Curious Science: ‘Can Writers Prevent Disease?’

This evening, I attended a talk on two of my favourite subjects, writing and science. It was held at my local council library, which happens to be located at Circular Quay, between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. I arrived early so I went for a little walk and took some photos. Here is my artistically blurred depiction of the Bridge:

Sydney Harbour Bridge at night

Customs House, which houses the library, is a rather impressive structure itself. (I didn’t take any photos of it because there was a mob of seagulls loitering in a menacing manner on the forecourt, but this is what Customs House looks like.) The foyer has a glass floor and underneath it is an amazing 1:500 scale model of the City of Sydney, updated yearly, complete with tiny yachts and ferries bobbing about the harbour and tiny street lights that are turned on each night. I also checked out the current exhibitions, including Count Us Together, a small but fascinating collection of photos, posters and newspaper articles about the 1967 Referendum.

The writers-and-science talk was organised by a confusing number of institutions (“The City of Sydney Library joins forces with Inspiring Australia to host a Vivid event as part of the Curious Science series”) but aimed to discuss new partnerships between the Charles Perkins Centre and Australian writers. I was especially interested to learn more about the Charles Perkins Centre, because I happen to work next door to it, and often spend my lunch break in an adjacent courtyard, eating my salad sandwich and wondering what they actually do in that snazzy new building. It turns out the Charles Perkins Centre houses about nine hundred University of Sydney academics who are working on the problems of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other associated disorders. The Academic Director of the Centre, Professor Stephen Simpson, explained that obesity has a range of causes and consequences. It’s not simply about people eating too much and not exercising enough, or even about will-power – it has complex causes that include poverty, education levels, agricultural practices, cultural expectations, the built environment and many other factors. Accordingly, the Centre employs staff from a wide range of academic disciplines – philosophers, medical specialists, architects, psychologists, physicists, agriculturalists and many more – who collaborate in a fluid, creative way in research and teaching. Given all this fluid creativity, it seemed natural that the Centre would seek to work with some writers, especially when a generous philanthropist gave them a lot of money for this exact purpose.

Their Inaugural Writer in Residence last year was Charlotte Wood, whose writing was described as “innovative and confronting”. I have not actually read any of her novels, even though she is a Very Famous and Serious Literary Figure in Australia, because each time I come across an interview with her, she’s saying something that annoys me – for example, informing readers that they are lazy and immature if they enjoy reading novels with likeable characters. (I’d thought she was also the Serious Literary Australian Author who’d sneered at YA novels, complaining they were all about Issues that were resolved in “candy-floss epiphanies” involving trite “growth and change moments”, but then I realised it was Anna Funder who said that.) Anyway, I was interested to hear how Ms Wood’s residency had worked, but her description was a bit vague. I think there were some formal meetings and presentations, but she emphasised that many of her most valuable interactions with the Centre’s scientists had been serendipitous meetings in stairwells and so on. She told the scientists about her novel-in-progress (she noted that this required a mind-shift of her own, novelists being notoriously reluctant to discuss their work in its early stages) and asked them lots of questions, and then she incorporated this new information in her work. For example, when she told a geriatrician that her planned novel was about three women in their seventies, he made an offhand remark that at least one of the women would have a mother who was still alive and in her nineties, which came as a surprise to her. Another scientist challenged her to include some evolutionary biology in her novel, which she did by giving one of the characters an elderly dog with dementia.

Her novel about aging – which is still a work in progress – does sound very interesting and I’m keen to read it. Mind you, Ms Wood did manage to make me roll my eyes (metaphorically speaking, of course) at least once, when she claimed that elderly women characters in OTHER books (and indeed, in our entire culture) are ALWAYS depicted as frail, incompetent and obsessed with the difficulties caused by their aging bodies and minds, whereas her book will be UNIQUE in that it will have women characters who just happen to be in their seventies and otherwise are as real and complex as younger characters, although of course she will avoid making her characters look like the ridiculously happy, healthy and wealthy people in glossy retirement home advertisements. Now, I can think of at least half-a-dozen well-written novels with real, interesting elderly women characters and I’m not even researching this area, so I don’t think it’s all that unique. But possibly I misunderstood what Ms Wood was saying or my listening comprehension had been biased by my previous impressions of her.

