that’s what I like

I suspect I’m not the only writer for whom the question ‘Do you sit around on buses and in coffee shops listening to other people’s conversations?’ comes up a bit. It ranks maybe third in frequency, behind ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and ‘How much do you earn?’.

It happens that I sit at home most of the time, by myself in a little room where I make my characters’ conversations up, rather than taking dictation from someone I don’t know who’s lingering over a latte and spilling some kind of beans. Maybe other writers do it differently. I know plenty who spend a lot of time in coffee shops. Most of them are making the coffees, the others are escaping something and getting their serum caffeine levels right. I’m not sure that they’re there to listen.

But I’m just back from dinner at the Hotel Franklin in Adelaide and may have to change my answer to the third-most-asked question to yes. At the next table, an English tourist was talking to two Australian friends about his time here. His Sydney highlight was that the bats in the Botanic Gardens were ‘as big as fuckin chickens’. His Melbourne highlight was when two friends tied him to a chair and shaved his head. Then he started talking about people.

‘You know,’ he said, ‘of all the people I’ve met in Australia, Ross and Kev would be right up there. I mean, right up there.’

‘And Damian,’ his tall friend with the beanie said. ‘You’d have to include him. He stole the sheets from a brothel and ran around pretending to be a ghost. And then he realised he didn’t have any pants on. And THEN he realised they were really long sheets, so he could piss pretty much whenever he wanted and no one would know.’

There was a pause. The tourist drank his beer.

‘Yeah, you’re right,’ he said. ‘He’d be right up there too. That’s what I Iike.’

So maybe I should listen more. Maybe I should get out more. In decades of writing, I don’t think I was going to make up Damian. Or someone who would rate him for that brothel form.

Anyone else heard anything they never expected to in a nearby conversation?

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23 Responses to that’s what I like

  1. Adeline Teoh says:

    I once shared a communal table at a Japanese eatery with a couple who were talking about another couple’s marital problems. As the meal progressed, it became increasingly clear to me that they were talking about my cousin and her (now ex) husband. I didn’t say anything to them.

  2. Jade Rehder says:

    Next door were having a domestic a while ago. Apparently her ‘pussy smells like baboon piss’. I can neither confirm nor deny.

  3. Noni Doll says:

    I never go out of my way to listen in to conversations, but sometimes I hear a snippet of something that’s really awesome/stupid/sweet/magnificent.

    Although if you want the ultimate in eavesdropping, you NEED to discover Dear Girls Above Me. BEST. THING. EVER. You won’t believe some of the things they say. You really cannot make that sort of stuff up.

  4. Jake J. Fox says:

    I once eavesdropped on a half hour conversation at a pub between two girls. One, a preppy looking uni student, and the other a Goth with tight red ringlets and a nose ring you could almost mistake for a Stargate.

    I wasn’t trying to listen, but I had some time to kill before a mate turned up. Alarmingly, the uni student spent twenty minutes praising the benefits of heroin, it’s effects, and how much closer friends became after having a ‘taste’.

    Hell, after listening to her extremely argumentative monologue ‘for’ the drug even I was beginning to think maybe that’s exactly what had been missing in my life. “Something to make you stop for a second. No one stops anymore”, she repeated almost like a mantra.

    The – surprisingly – naive Gothic girl spent the last ten minutes of the conversation trying to make up her mind whether she should give the old H a go. Ended up they organised to meet at the uni girl’s house the following Tuesday and certainly have a ‘taste’.

    They went on their way and I thought, wow, I just overheard the exact moment when someone makes a decision to throw their life in the toilet. A moment they’ll replay in their mind, or with a therapist, over and over for the rest of their lives. I also thought maybe I should distrust preppy uni students more, and perhaps people dressed as Goths are just trying to find a place to fit in the world.

    Not a very comedic eavesdrop, but eyeopening all the same.

  5. Courtney says:

    Recently on a half past midnight train in London, I overheard some drunk young men doing some rather deep philosophizing – I can give you a direct quote as I wrote it in my phone at the time for future reference:

    “Do you know what life is? Life is, life kicks you in the face and you’ve just gotta, chin up, whatever. Life is life innit.”

    • nickearls says:

      There we go. Words to live by. Sort of like Withnail and I, but with a much smaller vocab.

  6. Vincent Duffy says:

    A friend of mine and I will sometimes make up outrageous conversations if it becomes obvious that someone nearby is listening more than politely to our conversation. It would be very postmodern if that person were a writer and adapted our fiction to fiction.

