Challenging Work

Should art necessarily be challenging?

I mean, it doesn’t have to be – plenty of creative works are reflections of normal life, or fantastical stories created simply for entertainment. But to me, great art – truly transcendent work that moves beyond simply storytelling – should also raise questions, and aim to provide something of an education to its audience, in addition to interest.

I was reminded of this when I saw the latest film clip from Childish Gambino, which, apart from being a good song, also raises questions, and confronts viewers and listeners with something more to consider.

However you view the gun debate and racism in America, there are important questions that need to be addressed – and while the clip doesn’t provide answers, it pushes both issues forward, making you think about the broader debate, rather than simply being entertaining.

I also think this is important from a moral standpoint, that great art has the capacity to change patterns of thinking, not by being overt and saying ‘this is good’ and ‘this is bad’, but by providing scenarios where the audience is forced to question their value system.

Do you really fall on this or that side of the debate?

A good example of this is Gregor Jordan’s film ‘Unthinkable’, which came on the back of the stories of torture at the hands of US soldiers at Guantanamo Bay. The broader discussion around Guantanamo Bay is ‘how could they do this?’ How could US soldiers torture people, using such barbaric tactics, which challenged people’s moral codes and lead to a major backlash.

Unthinkable, while not necessarily trying to sympathize with those events, does raise the question of what you really think is acceptable. In the film (and spoilers for those who haven’t seen it), US authorities arrest a former soldier who’s been radicalized and claims to have planted nuclear bombs throughout the city. He refuses to give them any information until his demands are met.

At this stage, they’re not convinced this man is even telling the truth, but if he is, the consequences could obviously be major. So while an interrogator is working to get information out of him, another special operative comes in. This man is a torturer, and he quickly goes to work.

Now, at this stage, we, as the audience, sympathize with the first interrogator, because we don’t think this man should be tortured – he may just be making it up. In fact, as it goes on, it seems likely that he is, making the torture even more intolerable. Then one of his bombs does go off, killing 53 people. Given this, and that you now know he’s for real, your view such torture might shift – putting this man through pain could save thousands, even millions.

What then?

Another example is Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Prisoners’ – in this film, a man’s young daughter is kidnapped, and they’re at a loss to find any clues. A mentally impaired man indicates to the father that he may know where she is. So he takes him, holds him prisoner, and tortures him to try and get the information.

The man is he’s torturing may not be capable of understanding what he’s said, but the father’s desperate. Few people would go to such extreme measures, but again, it raises moral questions – what would, or could, you do in such a situation.

These types of works are important, because they inspire thinking beyond the scope of the story itself, and have the capacity to change minds, to re-direct people’s approaches to certain situations. That’s not to say that people should be more sympathetic to something so horrendous as torture, but they do make you consider other angles, what you believe, and the filter through which you view news and events.

This is the great power of art – it’s not merely entertainment, it’s a medium for change, for altering minds and expanding perspectives.

The great promise of the next generation of technology is virtual reality, which would give people the capacity to see things from a totally different perspective – which, ideally, will lead to a more empathetic and understanding world.

Art already has this capacity – reading a book is the closest you’ll ever get to seeing things from someone else’s viewpoint, and that has the power to re-shape your understanding.

That’s why literature – and all art – is important, and why I believe we should utilize creative mediums to raise questions, while also building compelling, entertaining narratives.

You won’t always like what you see, but that’s important. You won’t always agree, but that’s crucial.

It’s about showing you a world beyond what’s in your sphere of understanding – and ideally, building beyond that, opening up more than just a basic news headline.


Best Laid Plans


One of the most interesting things, when hearing from other writers, is how they go about story creation and putting together their work. Some say they take it as it comes, they invent characters then start writing and see where it takes them. Others say they need to plan out every detail, scene-by-scene, or they just can’t operate.

It’s interesting to hear, because as with everything in writing – and indeed, any creative pursuit – there’s no ‘right way’. No one can tell you how to become a published author or how to write a great, resonant story, because there simply isn’t a prescriptive process. If there was, everyone would be doing it. Sure, you can follow certain examples, you can learn from what’s worked (which is, essentially, what you do when you read published books), but no one can say ‘this will work’ and ‘this won’t’. Because the truth is, it might. And it might not.