Then Alana Valentine, who’d been commissioned by the Centre to write a play about body dysmorphia, read some scenes from her work-in-progress. Ms Valentine interviews people on a particular theme – in this case, how people, especially women, prepare for their wedding day – and then uses their words to construct a play. The scenes involved a wedding dress couturière talking about a distressed customer being emotionally abused by her thinner mother and sister at her wedding dress fitting, and then a fat woman discussing her fear of even entering a wedding dress shop to look for a dress. The scenes were funny and sad and thought-provoking, and she read them very well. She’d been planning to drag audience members up on stage to enact another scene with her, but the session was running out of time and this idea had to be abandoned (to the great relief of the audience).

Professor Simpson was keen to note how the Centre’s scientists had benefitted from the partnership with the writers, by increasing the scientists’ awareness of a different form of creativity. However, he stressed that this was not the sort of thing that could be measured in relation to Key Performance Indicators and that the writers weren’t being called upon to ‘communicate science’ in any kind of didactic way. The Centre is also considering partnerships with other creative types, including visual artists and musical composers. One audience member asked whether Ms Wood had felt the residency put a lot of pressure on her to ‘deliver the goods’, which I’d also wondered about, but Ms Wood felt that it had been no more than the usual novel-writing pressure (that is, hoping it will all work in the end) and in fact, the Centre had provided a free and inspiring atmosphere and the scientists had been generous and helpful in sharing their knowledge.

No one actually answered the question of whether writers can prevent disease, but that was okay. It was an interesting discussion, I learned some things and I got to take a nice walk around Sydney Harbour.

I should probably also mention that my new book, which will be out later this year, is all about science and medicine and is set in the University of Sydney. More about that later.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler turns fifty this year and The Smithsonian Magazine has a great article about the true story behind the book. Really, that book is the only reason I’d ever want to visit New York (although sadly, the bed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Claudia and Jamie slept in and the fountain they bathed in are no longer there). And did you know there was a film made in 1973 called The Hideaways, starring Ingrid Bergman as Mrs Frankweiler? The trailer looks … not very good. Has anyone seen the film?

– And speaking of beloved books, did you know that I Capture the Castle has been made into a musical?

– Here’s an interesting article about the day jobs of various famous authors. Did you know that Dorothy Sayers worked in advertising and devised the ‘Toucan’ Guinness ads? And that Jack London was an ‘oyster pirate’, and Vladimir Nabokov a butterfly curator in a museum, and Harper Lee an airline ticketing clerk?

– Sadly, authors need to scrounge for money because “celebrity deals are shutting children’s authors out of their own trade”.

– Regarding Nabokov, apparently his favourite word was “mauve”. A new book by Ben Blatt reports on the statistical analysis of thousands of ‘classics’ and contemporary bestsellers, concluding that while women write about both men and women, men write overwhelmingly about men; that the writers who used the most clichés were all men and those who used the least clichés were all women; and that Tolkien really liked exclamation marks.

– Finally, here are instructions for how to turn your boring conventional shoes into shoes that look like pigeons. (My favourite part of the story is that Kyoto Ohata created the shoes because she was worried her regular shoes were upsetting the pigeons she encountered on her daily walks.)

Miscellaneous Memoranda

– Here’s a good article by Anna Pitoniak, editor and debut author, on what her editing job has taught her about writing.

– And here’s an important lesson about the perils of ambiguous punctuation: ‘Lack of an Oxford comma could cost company millions in overtime dispute’.

– The Copyright Agency has funded research into teenagers’ reading habits and found that most Australian teenagers prefer to read print books rather than ebooks – although, worryingly, those who prefer ebooks tend to read ‘free’ (that is, pirated) versions.

– Here are the some sheep and here are the no sheep – but where is the green sheep? I loved this article about Australia’s quirky old maps, courtesy of the National Library’s Trove collection. (Have a closer look at Tasmania in the second map. Poor Tasmanians.)

