite true – there were a couple more chances to sling these knighthoods the way of some princes in the 1930s (royals do seem to stumble upon these titles rather a lot, don’t they, but maybe they’re just great contributors), but other than that the Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick is going nowhere. Queensland, this could be the one for us. How about it, Sir Campbell? Sir Jarrod?

Or maybe we could take our rightful turns at a few of the better royal sinecures on offer. For 800 years or so, Britain has had a Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, given to an older person prepared to wear tights and exercise ‘power of muster’ in, um, fourteen ports on England’s south coast (yes, I know fourteen’s not exactly cinque but don’t be picky). Eight centuries, and how many Australians have held the role? One. Put your hand up, Queensland. Or maybe they won’t let us take that one, since we’d be likely to privatise the ports …

So, how about Keeper of the Queen’s Swans? Such a big job that in 1993 they split it into two – the Warden and Marker of the Swans respectively. And how many Australians have been favoured by appointment? None that I’m aware of. I’m confident we could mark a swan as well as anybody. And ward them, to the extent such a thing might be called for.

Or better still, we could bring back the office of Chafe-Wax, dormant since 1852 (which has me wondering how on earth the Lord Chancellor fixes wax to his documents these days).

And surely it’s about time the Earl of Denbigh and Desmond accepted that being a double earl is more than enough and stepped aside to give a Queenslander a crack at being the Grand Carver of England.

And don’t tell me that, after 948 years in the role, it isn’t time for the Lord of the Manor of Scrivelsby to step aside and let one of us be Queen’s Champion? I can’t say precisely what you need to be a champion at, but it’s a genuine official role and we’re a versatile bunch and surely able to cover whatever it asks for.

Mere knights and dames, Lord PM? Please try harder. Or let the Dukes of Ashgrove and Kawana lead the way in Queensland. There’s a whole exotic semi-royal future waiting for us to leap back to.

Now, who’s first in line for a title, sadly defunct since 1914 but until then ranking in the Order of Precedence ahead of a Companion of the Bath, if you don’t mind? Yes, I’m talking of the quasi-judicial office of Master of Lunacy. Could be a great time for us to get ourselves a few of those.

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On to the ablogatory Part 5: Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses

Source of book: second recommendation from Fiona Stager at Avid Reader in Brisbane on 29 Dec 2013 (again I paid RRP)
Text below : new

This is not the first book I’ve seen where someone in the publishing house has gone for something funky design-wise and cut out a chunk of the cover, but it’s a hardback and I think that’s less common. It is, though, the first book with all its back-cover text on a deliberately removable sticker, in case the aesthetics of a blurb, quotes and a barcode aren’t for you. I have a wardrobe full of T shirts that suggests aesthetics and I don’t usually see eye-to-eye, but I’m not going to object to people trying something different. The publisher in this case is McSweeney’s, so some rule-breaking when it comes to cover design is no surprise. It might add to the experience for some, and it didn’t detract from it for me (aside from a few wussy moments when the pointy bits of the front cover board spiked my hand).

So, to business. How about a blurb: ‘Lucy Corin’s dazzling new collection is powered by one hundred apocalypses: a series of short stories, many only a few lines, that illuminate moments of vexation and crisis, revelations and revolutions. An apocalypse might come in the form of the end of a relationship or the end of the world, but what it exposes is the tricky landscape of our longing for a clean slate. Three longer, equally visionary stories round out the collection.

At once mournful and explosively energetic, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses makes manifest the troubled conscience of an uneasy time.’

Don’t expect normal from this book, and I mean that in a good way. This is way down the narrowest, pointiest, nichiest end of the niche I like to call my reading home.

Did you ever read Shelia Heti’s The Middle Stories? It was a festival pick-up for me in Calgary in 2001, and I shared my copy around a few agents and publishers in Australia in the hope that they’d want to get on board. Too nichey, apparently.

Anyway, One Hundred Apocalypses had me thinking of that, and almost nothing else in my reading experience. They’re both books that have dazzled me, each containing many great glinting feats in the guise of small pieces of prose. I love this writing, could easily envy it, and yet I’ll never even try to do anything like it. Again. Perhaps I should say again. Perhaps I tried something like it with Passion in the early nineties, but not really. After that I realised characters were one of the things that count most for me when I’m writing – I invest a lot in them and they repay it with hard work, giving me all kinds of details I didn’t have and helping me find the shape of my story and the shapes within it. (Don’t worry – when pressed, I do know they’re not real.)

That’s not how Lucy Corin seems to work at all. It might be, but it doesn’t look like it. And she’s probably able to do all of that stuff, even if she seems to choose not to. Probably able to do all that writing stuff I try to do with 100% of my brain, while she’s simultaneously watching Breaking Bad, making quality linguine from scratch, contemplating small and large ends to worlds, and juggling six unlike objects adeptly with her other hand.