For me, as I continue to write, I can feel myself planning out my stories more, I have a more intuitive understanding of what it takes to write a novel, having been through previously. Ideally, that helps inform my writing process, and make my stories stronger – I’d like to think that I’m advancing, and that the concepts and themes I’m touching on are becoming more refined, more intellectual, even, yet without necessarily changing how they’re communicated.

In a recent interview, I heard an author talking about how political his work was, how his politics inform his writing and his sense of meaning in his work. But I think that’s true of all writers, even those who don’t mean it. Politics is part of who we are, part of our everyday existence, and the perspective you take, through your characters, will intrinsically communicate a form of political stance. The important part, for me, is less about the overt politics of this process, and more about the understanding, communicating the story you want to tell, and letting that tale inform the political aspect.

For example, when I’m writing, I use it as much as a means of understanding an issue or topic, as I do of telling a story. I have a theme I want to examine, but not definitive answers, and my aim, other than entertaining, is to try and get the reader to consider something from another perspective, outside of his or herself. That, in essence, is what all successful politics is about, being able to explain concepts in a way which enables constituents to better understand the varying perspectives – and in this way, I’d, ideally, like to think that my work contributes to opening new tracks of thought, as opposed to communicating a specific message.

I think that’s the same with all writers, yet it’s interesting to hear how they come to this, how some take a very deliberate approach to their subject, and others let it flow, and the themes and ideas reveal themselves.

As noted, there’s no right or wrong way to do this, but simply by exploring an idea, you’re likely going to touch upon those thematic points anyway. And once you realize the core messages of the story you want to tell, that’s when you can strengthen the narrative to reinforce that line of consideration.

On the importance of reaching out

One of the key elements I’ve sought to explore with ‘One‘ is loneliness, and the impacts that being isolated can have on a person.

This is an important discussion to have, an element that’s often overlooked, so I wanted to just put a few notes down on why it’s so important – and what we can do to help.

When my mother was in her teens, her mother – my grandmother – remarried. My Grandma’s new husband was an abusive drunk, an alcoholic who regularly subjected her to anger and violence.

It’s something that’s always jarred in my mind – how, and why, would anyone do this? Why would my Grandma let this man in? I’ve asked my Mum about it and she’s always said the same thing – ‘loneliness is all it’s cracked up to be’.

As noted, the impacts of loneliness are often under-rated in considering negative societal influences. Sure, these days we have the internet, we have dating apps – we have more means than ever before to connect. But talking to someone online isn’t the same as in real life – and the awkwardness and self-consciousness that can come with it. If anything, such elements could be exacerbated by our reliance on online media, which could have wider ranging long-term impacts.

Every day in Australia, eight people take their own lives, the result of more than 65,000 suicide attempts each year. Of course, there are many complexities, many factors involved, not every case can be attributed to loneliness. But many do come down to simply having no one, nowhere else to turn. According to research, feeling a lack of connection to others is one of the three biggest risk factors involved in suicidal thoughts. In addition, recent studies have shown that loneliness can be a bigger risk factor than obesity, in terms of health impacts.

It’s difficult to imagine for most of us, it’s hard to think of there being absolutely no hope, no one else there – that non-existence could seem like a more acceptable outcome. It’s painful, it’s sad. But this is the reality, and these situations are happening, all too often.

But what can you do? As noted, there are obviously a lot of complications, each situation is weighted with complexities that are almost impossible to understand. But you can reach out.

You can ask.

That guy you went to school with who you’ve been meaning to get in touch with again. That girl you used to hang out with, but have since gone your separate ways. Not all of these people will be in danger, but some might, and your effort to re-connect and say hi could be a big step, a big help in reminding them that someone, somewhere, cares.

You can’t take it all on yourself – there are psychological complications that may be beyond your influence. But getting in touch is easy, easier than ever in our always connected age.

