This incredibly honest, mainly truthful edition of the KYD Podcast delves into the fact behind the fiction, the origins of inspiration and – all right, perhaps a bit of truth bending as well.
Inside Catriona Menzies-Pike speaks about her book The Long Run (and her experience as a self-designated ‘crap athlete’), Maxine Beneba Clarke discusses her profiles for The Saturday Paper (including the one she sort of made up) and Hannah Kent talks to Liam Pieper about his debut novel, The Toymaker.
You can stream the podcast above or on Soundcloud, or subscribe on iTunes or your favourite podcasting app.
MAXINE BENEBA CLARKE: We got allocated nine minutes.
CATRIONA MENZIES-PIKE: It’s your body, it’s in public space.
MBC: (Laughs) I was like, yes, it was! You had sex with your teacher!
CMP: I was really really surprised…
LP: What happened, but that’s one person…
CMP: To find myself running, and enjoying it.
LP: Those little bits of reality that you take out to string together into your fantastical world.
MBC: I feel like the reader also wants to know what it’s like to be in the room with that person.
MEAGHAN DEW: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings podcast. Today we are looking for the truth, or at least the fact behind the fiction. We spoke to Catriona Menzies-Pike about her book The Long Run, and dipped into the origins of Liam Pieper’s departure from memoir with The Toymaker. But first, with three books released, or to be released, this year, I decided to speak with Maxine Beneba Clarke about none of them, and instead asked a few questions about her profiles for The Saturday Paper.
SoI guess the first question to start with is, do you select your subjects, or the people you are doing profiles on, or are they sort of allocated to you?
MBC: Most of them I select myself. Occasionally, I think I have done, probably, about 25 or 26 portraits now, and I think five or six of them have been allocated. So I am very lucky that I have an editor who kind of, you know, was in pursuit, I guess, people that I’m interested in talking to.
MD: And like a lot of people, I first encountered your writing through Foreign Soil. Did you have a background in non-fiction before your collection? Or did this opportunity come around, sort of, in part as a result of your other written work?
MBC: I, so, I started out as a poet, doing spoken word, and then moved on to Foreign Soil, and this did come out of Foreign Soil, in that Erik, the editor of The Saturday Paper read Foreign Soil, and just emailed me, and said – I have no idea how he got my email address – but, you know, ‘I’ve read your book and I love it, and I think there’s this great section of our paper that you should be writing for.’ And initially I actually thought, you know, I haven’t done much journalism, anything non-fiction I had written was really almost personal essaying, so it was based on personal experience, so I kind of said ‘Yeah, sounds good, you know, I might get back to you.’ And then a few months later, the CEO of the company that I publish with, Hachette, passed away. And, I wanted to do something, because, even though I didn’t know him very well, this guy who was very, you know, vibrant and very much a kind of… well, just alive, you know? And I just couldn’t believe that he was gone. And and so I thought, I don’t want to write a eulogy because I didn’t know him that well, but I want to write something about him, and so I contacted Erik and said, ‘Look, I’d love to write a portrait,’ and that was the first portrait that I did. And I think had that not happened, I probably would never have picked up the phone, but it was just this kind of – I think all writers, when something bad happens, the instinct is to write, and to try and rationalise it. And I suddenly had this short-form non-fiction format that I could write in, and so that was how it started. And after that I guess I realised, yes, I can do this, this is a medium that I can work in.
MD: So, the brevity of your portraits is striking, given the reader is left with a sense of who your subject is by the end of it, which is quite a feat for such a short piece of writing. Is it hard to stick to that length?
MBC: I think initially it was hard – there was a lot more editing, the first four or five portraits that I wrote, but I think I had the advantage in that I’d worked exclusively in short form, you know – I now have written a memoir, but at the time I’d only written essays, poetry and short fiction. And so it was kind of, you know, a form that was really, I mean, it’s kind of a mid-word length, 800–900 words. And because short fiction tends to be, you know, at least 3000-ish words, it was getting it down to that length that was always kind of, how do I get the essence of this person? How do I edit this without losing something? But I think you get better and better at that, and while it started off a process of writing double the amount and editing it back, these days it is really quite, you know, I never really write much more than 1000 words to start off with.
