Tag Archives: Susan Midalia

Susan Midalia talks about The Art of Persuasion

UnknownSusan Midalia
The Art of Persuasion
(Fremantle Press)
NOVEL

Susan Midalia writes exquisite prose, and is looked up to by many as one of Australia’s leading exponents of the short story genre. She is equally well known as a teacher, editor and mentor, and I am only one of many writers who have benefited from her knowledge and generosity. She is also a friend, and a delightful human being, and I’m thrilled to feature her new book today.

The Art of Persuasion is Susan’s first novel, a work with many of the characteristics of a Susan Midalia story—compassion, wit, warmth of spirit, attentiveness to language, characters with a distinctive voice. And there are some surprises, too—a modern love story with the feel of a comedy of manners from another time, a story arc involving a political campaign in an urban Australian setting.

Here’s a little more about Susan…

Susan Midalia is the author of three short story collections, all of them shortlisted for major literary awards: A History of the Beanbag, An Unknown Sky and Feet to the Stars. She has been the judge of literary awards such as the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition. She has also been an assessor for the Literature Board of the Australia Council. She is currently a board member of writingWA and Margaret River Press, and takes great pleasure in working as a teacher for A Maze of Story, a volunteer organisation that encourages creative writing by socially disadvantaged children. Susan has lived in Perth for most of her adult life, and is blessed with a husband who works to pay the bills so she can enjoy the luxury of writing. She has two adult sons, of whom she is inordinately proud.

And here is the blurb for The Art of Persuasion

Twenty-five-year-old Hazel is reading the classics, starting with ‘A’. It’s one way to pass the time when you’ve quit your job and lost your way. But then she has a chance encounter with an irresistible older man. When Hazel is partnered with him on a political campaign, her attraction is deepened by the strength of his convictions. Adam seems to be attracted to her too—but why is he resisting? And what does Jane Austen have to teach a young woman about life, love and literature in the 21st century?

The wonderful Michelle de Kretser has described the novel as ‘a witty and tender comedy of manners that also has political bite’. And Ryan O’Neill, winner of last year’s Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, says it’s ‘a perfect modern romance’. 

Over to Susan…

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2 things that inspired my book

I was impelled to write my novel after seeing the memorial to the SIEV X, on the shores of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. SIEV stands for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel, a term which describes, in dehumanising militaristic terms, a boat carrying more than 400 asylum seekers that was heading for Australia in 2001. When the boat capsized, 353 people drowned; four subsequent inquiries undertaken by both major political parties absolved the federal government of any responsibility for what was described, in chilling Orwellian Newspeak, as ‘A Certain Maritime Incident’. I won’t go into details here, except to say that the credibility of those inquiries has been widely disputed. The memorial to the largely forgotten SIEV X, completed in 2007 in the face of strenuous opposition from the conservative government, was the work of the Uniting Church, the writer Stephen Biddulph and hundreds of children from across Australia. It comprises 353 white poles stretching out on an incline like a wave, and many of the poles are inscribed with the name of the identified dead. Others are anonymous. On each pole there are also paintings by children of the many joyful experiences, including rainbows, flowers, kites and birds, which have been lost to the asylum seekers. It takes a long time to observe each pole; to reflect and try to take in the enormity of the experience. Seeing the memorial four years ago reduced me to tears, and has stayed with me ever since.

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A second and very different impulse for writing was my love of Jane Austen’s novels, and the pleasure of teaching them. In particular, I wanted to explore what Austen’s moral concept of love—falling in love with a person whose values and conduct one admires—might mean to a young woman living in a highly sexualised contemporary culture in which what matters is surface appeal. I also wanted to model my mode of social and moral criticism on Austen’s, using wit to mock vice and folly, to entertain instead of lecturing the reader. The genre of comedy also enacts an optimistic vision of the world; and while there’s every reason these days to despair of corruption, self-interest and bigotry, it’s crucial to retain a belief in progress and the fundamental decency of people. It was a challenge to write an optimistic novel without lapsing into sentimentality or smugness; to affirm the value of kindness without being self-righteous or naïve.

