Thursday, February 2, 2017

Of Caves and Corpses

There is a man swaying outside her window covered in bees. His whole head is alive with them. He shivers with wings. He moves and some of them, fat, sated, fall off him and land with a soft wet sound like spilled honey on the floor. When she opens her eyes there is just the sound of the ocean and the sway of shadow as a tree is taken by a stray breeze. When she closes them the man is back. Even wakeful, closed eyed, he is there and so she must not close her eyes or he will climb through the half closed window and the bees will drip onto the floor inside. She lies as still as she can and listens to a thousand wings beat, light and fast as her heart.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

It is not about me

Why do I feel anxious almost all the time?

My world has shrunk down to a tiny sphere and I am at the center of it. This is not the proper scale of things. This is not the right configuration. There is no specific 'now' and I am not even the center of my body let alone my universe.

90% of the DNA in my body is not human. It is the stuff of the microcosm. It is bacteria, fungii and other microorganisms. When everything 'me' about this collection of cells, other microbial life will flare into action. Everything will continue to live or to die just as the cells in my body life and die every day of my life.

I am made of the exact same chemical mix as has made the stars. I am of the stars. So what part of me lives? What part of me dies? Why does the algorithm hold the mirror up to  this face and reflect the human part of me back to the endless loop of look-see-look-see.

I wrote a book, a three legged thing like a stool. One of the legs is wobbly, or so I am told. If I sit on it I might fall. I feel myself fall. I have worked for the longest time to shore up all the legs. I thought I was done but I am caught up in the look-see-look-see. I feel terror, thinking I might have to go back to the desk and rewrite this for the hundredth time.  Take one leg away, is the advice. Hang it on the wall. Something with length and breadth just like any other book. But the depth is missing.  Good enough to publish. Sure. Good enough.

Why do I want to put yet another book out in the world. Because it might be THE book, THE one. If I put it out in the world it might be more popular than my other books. It is certainly more likeable. But I am not writing to be liked. I will not win hearts or awards. I will stubbornly refuse to throw an easy book into the pile of easy books. This was never an easy book. This was a book that looked outward to the universe. I will not be dissappointed every time I look on my shelf and see the two dimensional thing.

One day I will be dead and yet every cell in my body will live on or be re-purposed. The book will not change as my cells do.  The book is fixed and unchanging.

I will not write it for others. I will take it back and make it right if I have to work it and work it till the 10% of me that is human is off being something else.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Daisychain of Good Will

First Published on Griffith Review webiste in Januay 2011 the year of the Brisbane flood.
A Daisy Chain of Good Will – A Motorcycle Adventure Through the Queensland Floods

By Krissy Kneen

On the morning of Friday the 14th of January I knew my motorcycle wasn’t going to behave.  Three days earlier, the day of the first high tide of the Brisbane floods, I decided to move the bike to higher ground.
We live on the ground floor of a tall apartment block right on the river in New Farm. Glenfalloch was one of the first high-rise apartment blocks to be built in Brisbane. In 1959 it was a pretty impressive sight towering over the single story riverside houses. Even today it has a certain retro charm if you are fond of Eastern Block architecture or have a fetish for hospital buildings. The residents who survived the ’74 floods are fond of the story about how the building was saved from almost certain destruction by an ingenious system of wooden slats, heavy plastic and sandbags.  If water got into the foundations of the building it would compromise the entire structure.  My motorcycle was parked outside my unit.  It had been raining solidly for days, not just ordinary rain, but rain so heavy that it obscured vision.  During the heaviest falls we could barely see the houses across the river.  A wall of grey marching in waves across the city.  Through all of this my bike had sat, unused, outside on the street, sucking up the water into every hose and pipe and bolt hole.  The tank needs re-sealing and I was certain that it would have taken some water. It was low on petrol too.  It didn’t surprise me that it took a while to get the engine going.  The thing revved tentatively, popped, stopped, started again.  I bunny-hopped the bike up to the top of the hill and abandoned it there, trudging back to my apartment to move our most precious possessions up to the 8th floor.
My friend Colin’s house is built on the lowest point in Ryan Street West End and was one of the first places to take water.  On the morning of the 11th, the property was waist deep in water hours before the river broke its banks.  There is a storm water drain at the back of the house and the rising river discovered this outlet, filling their garden as if their house alone had been targeted by the rising tides.  Colin worked tirelessly to save everything he could from the place, carting boxes as he waded through the water, joined at one point by Kevin Rudd who looked a little out of his element, a pale office-dweller startled by the twin terrors of hard physical labour and the rising tide.
Colin called me on the mobile, his voice so high and loud that I could almost hear the adrenalin pumping through his body. At the time I didn’t realise he had been up all night carting his family’s possessions through water side by side with the former Prime Minister of the country.  At this time we were hours away from the first high tide.
            “Get your stuff up to Ben and Scott’s unit now!” He was shouting into the phone.
            Ben and Scott’s unit is up on the 8th floor. We have the spare keys to their unit.  Ben was away in India at the time and Scott, a producer for local ABC radio had moved into a motel near work so that he could work around the clock to keep Brisbane listeners informed.  We had already taken several loads of our own possessions up to the 8th floor when the power was cut to our area. The lift relies on power.  We made two more trips, straining under the weight of boxes of books and computer equipment, trudging up 8 flights of stairs in the sweltering humidity before deciding that our possessions weren’t actually important enough to save. I told Colin this but he was adamant, and threatened to drive across town to help us move our stuff upstairs. Soon after this the bridges were closed and we were supported in our laziness by the rising tide.
The next time I spoke to Colin his house was under water. He and his mother, Silvia had visited the building, rowed out into the street by a man in a dingy.

