In which I consider a career in hip hop. For realz.

Last time we met I mentioned that I go to the gym. This is true. I am one of these annoying people who is actually addicted to exercise, specifically I just love pumping iron. True fact. I love answering questions from the audience at writers’ festivals, but what I’m really waiting for is someone to challenge me to an arm wrestle.

The key to a good weights session (stay with me, the light’s coming, I swear.) Is music. As I previously wrote, I attend a gym largely patronised by blokes, many of them (so-called) professional athletes. This can be a touch intimidating. The weights room is completely male dominated. A lass can feel like she’s trespassing on some primitive male ritual. I stick out amongst all the bronzed, oiled (eww) biceps. I am a gangly, fluro-white girl in glasses. But like I said, I like doing weights and Fernwood is about twice as expensive as a mixed gym so I have developed an effective method for keeping my cool (I use this term only as strongly as can be applied to someone who works out in an old maternity bra and tattered ‘Overland literary journal’ t-shirt.) What’s my secret? Hip hop, peeps. Rap. That cray cray ghetto thayng. Mos def.

Yes, in order to feel on par with the super-tough titanium lifters (Do they lift titanium? Is it even heavy? Let’s leave that little illustration alone.) I recruit the help of the Beastie Boys, sometimes De la Soul, and more often than not, a heap of Gwen Stefani. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

I don’t feel intimidated if I have Mike D rapping in my ear. It makes me feel like I have a little posse following me around telling these annoying 20 year old posers to get off my leg press, man. Never mind that the remaining beasties are now in their late forties.

The problem is, I have run out of music. I have listened to Hollaback Girl 68 times in the last month and I now know every word of every Beastie Boys song that’s got a fast enough beat to elevate the heart rate. Massive Attack? I know every thought that ever entered Tricky’s mind. Same for Jurassic Five. I am in that weird place where I am out of the loop and don’t know what to listen to. This is a problem exacerbated by the fact that I refuse to listen to anything misogynistic. That rules out about 70% of hip hop. Also, I have kids, so there can’t be too many expletives. Or if there are, they have to be easily masked as something else. For example, you can sing along to Hollaback Girl if you pretend Gwen is really passionate about her ‘ships’: ‘OooOoo that’s my ship, that’s my ship.’

So, I hear you say, why not try something else, there’s a lot of hip hop out there. Modern stuff: Jay Z? Kanye? That Snoopy Dog fellow?

Yeah. But the problem is, it all sounds very plastic, slick, sharp. I was a teen in the 90s. I cut my teeth on a grungy, fuzzy, rough-around-the-edges sound that comes from people making music it their parents’ garage. Without Pro Tools. I made the jump from guitar driven grunge to hip hop via the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, which owes more to Nirvana than it does N.W.A. That song was my bridge. I was able to ease myself in. I don’t want no computer generated, auto-tuned, slick sound. Also it seems that most people in the hip hop business today have lost their sense of humour. It’s all very earnest, either about popping caps or using hoes. It all sounds rather fake to me. The only caps I pop are Panadol and I use a hoe in the garden from time to time, but generally I just can’t relate.

I’m going to sound old now, but I remember De La Soul rapping about poor hygiene and the beasties mentioning their grandmas. Gwen Stefani had her tongue firmly in cheek on a permanent basis, as did Charlie Tuna. I miss those days. Now everyone seems super keen to prove how tough and mean they are and how much cash they’ve got.

What about Aussie hip hop? You may ask. The Pez Dispenser chappie? 360? Look, I’m going to be brutally honest, and I realise this is some cultural cringe thing I need to overcome, but I can’t stand rap with an Australian accent. I have an Irish friend who says I need to get over this. Easy for him to say, he’s Irish.

Recently I came across Iggy Azalea. She’s Australian, but you wouldn’t know it from her accent. She raps like Kelis or Nicki Minaj. She is clearly inhabiting an imaginary persona, but I don’t see the problem, musicians have been doing that for years. No one blames David Bowie for being fake because he never lived on a space station. Aside from the Minaj-esque accent, ‘Fancy’ sounds like it could be Gwen Stefani, so that’s a win. It’s also got a sense of humour about it. ‘I’m so fancy’ is a funny line, if for no other reason than it uses the word ‘fancy’. Iggy claims to be in the ‘murdder business’, but we know she’s making it up because she makes no secret of the fact she’s from Mullumbimby.

In fact, I like that song so much I bought the album. Trouble is, the rest of the tracks maintain the whole, ‘I was poor, now I’m a rich and l might shoot you’ narrative, funny for one song but tiresome over a twelve track album. Yes, yes, Iggy, you started out on your own with no friends and now you’re a success everyone wants to come around and drink your champagne. That aspect may be true, but it’s not entertaining. There’s nothing lyrically clever about it. While we’re talking white rappers, I have a lot of respect for Eminem. He’s a clever guy. But I can’t buy an album which glorifies beating up a woman and stuffing her in your car boot. No matter how linguistically sophisticated it is.