When it comes to writing, she’s probably able to do anything, and yet she’s chosen to do this – to flip a reader’s normal expectations of characters and story on their head (with a hand I didn’t even see), to create something whole while showing you its odd pieces, and to write it all with the sharpness of a diamond saw.

Beginning, middle, end? Blah, triple blah. Most of the time, it feels like that’s not really the game here, at least not in the regular way (by choice, and a smart choice too). The end result is genuinely and successfully artful, and the writing is brilliant.

And, yes, she too teaches creative writing (at UC Davis, in her case), but her MFA is from Brown, not Iowa, so don’t try telling me I don’t ever mix things up a bit.

I can’t think of one person in my face-to-face life to recommend this book to, but I can think of a couple of people who are likely to see this post and might end up thinking it’s their book of the year. Because, as I said 6000 words ago, it’s personal.

There is such a thing as merit, but what a book does in our brains is about more than that. I buy into the idea of reviews and rewards for the obvious shallow reasons – I’ll welcome any accolade anyone’s willing to give me, and any cash or sale that comes my way as a consequence. I’ll even buy in with a little more conviction than that (they can play a useful role in connecting with readers … we can some to some kind of collective understanding about merit, I suppose … on a handful of occasions, a review has nudged me to realise there’s something in my writing I want to make more of, or less …), but I can’t believe in them wholeheartedly. Sour grapes from someone who misses out on awards far more often than he wins them? Maybe. I’m game to put it to the test. Go ahead and throw half-a-dozen major awards my way quickly and we’ll see how I feel then. Apart from richer and smug.

Ask anyone who the fastest ever person in the world is over 100 or 200m and the answer right now can only be Usain Bolt. Ask 50 brilliant writers around the world for their picks as best book of 2013 – note, ‘best’, not ‘favourite’ – and, as the Guardian found, you’ll get about 48 different answers. Because, where books are concerned, even ‘best’ is personal, to some degree at least.

Welcome to Normal made one critic’s list of the best books of 2012. That meant a lot to me, and not because I was on a list. It meant a lot because I had an idea of what he liked and what he valued in fiction. Before the book was published, he was in my mind as my test case, however much I tried to talk myself out of loading one person’s reading up with any hopes like that. But he got it. I hit my mark. That counts.

It counts for a lot any rare time you light the fuse that sets off that brain firecracker I mentioned on Monday. Some readers have a book club of one, some have influence privileges and the chance to spread their views to thousands. Their readings have different commercial and career implications for the writer but, food on the table aside, the pay-off is the firecracker. The greatest thing is hearing occasionally that you’ve paid forward the favour that books did you in the first place, and continue to do you when the right book lands in your brain.

I’m ¾ of the way through One Hundred Apocalypses now, still with a few apocalypses to go. I have no idea how Lucy Corin does it and, after a lifetime of reading and decades of writing, it comes as a relief to be reminded once again how far I am from knowing everything, and to know that there will be other books ahead that will surprise me too.

Thanks for joining me this week, and for indulging me. May 2014 bring you at least one book that knocks you sideways, in the best possible way.

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Reading Blogblurt Part 4: Abby Geni’s The Last Animal

Source of book: recommendation from Fiona Stager at Avid Reader in Brisbane on 29 Dec 2013 (this time I paid RRP)
Text below : new

I pay close attention to Amazon, but I must admit I don’t think I’ve bought from Amazon. I realise this is the opposite of some people, who are terrestrial browsers and then online purchasers. But I pay close attention to Amazon because my living comes from books and I’m not in a position to ignore the biggest retailer in the world.

But I buy books relatively rarely – I’m fortunate to acquire books quite often without opening my wallet – and I enjoy the process of buying them, which features old-school browsing among physical books in physical book shops and sometimes conversation.

This, by the way, is not about to segue into an anti-ebook rant. At least some of you were starting to dread that the first homage to old-book smell was imminent, right? I am pro ebook. As a writer and reader, why would I not be in favour of technology that makes stories widely and easily available and often at a great price? I have no vessel bias when it comes to how stories arrive in the lives of readers. My own work is available as ebooks, and I am determined to do what I can to build on my toehold in that market, but that’s a story for another day. Or several other days. Oh, the book industry …

[valet passes smelling salts under nose, typing resumes …]

The web is a great source of info about books, but not designed for the kind of browsing I think of when I think of browsing. ‘People who bought this also bought that’ is no help, if they were also buying for grannie, or their two-year-old, or their dad who just can’t read enough about the siege of Stalingrad.

So, I like to visit bookshops, find my way to the shelves that feel most like my spiritual home, and pull a few books out and take a look at them my way, on my terms. Sometimes I’m looking for particular people, sometimes not. On 29 December, I wasn’t.

I’ll triage based on the obvious, such as covers, blurb and blurb quotes, though I’ve had a few books published, and am well versed in the art of selective review quoting on covers. I’m looking at what the commenter has chosen to talk about, rather than how hyperbolic they’ve been. Then I’ll read the first page. If that works for me, I’ll read more, here and there.