MD: How long do you generally spend with the people that you profile, or write your portraits of?
MBC: Usually a minimum of about two hours. There can be portraits that have formed over a period of time, so there are some which I will talk about when I initially met that person – people like Aamer Rahman from Fear of a Brown Planet, who I have watched as a comedian for years, so I kind of started really with the last Fear of a Brown Planet show that I saw, even though when I saw the show three years ago I had no idea that I would be writing a portrait of him. The portrait of Van Rudd, who is an activist artist, I actually wrote over a period of about three weeks, because he lived near me, because we just kind of started hanging out, our kids really hit it off, and he was, I think, it just needed more time. I didn’t feel after an hour or after two meetings or whatever that I actually had him down as a person. And it wasn’t really until I spent time with him, and his family, and his dog, you know, that I kind of realised who he actually was. And I think that process was kind of, ‘I just don’t have this right yet, I’m not confident enough to start yet,’ so let me just, you know, hope that he is going to give me just another hour.
MD: So, are there specific things that you are looking to pull out when you are spending time with someone with the specific aim of writing one of these portraits? Are there particular personal quirks that you look for now?
MBC: I don’t think so. I think I started out looking for, you know, I’m going to look at their body language, I’m going to talk to them about their career, you know, do a lot of research and read their bio before I start – and now I tend to just chat. And sometimes I go in with a particular, ‘this is exactly how this portrait is going to go,’ and what comes out the other end is completely unexpected. The one that I did of Hugh Jackman, which was part of, the only one I have done as part of a media junket, and I only got, we got allocated nine minutes each, there is a room of journalists. So I thought, how am I going to do this? And it ended up being a portrait about that, the fact that there was this room of journalists, and we only had nine seconds with him, and he seemed really uncomfortable, and we were all really uncomfortable, and this, he seemed to be this really earnest, genuine person who had been just shoved into this weird situation. So it became more about a port of him on the media trail, than of him as a person – just because I only had nine minutes, so I just wasn’t able to go deep into anything.
MD: One of the things I find interesting about the portraits is that you yourself are present in them. Unlike a lot of journalistic profiles, where the journalists specifically removes… Makes an effort to remove all traces of themselves from the portrait, as though that hasn’t in any way affected the profile they are creating. Is that intentional? Is that something that started because of the way you began writing them, of someone who you had met and had known?
MBC: I think it was partly the way that I started, and I think also I’m lucky that everyone I’ve interviewed, whether they’ve been allocated to me or whether I have chosen them, I’ve had some kind of personal connection. You know, I haven’t been allocated anyone where I thought, ‘Who is that? What on earth am I going to say that this person?’ When I was allocated Alex Dimitriades, you know, I just couldn’t stop thinking about when I grew up watching Heartbreak High, which was, after he did The Heartbreak Kid, that was his breakout television series. And just all those memories of growing up in the 90s, and it was, like, the first Australian show on television that had a multicultural schoolyard, and I remembered going into The Heartbreak Kid and sneaking into it, because I think I was 13 and a half and it was M15+. It was the first time I’d ever snuck into a movie. And so I started out by telling him this – ‘Did you know that that movie was the first M-rated movie, and I got busted by my mum, and it was terrible!’ And it was funny, because he just went, ‘Oh, was that M-rated?’ (Laughs). I was like, ‘Yes, it was! You had sex with your teacher!’ (Laughs). So that kind of started this whole conversation about, you know, things that we remember, and the difference, you know, for him, I guess, being inside the process, as opposed to sitting on the couch and watching it.
MD: So you mentioned your portraits are not always based on personal interactions – I guess I’m thinking of the one with the Obamas as a particular… (Laughs). How did you, did you sort of pitch that as ‘I’m going to do a profile, but it’s not actually going to be a profile where I’ve met someone specific?’ How did that come about?
