Author Archives: Melanie Myers

Cruise Control

Cruise_FBI’m very excited to be in rehearsals for David Williamson’s latest play Cruise Control at the Noosa Arts Theatre under the direction of Sam Coward. Cruise Control opens April 17 and goes to May 2 with previews April 15 – 16.

The play premiered at the Ensemble Theatre in Sydney in 2014 and was directed by David Williamson.  This will be the Queensland premier of Cruise Control. We had the  privilege of David’s company at a rehearsal when he came to speak about the process of writing Cruise Control. He then gracefully took questions from the cast and a group of directing interns about his 40-year career as a dramatist working in Australian theatre.

Below is the promo for Cruise Control. I’m playing Fiona Manton — the long-suffering wife of the insufferable Richard Manton, a failed British novelist with an ego the size of the Queen Mary 2.

Join these three couples aboard the Queen Mary 2 as it ploughs its way to New York.

They have failed to tick the appropriate boxes in their paper work and find themselves locked into the hellish world of designated seating at dinner and b-grade cabaret; as their relationships hit icy water and the cruise unfolds into a bedlam of sexual tension and drowning relationships.

David Williamson gives us a range of characters who, in their various ways, are a pleasure to spend time with. Cruise Control is definitely two hours of smooth sailing, with the playwright at his sharp-witted, keenly observed and most enjoyable best.

A sure fire hit, having its Queensland Premier here, at Noosa Arts Theatre.

Director: Sam Coward

 

Scarlet Stiletto Awards 2014

Les Rosenblatt, Melanie Myers & Marta DusseldorpScarlet Stiletto shoeA boast post: Here I am as the winner of the Political Edge Award and a cheque for $500 (woo hoo!) for my short story ‘Savage Women’ at the 21st Scarlet Stiletto Awards. That’s Les Rosenblatt from Arena Magazine to my right and on my left is the sublime Marta Dusseldorp (star of the ABC TV series Janet King and SS special guest presenter). ‘Savage Women’ was published in the December 2014 edition of Arena Magazine. The awards were held at the Thornbury Theatre and you can read about all the winners here.

Burial Rites

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When a debut novel comes as lauded as Burial Rites – including a recommendation from Geraldine Brooks as cover garnish – it’s hard to resist the temptation to see what all the fuss is about. For those who’ve been preserved in an Icelandic glacier for the last three months the novel is set in early 19th century Iceland and is based on Agnes Magnúsdóttir – the last women to be executed there. To say Agnes was beheaded in 1830 for her part in the brutal murder of two men is not giving the story away, for they are the bare facts Kent launched her epic research project with – but more on that in a moment.

My initial interest in the novel was sparked by a piece Kent wrote about her research and writing process for Kill Your Darlings, of which she is deputy editor. Burial Rites was the result of her PhD in creative writing, and for anyone engaged in a PhD or DCA with the aim of producing a publishable novel (e.g. myself), then success stories such as Kent’s are a subject of great envy interest. Given then the marketing hype (including an episode of Australian Story) and the snippets of praise from famous authors gracing its evocative cover – ‘Burial Rites is an accomplished gem, its prose as crisp and sparkling as its northern setting’ – my expectations were mountain-top high. To say I didn’t make the summit of those expectations is probably the best way of framing my view of Burial Rites, but the journey was still worthwhile and there are plenty of good things to say about it.

But let’s start from the ground up and the promise of ‘prose as crisp and sparkling as its northern setting’. The overuse of adverbs is of issue here (more so in the third person narrative sections). Quickly, slowly, quietly, nervously, casually – they’re used often and often unnecessarily.  A ‘less is more’ approach to adverbs is the stuff of creative writing 101 advice (choose a stronger verb!). Yes, I’m being nitpickety, but for a novel that passed through a PhD supervisor and an editor, you have to wonder how “whispered quietly” got through to the keeper. Having said that, Kent knows how to ‘evoke’ (even strongly evoke) and her establishment of time and place is impeccable. Resonances of Kári Gíslasson’s memoir The Promise of Iceland in Kent’s depictions of the relentless Icelandic setting, which is to say its contrasting harshness and sleek cold beauty, is all-sensory and ever present. Kent conjures both exteriors and interior landscapes with dexterity, lending gravitas and a sense of authenticity to the setting, both historically and geographically.