– Still in Australia: ‘Massive spider claims six seats for itself on busy Melbourne train’. The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, has criticised the spider as being ‘that one passenger who puts their feet on the seat’. The situation is being blamed on passengers no longer reading paper newspapers and therefore being unable to put inconsiderate arachnid commuters in their place (on the floor).

– That’s not to say that people have stopped reading newspapers. They’re simply switching to the digital versions, especially in the United States, with a huge surge in subscriptions to The New York Times, The Washington Post and other ‘old fashioned’ newspapers (‘How Donald Trump, President of the Twitterverse, gave ‘old media’ new lease of life’).

– Finally, some sage observations from Wondermark on those social media commenters who are outraged by political correctness (“You can’t talk like you’d normally talk, full of all the invective and slurs you’d normally use, without the objects of that invective feeling belittled and dehumanized by it!”). And anyone who’s ever run a blog would recognise the Sea Lion.

When People Declare That Historical Novels Are Neither Interesting Nor Relevant To Modern Life …

… I think of Winston Churchill after the war:

Churchill worried not so much that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it, but that the loss of the past would mean ‘the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.’

'Freedom is in peril' WWII poster

‘The Book That Made Me’, edited by Judith Ridge

Disclaimer: I’m acquainted with several of the people involved with the creation of this book. But I wouldn’t be writing about it here if I didn’t like it – I’d just pretend I hadn’t read it.

'The Book That Made Me' edited by Judith RidgeThe Book That Made Me is an interesting collection of personal stories by thirty-one authors and artists (mostly Australian, mostly writers for children and teenagers) about the books that “made them” – made them think, feel, laugh, made them want to create their own books. As with most anthologies, there’s a wide variety of pieces and I found some more compelling than others. Shaun Tan contributes a thoughtful essay about books that disturbed him, starting at the age of seven or eight with his mother reading him Animal Farm as a bedtime story, under the mistaken impression that it would be a charming fairytale (he decided it was “no more disturbing than stuff I witnessed at school each day”). His charming, whimsical illustrations can also be found throughout the book.

Other favourite pieces were those which had something in common with my own experiences. Simmone Howell writes about how she tried (and failed) to become a proper teenager using the wisdom contained in the Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High series. Catherine Johnson explains how she “never expected to see [herself] in a book … everyone back then knew only white people lived in books and had adventures”. Jaclyn Moriarty discovered, aged six, how her secret rage at the injustices of life had been transformed into a book called The Magic Finger. I also enjoyed Fiona Wood’s discussion of the helpful life lessons contained in Anne of Green Gables; Emily Maguire’s description of how Edith in Grand Days encouraged her to take risks and celebrate her teenage mistakes; and Julia Lawrinson’s entertaining account of her obsessive identification with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Most of these writers were already familiar to me, but I’d never heard of Catherine Johnson and now I feel a pressing need to read some of her children’s books, in which she says she “made sure to put children like me [that is, mixed-race kids] right in there, riding horses, wearing those amazing frocks, and mostly having adventures, just like everyone else.”

There was plenty of book nostalgia for me to wallow in (Dr Seuss! Little Women! Trixie Belden!) and I’ve added some recommended books to my To Read list, including Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Displaced Person by Lee Harding. This book contains potted biographies of all the contributors and I was pleased to see a thorough index. The Book That Made Me is published in Australia by Walker Books and will be published in North America this year by Candlewick Press, with all royalties going to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

My Favourite Books of 2016

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2016 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I only read 46 new books this year (new to me, that is), fewer than I usually read. This was partly because I was studying for most of the year, plus I’d started a new job, both of which took up lots of mental energy. I also read a great deal of (mostly depressing) political news in newspapers, magazines and blogs. So when I wasn’t doing that, I escaped into the comfort of old favourites from my bookshelves, including a dozen of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books and a re-read of all the Rivers of London novels in preparation for the release of Book Six in that series.

So, what type of new books did I read this year?

Type of books 2016

Author nationality for books read in 2016

It was the year of British literature, it seems.

