We decided it was time to bring back our popular author profiles, and who better to start with than Stephen Orr.Stephen Orr is the award-winning author of six novels, including Time’s Long Ruin, The Hands, Hill of Grace and Dissonance. Peter Goers has called him South-Australia’s finest novelist. A fascination with the dynamics of families and small communities pervades his fiction and non-fiction. He contributes essays and features to several magazines, journals and newspapers. Stephen’s short fiction has been published widely over the last ten years, and a selection has gathered for the first time in his new release, Datsunland. His website is stephenorr.weebly.com.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I did write a novel when I was sixteen. It was called A Drop in the Ocean. Terrible, I guess, and I later burned it, like some sort of Nazi book-burning to rid the world of undesirable reading matter. Then forgot fiction until I was in my late twenties. I worry that Australian culture is adept at removing the dream gland from kids, when they start out at their most creative, enthusiastic. That’s how I remember it. Like writing in a void. And it still feels this way. I never liked sport. I hated sport. I detested sport. All of my protagonists hate it too (strangely enough). So you become a boilermaker, or sell things, or know someone who gets you a job in the public service. But god, you never waste time writing books. I’ve taught, which is the noblest of professions, and I try to get in the ear of the writer kids, and tell them to keep at it, because although they’ll never get a Best and Fairest trophy, they’ll have a hundred little worlds of their own making (note italics).
Do you have a writing routine? Why/why not?
Whenever I can. Mornings are good, the brain’s clearer. I like quiet, but my street is full of lawnmower-obsessed people (oh, and the metal grinder guy), so when that starts I have to stop for an hour, start again, then someone’s dog starts. So it goes. I’d like to make some sort of writing pod. My dog, Molly, sits with me while I work, and farts, and I growl at her and she looks at me like, Is there a problem here? Then I wonder what the hell I’m doing making up stories when everyone else I know is out earning lots of money, buying holiday houses, skiing.
What do you like about short stories (both writing and reading them)?
I think short stories are a good way into reading and writing longer fiction. Peter Carey seemed to hone his art with The Fat Man in History. Borges’s Collected Fictions are the first and last word (along with Juan Rulfo perhaps) in short fiction. And Robert Walser’s micrograms, which led to Kafka. The list goes on, especially Joyce’s Dubliners, Chekov’s short stories, Thomas Mann. Each writer found a way to compress the world, find a moment that represents many, pick up on a dilemma, problem, disaster, ecstasy that says much more than it seems to say (on the surface). Leaving the reader anxious, but unable to know more. Then having to rely upon their own sense of ending, or non-ending, to complete the experience. Flannery O’Connor’s stories, too. Dark, unsettling, violent, from this very Catholic and catholic writer.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
Just finished a book about Ethel Malley (Ern’s sister). Yes, I know she was made up, but I wrote a novel about her life, loves, relationship with Max Harris. It’s a strange piece, but that’s just how it comes out. I seem to write stranger books as I get older, and the market seems to want more predictable, clichéd, pointless s*** to feed the groaning shelves of Big W and K Mart. If one of my books ever ended up there I’d know I am, at last, a failure. Where does this leave us? I predict there will soon be a reality show with writers churning out a book, with the prize being a big contract. We can watch them melt down, cook stuff, date in the nudie, try to sing like Celeste (or whatever her name is). And then people can switch over. Hear that ring in your ears? It’s the sound of cells dying. And you’ll never hear that frequency again.
If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?
If I were Buddhist, this would be a problematic question, because it would suggest I’m moving down through the realms, instead of up. And if that were the case, and assuming I had any say in it (which I think is reasonable, but optimistic) then I’d be a seagull. Spend my days scabbing chips at Semaphore and flying to Adelaide Oval to poop on footballers.
What are your favourite Wakefield Press titles, aside from your own, and why?
I love that Wakefield publishes so many art books: Drysdale, Dobell, and contemporary artists. Steidl, an excellent German publisher, does the same, and has many similarities to Wakefield: quality books, excellent editing, discerning titles. Wakefield is in one of group of publishers like Transit Lounge, Black Inc, that still stand for what publishing was years ago. As far as I know, big Mick Bollen doesn’t have a numbers-man with a degree in finance or marketing telling him what to publish. Without getting too political, I just wish the SA government would recognise that this type of work needs some support (no, not half a billion, stadium-style, but just a bit). That if Wakefield wasn’t publishing local stories there wouldn’t be anything to remember, wonder about, be moved by. Just the government’s view of the past, present and future. Which is a pretty grim thought.
