Doing research for the speculative

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It’s pretty much a given that if you’re a writer you’re going to have to do research for whatever you’re writing about. The biggest issue I find with this is if I’m writing speculative fiction, how can I research the impossible? I often find that browsing the internet (often on google images or wikipedia) can help get the creative juices flowing. If ideas don’t click, maybe looking at something similar or reading about something I want to refer back to, or just something that’s on my mind, may give me something to work with, or even take my writing in a new direction. Recently, this has involved reading about, and looking at pictures of spiders and snakes, albino people and animals, weird things that might help with the weird things I’m trying to write about. I’ve even occasionally googled some shit that — if I weren’t a writer — would make me look like a begginer arsonist. The lastest task that’s been set out before me is a workshop assignment where I’ve got to write a story based on the tarot archetype, ‘the moon’. The card looks like this:

From here, I googled a series of images that jump to my mind as interesting and unusual depictions of the moon. Such as the classic moon-face from the George Méliès film, A Trip to the Moon.

The Mighty Boosh parody,

and the Smashing Pumpkins tribute.

Then there’s the creepy as fuck Majora’s Mask moon,

and the just-as-creepy moon from Soul Eater (although I think the sun may be slightly creepier).

A further googling of “moon face” gave me this,

which reminded me of this smug bastard.

And then this Australian celebrity appropriately referred to as “moonface”.

And I ended up looking at a once-off character from Cowboy Bebop, Pierrot Le Fou, who has all the characteristics, the illusion, the fear, and anxiety, of the moon in human form.

So, what does this tell me about the moon? And, more importantly, what does this tell me about how the moon is represented in speculative fiction? For one thing, whenever the moon is worth remembering, it’s because THERE’S A FUCKING FACE ON IT.  For another, it’s always smiling or frowning or staring down at you. It’s creepy as fuck. I’m thinking for this workshop assignment I might end up creating a human character and give them the characteristics of the moon. Those last few images came after I decided I wanted to bind the moon in human flesh, and I wanted to figure out what that might look like. I’ve seen those images before, but it helps to come back to them from this context. I also cross referenced films and characters and such on wikipedia as I went along, to round things out. But really, in addition to the card itself, these images have given me a pretty good starting point for my own speculative interpretation of the moon. Of course I’m not going to blatantly rip off this or that, but I often find with speculative fiction that this method of procrastination research can help when I’m struggling for words.

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A review of Slaughterhouse Five

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On page 177, Paul Lazzaro cuts up a spring and puts the bits in a steak and feeds it to a dog. I have never felt so angry reading a book, I have never hated a fictional character as much as I did while reading page 177. On page 201, Billy Pilgrim and a young German soldier, Werner Gluck are looking for the kitchen and they walk in on thirty teenage girls in a communal shower. It was a moment of raw comic relief. This is now one of my favourite books. It’s got aliens and time travel. But it’s also got war. And war is just ugly and terrible. Even if Billy Pilgrim is dressed as cinderella or stealing syrup or whatever.

I was thinking of reflecting on ANZAC day, which is three days from now. It’s the Australian public holiday that isn’t Australia Day that is all about being patriotic, and if you’re not you should feel bad. I’m not patriotic. Sure, I enjoy living here, but I hate the cultural Australian stereotype we have for ourselves, I hate pretending that there are no flaws in the system (aka: “if you don’t like it then leave”), and I hate the whole “us-verse-them” mentality of war. War sucks.

War fucking sucks.

No matter whose side you’re on.

It’s just easier to process the tragedy if there is a clear cut reason why many hundreds of thousands of people have died in wars. If you can say “we were the good guys and they were the bad guys” it seems more justified. But how can you justify 135,000 deaths in the bombing of Dresden (of which Slaughterhouse Five is about), or 71,000 deaths in Hiroshima from one bomb?

I reserve a certain level of respect for people that went to war, regardless of their nationality, simply because of the risk involved. You lose, you die. That’s it. The end. That happened for a lot of people. You win, you live, your country is a bit (or a lot) better off than the other countries, but you are all at a loss. There are casualties. There are always casualties. Bodies go missing. Names on lists are etched into monuments.