Author gender for books read in 2016

And women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Slade House by David Mitchell and the latest installment of the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

It was non-fiction that really captured my interest this year. Favourites included The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch, and two of Bill Bryson’s books, At Home: A Short History of Private Life and The Road to Little Dribbling. I’m only halfway through Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle, but I’m really enjoying it so far. However, my absolute favourite of the year was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a brilliantly incisive yet accessible discussion of neurocognitive research into sex differences, which I realise I didn’t actually review on this blog because I was too busy writing assignments at the time. I will try to remedy that at some stage in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a good review.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

I loved Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I was also beguiled by the first book in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, Autumn Term.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

I was entertained (and occasionally enraged) by a collection of First Dog on the Moon’s political cartoons, A Treasury of Cartoons. I also enjoyed Night Witch, a graphic novel in the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan and others (although it wasn’t as good as the prose novels).

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Memoranda in 2016. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2017 brings you lots of inspiring, informative and entertaining books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014
Favourite Books of 2015

Miscellaneous Memoranda

John Banville provoked a lot of responses, most of them derisive, when he said in an interview about his new memoir, ‘I was not a good father. I don’t think any writer is.’ As Joanne Harris said, ‘Not only is Banville’s claim ludicrous, it reinforces the myth that women can’t be Proper Writers because of all the Caring they have to do.’ I especially liked Julian Gough’s response in The Irish Times, which discusses the ‘historical cultural catastrophe’ that bent many Irish men ‘brutally out of shape’ but expresses hope about the new generation of male writers.

I also enjoyed this article by Matthew Gallaway, in which six writers discuss book covers and blurbs in an very entertaining fashion, and this short piece by Christie Nieman on the joys of ‘quiet’ Young Adult novels.

In more depressing news, Stealing Books in the Age of Self-Publishing explains that “in the world of self-publishing, where anyone can put a document on Amazon and call it a book, many writers are seeing their work being appropriated without their permission”, with enterprising plagiarists getting rich and escaping punishment. And even if you don’t get plagiarised, there are plenty of other “spiky little soul-destroying aspects of the business” of literature, says Krissy Kneen, who is suffering from Mid-Career Malaise.

This is probably an appropriate place to quote NOT A WOLF, who is definitely not a wolf pretending to be a man:

@SICK OF WOLVES

However, there are hopes that the new Australian Senate will refuse to pass the government’s proposed legislation to abolish territorial copyright.

And if you’re in a French railway station, you now have easy access to stories via vending machines that ‘dispense short stories printed on paper — for free — with passengers able to choose a story of either one, three or five “minutes” in length’.

National Bookshop Day 2016

'Love your bookshop 2016' logo

Fellow Australians1, it’s National Bookshop Day this Saturday!

This celebration of our nation’s bookshops is especially important this year because the Australian Booksellers Association is one of the organisations campaigning against our government’s proposed changes to Australian copyright laws:

“That’s why this year the National Bookshop Day celebrations will coincide with the release of #SaveOzStories. Published by Melbourne University Press, #SaveOzStories is a collection of some of Australia’s finest authors writing about the threat the removal of PIRs poses to our local writing culture. #SaveOzStories will be available for free at all good bookshops on Saturday 13 August.”

That’s right, a free book, full of contributions from your favourite Australian writers. There’ll also be lots of cool events at bookshops around the country. For more information, see Love Your Bookshop on Facebook and NatBookshopDay on Twitter.

'Save Oz Stories'

_____

  1. If you’re not Australian, you are still allowed to visit a bookshop this Saturday. Especially if you’re planning to buy one of my books.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

– There’s a great interview with E.B. White in this 1969 edition of The Paris Review, which includes his thoughts on writing for children:

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In ‘Charlotte’s Web’, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.”

– I was also interested in this article at The Guardian about a new exhibition of Soviet-era children’s books. “The idea was to abolish fantasy literature and illustration because they were seen as bourgeois and unhelpful to the revolution,” says Olivia Ahmad, the curator of the exhibition:

“In one cautionary tale called ‘Ice Cream’, by writer Samuil Marshak and illustrator Vladimir Lebvedev, a bourgeois capitalist eats too much ice cream and freezes to death. In ‘Red Neck’, a poem by Nicolia Aseev, a faithful Young Pioneer (the Soviet youth group) refuses to take off his red neckerchief even when attacked by a raging bull, thus demonstrating doughty revolutionary commitment even in the face of an unpleasant goring.”