2 places connected to my book

The physical setting is Perth, in 2014, and it’s primarily a political space. Based on my own experience in political door-knocking campaigns in the western suburbs, I’ve used ‘place’ to reveal the complacency, indifference, cynicism and just plain ignorance of many people I encountered. And that was in the more educated suburbs of Perth! My city also has a ‘laidback’ atmosphere and ethos; as one of the characters in my novel remarks, our low crime rate, lovely beaches and clean air make it a great place to bring up children. The ‘downside’ of this middle-class idyll is a hedonistic insularity and blindness to the suffering of others. (I’ll always remember the former Prime Minister John Howard describing his vision for Australia as ‘relaxed and comfortable’, as if Australia was a giant Ugg Boot instead of a nation committed to social justice and equality.) The Perth setting of my novel is also an attempt to contest the Sydney- and Melbourne-centric view that prevails in Australian literary culture. It’s difficult for many West Australian writers to gain traction over east: to be invited to writers’ festivals, have your work reviewed, get reasonable sales figures. Setting my novel in Perth was thus a way of insisting that West Australian writers have something of value to contribute to the national literary culture.

The other important space in my novel is psychological: what happens in the space of the mind. I’m a writer of character and consciousness who enjoys imagining what it might be like to be someone who is very different from me. I’m a woman in my sixties pretending to be 25-year-old Hazel West: a millennial who’s unemployed, aimless, mildly depressed and looking for love. (We do, however, share a sense of humour and a deeply irritating tendency to self-pity.) The Art of Persuasion is a third-person limited narration, so it was a challenge, as well as fun, to ventriloquise Hazel’s voice and evoke her state of mind and cultural milieu. I sent the unpublished manuscript to my younger son, who was twenty-seven at the time, for feedback, and he told me I had the voice and the cultural references of his generation just right. Using Hazel’s perspective was also a way of contesting the stereotype of young people as narcissistic, lazy and irresponsible. I know from my experience as a parent and teacher that there are many admirable young people who are committed to social justice and the viability of the planet, and who wish to make a useful contribution to society.

2 favourite things from my novel

Hazel is my favourite character because of her complexity: she’s both feisty and self-doubting, acerbic and tender, a young feminist pining for love, and with the capacity to learn from experience. But I’m also fond of the novel’s romantic hero, Adam. His literary antecedents come from Jane Austen: he has the moral solidity of Captain Wentworth (Persuasion), the hidden past of Mr Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), and, like Mr Knightley from Emma, he’s considerably older than the heroine, acting as her guide or mentor. I’m interested in what makes for a ‘good’ man in the early twenty-first century; ‘good’ both in his personal life and in the wider community. Adam is also sexually attractive, but in an understated way, and I’ve used this to make fun of the hypersexualised romantic heroes in pulp fiction. I wanted to remind readers, as Austen’s novels do, that subtlety is far more erotic than blatant displays of masculine sexual prowess. Unlike Austen’s heroes, however, Adam is a widower with a five-year-old son, and it’s partly this complication that acts as an obstacle to the consummation of his relationship with Hazel. Romantic comedies rely on an obstacle to the union and the erotics of deferral: I wanted the reader to keep asking how long it would take until Adam and Hazel finally ended up together in bed!

In a favourite passage from my novel, Hazel’s lifelong friend and flat-mate Beth is ranting about women who succumb to the very ideas that reduce them to decorative objects. She and Hazel—who’s trying hard to keep up with her garrulous friend—are also slightly drunk (that was part of the fun of writing it).

Beth started waving her glass about because she’d just seen something truly disturbing, she said, an ad in the local paper, set out in huge pink font: WHAT’S THE DESIGNER VAGINA? She’d nearly toppled over when she read it, she said, all the stuff about tightening this and rejuvenating that, collagen and creams, making women feel even more ashamed of their bodies than they already did … almost spilling her wine now, denouncing all the women, thousands there were, having surgery on their bums because they wanted a perky one like Pippa Middleton’s. That kind of thing drove her nuts, she said, and who the hell was Pippa Middleton anyway? Hazel tried to explain but Beth said she already knew and that’s not why she was angry. She was angry because Pippa Middleton was only famous for having a sister who was only famous because she’d married a prince who seemed like a nice enough guy, cheering up disabled kids and all that, but that wasn’t the point, was it, about the monarchy? An accident of birth, unearned wealth and privilege and the next girl who told her they adored Kate Middleton because she was so pretty and wore such stylish clothes and had such a cute baby was in serious danger of being punched. Hazel was confused for a moment because she thought Beth wanted to punch the baby, and then she wondered aloud what they could have for dinner.