  7. Sarah says:

    Good ole Adelaide, doing us proud!

  8. Mark Le Gros says:

    I need to ask, out of all your stories, how much of them are based on your personal past experiences? Do you believe that if you did head out and about more, would it enrich your writing experience and influence the sorts of stories you put together? The only story that you wrote that was based on your past experiences (from what I read in a magazine interview on you), is Zigzag Street. Apparently you got into a bit of trouble with that?

    I purposely spent four years not writing a thing. In those four years, I met people from all walks of life and heard how they spoke, found out about their backgrounds and observed how they think and react. I also spent in those four years working a nine to five job in Government and saw how people interact in that sort of environment. I actually now feel sad for some of those people who do the nine to five routine. There were aspiring musicians, actors and writers. People who wanted to achieve their childhood dreams but decided that it wasn’t realistic so took up the nine to five routine to keep them going and just did their childhood dreams as a hobby, in the background with no intentions of attempting to be more serious about it.

    I also met people who were stuck in a cycle of poverty, had been to jail in the past, did drugs, among many other things.

    One guy I met had been in a motorbike accident years ago which gave him memory problems and epilepsy. His highlight of the day was either drinking entire casks of red wine that he brought with his pension and money he got from doing part time work as a Kitchenhand, or he would head off to Cloudland in the Valley and buy the red wine there. He also did a great rendition of Frank-n-furter who he portrayed in a Rocky Horror play a few years back. Unfortunately the red wine got the better of him and his friendly behavior went downhill. I no longer speak to him. Although I do sometimes see him carrying his red wine around in the Valley to the train station.

    As a young person, I grew out of those experiences. I finally managed to get out of that sheltered life that I had growing up. It also gave me a back up in case things went awry in my choice of entering the Arts Industry, with that nine to five job I had.

    As a writer, I feel that I can now exploit those experiences and use them to create stories. At least better ones (I hope) from what I had been writing on and off prior to that absence of writing and living life.

    The downside to not writing after four years is getting back into it. Not easy when you haven’t written anything for that long even though I have an urge to. The blank page seems more scary for some reason, it was never scary when I was younger. The other problem I’ve noticed with myself is even though I’m writing stories again, I tend to start writing one, then jumping to another, then jumping to another, and then back to what I originally was writing. And then the cycle continues. It’s very frustrating.

    I must admit nowadays I don’t tend to listen to others around me that much, even though I travel on public transport all the time, I’ve started to tune out from all those stories and strange conversations I used to lap up when I was younger. I really should tune myself back in.

    I met David Williamson a few years ago at the Brisbane Writers Festival and he mentioned to me that he knew of a writer who would hang out at the local pub with a notepad and pen and take down notes of the patron’s conversations sitting around him. I’m thinking I should probably do the same wherever I go. I do have a notepad where I scrawl meaningless stuff occasionally which hides in one of my drawers here at home. Stuff that will never see the light of day. I suppose I could get better use out of that notepad based on what David said.

    Oh by the way, in response to your question, ‘anyone else heard anything they never expected to in a nearby conversation?’ I’m holding on to a golden exchange I overheard on a train once and will use this line one day where I can. A well dressed guy talking to his wife said – ‘Did you know that kangaroos have two vaginas’.

    PS: Sorry for the long post. Once I start writing, it’s hard to stop!

  9. nickearls says:

    I think I miss more through not having a regular (populated) workplace than I do from choosing not to write in public places where I can eavesdrop on strangers. I totally agree it’s valuable, as a writer who sets their work in the present, to have experienced more of the present than just a quiet magnolia-walled room.

    The real world can give you something to start with, then I think fiction needs to be about what happens next. It needs to end up feeling at least as real, so it helps to pay attention to the small details in the world that’s actually around you. Mostly, for me, it is a question of small details though, and any novel is likely to have thousands. That can become too many threads to separate in order to say clearly what’s fiction and what’s not. Also, the meaning of some small piece of the real world changes when it’s in a story. It’s in a story to do something and, once it’s doing that thing, it feels different. It took me a few novels to learn that.

    A lot of small things that I see, hear and (sometimes) do get me thinking and end up on scraps of paper. The end result, usually years later, is fiction though – too much has happened to it in the meantime to see it as anything else.

  10. Lisa Walker says:

    my favourite is teenage boy to other teenage boy ‘I don’t just want to be her sex toy.’
    Seems like boys (and girls) maybe aren’t what they used to be.