Historical authenticity is the crux of this novel and Kent’s research is nothing short of thorough in the way a dog licks it bowl. Kent describes the book as ‘speculative biography’ and in this regard she follows a marked trend for filling in – that is, fictionalising – fragmentary stories of historical figures, in particular notorious women. This appropriation and resurrection of women’s voices from history (filtered through the inescapable lens of a present, post second-wave feminist perspective)  is not unproblematic – and is worthy of further discussion beyond this book – and  Kent’s (re)writing of Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s story does not escape these issues.

Namely, while a sympathetic betrayal of Agnes is to be expected, Kent’s narrative interpolation between the known facts of the actual murder didn’t ring true for me. Kent takes care to make Agnes an enigmatic, but likable, character and a reliable narrator. She does this quite artfully by alternating between first person and third person narration, so that Agnes’ exoneration in the denouement of her story (to her final confidant, Margret)  is not only expected, but wanted. But is it accurate? It seems very unlikely. At least in the way Kent decided it happened. In terms of Burial Rites being ‘speculative biography’, the inclusion of real letters and historical documents (not to mention descriptions of everyday activities) certainly lends authenticity to the biographical element of Agnes’ story, but the emphasis should definitely be on ‘speculative’, perhaps even fanciful, when it comes to Agnes’ recount of her former lover’s murder. I can’t help thinking that just because a woman was convicted (and executed) for murder we assume history must have got it wrong. This ‘setting the record straight’ is also condescending – not only for the aforementioned reason, but because it affirms women of history to be victims without allowing them the possibility of being ‘wicked’ either.

This thorniness of blurring of fact and fiction in this context is perhaps something for academics to ponder at length in obscure journals, rather than a point of merit to be discussed in a book review, so I will say no more about it – it is a novel to be read for enjoyment, after all. And on that level, Kent has pitched her book bang in the middle of the Tim Winton zone – that sweet spot between popular and literary fiction (that will also get you a $300,000 advance). Not so high brow as to put off the less cultured reader, but literary enough to attract those who consider themselves discerning (Fifty Shades of Grey ne’er would sully their eyes). Plenty of reviews have noted the ‘lyricism’ and ‘poeticism’, and the ‘measured’ quality of Kent’s prose, but as one reviewer on Goodreads points out “there is something altogether too safe about it. it’s (sic) the kind of writing that knows it will get a good reception, because it’s the kind of writing that plays by all the rules”. I couldn’t agree more and this is why, stylistically, I found the writing a tad laboured (adverbs!), even derivative in someways.

What I did find effective, however, was the switching of narrative voices. This structuring device created engagement with the primary characters and set up an almost episodic rhythm to the book, as well providing the confessional template for Agnes to retrospectively tell her life story. The first person narration in Agnes’ voice was the strongest aspect of the book, and indeed, where Kent’s prose did ‘sparkle’. I was stuck by the emotional truth of her characters and for one so young (in novelist years, at least) – Kent is only 26 – there is a maturity to her writing and her ability to understand her characters that is quite remarkable. My hope is that, as she matures as a novelist, her writing style becomes more robust, a bit riskier and more distinct, because she is clearly a talent to watch and knows how to weave the components of a compelling tale together.

Get Well Soon: My (Un)Brilliant Career as a Nurse by Kristy Chambers

Get Well Soon by Kristy ChambersWhen I had surgery last year to remove uterine fibroids I developed a new appreciation for nurses. The nurses that took care of me during my four day stay at the RBWH were just the bomb as far as I was concerned – caring, meticulous, friendly and utterly professional. I was so grateful, in fact, that I promised myself I’d buy a card to express my gratitude and send it to the nurses on Ward 6A  just as soon as I could walk without feeling like someone was shoving knitting needles into my womb. Regrettably, I never did send that card. I said thank you a lot though, so hopefully they knew I was appreciative of their care and attention. I remember remarking, unoriginally, to one young nurse as she checked my sanitary pad, which was wedged where sanitary pads are supposed to be wedged, that ‘I could never be a nurse’. She smiled and said something to the effect that checking the markings on a sanitary pad was pretty mild on the scale of things nurses are asked to do. I didn’t ask her to elaborate, but I could well imagine.