To me, these days are for horrors that existed outside my lifetime. They’re not about heroics or bravery (while there was probably plenty of both going around in the war), and they’re most definitely not about the bloodlust of people like Paul Lazzaro who think it’s their right to kill and have killed the people they think deserve it. That’s one thing that scares me about the situation in Iraq. The bloodlust. So I guess, for me, these days are about the risk. To live or die, it’s a bloody ugly fight all the way down either way. It’s shit. And the “bad guys” are probably feeling the same way.

You can’t change the past, and you shouldn’t glorify war, no matter what angle you take on it. You can follow Kurt Vonnegut’s example, and allow a little black humour in, to humanise the soldiers, to dampen the filth and the horror and the freakish mutant death, but you can’t make heroes out of killers. War reduces everyone to victims of two classes: corpses and survivors.

So it goes.

Second-hand bookshopping

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I don’t often go second-hand bookshopping because either I won’t find anything, or I’ll find a bunch of stuff I probably won’t ever read. It’s a bit of a novelty for me, only really doing it when I’m on holidays and come across a shop I’ll probably never go to again, or if there’s a particular occasion (sale/closing down) and the books are going dirt fucking cheap. Well, cheaper than normal.

The last time I remember going into a second-hand bookshop I was in Melbourne and I picked up a book of three plays by Tennessee Williams. That would have been a little over a year ago and I haven’t read it yet.

At the start of the week I heard a second-had bookshop was closing down and selling everything for a dollar. I was working  all day Monday and Tuesday, so I had no time to check it out. I tried on Wednesday and Thursday but they were closed. I went to a shopping centre today, and they had another second-hand bookshop from the same chain (called “Booklovers”) and they had all books half price. It got me wondering if the whole chain was going out of business or what. Anyway, I bought seven books there for $23.50.

After reading Less Than Zero and American Psycho, I’m a bit of a Bret Easton Ellis fan. I’ve got a couple of his other books that I haven’t read, but I picked up Lunar Park second-hand. I’ll get around to reading his other books on my shelf eventually.

I also got a book called Lake Wobegon Days, by Garrison Keiller. I haven’t read any of this guy’s stuff, but I’ve heard him. One of my tutors (I forget which) played a radio recording of Keiller doing one of his parts on the things that happen down at Lake Wobegon. What I can remember about it was that it had an old-fashioned nostalgia feel to it, and I thought “fuck it, might as well check this shit out.” Probably the thing I love most about reading (not just the stuff I pick up second-hand) is the variation in style, the different ways to approach a story. That’s why I got the Tennessee Williams. Plays tend to be highly dialogue based, so I find it helpful, as a writer, to read up on plays so I can develop my own sense of dialogue. Lake Wobegon Days is kind of like that, it’s a completely different voice to my own, and maybe I can take away something useful from it.

The other five books were trashy pulp fiction. Two Goosebumps books (no choose-your-own-adventure books, to my disappointment) and three short sci-fi novels from the seventies and eighties that I’d never heard of before.

The Goosebumps books were mostly a nostalgia buy for me, but also because of the pulp children’s’ horror factor. It’s all about weird and gross shit, stuff that kids think are scary but adults think are lame. But the thing is, in their brevity, there’s no room to waste on messing about with conventions, poetic language, narration. The narrator is the same as the kid reading it. They build up the atmosphere, shit happens, the end. Nothing fancy, cut to the fucking chase, keep it nice and compact. That’s more or less how I like to work. If I want to do something, I do it, no messing about. Maybe a little messing about. But mainly, I just want to tell an entertaining story. That’s what I’m hoping to get out of R.L. Stine’s “The Blob That Ate Everyone” and the collection of ten short stories, “More Tales to Give You Goosebumps”.

Now, the pulp sci-fi books I got were all around 150-200 pages long because I can treat them like airport fiction. Stuff I take to read while travelling. Science fiction that doesn’t take forever to read. I love science fiction and fantasy, but I just hate how long some of the books/series are. At least with these, there’s a beginning and an end and only a couple of hundred pages in the middle.

There is Starflight 3000 by R.W. Mackelworth, which came out in 1972, and its R.R.P. in Australia was $1.25. I got it for $4.25 second hand forty years later. Heh. Also, I love the image on the back, the cover for a book called “The Destruction of the Temple”, by Barry N. Malzberg. It looks awesome. And so does Starflight 3000.