(It made me consider making my own hip hop. I would rap about books, a really nice skirt that I bought from Cue a few weeks ago and how much I love Spike Jonze movies. Maybe also horses and how expensive they are to maintain. But I’ve kind of committed to the whole writing thing for the moment and besides, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t make a very convincing rapper.)

rapperIt seems that the only stuff around that doesn’t feature expletives does feature a fellow called Pit Bull, who is so manufactured he makes me want to shout expletives, which kind of defeats the purpose of listening to clean stuff in the first place. I have a big problem with music that’s marketed as family friendly and clean, but features a guy in a suit surrounded by gyrating semi-naked women. Call me picky.

On the upside, The Roots have released a new album, ‘And Then You Shoot Your Cousin’ which harks back to Faithless and other trip hoppy stuff like DJ Shadow, it even has a flavour of Portishead to it. It is largely a response to the shallow, braggy, materialistic hip hop which is so prevalent. If you want to read more about the comment it makes on hip hop and black America today, The Roots’ drummer, Questlove (he of the fantastic hair) wrote this piece for Vulture. It’s pretty freaking great. As for me I know it’s risky to cast any judgment over contemporary hip hop, both Lorde and Lily Allen have been accused of racism because of comments their music makes about mainstream hip hop culture. But that issue is another blog altogether.

 

National Young Writers’ Festival: Stories, Smoke Machines and Yoof

Greetings readers. Apologies for the ridiculously long time between posts. I have been away on holiday for three weeks, a terrible thing to do because one inevitably has to come home again. However, I was lucky enough to spend the weekend up in Newcastle for the NYWF. There is nothing better than spending time talking with intelligent people about writing, especially when one has a microphone.

Just to clear up any misconceptions, a writers’ festival is not where a writer stands beside piles of their own book, with a microphone and amp, spruiking like a verbose and vaguely hipster version of a Bing Lee salesperson at Christmastime. Rather a large group of verbose and overtly hipster people gather to discuss various topics to do with writing, whilst other people listen. It’s more fun than it sounds. There’s beer involved.

Amongst the vastly talented people I heard speak and even spoke to (!) were Lachlan Brown, Summer Land, Amy Gray, Pip Smith, Kaitlyn Plyley, Eliza Sarlos, Tom Ballard… You get the idea. It was pretty much the best weekend of my entire life. But the best part? The students doing the Younger Young Writers’ program. They were the most annoyingly talented teenagers I have ever met and it would be easy to hate them but for the fact they were so unrelentingly eager.

I found these young folk particularly endearing. Probably something to do with the fact that they wrote down nearly everything I said, which has never happened to me outside of a cafe/restaurant environment. On Saturday myself and several other writers spent a few hours workshopping some of their stories and giving life advice like: ‘Ignore everything your parents/teachers advise you and study writing and literature at uni’, ‘Abandon your plans to become a lawyer and instead study writing and literature at uni’, ‘Some universities will throw money at you to get you to come study with them’ and ‘Being a writer is the most important and rewarding job in the universe and writers are fabulous people’. The last couple may or may not be true, but the students seemed to believe us.

I’m going to sound terribly old (as opposed to when I shouted at one of them, ‘Tori Amos is the greatest vocalist to have ever lived! You need to listen to Little Earthquakes IMMEDIATELY! I have it on tape!!!’) but I really wish I had the chance to do something like the YYW program when I was at school. The closest thing for us was Tornament of the Minds where six of us were selected to be locked in a room at a university for three hours and come up with a pantomine based around a Shakespeare quote; with only a packet of pipe cleaners and an old toilet roll to make all our costumes and set. After which we would perform our ‘play’ for a panel of judges including academics from said university. I was eleven. Torment of the Minds would have been a more apt title.

It seemed like when I was in school everything was either a competition or a test. As part of the Younger Young Writers’ program, these kids got to spend four days listening to writers speak about their work, interspersed with writing sessions where they got to work on their own stuff. The material they worked on was workshopped with professional writers. No one gave them a score. No one attributed a number or percentage to them based on their work. They weren’t shut in a room, seated in rows and told to produce a piece of creative writing  while the clock ticked and a supervisor paced. How the hell are you supposed to be creative under those conditions, let alone inspired?

The YYW program was a format that seemed to suit all sorts of personalities: the extroverts who ranted about their loathing of post modernism; the quiet ones who scribbled with a hand covering their work; the ones who can read that elf language that Tolkien made up. The writing that I read showed they had felt confident enough to experiment and go with their instincts, something that is very difficult to achieve in a classroom. We discussed Harry Potter and Austen. We argued about Fantasy and musical theatre. Their writing was clever and self aware. Some of it was witty, some downright scary – I read a sentence in one student’s horror story which made my stomach turn.

At various events held by the National Young Writers’ Festival I heard a lot of inspiring people discuss everything from the impact of isolation on creativity, to how not to be a douche when ones career starts to take off. I read and listened to short stories in the tunnels of Fort Scratchley with Penguin Plays Rough and met amazing people at the festival party with an over-active smoke machine. But – and I think you can guess where I’m going with this – the best part was sitting and talking to those kids talk about writing.

Bring on YYW 2014.