Well, that’s wasn’t true. I couldn’t well imagine, but thanks to Kristy Chambers’ discomfiting, frank and blackly funny memoir Get Well Soon, I need no longer imagine. Chambers lays bare all the horrors of nursing in squeamish, unrelenting detail – the tampon incident should really come with a reader caution (I dry retched) – but it’s her flat out honesty about her own failings and humanness that make this memoir such an addictive and enjoyable read.

Chambers is the nurse who ‘could never be a nurse’. She doesn’t pretend to be immune to the fluids, solids, and all the other detritus in between, the human body is capable of excreting. She finds it just as gross and stomach churning as the rest of us, but boy, the stories she could tell you… And she does tell. Yes, you may come away with some images in your mind you probably wish you could scorch with a blowtorch, but any connoisseur of poo stories will tell you this is top notch material. Plus the rest – imagine an inanimate object, any inanimate object, is it smaller than a chair? Well, Chambers has probably got an Emergency Room story about that object – vase, carrot, Russian nesting dolls – being stuck up someone’s arse.

But Get Well Soon is not just a litany of the gross and profane. It’s a book about characters – most of the chapter titles are named after patients – or real people, rather, who have left an impression on Chambers for better or for worse. There are the cancer patients who died while Chambers was working in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit – just try sparing your tears when 16-year-old Sarah dies of leukaemia – the addicts and personalities who populate the Detox ward, and then there’s the fucked up, heart breaking sadness of the mentally ill who turn up regularly in Emergency. This is humanity at its most wretched, disgusting and sorrowful, but its Chamber’s own humanity and compassion that comes through in the telling, even if she doesn’t spell it out. She doesn’t waste words on sentimentality and her humour is justifiably wry. In essence she’s hugely likeable and if you’re not prudish or too squeamish you’ll love Chambers and her guided tour into nursing land. Every page, however, was a reminder of why I wouldn’t be a nurse for quids. Chambers will tell you though, in her blessedly honest way, that money – a decent income, that is, that comes with a respectable job – was the reason she became a nurse. It wasn’t a calling, she’s not a modern Florence Nightingale, she’s just a regular girl who took up nursing and this what she saw.

Get Well Soon (UQP 2012)

* I’m delighted that Kristy has agreed to be a guest author at Reality Bites Literary Festival (July 25-28) this year. So if you’re in the vicinity of the Sunshine Coast in July and you’ve love to hear more about Kristy’s nursing adventures, as well as her experience of turning them into a memoir, please do come along!

 

Australian Womens Writing Challenge

awwbadge_2013It’s official. I’ve joined the Australian Womens Writing Challenge. I’ve signed on for the Franklin Challenge (as in Stella Miles Franklin) which means reading at least ten books by an Australian female author and reviewing at least six of those.  Below is the list of books I hope to both read and review (but it’s likely only the first of those lofty goals will be achieved). I’ve included a few memoirs as I’ll be reading them in preparation for the Reality Bites Nonfiction Literary Festival (July 25-28, 2013).

 

Like a House on Fire

1. Like a House on Fire (Scribe 2012) by Cate Kennedy. I read this on a flight to Bali recently and am more than just a bit taken with Kennedy’s ability to craft a memorable short story.

 

 

 

Get Well Soon_ Kristy Chambers2. Get Well Soon (UQP 2012) by Kristy Chambers. I’ve asked Kristy to be a guest author at Reality Bites Literary Festival this year. UQP recently sent me Chamber’s memoir which I picked up from the post office yesterday. I read a third of it last night and am loving it to pieces.

 

 

The Engagement by Chloe Hooper3. The Engagement (Penguin 2012) by Chloe Hooper. Better known for her investigative nonfiction with The Tall Man, I was intrigued to listen to Hooper talk at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year about her experience of writing fiction — specifically, a modern gothic novel set in rural Victoria. 