MBC: Yeah, it’s funny, my pitching process, because I think there’s only, I think my editor tried to say no to me once… (Laughs).
MD: But only ever once!
MBC: But only ever once. And that portrait, I was actually, doing the Wheeler Centre’s queer programming week, and I was programmed with a transgender porn star called Buck Angel – I said, ‘I want to do a portrait of this trans porn star,’ and he just said, ‘ I don’t know if that’s for our readership…’ I said, well, can you explain why? And I think that realisation, that a good portrait can come from anywhere, it can be about anyone, you know, and it was just that it wasn’t, it probably didn’t fit with the theme of the paper that week, or it was, there are all different reasons why things wouldn’t work. The Obamas one was an interesting pitch, because I just said ‘I want to write, like, a mockumentary, like a spoof portrait of my relationship with Barack Obama…’ (Laughs)
MD: Your very personal relationship with Barack Obama.
MBC: (Laughs) Because it was based off these personalised emails that you’d get from the Democratic Party where they say ‘Dear Maxine, I’m sitting in my Oval Office…’ you know? ‘Thinking about you, because you support me so much.’ They’re just campaign emails. But the way that they personalise them just kind of allowed me to imagine that I had this relationship with him. It was a very fun one to write, as well, because… All of the things that, you know, fake Barack Obama said, what his publicity campaign said, were actual things. So going back through those emails and going, ‘Oh my gosh, there is so much material here!’ You know, Michelle emailing you, saying, ‘I hope you have a good Thanksgiving, I’m thinking of you and your family’, things like that. Yeah, it was probably the most fun portrait to write, I think. I did expect Erik to say, ‘What? What planet are you living on?’ But when I handed it in, he emailed me and said ‘This is the best one that you’ve written so far.’ Even though it was completely fabricated!
MD: That was writer Maxine Beneba Clarke, author of the short story collection Foreign Soil, the poetry collection Carrying The World, and memoir The Hate Race, which will be released by Hachette on 8 August. She will be giving the opening address at the Melbourne Writers Festival and also has a kid’s book coming out before the end of 2016. If you are feeling wildly unproductive in comparison right now, you are not alone.
You’re listening to the Kill Your Darlings podcast. And up next we have Catriona Menzies-Pike, author of The Long Run: A Personal and Cultural History of Women and Running.
MD: So your book combines memoir with snippets of the history of women running. You note that when you were researching, you had a lot of difficulty finding information about those first female runners. Was it that lack that led you to write your book, or was it more your personal experience that was the driving factor?
CATRIONA MENZIES-PIKE: I think my personal experience was the driving factor, because I was really, really surprised to find myself running and enjoying it. And I started to kind of ask questions about the history of women running. And I thought it would be easy to go to the library and borrow a book, and find out about women marathon runners, for example. And that really wasn’t the case. And as I scratched around finding out about women’s long-distance running, in a part of the library that I had never, ever visited, I discovered this really amazing, and largely untold feminist history, and that really engaged my interest. And so I kept reading about it, and wondering why there hadn’t been more research – either academic or popular research – on a really fascinating topic. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me like a really urgent feminist topic. I mean, when you run, it’s your body, it’s in public space, and when you look at the history of women’s running, you see these kind of prohibitions placed on women’s behaviour, that sound very much like other feminist causes around reproductive rights, for example.
MD: So as someone who hadn’t previously, and may still not identify as particularly athletic, did that lack of historical record make you feel less confident as a runner, or less confident with the idea of identifying as a runner?
CMP: I’m still a bit awkward about identifying as a runner, and when people say ‘Oh! You run marathons!’ I really rush to kind of say ‘Oh, but it’s not like that, I’m not, like, a great athlete.’ I mean, when you have run a marathon, people kind of assumed that you’ve got some really distinguished sporting background, and that you have been, like, a good school athlete, and in my case, that just is really, really not true. I mean, people I went to high school with were in hysterics when they discovered that I had run a 10 kilometre race. So I was already pretty uncomfortable with the running designation, and when I started to look into the history of women’s running, I guess I found it in some ways reassuring to discover that there was this big feminist history, that it wasn’t just, you know, a history of all the people who could catch and run fast, and were really athletic – but there was actually a real point of connection between the sort of feminist debates that I’ve been involved in since my teens, and women’s sports.
