I got my act together and finally went to my first, and the last, Sleepers' Salon for 2007 on Thursday last, at the Trades Hall bar. I've yet to visit the refurbished corners of Trades Hall (that was, admittedly, quite a few years back now): suffice it to say that the one I visited has yet to have its makeover. (Must go back and visit the International bookshop sometime, though).
Creative writing courses in Melbourne were the focus of this salon, presented as usual by Sleepers publishers Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn. Antoni Jach, writer and Creative Media lecturer at RMIT, did a session with Sonia Orchard, a published writer who is also one of his students and is close to finishing her first novel, work on which comprised part of her studies at RMIT for a master's degree in creative writing.
Second half of the night consisted of readings by writing students from an array of courses across Melbourne, and was savoured by an appreciative audience of about 120.
I did take some notes when Jach and Orchard were having their parley - I will be looking out for Orchard's novel, as her research involved talking to music industry veterans from '40s and '50s London, and sounds terrific. However I will confess I took a lot more notes when Jach was talking about his latest novel and his experiences with the publication of his other works.
Antoni had high praise for his editors at Hodder (Caroline Lurie) and at Penguin (Sophie Cunningham), but made the not unreasonable claim that the editor of his latest book, Napoleon's Double (which I'd half read before attending), Ivor Indyk of Giramondo, is the best editor in the country, even though he publishes fiction, poetry and a literary journal 'on the side' whilst holding down a departmental position at the University of West Sydney. He says ND took two years longer to finish off because of Indyk's exhaustive editing, and that rewrites of 40,000 words in total were involved. Phew.
He also reported that Carpentaria, Alexis Wright's prize winning book (which will be released in the UK in 2008), has now notched up sales of 25,000, unheard of for a 'high literary' novel in Australia (even bigger publishers can usually only manage to sell about 7,000 copies). Indyk has 'taken the best modernist writers in Australia and made a commitment to them, doing stuff that is suicidal in commercial terms.'
Napoleon's Double grew out of a short story which first appeared in HEAT magazine. As over 600,000 books exist on the subject of Napoleon, he had little difficulty in finding information, but the process of research made him feel as though he was 'suffocated by two hundred Persian carpets', and he seemed relieved to be able to announce that his next novel is set in Rome and involves 'no research at all'.
However he urged the writers present to consider setting challenges like this for themselves, to 'up the ante' and go for broke. General interest in Napoleon made this novel worth doing - it is an archetypal story of transformation, attracting engagement from a wide audience. Carpenters and plumbers, he said, were interested when he told them what he was working on.
Jach finished up by saying that historical novels are popular with marketers in publishing, and that he is sad that marketing departments, rather than editing, drive major publishers' decisions at present. He has a strong interest in contemporary novels but says there is a problem with getting them published, which is not good for young writers or writers of 'high literature', a term he seemed very comfortable using.
I'll write more on Napoleon's Double, possibly elsewhere, and I'm now coming to its close - what I've read so far is driven by a conversational, collusive storytelling voice and adorned in a charmingly offhand manner by considerable research that invites you in quite quickly and has you hooked, to the extent that I considered telling my 18 year old son about it (he of LOTR and Matrix fandom. )
It's a deceptively accessible read, having as storyline the trials, tribulations and aspirations of seven 'natural philosophers' conscripted into Napoleon's army from beautiful upcountry Dijon in the first years of the first French republic, and hoisted first off to Egypt, then to New Holland and Van Diemen's Land with the explorer Baudin.
If the country boy's voice sounds like it will put you off to begin with (or the very idea appals), please do think past that natural objection. This is a very fine piece of writing about place, space, desire and ambition, as well as a most interesting excursion into the experimental edges of historical fiction - several layers, several viewpoints, and as its reviewer in Australian Book Review this month (Margaret Sankey) notes, a doubling theme across more than just the title.
More on that I will not say here, other than to thoroughly recommend this book and its writer - I've bought his third book, The Layers Of The City, as well.