Next…

220px-Magnolia_albumIt looks as though The Sky So Heavy will be released at the end of July. I have relinquished it for good and it’s strange to think that I won’t be working on it anymore, it has felt like a member of my family for the past four years. I won’t see it again until it is an actual book in my hands, by which time it will be far too late to make any changes. In the meantime I am in a strange land where I must decide which story to turn to next. I have a half-finished manuscript that I have been tinkering with off and on for the past seven (eek!) years. I feel it has so many faults and weak parts and needs so much work that I don’t know if it’s worth spending my little scraps of writing time on. But I’m not sure I can give up on it.

In the meantime I will try and tap into my main source of inspiration, music. I was listening to Aimee Mann’s Bachelor No.2  this morning and was reminded of how Paul Thomas Anderson used it as his inspiration for his film, Magnolia. It will probably sound terribly naive, but I’m not aware of many other writers who have used singular albums or songs as the reference point for a story. (Do let me know in the comments if you know of any.) For me The Sky So Heavy grew, to a large extent, out of Radiohead’s The Gloaming. The mental image of a gloaming – a sort of murky twilight – combined with the words ‘Your alarm bells, they should be ringing’ was incredibly powerful to me. Now as the prospect of the dreaded ‘second book’ looms, I find myself feeling around for something new with enough potency to get the ball rolling.

A few weeks ago I heard The Smashing Pumpkins’ iconic track 1979 on the radio for the first time in ages. There is something effervescent about that tingling guitar riff (Is that what it’s called? If I’m going to write about this stuff I should find out.) and those opening lines ‘Shakedown, 1979/ Cool kids never have the time’. I am toying with a story set in the mid nineties and have a sketched out a character who listens to Pumpkins obsessively on her Discman. So we will see where that goes. I have found in the past, and I’m sure I’ve blogged about it before, that sometimes the key to understanding a character, for me, is getting a grip on what kind of music they would listen to, and then listen to it over and over again while I write. It’s not neccesarily music that I would chose to listen to, either. If that manuscript that I mentioned earlier on ever sees publication, you will find in it a character called Kate who I didn’t know well enough until I figured out that she would have listened to a lot of Lana Del Ray.

While all of that is going on, I will keep listening to The National’s new album, Trouble Will Find Me. It feels more adult than young adult, though. So you never know, a genre change may eventuate…

Writing and music and radioactive snow

I once read that Peter Carey needs complete uninterrupted silence for eight hours a day to write. My first thought was: what luxury, the second was that he needs to harden up. (Actually, he probably has enough cash that he doesn’t.) I must clarify that this was a while ago and maybe it wasn’t Peter Carey, maybe it was Tim Winton. (But I am more inclined to believe it of Carey than Winton, because I am a Winton fan.) Either way, if this was the case for most writers, especially those with children, it’s difficult to imagine that any books would get written at all.

My writing windows at the moment are one and a half hours max, twice a day if I’m lucky, three days a week. (Those three days are preschool days, and an hour and a half is the longest my baby will nap for.) This means I don’t have the luxury of staring into space picking lint off my sleeves for two hours before I get down to the business of writing actually words. (That’s what I used to do, before children. Interestingly, I wrote hardly anything, but had noticably lint-free jumper)

So what does one do, when time for accessing that very definite headspace needed to write fiction is so limited? My trick, as I wrote last post, is to listen to particular songs over and over while I write. The brain’s uncanny powers of memory and association kick in, and I can slip into the world I need to. Most of the time. Because the setting for The Sky So Heavy was so important to the story, this technique was crucial. It may surprise you, but i don’t in fact live in a icy tundra where radioactive snow falls from the sky. For some reason Radiohead’s Codex was my track of choice for conjuring such an environment in my headIMG_1242. When I hear the opening piano chords I automatically see a darkened highway, smothered in grey snow, illuminated by a single set of headlights. In my gut I can feel the twist of fear my protagonist feels as he steers the car through the alien landscape. His mouth dries as he passes the twisted carcasses of cars that have tried to make the same journey that he is attempting.

I’ve also found that music can be really useful in helping me nut out other aspects of my stories, characters in particular. Six years ago I started work on the story which will hopefully be my second novel. Unlike TSSH the protagonist is a teenage girl. Hannah is jaded in a way that only a fifteen year-old can be, although she is hurting in a way which far exceeds the experience of most people. She is also a smart arse. Hannah is trying to deal with a recent family tragedy, certainly unlike anything I have ever faced and I had difficulty tapping into the emotions that she was experiencing beyond the obvious cliches of grief and guilt.

I have completely redrafted the manuscript twice (which is fortunate because its earliest incarnations were pretty woeful) and it wasn’t until after leaving it in a drawer for two years, and then revisiting it briefly every three months or so for two years after that, that I was able to get to the core of the character. It was a song that got me there, Beach House’s Walk in the Park. I wasn’t even working on the story at the time, I was on the train listening to Beach House. But the lyrics, simple as they were, crystallised the character for me.

So now, as The Sky So Heavy is back with the editors and I wait, I will pull Hannah’s story out again for perhaps the hundredth read-through. I will listen to that song. And I will see if she has anything else to tell me.