Interviews

The Last Monday Book Club at La Trobe University Bendigo

Joyce Carol Oates said, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” And what better way to share this experience than through a book club. Michelle McGoldrick, Bendigo Writers Council contributor, has been pondering the wide range of Book Clubs in the Bendigo area and spoke recently with Sabine Wilkens about La Trobe University Bendigo’s Last Monday Book Club.

How did the La Trobe University (LTU) book club come together?
The book club started in 2011. Like many good ideas, it had its inception over drinks one Friday night. I think it began with a few of us discussing how we could meet to talk about something other than work. Often it takes just one energetic person with a good idea and in this instance, it was a relatively new staff member who brought this fresh idea along and to fruition. The whole thing happened quite quickly. Our Book Club then created a structure and I currently convene meetings, send reminders, I occasionally look at discussion questions on the internet and facilitate preparation of the list of books for voting. Two other members share the food and drink supply, and they collect $5 dollars occasionally for the kitty. At the meeting we share simple food passed around on platters and we have a drink. Then we start going round the group and everyone can share what they thought of the book.

Can you outline the professions of the people in the LTU book club and does professional status impact on the reading list?
I do not know that there are myths about what academics read as we are certainly not literary experts. Indeed, classifying somebody by their title and profession is a very limited way of describing them - their most interesting attributes may well be quite outside that title. However, in our book club we have a technician (retired), a retired lawyer, one person with a history doctorate, another with a doctorate in Applied Linguistics, an English language specialist, a surveyor, a retired chief administrator, several staff members from the department of Pharmacy and Biomedical Science (in biology, biochemistry, chemistry including the professor of biomedical science and a physicist and a chemist who are now retired), the Professor of Psychology and a teacher who is involved in outreach activities for La Trobe University.
One peculiar thing about the membership is that we only have two men, and the rest are all women (more than ten), but perhaps that is not so unusual? We have vastly different tastes and there is rarely a book that all like or all dislike. Certainly, we offer diverse opinions.

The reading list is eclectic; what does this say about the literary open-mindedness and reading tastes of the LTU book club?
The reading list is compiled in October/November the previous year. All members are encouraged to propose one or several books and the entire list (including title, author, year, publication, number of pages, and a short summary) is then open for voting. All members are eligible for three votes, but they are worth one, two and three points. The ten books with the most points will be the selection for next year. We then usually pick the fattest one of those ten, to be the one for discussion after the long summer break. For 2020, we suggested to include some ‘classics’ and quite a few were voted in.

Sometimes members suggest books they have not read themselves, but this is always a bit risky. If everybody dislikes the book, we all know who suggested it and there may be some teasing, but nobody becomes cross at having wasted our time. Usually if somebody does not like a book, they will just not finish it. One book quite early on was utterly despised by everyone but strangely we could not trace back who had suggested it! We still talk about that book and how awful it was, and it has become a legend for this book club as many still remember it.
I think personalities and personal taste play a big role if somebody likes a book or not - reading tastes can tell quite a story about a reader. Some of our members like crime novel authors and recently we discussed ‘100 years of solitude’ where I discovered that many people want/need stories to be believable to enjoy them. The good thing about a book club is that you end up reading many books that are not your choice, which is a great chance to expand your horizon. A great thing about our group is that we have several people who know more about a certain field than others, so often they help resolve questions or doubts about something in a story.

Tell me a little about the dynamics of the book club: do people in the group tend to agree/disagree?
How are differences of opinion or interpretation managed, how robust are the discussions?
People often disagree but the difference in opinion are an essential part, I think, as otherwise there would be very little discussion. The discussion is never unfriendly though, everybody accepts other opinions very openly and can also express their own opinion very openly. Some books inspire more discussion than others, and at times we run out of things to say. However, there are usually enough other things happening in Bendigo that are of general interest, that moments like that are rarely awkward. Still, some evenings are more of a success than others, but it is always good to see everybody.