On Friday 14th I picked up my helmet and my jacket with a sense of foreboding.   The river had risen, done it’s business, displaced thousands of residents, ripped the Riverwalk out from under our feet, torn out the ferry stop behind our apartment, and then slunk back into it’s home within its banks.  This was just a taste of the kind of apocalypse we saw often enough in movies and on TV.  People roamed the streets, mostly on foot or on their bicycles, with a dazed expression on their faces.  Most of our neighbours had been up for several nights wondering if their houses would be inundated and then trying to contact friends and family. Many had lost possession. I was reminded of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and wondered how long it would take for us to turn to cannibalism in a completely catastrophic event.
The flood didn’t reach the expected peak.  It certainly would have taken out our unit and much of our street if it had.   My motorcycle would have been covered in mud if I had left it parked where it usually is.  When Colin called that morning I had a vague sense of guilt that my flat had been spared when their house had gone under. 
            “We could really do with an extra pair of hands,” he told me.
I stared at my motorcycle parked at a lean at the top of the hill.  I was determined to make the thing start.  There were no busses running between New Farm and West End, two flood affected suburbs divided by the river, and although I lived in New Farm, my heart was in West End.  I work on the main street there and my dearest friends and all of the customers I have come to love live over that side of the river. I would get over the river even if it meant I would have to walk for hours.
Surprisingly the bike started first try. I did, however, notice a little red light warning me that there was very little petrol left in the tank.  I started out in the direction of the nearest petrol station, down near Fortitude Valley.  There were streets cordoned off with police tape, workers out and raking mud. The bike sputtered and stopped on Brunswick Street and I switched over to the reserve tank. The bike rolled to a stop outside the petrol station, more police tape, no lights on in the place, and now I was further away from my friends than when I started the bike in the first place.
One last try.  The bike started, reluctantly, hopped forward, reared out into the traffic.  I turned into Ann Street, starting, stopping, running out of steam each time I had to slow down for the traffic.  Finally the engine died completely and I rolled the Virago down a side street and came to a stop outside Brisbane Mini Garage.
I was dressed in my shoveling-mud-clothing, Motorcycle boots, old jeans tucked into them, a threadbare singlet top. The Mini Garage is a very 'New Farm' business.  Shiny cars parked inside an immaculate showroom, a top of the range espresso machine, cans of soft drink in a little refrigerator beside it.  I must have looked a little like one of the rats racing to higher ground to escape the rising tide.  When I told the sales assistant that my bike had run out of petrol I may have been close to tears. The air conditioned luxury of the showroom with it's plush leather lounge chairs and gleaming little cars was such a contrast to my experience of the last few days. It seemed that this place had been plucked from a time before the floods and preserved like a time capsule of things now extinct. I told the man I was looking for a petrol station within walking distance.  I would have no chance of getting help from the RACQ with so many vehicles being towed out of the mud they landed in.
He told me to sit and grab a cold drink from the fridge. I would have loved a cold drink but for some reason I felt too embarrassed to take a soda from the cabinet.  I sank into the soft clean leather and waited, nursing my helmet, feeling like I was somehow messing up their place.  In a few minutes he returned with a jerry can and a funnel and the kindness of this act would have made me tear up if it hadn't been for the woman in the Mini Garage uniform who walked into the showroom in tears herself. The man raced to hug her and she explained that she was just really, really tired.
I filled the tank and made it to West End, the bike struggling through a carburettor full of grit from the dregs in the tank.