And that simple gesture just might be key in providing help.

If you know anyone who you think may be at risk, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or go to the website for resources and info.

Interpretation and Ownership

One of the most intimidating prospects about publishing your work is that once it’s out there, it’s out there, and readers will interpret your words in varying ways – sometimes not in the way you might have intended. Ideally, that doesn’t happen – the surrounding context should provide enough guidance and meaning in a story sense. But beyond the story alone, people will look deeper into your words and meanings, and make assessments of both you and your intentions.

In many ways, this is the point of writing – you’re trying to get people thinking, to see things from another perspective, so you want your readers to look deeper into the underlying logic. When people understand what you were communicating, that’s the ultimate for a writer, but when they misinterpret your meaning, or specific segments, it can be tough to deal with.

I had this with my first novel – of all the sections that got brought up, this one seemed to come up most often.

In a chapter where a group of young people are at a party, one young girl, Aleesa, speaks to the main character:

Aleesa smiles.  ‘Who’s your pick tonight?’ she says, turns to face the girls dancing on the carpet.

                ‘You’re looking pretty good,’ I tell her. She shifts her eyes slowly back to me, the straw from her drink gently held between her teeth. She holds her glass up to my face.

                ‘You gonna’ drug me?’

                ‘I don’t do that.’

‘Ha. Bullshit. All you guys do it.’

‘So why are you here then? Aren’t you worried?’

‘I can take care of myself.’

A young guy joins the dancers, rubbing his hands across the clothes of the girls. Aleesa catches my eyes watching them.

‘Some girls don’t really care,’ she says, and walks off into the crowd, looking back over her shoulder.

This, in some reviews or comments, was interpreted as the character implying that some young girls simply don’t care about the prospect of being drugged and raped. Which, in literal translation, I can see – that is what Aleesa says – but the point of this scene was more to show that Aleesa was strong, that she wasn’t scared of them. At this point in the story, the group is gaining confidence, they feel like they’re dominant, that they run things. In this context, the line was more about Aleesa taking the power from them, saying that people know what they do, but that doesn’t scare anyone. The implied ‘liking’ of it was more the gossip aspect, as opposed to being targeted.

But I understand why this was misinterpreted, and why it stood out as such – but even so, it can be difficult to read such interpretations and not comment back to clarify. But you can’t.

A very high profile author once told me that you can never, ever, respond to criticisms or reviews. It’s tempting, obviously, but no good can come of it. And he’s right – though there is some argument that a level of controversy could, maybe, help in a promotional sense (maybe, if you were high profile enough, responding to a critique could help you get more coverage, similar to how some celebrities hit back via tweet every now and then) – it’s very risky, and you’ll most likely just come out looking worse.

But really, the work needs to stand on its own. Once you’ve published it, released it – once it’s out there, it’s its own thing, and open to criticism on its own merits. Your ownership of it decreases somewhat – if the work can’t stand on its own, then you haven’t done your job, and no amount of supplemental information will cater for that.

So while you might be misinterpreted, you have to accept that, and learn to give your work its own life. The story is what it is, it’s its own thing. You have to let it be.

The key is that you have to be happy with what you’ve created. If you’ve done all you can, you can’t think of any other improvements and you’re satisfied that the final result best captures your vision for the work, then that’s it. Sure, there might be things you want to do better next time around, but that’s always going to be the case. Nothing is ever perfect.

It’s the push to do better next time that’s exciting, and ideally drives us towards creating better and better work.

Interview on ABC Radio’ ‘Nightlife’

one cover2

I recently spoke to Sarah Macdonald on ABC Radio’s ‘Nightlife’ program in Australia to discuss my new novel ‘One’, my writing career, my approach to writing (why I write)  and various other things.

If you’re interested, you can check out the interview here (from the 1:00:26 mark):



New interview

abc canberra

I got a chance to speak to Adam Shirley on ABC Canberra this morning about my new novel ‘One” and the inspirations and motivations behind it.

If you’re interested, you can listen to the interview here (at the 1:06:10 mark of the playback).