Then there is A Wreath of Stars, by Bob Shaw, from 1976, and while there isn’t a visible RRP on the back of this book, the other books mentioned in the back are retailing for 60-70p. What a bargain! This book looks like a real jargon-heavy mindfuck. It starts out talking about neutrinos and nuclear physics and something called “hadronic matter”. Yeah. The blurb on the back of the book doesn’t clear it up any better. Something about magniluct lenses and ghosts? According to the Oxford Mail, it’s “Unputtable down… one of Shaw’s most entertaining novels.” I have high hopes for this one.

And then, the Armageddon Blues, by Daniel Keys Moran. 1988. It’s an “extraordinary mission through time to prevent the end of the world.” Fuck yeah, time travel, that’s what I’m talking about. I get the feeling that as soon as the topic of time travel comes up, the instant response is “oh my god, really? Not another one…” That’s mostly because I kind of feel that way with time travel. It’s so easy to fuck up if you haven’t got it all meticulously plotted out. There are repercussions many of us have never thought of. Having said that, I’ve read, am reading, and am writing within the time travel sub-genre, and loving it when it comes together right. I guess when you pull it off, there’s a sense of pulp elitism in the sci-fi circles, like “yeah, I’ve written time travel, what of it?” And then there’s that thing where tons of shows have done that exact same thing on tv. It’s been done poorly so many times, and it’s been done brilliantly enough times to convince writers that they’ll be able to write it brilliantly too, and add their own spin to it. I’m one of those people, and I absolutely hate when it doesn’t come together. Nevertheless, the title and description of this book were enough to get me excited. It’s positively brimming with ’80s pulp magic.

And then I went regular bookshopping and spent the same amount on three new books.  Two of them were $5 Penguin modern classics. Both were less than 100 pages, as with all the other books in that series. Great books to add to the pile of stuff I can read on the go.

The first one was Killer in the Rain, by Raymond Chandler. I’ve heard lots of good stuff about him and crime fiction, and while I’m not big on crime fiction – although I did go through a brief (no pun intended) John Grisham phase – I thought now was as good a time as any to get my hands on some Raymond Chandler.

The other was called Him With His Foot in His Mouth, by Saul Bellow. I haven’t read any of this guy’s stuff, but I’ve heard he’s a bit of an American classic. I mean, the dude’s got a Nobel prize for literature. I first heard of him because that book he wrote, the Adventures of Augie March (which is sitting on my bookshelf) has a band named after it, and I’m a little bit of an Augie March fan.

Then there’s Haruki Murakami. I had it on the authority of Jeff VanDerMeer that the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a good book to start with, so that’s where I’m starting with. Found a copy of it pretty cheap, so I got it. All I know about this guy is that he’s Japanese and cats. Lots of cats. He’ll be the second Japanese novelist on my bookshelf after Koushun Takami (Battle Royale), which I also have not read.

How sad is that? I’ve got shelves and shelves, and stacks and stacks of books I haven’t read yet, and there are so many books I want to read, and yet I haven’t read so many books, and I buy more books. I can see why there are people like Matthew Revert, who seem to be perpetually buying second-hand books, even if you’re never going to read them. There seems to be something comforting about them, like even if you don’t read them, someone else already has. Some of these books have been marked by various libraries and second-hand bookshops. It’s like they’ve got whole secondary stories based around where they’ve been. You’re not just buying a book, you’re buying someone’s old books.

Book Review: A Town Called Suckhole

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Okay. You should probably let that cover sink in for a little bit.

Yeah.

That’s David W. Barbee’s novel, A Town Called Suckhole.

It’s one of those books that really resonates with me because it reminds me of a specific time and place. It happens a lot when I’m travelling or on holidays. Whenever I’m not home and I take the time to devour a good book, the book seems to stick with me better.

The first time I recall connecting with a book on this level was when I read Dorothy Porter’s verse novel, the Monkey’s Mask. I bought it in the Perth Domestic Airport and read it on the plane to Melbourne. I picked it up because I’d heard about the author and I’d heard some great stuff about the book. But my brother and my parents thought I was checking it out because of the naked lesbians on the cover. I read most of the book on the plane, and then finished it on the taxi to the hotel and in our hotel room that night. And the book itself reminds me of a time before that when I was taking a unit on Poetry, which was run by professor Brian Dibble. That was when I really gained an interest in writing and reading poetry. That was when he introduced the class to a Japanese poet called Matsuo Basho. That guy that’s famous for all the haiku he wrote. I’m pretty sure that it was on a later trip to Melbourne that I bought a collection of his work. But it was always that one haiku that stuck with me, that, obviously, had a large influence on Dorothy Porter. I’ve written about it several times before and it goes like this:

Year after year

On the monkey’s face

A monkey’s mask.