Rhondda Harris came across something fascinating when researching in the State Records of South Australia at Gepps Cross for an archaeological dig at the old Adelaide Gaol: a long-lost journal written by the gaol’s first governor, William Baker Ashton. But we’ll let Rhondda introduce the journal herself through this short preamble from her book, Ashton’s Hotel. This includes an excerpt from the journal itself which, yes, may contain some ‘mistakes’. As Rhondda says in the book, ‘I have turned off the autocorrect and transcribed it just as it is in the original. It is an editor’s nightmare but an authentic read.’
June 11 Wednesday: A Poor Woman Named Wilkinson Supposed to be Insane was found at 71/2 this Morning with 2 Small Children Nearly Dead from wet and Cold at the end of the ditch Near the Gaol the Poor Children were in a Dreadful State their Arms and legs being quite Stiff from the Wet & Cold I had the Woman & Children brot into the TurnKeys lodge by a good fire and Mrs. Ashton and Mr Perry took their Wet Clothes off and put warm Blankets on them and they Soon got better . . .
– Sheriff Visited the Gaol Saw the Prisoners and Saw the poor woman & children found in the Water this Morning, wished her to Remain in the Gaol and he would Report the Circumstances to the Government her Husband was for some years in the Government Employ at the port but have left the Colony Since and this Poor woman has no home for herself or Children.
June 12 Thursday: Mrs Wilkinson Still in Gaol and her children Supplied from the Gaol Rations by order of the Sheriff.
This story is from an old journal, written in Adelaide, South Australia. The date was 1845, in the sixth year of this extraordinary journal and in the ninth year of the South Australian colony. This incident, so briefly recorded, is in itself an ordinary story, yet it hints at the far-from-ordinary character of the writer, William Baker Ashton, first governor of the Adelaide Gaol.
There are many such stories in his journal. They provide entry into the little-known underclass of early Adelaide, a world where many of the poor, the inebriates, the prostitutes, the debtors, as well as many Aboriginal people, mentally ill people, children who stole or absconded from their masters, sailors, runaway convicts, petty criminals and serious criminals, including bushrangers and murderers, were collected in the confines of the first Adelaide gaols. Some of these people escaped and were recaptured. Some were hanged. Many were transported by sea to be punished in the penal colonies of Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land, out of Adelaide’s sight. They were all looked after for a time by the governor of the gaol, William Ashton; his wife Charlotte; the guards and turnkeys and sometimes their wives; and by visiting officials – doctors, nurses, the protector for the Aboriginal people, the sheriff, religious ministers, and the colonial governor. It is a fascinating journal, a real treasure, and now that it is known, it is a fabulous addition to the story of early Adelaide.
Find out more about Ashton’s Hotel here.
Christine V. Courtney’s Venetian Voices takes you on a stroll over bridges and under cloisters, following Venetian locals and visitors as they pass through centuries.
On Saturday 24 June, Wakefield Press is joining with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra to launch Venetian Voices with a unique afternoon of music and poetry. Graham Abbott (ABC Classic FM) will be conducting members of the orchestra in a Venetian-inspired program, interspersed with readings from Christine.
The program includes Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, which we recommend listening to while you enjoy a taste of Christine’s poetry.
Late in 1882, an odd-looking couple
on their daily pilgrimage
stroll through St Mark’s Square.
Liszt’s daughter Cosima
and the master Richard Wagner pause;
listening to a haunting refrain
from his masterpiece:
the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde.
Music of wondrous beauty drifts aloft,
heard with rapture by the locals
and played in tribute
by humble musicians of the Café Florian.
He dips his head in acknowledgment.
An imperceptible down beat, and pause
from the sick master quavering,
crotchety on his final walk.
A lifetime subject of notoriety,
and gossip, he senses
an unknown conductor
hovering in the wings, waiting
to conduct his Liebestod.
In the Palazzo early in 1883,
the stranger calls in the dying day
to dim the rays, to snuff his light.
Wagner’s lifetime of creativity
paid the ferryman in full.
As Charon led the funeral cortege,
the gondoliers raised oars in a ‘Piscopian’ salute,
when the procession
passed Palazzo Vendramin Calergi,
where the masterpiece was completed.
It moved slowly, respectfully
pianissimo along the Grand Canal,
towards his final resting place,
the Pantheon of Bayreuth.