Colin and Silvia's house was covered in mud.  Two stories full of river sludge mixed with the back wash from the sewerage system thoughout Brisbane.  Colin had saved a lot of their possessions but there was still furniture that had been floating in toxic water for two days. Inside waterlogged boxes I found photographs, personal documents, and, heartbreakingly, funeral notices, letters and postcards from friends who had passed away. It would have been easy to to cry for their losses, but there was a carnival atmosphere on Ryan Street West End.  Young hippy girls patrolled the street offering people muffins and cookies from wicker baskets.  Friends and customers appeared from nowhere with shovels and brooms to help us clear the top floor of mud.  A group of pretty young Christian girls mopped up downstairs, flirting with strapping neighbourhood boys with bandannas tied across their brows. Someone turned up with a Gurney and everyone cheered.  Kevin Rudd came back to the site of his awkward evacuation of a few nights before and handed me some hand sanitiser.  The army marched into the yard and removed debris. Someone set up a barbecue at the end of the street. There was tea.  We mucked out mud and joked and cleaned and no one cried and there was a sense that we were actually achieving something useful.  We trooped home, exhausted but elated to friends houses - the ones that still had power. Friends who had been working at their day jobs pitched in to cook us all dinner and crack open bottles of wine.

The thing that stuck with me was that first act of kindness.  I woke the next morning, sore but happy in my powerless flat with a plan to go back over to West End, finish the job we had begun and a burning desire to buy a nice bottle of wine for the man at the Mini Garage in the Valley. 
Another day of cleaning. When the street in West End flooded with hundreds of volunteers, we drove out to friends at Graceville though kilometres of destroyed suburban houses. Graceville looked like a war zone and when we arrived there was nothing to do but destroy the Gyprock walls with a cricket bat and shovel the debris into piles on the footpath. 
Because it was a Saturday my husband had the day free to help out and he had heard me harping on about that bottle of wine for the Mini Garage man for most of the day.  The closest wine shop to the showroom was at James Street, an exclusive shopping precinct where I feel underdressed shopping in my best clothing.  Covered in mud and smelling like someone who had just climbed out of a toilet bowl I braved the ladies who lunch and waited at the counter to be served.  I asked the sommelier to find me the best bottle in my price range and explained that it was for someone who had helped me in the flood.  He nodded and smiled, a sympathetic smile, one that I had seen several times that day.  Yes, his smile told me, I understand how difficult it is to shovel mud. Yes, I understand how exhausted you must feel.  He set a bottle of wine on the counter and two bottles of Grolsch beside it.  "And there's your discount."  he told me.
I had to leave the shop quickly.  That teariness I had experienced in the Mini showroom had returned.
"My motorcycle girl!" The man seemed genuinely pleased to see me.  I thought for a moment that he might give me a hug.
I pressed the bottle of wine into his hand, said a quick thanks and left just as quickly. 
It is the small acts of kindness that undo me; the jerry can full of petrol, the two icy bottles of Grolsch. 
All around Brisbane acts of generosity were gathering momentum; the two people from Sandford who quietly walked into the house at Ryan Street and began to clean the bathroom from top to bottom; the man with the Gurney who turned up to blast the walls; the people who fed us three nights in a row when we were busy cleaning other people's houses; the couple we didn't know who worked tirelessly until one of them fainted and the other got a bloody nose.  All of these small acts of kindness, and yet under the pile there is that first gesture of generosity that will stay with me.
That evening on Facebook I was so overwhelmed by these acts that I uncharacteristically missed the opportunity to make a lewd joke. 'A circle of kindness' I called it, later amending it in a note to 'a daisy-chain of good will'. My dear friend Christopher upgraded it to a 'circle-jerk of generosity' which made me laugh when I dearly needed to.  Whatever you call it, Brisbane is currently drowning in a pool of it.  Some people call it the Brisbane Floods, but I prefer to call it the daisy-chain of good will, a time when friends and strangers found their moment to shine, and they glowed with an almost unbearable brilliance. I think it will take us many, many weeks to adjust to the light.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

2017 Resolution. I AM RESOLVED

Hello 2017! May you be a better, kinder, gentler year. Last year was just a little brutal with the death of friends and a nasty streak in global political terms. This year will be my year to rectify the wrongs done by the narrow-minded and the mean-spirited.