What does the group ultimately take away from the book club: is it about the social interaction or
the enjoyment of literary analysis - or both?
I think it is both for most of us. All book club members are nice people, and it is great to see them in person and find out what is happening in their lives. Since we have continued via Zoom, not many have joined the monthly meeting, but a Zoom session with five or six is manageable, unlike 15 Zoom participants. For some members, the social interaction is important and without that (a Zoom session can hardly be classified a social interaction), many have stayed away. But for others, they want to discuss the book, so they join, even if it is on Zoom. So, the motivations probably vary too amongst our members. When we could still meet in person it was quite magical to share a glass of wine (or water) and great discussion with nice people.

What are your recommendations for joining a book club?
I think book clubs are such wonderful institutions. It is brilliant to hear other people’s experiences when reading a book that meant this or that to you but can mean something totally different to another person. People can add colour to the book by knowing something about history or politics or culture that someone else might not have known, so the book often has more meaning after such a discussion than before. One of our members commented that the sorts of books they liked depended on their purpose in reading - sometimes you just need a page turner – a detective fiction or war-time spy thrillers with some literary merit as well. Plots must be realistic, preferably with substance, maybe biography, perhaps science-y books (formation of the continents, development of language, scientific discoveries) or, at the moment, books about racism and the experience of being part of the non-culture in a place. I suspect I will be suggesting something by Stan Grant for Book Club next year!

Finally, are there any budding writers in the group?
If there are, they are keeping it to themselves!

Bendigo Book Clubs are encouraged to contact Bendigo Writers Council for an interview to share
their experiences. Email: bendigowriterscouncil@gmail.com

Bendigo Library has resources available for any readers wishing to start a book club:
www.ncgrl.vic.gov.au/bookclubs

Humour, Imagination and Success with Adam Wallace

Adam Wallace is an author and illustrator based in Melbourne. Adam’s How to Catch series and The Holiday Heroes Save Christmas made him a New York Times best-seller. Adam’s books have sold more than two million copies worldwide, but it’s the fun and imagination in his books that make him a much loved author amongst children and adults alike.
Adam spoke with Bendigo Writers’ Council member, Michelle McGoldrick, for reflections on his writing craft and to share Adam’s excitement about his current projects.

You run creative writing sessions with children – what is the funniest thing a child has ever said to you?
Oh, there have been heaps, most often when we’re creating stories. My all-time favourite comment was made at the end of a session, and I thought I’d smashed it out of the park. I asked if there were any questions, and a little preppie put up his hand – and I was ready for something about how awesome the session was – and he said, ‘Why are your ears pointy like an elf?’

How do your books foster imagination in children? In your view, what literary/artistic experiences best nurture imagination in children? 
Definitely one of the main goals in my books is to entertain, to make kids feel good about the book they’re reading. So there’s always humour, which I believe is an open door to imagination. With my How to Draw books, my goal is to make them fun and achievable so kids can feel confident in what I teach them, to spread their wings and try something new. It’s hard to let your imagination take over if you’re worried about getting something right or think you can’t do it. Fun and achievable experiences nurture imagination every time!
 
Discipline and routine: are there tips for writers to help them embed focus in their creative processes? Or do you say – what the hell, throw it out the window?
Ha ha! I am very disciplined with my writing! I write every day, as much as I can. I always write in the morning, so then I know I’ve done what I want to get done early. If I want to write more later, great. If not, that’s okay as well because I’ve reached my goal already. This also allows me to work on more than one project.
In terms of my actual writing though, I’m not a planner at all. I write to see what happens, and I write fast, because speed is creativity and energy.
 
Your books have the magic knack of appealing to both kid’s and adult humour. The artwork in your books is also very child-focused but equally aimed at adults. Is it tricky to write this way? Or is it fun more so? 
Thank you! That’s probably one of the best compliments I could get on my writing. I believe that parents and teachers will often be reading the books to or with the kids, so it’s really important that they enjoy them as well. I always like to put a little edge in there. The writers of The Simpsons are the best at this. They can do a single joke that appeals to a whole range of ages. It’s incredible, and something I really aspire to. I don’t want to do a joke just for adults… I want to do something adults will get that kids won’t but still make it funny for kids at the same time. 
 
What did becoming a writer teach you about yourself? 
SO MUCH! But the biggest thing has been to trust myself and my instincts, and to write what I love. It’s so easy, as a creator, to think we’re compelled to write a certain way, or on a certain topic, or in a certain genre, to be successful. What I’ve found is kids respond best to a voice, and the best thing we can do is find and write in our voice. This transfers over to life as well. I kept the real me hidden for a long time, and it’s only been in recent years that I’ve discovered someone closer to the real me, and the attitude that everyone else can take it or leave it. I can’t please everyone, but I can be true to myself, in writing and in life.
 