The Guardian is also running a series about recipes for fictional food, including strawberry and peanut butter ice cream from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and raspberry cordial from Anne of Green Gables. I also liked this blog post at Pop Goes The Page about a DIY Harry Potter party, complete with Hogwarts letters, house banners, snowy owl balloons, floating candles and of course, pumpkin pasties, chocolate frogs and butterbeer.

– From the world of publishing, here’s a depressingly accurate article about how authors who are “hard to look at” (that is, not conventionally attractive) are less likely to find a publisher for their work. This only applies to women writers, of course (as one commenter notes, “Only one name is needed to mention here: George R. R. Martin”). And here’s an essay by a New Zealand editor, Stephen Stratford, entitled “The book didn’t sell and yes, I was mean-spirited enough to rejoice”: An essay on the dark arts of book editing.

Copyright protection for creators has been in my thoughts lately, so I was interested to read this discussion of the “Monkey Selfie” case, in which a US judge eventually ruled that “a non-human was not capable of owning copyright under current US law”. (It is a great photo, though.)

– Finally, for those students feeling stressed about school and exams, “one Canberra school has invited a local kitten rescue to bring cats into the classroom in a unique bid to mitigate pre-exam anxiety”.

'The Globe kittens' by Ernest J Rowley (1902)

‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’ by Anne Lamott

Although I’d seen many recommendations for Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird1, I put off reading it because it sounded a bit too mystical for my tastes. In fact, this book is fairly big on spirituality, with the author frequently referring to God or her church or her pastor’s advice, but it’s balanced with a healthy sense of humour. For example, she explains that she begins each day of writing with a prayer and recommends that all writers use some form of ritual:

“Try it. Any number of things may work for you – an altar, for instance, or votive candles, sage smudges, small animal sacrifices, especially now that the Supreme Court has legalized them. (I cut out the headline the day this news came out and taped it above the kitty’s water dish.)”

'Bird by Bird' by Anne LamottHowever, most of the book consists of sensible advice about various aspects of fiction-writing, including plotting, creating a setting, developing characters and writing plausible dialogue. She advises writers who feel overwhelmed by the thought of writing an entire novel to begin with “short assignments” and to visualise scenes through a “one-inch picture frame”, because as E. L. Doctorow noted, “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

She also explains that “perfectionism will ruin your writing” and emphasises that all first drafts are terrible:

“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”

I especially liked Lamott’s description of how to know when you’re finally “done” with writing your final draft, the process of which is like “putting an octopus to bed”:

“You get a bunch of the octopus’s arms neatly tucked under the covers – that is, you’ve come up with a plot, resolved the conflict between the two main characters, gotten the tone down pat – but two arms are still flailing around . Maybe the dialogue in the first half and the second half don’t match, or there is that one character who still seems one-dimensional. But you finally get those arms under the sheets, too, and are about to turn out the lights when another long sucking arm breaks free.

This will probably happen when you are sitting at your desk, kneading your face, feeling burned out and rubberized. Then, even though all the sucking disks on that one tentacle are puckering open and closed, and the slit-shaped pupils of the octopus are looking derisively at you, as if it might suck you to death just because it’s bored, and even though you know your manuscript is not perfect and you’d hoped for so much more, but you also know that there is simply no more steam in the pressure cooker and that it’s the very best you can do for now – well? I think this means that you are done.”

I didn’t agree with everything Lamott had to say about writing (for example, she is opposed to planning and dislikes “the rational mind”), but she discusses it all with such warmth and charm that I enjoyed reading and considering her thoughts. This book is highly recommended for both beginning writers looking for practical advice and encouragement, and more experienced writers seeking inspiration.

You might also be interested in reading:

‘On Writing’ by Stephen King

—–

  1. By the way, the book’s title comes from advice her writer father gave to her ten-year-old brother, who was overwhelmed by the task of writing a huge school report on birds that was due the next day: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”