MD: In the book you mentioned Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and obviously one of the things I like about that is it’s a very un-evangelical approach to running. To paraphrase, he kind of goes ‘It works for me, it might work for you, try it if you like, if not, no big deal’ sort of thing. That’s pretty rare in books focused on physical activity, which most of them seem to be really gung-ho about, ‘This is something you should do, it will be great for you.’ Did you ever find there was a tension between writing about your personal experience and writing about it as something that other people, that other people should do?
CMP: Look, I had been the recipient of a lot of running and exercise evangelism in my life before I started running. And particularly, I guess, in my 20s, when I was very sad, and very depressed, after the death of my parents. And a lot of people said, ‘Look, you know, the best thing you can do is go out and get some exercise,’ and in retrospect they were probably right, and I probably would have felt a lot better if I had gone out and done lots and lots of exercise, but at the time, that advice was something that I really couldn’t take on. So I guess I was pretty aware of that, when I suddenly, surprisingly, got really into running myself and found myself experiencing all these kind of new sensations. I did talk a lot about running to the people around me, particular to my long-suffering sisters, but I hope that it wasn’t evangelical so much as kind of curious. I was so surprised by it all and I was so engaged, and, you know – maybe people who have been participating in sports all their lives don’t find it so exhilarating and curious and interesting. Maybe people who have been sporty all their life don’t get such a thrill, or don’t find it so interesting to see what happens to your body when you start to move a lot. But for me, I was really fascinated by all the physical changes. I was really amazed that I could run 5km, or 8km. So I kind of wanted to talk to people about that, but you know, I was not, then, saying ‘And now you must come out and run with me.’
MD: How did the book end up at Affirm, and was there any discussion about who exactly the audience would be for this book?
CMP: I had been turning over the idea of writing about running for quite some time, and what I had in mind was a set of loosely connected essays about the history of women’s running, about images of women’s running in popular culture – women runners in popular culture and literature, and a kind of feminist analysis of running. So I put together a proposal and got an agent, Lyn Tranter, and she advised me on pulling that proposal together. And it became clear that putting my own experiences into the book, into the proposal, would give it some shape. I wanted to talk about the experience of really crap athletes, like me, I wanted to talk about the experience of people who are uncomfortable in gyms, I wanted to have a slightly feistier feminist approach. So I worked that into the proposal and that eventually got picked up by Affirm. Other publishers were really, really keen for me to write a straight memoir, and I was, I was unkeen to do that. But as I wrote the book and as I talked to the editor and publisher at Affirm, it became clear that I guess, my… My own experiences as a runner and all the thing that running, I guess, had done to me, were at the heart of the project. So I really didn’t expect there, I didn’t set out to write in memoir mode, but that is the shape that the book took. And the more I reflected on my own experiences, the more important it seemed to me to reflect on what it is like to feel really, really uncomfortable and out of place in a big crowd of runners, to reflect on how weird it is to go from being, like, quite unhealthy and unathletic, to experiencing the real pleasures of motion. But also to reflect on, you know, the way in which running was a kind of part of a process of psychological recovery as well, and certainly as I circulated drafts among readers and to editors, that was the material that people responded to most. So, whereas I hadn’t really set out to write a book that was so shaped by memoir, that’s in fact what took place, and that’s the result.
MD: That was writer and unlikely marathon runner Catriona Menzies-Pike, speaking about her book The Long Run, which is about now with Affirm. She is currently working on a series of essays about women and film. Now we have Kill Your Darlings publishing director Hannah Kent asking Liam Pieper a few questions about his new novel.
