Archive for August, 2006

Festival time

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

‘Why don’t they knock ’em down and put in some amenities like garages, drive-in opera houses and bottle-shops?’
Barry McKenzie, on being shown the architectural gems of Paris, in Barry McKenzie Holds His Own

Even though he could do with the money, [Gerald] Murnane recently decided not to enter the $60,000 Melbourne Prize for Literature, the most lucrative award of its kind in Australia, because the winner must spend half the prize money on international travel. “Part of the money had to be spent on travelling to Europe!” he says with genuine indignation. “I was insulted to think that anyone would think I couldn’t write unless I was staring at mouldy old buildings in Italy or France.”
The Australian, August 19

It’s time for the Melbourne Writers Festival. Maybe only an editor would notice, but it’s kind of poor that the official website can’t decide if there should be an apostrophe after Writers (Chicago uncharacteristically lets you have it either way); consistency of punctuation would be nice for an event that celebrates writing.

Anyway, I haven’t been near the festival for the last few years, as I’m wary of the hordes of Camberwell ladies wearing scarves (I shouldn’t knock them, they’re probably the target market for my book). But I’ll be heading out this year in support of two writers: Tony Moore, author of The Barry McKenzie Movies, and most importantly, the man who commissioned Women of the Gobi from me (and encouraged me to put more bad jokes in it); and Gerald Murnane, the great modernist writer and my former writing teacher, whose home brew I am proud to have drunk.

Gerald is a man who can’t deal with new technologies. He prides himself on, and even defines himself by, all the things he has never done. He won’t use a computer. He won’t eat mango. He won’t wear sunglasses. (He says he won’t watch television, but that’s not true; his son, Martin, reports that Gerald was a big fan of F Troop in the seventies.) Chris sees this attitude as a challenge; later this week, Gerald and his wife Catherine are coming around for dinner, and Chris plans to set up a photograph of Gerald playing House of the Dead 2. I can’t imagine it myself, but if anyone can harass Gerald Murnane into shooting a zombie’s head open, it’s Chris.

Dunhuang Pissweak World

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

This is one of the many stories about China that I didn’t have room for in my book…

Jack and I hired a taxi to take us out to some lesser-known Buddhist caves in the desert outside Dunhuang. A caretaker showed us a few caves and pointed out the faded seventh-century murals on the walls, which we duly admired. There were no other visitors, and we wandered around, enjoying a rare moment of quiet, past the caretaker’s hut and chickens, along a pebbly stream in a gorge behind the caves.

Then we drove back to Dunhuang, through desert that looked like this, in every direction.

Gobi desert

So you can imagine our surprise when we saw this.

Dunhuang Fort

The Lonely Planet didn’t mention a fort outside Dunhuang, but this looked exactly like an ancient mudbrick fort, with crenellated walls and huge carved camels out the front. We couldn’t imagine what it could be. The driver indicated that we should go and have a look.

On the way through the front gate we paid an entrance fee, and I tapped one of the stone camels, which turned out to be made of fibreglass. A good gust of wind could have blown it out into the desert. Brighter people than us might have worked out at that stage where they were, but we were still mystified. Were we in some kind of olden-days theme park, a kind of Dunhuang Pissweak World?

Inside were mudbrick houses, some with flimsy-looking upper stories. We peeked into a few rooms, one of which had some pictures on the wall. The pictures showed people with film cameras, and actors in costumes. And we finally twigged that we were in a film set. That would explain the rickety props; we liked the plastic skull hanging from a plywood gallows.

Film set near Dunhuang

We were most excited when we saw that one of the photos on the wall featured a version of our all-time favourite TV character, Monkey, known as Sun Wu Kong in China.

Monkey film

So here’s a message for my friend Bec Chau, commissioning editor for Lonely Planet’s China guide: this place should be in the next edition!

Cover story

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006

OK, the book. Women of the Gobi is a travelogue/biography in which I travel to China in the footsteps of three English women and their adopted Mongolian daughter, Topsy. The sisters Eva and Francesca French, and Mildred Cable, were missionaries who ran a girls’ school in Shanxi for a couple of decades until 1922, when they loaded up the mules and headed northwest. They based themselves in Jiuquan, northern Gansu province, and crossed the Gobi desert on a Bible-laden donkey-cart five time between 1923 and 1936. They were almost celebrities in their day, and wrote best-sellers that are all out of print now.

Last year I travelled the same route with my brother, and when I got home I wrote about a book about it. When you’re trying to finish a book you don’t think so hard about issues like “what’s going to be on the cover?”, but the publisher did ask me if I had any ideas. I told them I imagined something in the style of a 1930s travel poster, or perhaps a communist propaganda poster; flat colours with something anachronistic in it – maybe someone on a camel would be playing on a Game Boy or using a laptop computer. I gave the publisher some mocked-up images that John Bleaney very kindly put together for me, including this image (I like that I’m wearing a solar topee):

Gobi cover idea
But you know, these things go through commitees and get vetted by sales reps and so on. So what we ended up with was a stock photo of some camels on sand dunes, with the title across the top. It was OK. (One rejected cover idea had a beautiful young Chinese woman looking wistfully into the distance; I thought it was pretty uncool to put this on the cover of a book about wrinkly English women, written by a tubby white Australian woman.)

And then, I’m told, someone else read my final manuscript and decided to have another go at the cover. We ended up with this (I don’t think it’s big enough to read the back cover, but if you can, the typo has been fixed!):

Book cover

I’m pretty happy with it. A couple of people have asked why Eva’s head is cut off, but I like the idea of a fragment of a picture, that you have to work to find the missing pieces. Which is kind of what I did.

Update: I should add that most authors get no say whatsoever when it comes to cover art. So cheers to my publisher for giving me some input.

I ain’t got no linkage

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2006

So I’m adding links to my blogroll, and I’m realising that very few of my friends have any kind of online presence. Chris has been blogging since the beginning of time (since last century, anyway), and even my mother had a web page before I did, but few of my buddies are burning to share their brilliant thoughts with … well, anyone who’s not sitting at their table at the pub.

Good for them, I say.

It just means nobody’s going to be linking to me (sniff).

Piles of kebabs

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2006

About a week ago, my first book went to the printer. It’s called Women of the Gobi, a title that my publisher chose after I couldn’t come up with anything he liked better. I thought it would be a relief to finally be rid of the manuscript, but now I’m waking up in the middle of the night worrying about all the things that might be wrong with it, and it’s too late for any changes. I figure a blog is much less permanent than a book, and therefore less stressful.
Soon I’ll post a bit about the book, and you can be sure that as soon as there’s an Amazon link, I’ll have it up here. For now, check out pictures of last year’s trip to China that formed the basis of the book. Looking at the mounds of skewered sheep (and anything else that can be skewered) at the Urumqi night market is making me dribble into my keyboard. (There’s a publicity photo too, with my various blemishes artfully Photoshopped – thanks Dave!)

kebab stand