That’s Basho, and he’s brilliant. Dorothy Porter is brilliant too, but in a different way, and whenever I think of her, I think of that flight to Melbourne. That was when I first took notice of the verse novel as a literary form that I would love to work on some day down the track.

Then there was American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis, which I read on another trip to Melbourne, where I was staying at a backpackers and doing a fair amount of reading in my dorm. And someone had left an Irvine Welsh novel in one of the lockers. It had a cat face thing on the cover and I think it was called Glue but I can’t remember and I can’t seem to find the cover online. And then there was V for Vendetta, which I read on that same trip on the flight home from Melbourne, and it was the first proper graphic novel I read.

And now we come to Suckhole. It was the beginning of February and I was taking the train to a town called Kalgoorlie in Western Australia for my cousin’s engagement party. It’s a seven hour trip, and I spent some of it reading, some of it taking notes on the book I had just started writing, and some of it watching tv shows and junk. I read a fair chunk of the book on the train there. Then I read a little while I was there, and I finished it off on the way home. Now, I don’t want to imply that my family is a bunch of hillbilly rednecks, but it felt kind of appropriate that I was reading Suckhole while I was holidaying in Kalgoorlie. It’s mainly just the fact that the city is out in the middle of nowhere, founded on a goldrush, and therefore, with all the dust and dirt and promise of great wealth without the prerequisite of education and intelligence, the town (and the state, I guess) can be read as a bogan’s paradise. And bogans are pretty much Australian rednecks. I’ve got nothing against the town or the people, but my setting seemed to fit nicely with the setting of the book.

The story itself is a little like this: Think of the Road. That book by Cormac McCarthy. Post-apocalyptic America, everything is ruined, everything is bleak and miserable. Picture that setting, and then picture the only survivors are mutant redneck hillbillies. That’s Suckhole, right there. And what a town it is! I love this book for its richly detailed setting populated with quirky, fascinating characters. It feels like David W. Barbee created a map of the town, and constructed it out of the junk he found lying around in the post-apocalypse wasteland. It feels like he took a trip down to Suckhole and noted down where everything is, what they look like, and it’s got a real pioneer town feel about it. Just a fleeting part of history that’ll be gone once civilisation kicks back up again. I guess that’s one reason why I felt a strong connection between Suckhole and Kalgoorlie. The pioneer town of old Kalgoorlie is something I only gained access to through history, museums, tours and such. I went there on a year five camp, and did the whole gold prospecting tour thing, and compared and contrasted it to the Kalgoorlie industry of more recent times, the underground mines and superpits and such, and I felt like Suckhole was one of those towns. I could see some time in the future, kids going to a contemporary Suckhole and checking out the little historical preservation part of town where they would learn all about Saint Hank and the Bledskoe sheriffs, and that intelligent swamp monster, Dexter Spikes. The story of how Dexter and Sheriff Jesco saved the town of Suckhole.

A Town Called Suckhole is populated with some superb imagery, some of the most fascinating characters and settings I’ve ever read, and once you get right into the plot, it’s like you’re caught in a suckhole and the only way out is to finish the book. In addition to setting, Barbee’s got some great scenes here, too. My favourite part of the book happens early on where Jesco’s father, Sheriff Billy Jack Bledscoe, asks the social outcast, Dexter Spikes, for help.

As quirky as it is, Suckhole could have easily gone for the gross-out humour and redneck jokes, to turn the book into a right comedic farce. But the town of Suckhole is entertaining enough as it is, and Barbee has gone for a character driven, and plot driven, story, which creates a sympathy for these woefully ignorant people, and that really brings the town of Suckhole to life.

Yeah, it’s bizarre, at times it’s pretty gross-out. But it’s really fucking cool, it’s brilliantly written, and very rewarding from a reader’s perspective. Hands down, it’s one of my favourite bizarro books.

The Missing Two

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I had to write a blog for uni, addressing the question: “What is Creative Non-Fiction?”