HANNAH KENT: Liam Pieper is a Melbourne-based author and journalist. His first book was a memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, shortlisted for the National Biography Award and the Ned Kelly Best True Crime Award. His second was the Penguin Special Mistakes Were Made, a volume of humorous essays. He was co-recipient of the 2014 M Literary Award, winner of the 2015 Geoff Dean Short Story Prize, and the inaugural Creative Resident of the UNESCO City of Literature of Prague. The Toymaker is his first novel. Liam, congratulations on the publication of The Toymaker.
LIAM PIEPER: Thank you kindly.
HK: For those listening who have not yet read the book, do you want to give us a very brief synopsis of what it’s about?
LP: Oh, wow, OK. I have one handy, I have a blurb by somebody called… Hannah Kent?
HK: Oh yeah? Who’s she?
LP: ‘Hugely memorable, The Toymaker is an unflinching examination of the dark instinct for survival that lies within us all.’ I think it’s a testament to perhaps your superior abilities as a writer that that is a far greater precis of the story than the… the 400-odd, 300-odd pages.
HK: I very much doubt that, it’s very kind of you, you’ve got me off on the right side, but thank you very much. But we begin the novel with Adam speaking to a classroom of fairly bored and disinterested teenaged high school students, and he is telling them all about the company he runs, the Mitty & Sarah toy company, which was begun by his grandfather Arkady Kulakov, who was an Auschwitz survivor who made toys for the children that he had, that were basically detained in the Auschwitz concentration camp, who then immigrated to Australia and began his own toy company. And then, shortly after giving this speech, we find Adam in a KFC parking lot receiving oral sex from an underage high school student, and taking a selfie of himself at the same time – which, of course, then goes on to lead to disastrous consequences. Why open the book with such a confronting passage and sequence of events?
LP: That is an excellent question. I would like to plead drunkenness. But… I wanted to grab the reader’s attention straight away, and make it quite clear that the character we were going to follow maybe wasn’t the hero of the story. Perhaps I overdid it in retrospect, it is rather a confronting aspect, but also it’s… It’s not an unrealistic scenario, I think. There are far too many men for whom that is an aspirational situation to be in. And so, when I wanted to communicate to the reader that straightaway this guy was perhaps not a good man – one who played by his own moral code, but perhaps that moral code was deeply flawed – this was the scenario that spring to mind. There are certain cases of, similar cases in the media at the time when I was writing it, and I just kind of shoplifted it, you know, those little bits of reality that you take out to string together into your fantastical world. And it was also, I guess, my way of… of marking him as the villain in the piece. You know, wrapping him up in a big black cloak. I didn’t have the option of going the Star Wars reboot option and actually giving him Darth Vader’s mask and wrapping him in black robes, but it’s the next best thing.
HK: And what you do, which is both, I think, quite ambitious – and you’ve done it hugely successfully, and it makes for certainly a very interesting and compelling read – is you have juxtaposed the stories of Adam’s modern-day recklessness in Australia, and you have compared it to description of Arkady’s experiences in Auschwitz, as a sonderkommando and as a medical assistant to the doctors who were performing experiments on detained children in the concentration camps. You were talking a little bit about how the novel began with the character of Arkady and then the themes emerged through an exploration of this impossible situation.
LP: Of course. So it started with the character of Arkady Kulakov, and his big secret – which we can’t give away.
HK: No we can’t, but it does result in one of the most wonderful twists I have come across.