Please join Susan in celebrating the novel’s entry into the world:
Tuesday 10 April, 6.30pm
Centre for Stories, 100 Aberdeen Street, Northbridge

The Art of Persuasion will be in bookshops on 1 April 2018
More at Fremantle Press
Follow Susan on her website

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Review of Australian Fiction special WA volume: issue 2

Issue 2 of the special volume of Review of Australian Fiction featuring writers from Western Australia is out now, with wonderful new stories from established writer Susan Midalia (who also talks about her new story collection, Feet to the Stars, here) and emerging writer Josephine Clarke.

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Susan’s story, ‘Imagine’, begins:

Everyone’s checking out their phones, as usual, eyes down, scrolling or texting, or eyes closed listening to their iPods. I reach into my I Survived Heart of Darkness calico bag and take out my book, feeling out of place, out of time. But then again, since no one’s actually looking at me, maybe I don’t really exist.

Josephine’s story, ‘A woman who went to town’, opens:

All that remained of him was the smell of coffee and his empty bowl in the sink. It was Sale day, and he had already driven off in his ute. Lena couldn’t help herself; she left the dishes and went outside to her garden. She’d been waiting all week for a chance to look over the roses. Her shoes darkened with the wet dew. It was delicious, the freedom.

RAF publishes two stories every two weeks, delivered in mobi (for Kindle) or ePub (for iPhone/iPad, Kobo, Nook, Readmill) format. Individual issues of RAF are $2.99. A subscription for six issues is $12.99.

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Susan Midalia talks about Feet to the Stars

UnknownRecently, during a major decluttering exercise involving thirty or forty archive boxes, I came across a collection of my undergraduate literature assignments (do I need to mention I’m a hoarder?). As I sorted through them, I was reminded that long before Susan Midalia and I became friends, and writing and editing colleagues, she had been my lecturer and tutor in a unit on Australian Literature and Film—a unit I had loved, not least because Susan is the most inspiring of teachers. I think she has been teaching me, in one way or another, ever since.

Susan retired from an academic career in 2006 to write fiction full-time, and her new book follows A History of the Beanbag (2007), shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, and An Unknown Sky (2012), shortlisted for the Steele Rudd Award. She is, or has been, a judge of several literary awards, including the WA Premier’s Book Awards, the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, the Todhunter Literary Award and the Margaret River Short Story Competition. She is a board member of writingWA, Margaret River Press, and A Maze of Story, a volunteer organisation that encourages creativity in socially and economically disadvantaged children. She is also a regular facilitator of short story writing workshops.

I’m delighted she has agreed to answer some 2, 2 and 2 questions about her new book, the intriguingly titled Feet to the Stars.

Here is the back-cover blurb:

Susan Midalia’s third collection of stories, Feet to the Stars, offers keenly observed details about everyday life, expressed with pathos, tenderness and bracing wit. Subtly rendered and emotionally engaging, these stories speak of the transformative capacities of the human mind and heart, and of the ways we affect each other, sometimes unwittingly and often profoundly. They offer us the pleasure of listening to different voices, and the satisfaction of careful crafting and evocative prose.

Over now to Susan…

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Two things that inspired me to write the book

There are two areas of experience that keep returning to me, not always consciously or deliberately. The first is children. This might be partly autobiographical; having helped to raise two adult sons who I love fiercely, I remain fascinated by that complex combination in children, particularly adolescents, of wisdom and naiveté, kindness and self-absorption; by their capacity to enrich and sometimes to burden the life of a parent; by their idealism and freedom from hypocrisy, which reinforces for me, and I hope for all of us, the value of hope in a cynical adult world.

A second preoccupation in my new collection is the need for political engagement as a means of questioning structures of power. I was inspired to write stories such as ‘The hook’, ‘Oranges’ and ‘Exploring’—all of which in their different ways deal with issues of injustice and political self-interest—partly because I’ve been increasingly concerned by what’s happening to, and in, Australia. Like many Australians, I’ve become dismayed, saddened and indeed afraid of the lack of compassion and basic human decency that I believe is beginning to characterise this country. Not that I want to preach to my readers, because good writing doesn’t pontificate or tell the reader what to think. Rather, I try to encourage reflection on the way we treat one another, both in our daily lives and in the wider society, for in the end, that’s what matters most to me.

Two places connected with my book

First, and speaking geographically, most of the stories in this collection are set in Australia. Sometimes the physical settings are integral to the meaning of the story; in ‘Exploring’, for example, a road trip across the Nullarbor and the setting of Cottesloe Beach are used as a means of questioning cultural myths of identity. For the most part, however, the stories are urban/suburban, and here I’m not so much interested in physical space but how ‘Australian-ness’ is manifest in the way my characters speak, think and behave.