What influence has COVID had on you and your humour, and how might we see this reflected in your writing?
I think maybe my writing and humour has gotten a little crazier, but really it hasn’t changed me much at all. I love to laugh – it’s one of my favourite things, and I’m still talking to my favourite people as much or more than I was before. I’m writing the same or more, so COVID has been something that’s allowed me to perhaps open up even more to the creativity around me. I’ve been writing more, and also working on heaps of videos, because now I’ve got the time since the school visits have been cancelled. Aside from not being able to visit schools as much as usual, I’ve still done some virtual visits, which have been super fun and different.
 
How have you managed the impact of becoming a best-selling author? Do you feel a pressure to perform or are you fluid in your work? (Do you drive a range rover and smoke cigars now?) 
Ha! No cigars here… a couple of gins maybe! I felt most pressure writing a sequel to a book that had gone well and I did many drafts of the sequel! But in general, again, all we can do is find our voice and trust it, and be ourselves, and then it’s up to everyone else how they’ll react to that. All I can control is how hard I work and how much of me I put into my writing, and both of those things give me so much joy! But it’s been so much fun seeing the books do well. Such a buzz! (And my car is about half the size of a range rover – it’s a teeny hatchback!)
 
The question many writers ponder: how to bust through writer’s block?
I get to be a bit controversial here by saying I don’t think writer’s block exists. The reason I say that is this: some people say writer’s block is not having ideas, and I believe there are always ideas. Always! People have written books on oranges, so there are always ideas. Sometimes writer’s block may be getting stuck on a story, but you can always write the next scene. Always! Will it be brilliant? Not necessarily, and it may not even stay in the story, but you are never not able to write. 
Even if you have no arms, you can dictate! I think the easiest way to move on in a story is to think What would the main character least like to happen here? If you’re stuck, that will get you out of it every time! 
The key is to just write. Even if you take a break, come back and write. But – and it’s a big but – I’ve definitely had stories that have gone nowhere and I haven’t finished them. They’ve run out of steam, which can happen when there’s no planning. I don’t see this as writer’s block though. I see this as a story that has hit a wall, and then I go and start something else. So maybe there can be story block, but not writer’s block. My website has a short course on smashing through ‘writer’s block’.
 
You have upcoming projects and new books coming through. Can you give our readers an overview of your current works?
I recently released a new book, Fartboy: Enter the Spewtank, which is the third book in that series. I’ve also just released an online portal with courses for kid’s book creators – I’m very excited about this portal. I’ve also created a course on school visits, a course on generating income as a kid’s book creator, plus a course on the inspiration zombies provide (I know that sounds like a joke, but I’m dead serious!). My new website has the details: www.thekbcc.com
I’ve also just finished writing the first book in a new series and I’m working on a picture book series – I’m 32 books in so far. I got a bit excited with this idea, it’s just been so fun writing them! Writing and creating is a joy, which doesn’t always mean it’s easy, but it can always be enjoyed, even the slog. In fact, sometimes that’s the best bit because it means at some point there’ll be a breakthrough and you’ll be out the other side and flying!
 
Final words, Adam – have you heard any good jokes lately? 
My best friend told me this one. Who can drink 5 litres of petrol? Jerry can! 
 
Recommended: enjoy the fun and highly entertaining style of Adam Wallace at: https://youtu.be/jb1Jyg1ZL1s
Adam Wallace can also be found at: https://www.adam-wallace-books.com.

A Few Questions About… Screenwriting with Les Zig

Les Zig is the author of The Shadow in the Wind (Pinion Press 2019), August Falling (Pantera Press 2018), Just Another Week in Suburbia (Pantera Press 2017) and Pride (Busybird Publishing 2017). His stories often focus on characters facing adversity who are trying to find their place in the world. He’s had three screenplays optioned, and 20 unproduced screenplays place and shortlist in various awards. His stories and articles have been published in various print and digital journals. He blogs, often yelling at clouds, at www.leszig.com.