I have begun the year by writing for he protest website #NastyWomenEverywhere. This is a group of women who believe that if you are going to grab us by the pussy then you better be ready for pussy grabbing back.

You can read my contributions HERE and HERE

My next task has been to experiment with form at the dark, sexy and playful project that I have embarked on with The Lifted Brow. Stranger in the Dark is a conversation in 12 emails between me and 'you'.  You can sign up HERE

And following this I will engage with science and eros with my new novel An Uncertain Grace. You can pre-order a copy HERE

It is not even the end of January and I think I might need a good lie down!

Sex, Gender and Science, three areas that are under attack by the new Trump administration. But this pussy is definitely grabbing back.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Thinking about the Future

Next year in March my book An Uncertain Grace will be out in the world.

Time is like a ball of wool all bundled up  into a tight dense hot sphere at the beginning of things. Then the big bang and all matter expands and time expands with it.  Knowing this, I know that An Uncertain Grace has been published since the big bang. It has always been bundled up with all the other things that happen and will happen in this universe. My birth is there too and along with my birth my death. My good reviews, my bad reviews, the readers who love my work, the readers who hate it.

An Uncertain Grace is about the future. The future exists alongside the present and the past. It is just a location. The only thing that marks its direction is the second law of thermal dynamics, entropy.

I may have all of this wrong. But I don't thinks so. I have been struggling to get it clear in my head and I think I have a handle on it now.

An Uncertain Grace is not about the future but it pretends to be about the future. It is not a prediction, it is an extrapolation. For all I know the world will end before last next year. Trump might push the button on his little nuclear briefcase and start something that no one can stop. Whatever will be is there near us locating the world in that slice of time but I can't access it and as far as I know you can't access it either.  All I know is that nothing in my book will actually happen because Liv, my protagonist doesn't exist. Liv is a part of my present moment. She is a bit of my brain as it exists now. Everything that happens to her is about me and here and now. It is a product of all the research I have done about sex. It is a culmination of all my study and reading and thinking.

I have tried to engage with some of the subjects I have been too scared to tackle in the past. It is a novel but it is also an exploration of ethics and sexuality.

Can people change? If a man is abusive in relationships can he learn about himself and change his ways by engaging sexually with himself in virtual reality?

If a pedophile is taken back to the moment he was abused as a child can he be cured of his damaging obsession with adolescents?

If we create an artificial intelligence that learns and grows as a human does are they more human than a machine? And when will they begin to fear their own death?

What if we could live between genders? Not male and not female. How would that genderless state be?

Can our consciousness exist without a body? Is there a way to keep our memories and personality alive beyond death?

These questions are things that have occurred to me. They are questions that I want to explore now. In the future I may have different obsessions that relate to things that have not yet happened to me. My exploration of the future is more about me, here in the present moment. By the time the book is published it will be about me in the past. I will have moved on. I have moved on. The world will have moved on.

Some of the things in my book are already being explored in the here and now. Perhaps they will happen before the time-line of the book. Our advancements in technology are beginning to outstrip my imagination. Perhaps we will discover other dimensions, the properties of dark matter, a way to see all of time all at once. If this is the case my book will look like a historical artefact before the fictional timeline which stretches 130 years into the future.

But for now I still want answers to these questions and so I have put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard and I have begun to let my mind stretch conservatively into the future. I hope that a reader wants to see where this musing has taken me.

Find out more about the book or pre-order it HERE

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Starting out old

I was forty years old when my first book was published.

This year is the first year I have felt even vaguely comfortable about this writing career. I have published six books in eight years and I am busy copy-editing my seventh and struggling to write the eighth. When I finally got a book out, things happened quite quickly, but I still remember what it was like to be a middle-aged writer trying to break into a field that favours youth.

There has always been a cut-off point. I remember turning twenty-six and feeling sad because I was no longer eligible for awards that were set up to promote the young. I had been entering the Vogel since I was in my early twenties and I had been long listed for a manuscript but I didn't know what to do next. I wrote another book and another book and kept writing books even when I had crossed the twenty-six-year-old-youth barrier and headed towards my thirties.