 

 

Crim Wife by Tanya Levin4. Crim Wife (Black Inc. 2012)  by Tanya Levin. Crim Wife is Levin’s second memoir. Her first, People in Glass Houses, was an account of her time as a member of Hillsong (the clappiest of the happy clapper mega churches). Crim Wife is a world away Hillsong and is about Levin’s experience of being involved with a convicted armed robber who she met while he was still in prison, and she was working as a drug and alcohol counsellor at Parramatta Jail. Tanya will be a guest author at Reality Bites this year.

 

Boy, Lost by Kris Olsson5. Boy, Lost (UQP 2013) by Kris Olsson. Boy, Lost is a family memoir centred around Olsson’s brother who was kidnapped from his mother’s arms as she bordered a train. It’s due for release in April and, like Kristy and Tanya, Kris has also kindly agreed to be a guest author at Reality Bites this year.

 

 

Nine Days by Toni Jordan6. Nine Days (Text 2012) by Toni Jordan. The composite  novel structure Jordan uses for Nine Days is effective. That is, nine first person short stories detailing a significant day in each character’s life, all of whom are related across three generations spanning from the 1939 to the present. I found some of the characters more engaging and than others, and although there’s something quite satisfying in the way the stories expand and inform on the each other, there were times when it felt a little too pat and a little too contrived.  It’s still a thoroughly enjoyable read though.

QTC/Black Swan’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – A review

Among amateur theatre companies Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is something of a staple – the Brisbane Arts Theatre, for example, staged two productions within 10 years of each other. And with good reason, the roles – by virtue of Tennessee William’s exquisite writing – are virtually actor proof (providing the southern accent is mastered) and it is considered a perfect example of a classic three-act play. With the professionals – QTC and WA’s Black Swan State Theatre Co. – taking it on as a co-production you would hope for a lift in quality commiserate with the ticket prices, particularly in the production values, if not the performances and, thankfully, this production delivers on both fronts.

Setting the tone is Bruce McKinven’s design: it’s fresh, concept driven and delicious on the eye, as befitting a modern main stage production, but the reverence for time and place — William’s atmospheric 1950s Mississippi Delta plantation – is all pervasive. McKinven pays homage to the iconic 1958 film version with some carefully handpicked elements – Maggie’s dress design, for example, and Big Daddy’s cashmere robe – but he was not visually enslaved to it, either. Aficionados of the film will spot the markers, but hopefully appreciate the differences: Maggie’s dress, while modelled on the version Elizabeth Taylor wore, is dark green and it’s a stunning change (as per McKinven’s brief for the costume design). McKinven’s use of colour — greys, dark blues and greens – plays to the darker themes in the play, with his use of Spanish Moss is an inspired touch.

For the actors, the spectre of the film is arguably harder to discard. Audiences don’t want imitation, but there’s only so much room for deviation when characters are so deeply ingrained in a collective psyche. The casting of Cheree Cassidy as Maggie the Cat – coming via television’s Underbelly: The Golden Mile and Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo – has been well-publicised and, no doubt, Cassidy felt the weight most keenly. Elizabeth Taylor may have made the most indelible mark on this career highlight of a role, but it’s also been played by such luminaries as Ashley Judd on Broadway and Francis O’Connor in London’s West End.

Cassidy opened the play in battle mode. She tackled the first act – essentially a monologue delivered to her unresponsive husband, Brick – with all the right lines and actions, but you could see the rehearsal process. Conceding opening night nerves, she wasn’t quite there to begin with. Her accent was too restrained, as though she feared drawling out her vowels in case of exaggeration. She needn’t have worried, when she dropped in and relaxed – about twenty minutes in – the hard working actress disappeared and a convincing, sympathetic and enchanting Maggie emerged.

As Brick Pollitt – the dissolute ex-footballer, drunk and younger son of plantation owner, Big Daddy – Tom O’Sullivan (Cassidy’s fellow Underbelly: The Golden Mile alumni) serves the role well. Playing a disengaged character is difficult – while Brick is indifferent to his wife’s emotional and sexual needs and everybody else around him, the actor must still be engaged with the ensemble and the audience. O’Sullivan managed this dichotomy nicely, delivering his best moments in his lengthy scene with John Stanton as Big Daddy.