LP: Oh, shucks. I had his secret, and from there it all just kind of spun out, you know, all the consequences and ramifications that echo down through history, and affect the modern age, or come from that one moment of revelation or not-revelation, as the case of the character may be. But the big theme spinning from that secret is the act of secrecy, the secrets we keep to… Mainly to protect ourselves. I mean, everyone keeps secrets to protect something, usually it’s yourself, sometimes it’s family. You know, this silence that we permeate, that we allow to permeate the word around us in order to make life possible, in order to go on when evil is done, when something horrible has happened. This silence can be a very comforting thing, but it also is a vacuum in which further evil is allowed to be done. So that idea of the secrets we keep from each other, in order to protect our loved ones… That, that is the thing that I really wanted to explore. These characters were… The character of Arkady Kulakov in particular was modelled very closely on, well, there was a real-life historical model who was a pathologist who worked for Mengele – he died just after the war, because he was broken. He never worked as a surgeon again, and he died of a heart attack in ‘56, but my question would be, what if this man lived? If he moved to the other side of the world and became part of that great wave of European migration, which so strengthened and changed Australian society, you know, became part of that ‘Greatest Generation’ that we still reference, and that still is a great source of pride in our society now. If that man became part of that, what would happen to him? But his character is modelled on… I grew up in an area of Melbourne with a lot of Eastern European war survivors, and so all my friends were the grandchildren of survivors of the camps, and of the Shoah. As I grew older, like, I’d always had a kind of idea of – I knew what the Holocaust was, but as I grew older, and I became aware of just, the scale of the atrocity, the evil that was done… I found it incredibly hard to, to balance the image of these kind of jovial, stoic, you know, grumpy, real people – these people who weren’t caricatures, they were just Australian citizens, with accents and attitudes. They had seen the absolute nadir of humanity, and then they’d had to move across the world, to this country which was, you know, at best indifferent to their suffering at first, if not actively hostile to it. That was… The silence that surrounded that, you know, this secret at the heart of the community and the families, but also the strength to keep going in the face of that silence – I don’t know if I’m articulating this as well as I could be, but that informed the character of Arkady, and from that the rest of the story.
HK: I think you articulated that perfectly. My next question then, really, is – why fiction? I mean, you have a background in non-fiction, you have a lot of experience as a journalist, why not talk about these things – I have a theory that all writers are drawn to absences, of a kind, and I can see that in what you’ve just described, but why did you specifically choose fiction as a vehicle through which to explore these ideas of silence and morality?
LP: Well, you know, there is that old saying, nature abhors a vacuum, and a writer abhors nature. So there is a celestial game of paper, scissors, rock going on here. But I think… Like, you know, my previous books have been non-fiction, and I love non-fiction, and there are certain things you can do while working in fiction, you know, the veracity afforded by memoir or journalism has a strength which can’t be matched in perhaps any other mode of writing. But fiction has strengths of its own, particularly the ability to explore a deeper truth by taking strands of all the other little truths, you know. I wanted to tell a story which exists only in a metaphysical sense, if that makes any sense at all. The things that happen in this book didn’t happen – I mean, many of them did, you know, all the atrocities, you know, everything that happens, all the things I’ve described in this book, from the events in Indonesia to the events in Auschwitz – all of it happened, but not to one person. The luxury of fiction is that you can take all the events that illustrate the particular facet of humanity that you want, and assemble them into a collage and then, like, it becomes a found art piece of – God, I sound incredibly pretentious when I am allowed to talk.
HK: I know exactly what you mean. It’s almost like a distillation of all these other separate, these true events which are occurring around the world, which are linked, we know, we can see the cause and effect amongst them. However to write that as a non-fiction book it would have no structure. So fiction allows us to pool all these threads together in a narrative that is in many ways a concise and distilled way of still telling the truth.
MD: That was just a selection of Hannah Kent’s discussion with Liam Pieper –and you can find the rest of it, which moves on to research, drug dealers and Pokemon Go, through our website Killings. That is all we have time for today – so thank you to Liam, Catriona, Hannah and Maxine for their time. I’m Meaghan Dew, you’ve been listening to the Kill Your Darlings podcast, and you’ll find Issue 26 of the magazine in stores and online right now. Until next time…
CMP: I’m kind of curious, I am so surprised by it all, and I was so engaged, you know…
LP: I don’t know if I’m articulating this as well as I actually could be, but…
MBC: I think all writers, when something bad happens, the instinct is to write, and to try and rationalise…
LP: Going the Star Wars reboot option and actually giving him Darth Vader’s mask, and…
CMP: I wanted to talk about the experience of really crap athletes…
LP: That is an excellent question, I would like to plead drunkenness.
MBC: More like a spoof portrait of my relationship with Barack Obama…