  11. Now people eavesdrop on facebook with the added advantage of the conversation having been written down for ease of copying and filing 🙂

    • nickearls says:

      Copying, filing, reposting, emailing, deconstructing on talk radio and breakfast TV, polling about on news sites … Any dumbarse exchange online since the disastrous ‘yours is yum’ email forward of maybe 10years ago seems to belong to all of us. And yet people don’t seem to think of that at the time.

      • Too instant that’s for sure – they need subjects at school on the topic (at least in the past if you said something stupid down the pub, it was only heard by a few people and forgotten as quickly – now what is said, often without much thought, is around for decades to be rehashed).

  12. wench says:

    I once overheard, in a perfectly respectable cafeteria, “Cannibalistic, baby-raping mongol hordes.” I heard nothing else of the conversation, just that. I would desperately like to know what was being said, but never shall.

    • nickearls says:

      Interesting. Genghis Khan’s army did have a rep for being pretty hard core, but did they eat people? A new dimension in scary. Let’s hope it was very very metaphorical.

  13. Susan says:

    I recently retired after 19 years working on the front line at a Centrelink office. Do I have stories! But I am unable (forbidden for privacy resons) to talk or write about them.

    • nickearls says:

      Same with my medical career. If you can find a way to change all the details but preserve the craziness that caught your interest in the first place, there may be a way of doing it.

  14. Quokka says:

    Eavesdropping can be useful but spying has its merits, too.

    For many years we lived next door to a boarding house owned & operated by a cantankerous retired American airman, who’d owned the place since his service days here in WW2. There were 9 flats the size of shoe boxes and a steady flow of unstable and disorderly tenants that rarely lasted longer than 3 months before moving on – usually after an impassioned shouting match with the old coot and his wife, and often after being bundled into a paddy wagon by the local boys in blue.

    A steady source of conflict was the control and disposal of garbage. The coot couldn’t bear to waste money (fixing the drains, the roof, the electrics etc) and insisted that the 16 people his flats were licensed to hold (not to mention their pimps, their dealers, and their customers) could manage to condense their weekly garbage into two single wheelie bins.
    He had a system for this: food scraps were gathered and either buried or fed to the crows. Cans and bottles (the main byproduct of his establishment) were collected and removed for recycling in his trailer – presumably for some sort of cash exchange. Pizza boxes and paper were reclaimed from the recycling bin – curiously with bellowing shrieks and cussing and thumps and a weekly chorus l of ‘GOD DAMN, GOD DAMN, GOD DAMN’ – to be dispatched into the ether via the incinerator – for years after this became illegal.

    We could never work out what it was about the contents of the recycling bin that made the coot erupt into hysterics, but there it was: 4pm Wednesdays, like clockwork, he’d be out the front of his flat inspecting the contents of the bins and he’d erupt.

    The Mystery of the Wheelie Bin hysterics went on for years before we figured out the source of it. In this time we’d built a six foot fence to keep the inmates of Bog Hollow out, and we’d constructed a tree house up the back to which we’d retire, sheltered among the leaves of the nut tree, to have a quiet cup of tea and observe the wildlife. We were up there one morning after grand final day, and all was quiet. I noticed the old Greek guy who’d lived next door to the Coot for the past 60 years wander out into his back yard, stare admiringly at his vegetable patch, and then he looked round furtively to see who was about. All clear. At which point he wandered over into the coot’s yard to where he kept his wheelie bins, flipped up the lid of the recycling and took and long and satisfying piss onto the contents – mostly pizza boxes. And then wandered off to tend his veggies, pausing later on to wave a congenial hand to the Coot and exchange their usual pleasantries.

    It explains the deeper mysteries of life – I recommend it.

    • nickearls says:

      Outstanding. If this is what you get for your trouble, I should build a treehouse. Though it’d overlook the neighbours’ pool and they might take it the wrong way.

  15. Quokka says:

    Like most of life’s quandaries it all depends on how you accessorize.
    i.e. a paper bag full of sour gummy bears and a sagging leopard print g-string will see you on ACA with a voiceover intro by no less than Hetty Johnston. Whereas a few smears of zinc and a baywatch uniform will get you on the front page of Westside Quest being hailed for community service.
    Just keep a defibrillator on hand to boost your credibility. I hear you can buy them second hand on ebay, from next door’s tenants who’ve sequestered them from flooded bingo halls and shopping centres all across our big brown sludgy state.
    They’re an enterprising bunch.

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