Stanton’s Big Daddy hit all the right notes, so it seems picky to point out his lack of  ‘stature’, however, it was hard to dislodge the feeling that he  just wasn’t big enough to play a character called Big Daddy.  Perhaps it’s the very large shadow of Burl Ives, but silver-fox Stanton looked altogether too trim and healthy to be a man on the verge of death as the result of his appetites.

It’s a minor gripe in otherwise perfectly cast play. All the support roles were well cast with the actors easily finding the cadence and lyricism of William’s dialogue.  Hugh Parker and Caitlin Beresford-Ord portrayals as Gooper and his wife Mae, respectively – whether intentionally or not – were very close to the film version, but they worked well. Likewise their four no-necked monsters: they didn’t have a lot to do, but it’s important to the play’s continuity that the children are convincing, which they were.

Carol Burns as Big Mama, however, was the standout. All the usual superlatives apply to what was a flawless performance by this veteran of the stage. Maybe unfairly, but not surprisingly, she received the loudest round of applause at curtain call.

For film and theatre buffs, the plot of Cat needs little elaboration. It is a play relished for its characters and themes, not for cathartic resolution or an unmasking of who dunnit. However, for those who are only familiar with the film version, the stage version can be a revelation. The references to homosexuality – namely Brick and Skipper’s ‘friendship’ – are far more overt in the play, whereas the film is so obscure about the issue it’s easy to miss what the problem at the heart of Maggie and Brick’s marital discord actually is, such was censorship in the 50s. Ironically, it’s this very censorship that contextualises how taboo talking about homosexuality was at that time and which aids understanding of Brick’s self-destructive behaviour.

Ultimately, Cat is a play that demands fidelity to its setting and the time in which was written. Like performing Shakespeare, embracing the language of the play is paramount. On all levels this production is faithful enough to please purists – especially lovers of the film version – without kowtowing to a preconceived idea of how it should be.  Director Kate Cherry’s reverence for this play and Williams’ writing is evident, but it’s her intimacy with its characters and her ability to nurture the relationships between them that make this a must-see for lovers of Tennessee Williams’ plays.

If Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is already one of your favourites, you will have every reason to enjoy – and relish – this production. For younger generations who may be unfamiliar with Williams’ seminal work, there will be no better introduction. QTC/Black Swan’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is quality theatre which has landed on its feet running.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs from 15 August – 3 Sept. Tickets are available through QPAC.

 

 

Murdering Stepmothers: The Execution Martha Rendell by Anna Haebich

Long before Disney cashed in on her notoriety, the sinister archetype of the murdering stepmother has held the collective psyche in thrall like no other villain. In an intriguing interlacing of fact and fiction, Anna Haebich takes this morbid fascination as her premise to investigate the trial and execution of Martha Rendell — a Perth woman convicted of poisoning to death three of her stepchildren in the early 1900s and the last woman to be hanged in Western Australia. Rather than a straight forward fictionalised biography, Haebich has chosen to narrate the story through a succession of characters either lifted directly, or composited from, the historical record. These multiple points of view give a Haebich a nuanced means of conveying the prevailing attitudes (particularly towards women), bigotry and religious dogma of the time, whilst entertaining variously informed opinions on Rendell’s guilt or otherwise. Rich in detail, it is a narrative devise calculated to show what a woman in Rendell’s position was up against and how she was unlikely to have ever received a fair trial. The detail comes as a product of Haibich’s meticulous research which she uses to close the gap between the known facts of the case and what could have just as likely have happened. Haebich articulates possible theories, alternative scenarios and the forensic and psychological thinking of the day through the speculative musings of her narrators. It is a display of knowledge that makes for interesting reading, but it does stretch the bounds of credible characterisation at times. Haebich’s formal prose is in keeping with the era, without being unnecessarily flowery. After four male voices, with their necessary, era-specific sexism, however, there is a strong desire for the author to speak for herself and lay bare her own conclusions on Rendell’s trial and execution. Haebich satisfies this need by writing as the fifth and final narrator —’The Researcher’ and only woman to offer her opinion. Ultimately, what Haebich achieves — through her own voice and the cumulative effect of her male narrators — is a persuasive argument against trials by media, public hysteria (witch hunts) and the malignant employment of stereotypes to condemn a person, all of which resonates as being just as applicable to the modern age as it was 100 years ago. It is also the closest thing to a fair trial stepmother and convicted murderer, Martha Rendell, will ever receive.