When I was young there were no creative writing courses. I chose to do theatre thinking I might be a playwright instead of a novelist because I didn't know how to be a novelist. I wrote a few plays. One was performed in regional areas, one was performed at La Boîte. I didn't really want to be a playwright. I kept writing novels. And eventually turned towards film.

There is a lot of attention given to young writers. I think it is really useful for a young writer to have some way of increasing their chances of publication. There are a lot of talented young writers. I have been helping quite a few of them find their way in the world and it feels like a good thing to do, but I worry that there are still so few opportunities for older writers to get a leg up. Sometimes it takes people a few decades to find their voice and a story that is worth telling.

I remember when I was in my late thirties being desperate to get into the hip literary magazines. I kept sending stuff out to The Lifted Brow and I kept getting rejected. The day I was accepted felt like an amazing achievement. For the first time I had been acknowledged by the new wave of hip young writers. Being an old bird in a young people's coop is a sobering experience. I remember getting my first book contract and going for a drink in a fancy Melbourne bar and being the oldest and frumpiest person in the bar and even though I was very excited about the book contract I felt like a fake because I didn't 'look' like a writer when everyone else in the bar looked the part. My author photo did not appear on the back jacket of my book and I felt sure it was because of my age and my weight. I still suspect that was a factor although now I don't really care.

It is wonderful to see the cohort of great young writers find their feet. Still, I wonder about those older writers who have not yet been published. There is no special leg-up for those who missed the  various prizes and mentorships and support aimed at young writers. I hope the quality of their manuscripts, the strength of their life experience and the doggedness that comes with age means that they will keep going till they eventually break through.

Our culture is skewed towards celebrating and supporting the young and I am not sure what can be done about it. If I were wealthy I would start a mentorship program for writers over forty. If you are rich maybe you could think about doing this for me. Either way lets make sure we do not discount those older voices. It is a long hard slog when you are not a shiny young thing.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ellen Van Neerven, Comfort Food and Status Anxiety

I read Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety many years ago. I remember how calming  The Consolations of Philosophy was at an anxious time in my life and I moved straight on from there to Status Anxiety. I have not re-read it since but I remember figuring something out whilst reading his book. The best way to avoid status anxiety is to hang around people who are less talented/smart/successful than yourself.  The phrase a 'a big fish in a small pond' had always felt like it related to geography. Being famous in Brisbane was kind of different to being famous in, say, New York.  I now know the world doesn't work that way. We are not cut off by geographical borders in quite the same way. Members of my tribe live in Sydney and Melbourne now and some even live in New York, Chuuk and Slovenia. I am a small fish in a very big pond and the size of the pond is dictated by the quality of the writers who I consider to be in my community.

I recently read Comfort Food, the soon to be released collection of poetry by my friend and fellow writer Ellen Van Neerven. How is it possible that your heart can simultaneously explode with pride  and sink at the same time? Well cosmology can explain that if you look at the quilted universe with it's quickly expanding patches and it's patches of dark matter, but you know what I mean.

Reading Comfort Food I wondered if I was just not good enough, would never be good enough to reach for the quality of work that my friends achieve.  I am asking for trouble with the group of writers I call friends I suppose. I regularly have dinner with Ashley Hay and Kristina Olsson,  and I am friends with Melissa Lucashenko too. These are just a few of the people who define the limits of this very big pond. I have recently re-read Ashley's next manuscript and my friend Cory Taylor's book Dying a Memoir and I will never be able to write a book as quiet and delicate as Ash's book, as perfectly structured and wise as Cory's book, as full of deep and resonant vulnerabilities as Ellen's book, as complex and thoughtful and wide-reaching as Kristina Olsson's books... I could go on and on.

Here we have the root of my status anxiety. My friends are too good. I don't want them to be lesser writers. Their own drive and talent drives me to do better. I know I can't be them. I can never write a book like Comfort Food but reading it I want to write something that is as raw and wise and honest as that book. I have to keep trying. My friends make me keep trying. I am friends with the best writers and with a lot of work and commitment and energy I will chase at their heels, hoping only to keep pace, even if I will always be a little step behind. My ridiculously talented friendship group force me to become my best self. That is all I could ever ask.