This was what I wrote:

If I woke up one morning to find that the number 2 no longer existed, and I wanted to simply inform people of that fact, I could just say that “the number 2 no longer exists.” If I wanted to say any more on the topic, I would have to do a bit of research before I discovered that it disappeared some time during the night. I don’t know where it went, or who took it, but it’s gone. I might run this strange phenomenon past my family, to see if they noticed it too. Maybe I tried to ring a friend whose number didn’t have a 2 in it. Then I’d go around town, talk to notable members of the public, and try to gather the facts.

Yeah, it’s a pretty interesting story, but if I write it as a list of facts or statistics, things that have happened, and what the results are, it won’t really be a story. I could recount how I obtained the information I did, my journey about town, searching for 2, or anyone who might have seen it or know any more about it than me. That’s a story. It’s non-fiction. But it’s not really creative, either. In addition to looking at what happened, creative non-fiction should also look at why it happened.

The number 2 went missing. Fact. Why? Should I structure my story to reflect what it means to me that 2 is missing? Should I place emphasis on the importance of finding it and bringing it back into my world? The facts I churned up since 2 went missing are a product of my own subjectivity. To the people that don’t know, the missing 2 is just a rumour, if it is even present in their lives at all. I am always bound by my own subjectivity, and this begins as soon as I start acknowledging and registering facts. It becomes apparent when I choose what facts to include, what to omit, to what detail, and how they are arranged. This is a part of every work of non-fiction, whether it is a textbook, news article, a photo album, a personal essay, or a memoir.

If I want to tell a story, if I want to insert myself into the story, and (in addition to the facts) if I want to talk about my own opinions, experiences, feelings, and thoughts – or if I want to tell someone else’s story containing those things – I’d get creative. If there’s more to the story than the truth, I feel like I’m dealing with creative non-fiction. If there’s something to be learned, an experience to be shared, a feeling to be captured, I would have to select my facts around that. To construct that layer of meaning, to bend and twists the facts to fit accordingly. Not to lie. Never to lie. But to play a little narrative magic, to acknowledge my own subjectivity and use it to my own advantage. It seems to be the best thing to do.

You will notice that the missing 2 is a hypothetical situation. That’s what I love about creative non-fiction. I can’t lie to fill in the blanks of a story I don’t know, but, on those instances where research lets me down, I am able to project my thoughts into the story and say, “I don’t know exactly what happened here, but I think it might have been aliens that stole the number 2. It might be that 2 never really went missing, but everyone just forgot what it looked like and just failed to recognise it any more.”

I could even write a scene full of facts without any real narrative information. People want to know what happened to the number 2, but while I was trying to find that out for myself, I went down to the park to meet with a friend. It was first thing in the morning, and there was still morning dew on the grass. I propped my bike against the side of a bench and sat down on the bench. The ride down here had got my blood pumping, and I breathed clouds of condensation. I yawned, I scratched the back of my neck, I looked at my watch. That’s when I noticed I read the time wrong back at home, and my friend wasn’t due to meet me here for another hour.

This hypothetical reality creates a mirror that reflects the scene, the character, the plot, so that the reader can look in on everything, and take away the feeling that they know this character, they shared that experience with me. They know what it was like for me to sit on that bench, knowing my mistake, my frustration and disappointment while I waited for my friend. The reality of creative non-fiction is not in the truths, but in the setting and the characters. It reads more like fiction. You can do so many things with creative non-fiction that you can’t do with other forms of writing. I wouldn’t disagree with someone if they said it was its own genre. Nor would I have any issues if they wanted to call creative non-fiction a style. Perfectly valid arguments can be made in both cases.

But I suppose I should address the question that must be on your mind: Why the missing 2? What is the point of transporting myself into a hypothetical world where the number 2 no longer exists?

I’m primarily a fiction writer, and I don’t have the knack for writing reality as well as other people do. I spend my days transporting my mind to strange, surreal places, where I think up all sorts of hypothetical truths. These are the places, stories, and characters I’d be ready to attack in a moment, should I be writing fiction. However, right now I’m working with non-fiction, and this is my way of bending the truth to fit my story.

I have woken up in a world without fiction. It may be that aliens stole it. It may be that I’ve just forgotten what it looks like. But I’ve been searching for six weeks now, and it seems that the only solution is to find something comparable to take its place. Something that still feels like my writing, yet also fits within the definition of creative non-fiction.

I never did end up finding that missing 2.