I’m very aware that I’m not given to creating literal settings, mainly because it’s not one of my strengths as a writer. I greatly admire writers who make settings seem real, immediate, atmospheric, who offer us either the pleasures of recognition—places we know—and the pleasures of geographical difference. But I’ve decided to leave that to those wonderful writers, and console myself with the fact that this absence in my stories puts me in the brilliant company of Jane Austen, whose novels very rarely create physical settings. Like Austen, I’m drawn instead to inner spaces—to our thoughts and feelings, motives, fears, desires—the whole glorious mess of human consciousness. This is the second element that’s prompted me to write this book: I’m interested in the things people think but don’t always say, as well as in what they manage to say in those moments of confusion, clarity, humility, disillusionment, affirmation, despair, consolation, that constitute our lives. One of my main goals in this collection was the creation of a range of different inner spaces and voices: males as well as females, adolescents and adults, working-class and middle-class. Trying to imagine what it might be like to be someone who’s very different from me is both immensely pleasurable—a bit like being an actor, I guess—and an ethical imperative, an act of the empathetic imagination which for me lies at the heart of writing, reading and being.

Two favourite passages from Feet to the Stars

The first is from a story called ‘Because’. Narrated retrospectively by a woman called Violet, it’s a story centred on her ‘search’ for her mother, Beth, who went missing when Violet was two years old. Here is Violet, recalling the objects once owned by her mother:

What else did my father give me? What scraps and shards, what rags of passing time, through which I might recall my mother? Were there other evidential texts of more, or less, veracity? More, or less, haunting? He gave me objects: a bronze letter-opener; a box of unwritten postcards; a silver hairbrush with an embroidered backing, stitched in crimson and green. All of which I saw, and continued to see, as unexceptional. But I am fond of my mother’s tiny, grey pincushion in the shape of a mouse, which holds for me the pathos of the miniature; and a marcasite brooch in the shape of a bow, fashionable during her time, and fashionable once more. But whenever I look at these objects, touch them, I cannot feel my mother. Perhaps a bracelet or a necklace, something she had worn against her skin, might have made a difference. Or perhaps it is merely the paradox of any object from the past, its presence confirming absence. Like a photograph of the dead: you are here; you are gone.

And here’s an extract from the titular story, ‘Feet to the Stars’. It’s narrated from the perspective of Paul, a middle-aged teacher in a private girls’ school, who has been visiting—at her request—one of his students, hospitalised with anorexia:

At school the girls had made a card for Nell and asked him to sign it. One of those jumbo-sized cards, meant for celebrations and silly occasions, and at the top of the page, a quotation in bright red letters: Clownlike, happiest on your hands, feet to the stars. Sylvia Plath. Bella said it had taken ages to find words that everyone agreed on: some girls just wanted a simple message like get well soon or we miss you, and the school sacristan preferred something from the Bible.

‘We talked about the poem, remember?’ said Laurie. ‘About being a kid, about being happiest, and how we only think we’re happy cos we party and drink and stuff. And how that’s not really being happy, it’s just pretending to be a grown-up.’

‘Nell forgot to put her feet to the stars,’ said Imogen. ‘Or maybe she doesn’t know how.’

And so Paul signed his name, added it to the names of his students, who didn’t always have the language but who certainly understood.

‘We’re giving it to her tomorrow,’ said Imogen. ‘Me and Helena.’

He didn’t say, Helena and I.

‘And Nell thinks the other girls can start visiting her now.’

He told them that their friendship would mean a great deal to her. That it might even help more than all the doctors could. And then, because he couldn’t help himself, because he’d been lecturing students for years, would be lecturing until the day he died, he told them about Carl Jung.

‘He was a famous psychoanalyst,’ he said. ‘He spoke to many troubled, unhappy people, gave them the benefit of his complex theories and many years of training. But in the end he believed he did nothing that a good friend couldn’t have done. Listen. And show they care.’

Helena gave him a puzzled look. ‘So that’s how you pronounce it,’ she said. ‘Jung. I thought it rhymed with dung.’ She beamed at her classmates. ‘I’m reading his work on the collective unconscious. It’s very deep.’

 

Feet to the Stars will be in bookshops on 1 August 2015
You can find out more at UWA Publishing

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