The Writing Class – Jincy Willet

I adored every syllable of this book. Pure reading pleasure loaded with lots of clever word-play on a satisfying acidic base.

Writing a review of Jincy Willet’s The Writing Class is something of a self-conscious exercise, given the book is structured around the students of a creative writing class critiquing the work of their fellow classmates. Through the advice Willet dispenses via her main character Amy Gallup – a lonely, widowed and long past her peak author who takes this Adult Education Creative Writing 101 class – it is patently clear that Willet ‘knows her way around a sentence’ as one character intones in the book. She’s also a master at lessons 1-9, which form the chapter headings of the book: Making Stuff Up; Showing and Telling; The Will Doing the Work of the Imagination, etc. Willet, a creative writing teacher herself, practices what Amy teaches and to extend using ‘the inexorable logic of metaphor’, she wields her creative writing talents like a practised psychopathic killer who doesn’t want to get caught. As testament to her own craft, Willet recreates a plethora of good and bad writing samples to represent the range of her character’s abilities, styles and personal agendas, which she then offers up for meta-analysis by Amy and her students. It’s clever stuff and somewhere amongst the creative writing jargon, cliché traps and bad prose there is an unpublished author whose big sum of rejection letters has unleashed a wacky and very nasty streak which eventually leads them to commit murder.

This is a ‘who-dunnit?’ with a twist on the usual cast of stock characters, because while Willet plays on the notion of ‘types’ – as the cover artfully conveys – her ‘types’ are as real and diverse as any members of an adult education class you could hope to find (or perhaps avoid) and if you’ve ever participated in such a class you’ll know where Willet plucked the inspiration for her characters. As to the clues, they’re all there – in retrospect – but not where you think they are and you’ll be hoping, like Amy − who’s only just behind you as detective − that none of the suspects are the killer because you like them all too much and you’ll probably be as surprised as she is when the murderer is revealed.

What makes The Writing Class such a reader’s delight is Willet’s deliciously caustic and book-smarts wit, which, for the lion’s share becomes Amy’s acerbic, ‘been there, done that’ wit. Having asked the class to nominate their favourite writers, Amy then translates this information into amusing, short-cut personality descriptions which becomes a useful a reference guide for keeping track of the thirteen students/suspects taking her creative writing class. Amy also keeps a blog, the contents of which are all for your reading pleasure and if ‘hybrid book titles’ and their one sentence plot summations – Gone with the Windows for DummiesStarting the Civil War;
Customising Your Decimated Plantation; That Scary General Sherman, for example − don’t tickle your cerebral funny, then you’re probably not a book lover or children falling off swings while the camera is rolling is your idea of a laugh.

The Writing Class doesn’t fit easily into any one category of popular fiction. It’s comparable to The Jane Austen Book Club in that it brings together a disparate group of people that share a common interest: the ambition to be a published author vis-à-vis a love of Jane Austen. Parallels also reside in the thoroughly modern day California setting, the shameless appropriation of references to well-known authors and the use of emails and other internet interfaces throughout the text, but the comparisons end there. The Writing Club bears no resemblance to a romantic comedy destined for a Hollywood screenplay and, if anything, takes its plotting and suspense cues from an Agatha Christie, without so much as a boy meets girl subplot to spark off a red herring.

Brilliantly original, The Writing Class gives creative writing – and popular fiction − a good name with its galloping rhythm, pointy humour, embarrassing all-too-human characters and unexpected plot twists that don’t stretch the bounds of the credibility – including The Epiphany – as lesson 9 instructs. For anyone harbouring that clichéd ambition of ‘writing a novel one day’, The Writing Class will be two parts inspirational, two parts instructional, three parts reality check and four parts pure reading pleasure. Enjoy and then hope Willet − unlike her memorable creation, Amy Gallop − knows how to keep those creative writing juices flowing well into the future.