If there’s a bookseller in the shop who knows me and knows my tastes, I’ll ask for some tips. I specifically wanted short stories on 29 Dec, and to buy two books for the following week’s holiday reading. I put that to Fiona Stager and she showed me six or so to choose from.

This is why no one comes to me for tips on ‘holiday reading’. I’ve never had the inclination to lighten up my reading for holidays. If I’m reading, I’m reading, and I want it to be great. My kind of great. Watch me while I squeeze myself into quite a narrow niche here. What I love to read most is contemporary short/shortish fiction in the North American style. My book club therefore has one member, and it’s me going, ‘Wow, how great was that? How does that work?’ whenever something smart happens. And then, like every other book club, we eat pizza, drink a couple of glasses of wine and share salacious gossip.

Not that I’m requiring the books to be written by North Americans, but my reading of newly discovered fiction can sometimes be a little skewed towards thirty-year-old Iowa MFA grads with college teaching jobs and no more than two books behind them. I can immediately think of three Australians whose prose style fits my brief though – Tara June Winch, Krissy Kneen and Nam Le (with only one Iowa MFA among them, as far as I’m aware). I am quietly in awe of the sentences these writers manage to put together. They do precisely the things I’ve been talking of for the past couple of days, and that I tried my utmost to do with 2012’s Welcome to Normal.

I said there’d be more on that subject, but I’ll try to keep it brief. Yes, my love of the short stuff had been reawakened a few years ago, and I suddenly had a passion and a feel for it again. In 1999, I’d published Headgames, my second short story collection. Across its eighteen pieces, there was room for comedy, awkwardness, weirdness and maybe poignancy. It was generously received, and I’ve always appreciated that.

It sold 35,898 copies in Australia and New Zealand as a collection, before being sliced and diced and reissued in a variety of ebook ways more recently. It’s my only book sales figure I know for sure, and I know it because my agent added it up to give my publisher so that she could take it into the acquisitions meeting as ammo. A case needed to me made for them to sign up Welcome to Normal.

For one reason or another, they acquiesced, I got to write my collection of stories and novellas, I gave it everything I could, I thought I turned out some of the best writing of my life and the wary people at the acquisitions meeting turned out to be right. Sales were a small fraction of those of Headgames. Don’t ask me how small. Every six months, I shove the statements into the filing cabinet without looking at them and pretend the mail is yet to arrive for the day.

If I knew none of my own books, Welcome to Normal is the one I’d be most likely to read. So, I value every tweet/post/email/review/quote from anyone who got it and told me why it was great for them. And, by the way, brace yourselves for a shift in another direction, and the biggest comedy I’ve written in more than a decade, due out in July, in which I aim to take what I did with 20-something in Zigzag Street/Bachelor Kisses and 30-something in Perfect Skin and do it with 40-something in Analogue Men. Random House let me write a book for me and my niche buddies, so now I owe them something with a few prospects. Fortunately, it’s also a book I wanted to write.

‘But what of Abby Geni’s The Last Animal?’ I hear you ask, now that I’ve thrown the third bucket of cold water over you to rouse you from your me-induced stupor. Fair enough.

Here’s the blurb: ‘The Last Animal by Abby Geni is that rare literary find — a remarkable series of stories unified around one theme: people who use the interface between the human and the natural world to contend with their modern challenges in love, loss, and family life. These are vibrant, weighty stories that herald the arrival of a young writer of surprising feeling and depth.

[massive paragraph follows, making a bold but perhaps crazy attempt to outline each story sketchily]

Unflinching, exciting, ambitious and yet heartfelt, The Last Animal will guide readers through a menagerie of settings and landscapes as it underscores the connection among all living things.’

Do I do themes? Not so much. As a reader do I hang out, even at all, for a book themed on the human-and-natural-world interface? No. I’m seriously nichey, but not in that way. And ‘unflinching’? Isn’t that in just about every second book blurb? I’m up for flinching. Flinching is human and entirely respectable. (Does it look as if I’m saying I’m not prepared to review books, but I’m prepared to review blurbs without rhyme, reason or mercy? Maybe.)

But I’m here for the words on the page, not the words on the flap. And the words on the page were just my thing. She’s smart. A deep thinker who hides the process of thinking but gives you the window you need to glimpse what she’s thought – and you don’t even feel her leading you there. It’s as though you’ve just stumbled upon it. The language is weighed out with great care. These ten stories are stylistically slap bang in the middle of that tradition I’ve talked about, and very well executed.

And, ha, she’s an Iowa MFA grad who teaches at Oberlin, where she got her BA in 2001, suggesting she’s just over thirty. Her publishing CV is this book, plus a few more stories. She’s writing a novel, which I’ll be happy to buy at RRP.

Tomorrow – Part 5: Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (and perhaps slightly less about me)

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