Speaking with Les Zig, Scott Vandervalk asked a few questions about his craft.
 
How did you get your start in writing and getting published?
I got my start the way most writers do – through reading. I loved reading as a kid. I loved opening a book, and that feeling that from the first page that the story was going to take me on an adventure.
I wanted to write stories, and give other readers the same feeling. There’s also something magical and empowering about a creation that’s limited only by your imagination and your ability to articulate your vision.
I handwrote my first book as a 16–17-year-old – part one of an intended four-book fantasy epic. That book would be awful if I looked at it today, but these stories taught me about the endurance needed to write a novel. But I wouldn’t be published for 30 more years, although I had lots of almosts.
What it really comes down to is perseverance. You will get rejections. You will get criticisms. You will have doubts. You’ll fall out of love with your book. You’ll grow to hate it. It’ll bore you. It’ll frustrate you. You’ll want to ditch it. All this is normal. The only way you’ll ever get published is if you persevere.
 
What are your influences in your writing?
In prose, my three biggest influences have been JRR Tolkien, JD Salinger, and David Eddings – all authors I read when I was young.
JRR Tolkien taught me about world-building. When you read The Lord of the Rings, every character has a backstory and lineage. Every location they visit has history that stretches into antiquity. It gives that world unbelievable depth, which is why I think it’s endured as a fantasy classic – it feels so real.
JD Salinger and David Eddings both taught me the same thing: about keeping my prose simple. Because I grew up on a lot of fantasy, I was reading lots of formal prose with weighty descriptions. Both Salinger and Eddings had a more conversational tone, which I found truer to how I wanted to write.
In screenwriting, William Goldman (All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Misery, The Princess Bride) is my favourite writer. He had such a great handle on storytelling, whatever the genre.
In filmmaking, Steven Spielberg is another who’s always appealed to me. Often, his films are about epic events – aliens landing, dinosaurs running amok, archaeological treasure hunts, etc. – but he always a find way to ground the story and keep it relatable and believable within the universe he’s created.
 
What makes screenwriting different to any other writing?
Screenwriting is a visual medium. You have to think about what the audience is seeing, and how to communicate everything through that filter.
In prose, a character can sit in an armchair, think through a situation, and come to some conclusion. We read what’s going on in their head. But imagine that on screen. It’s not going to be very exciting. So how do you translate that scene in a way that the audience is going to find engaging? (Obviously, you could use a voiceover/narration, but that’s considered something of a cheat, unless you do it well.)
Prose is a cerebral medium. Screenwriting is a visual medium. What works in one won’t work in the other, so you’re always forced to think innovatively.
 
What’s the process of taking a screenplay and getting it to the screen?
In some ways it can be similar to publishing: you submit to a production company, and if they’re interested they take it on, and move forward to make it. That would involve revisions; getting a director on board; the pre-production of finding locations, rehearsals, casting; shooting; editing; marketing – and that’s offering an abbreviated look at what’s needed.
The difference worth noting immediately is that while a novel is an individual’s vision – and a good editor will help the author realise that vision – a screenplay becomes a collaborative process as other people get involved, such as a director, a producer, a script editor, the actors, the studio, etc. Everybody has input.
However – and, again, like publishing – in Australia, a lot of companies aren’t open to unsolicited submissions.
That leaves the alternative of trying to make something yourself – like self-publishing. Then you’re wholly in charge of the project, who you bring on board, who you cast, etc. But then you face the same query that a production company would – money. Unfortunately, Australia’s arts community is always impoverished, and it’s a struggle moving forward.
The other worthwhile thing to do is network. Join the Australian Writers Guild (the guild for screenwriters) for example, and network with other professionals. You might find a director looking for a particular story, or you might be able to pitch an idea. There are no guarantees obviously, but it’s important to put yourself out there.
 
What makes a good story in any medium of writing?
The most important thing for me is the journey the character takes – not so much the physical journey, but who they are when they begin the story, and who they are when they end it.
Luke Skywalker is an example in the Original Trilogy. He’s just a kid with dreams who’s thrown into a galactic conflict. He has adventures, he fails often, but he grows as a result. The Luke at the beginning of A New Hope is impulsive, callow, and short-sighted. The Luke at the end of The Return of the Jedi is measured, composed, and able. While we’re not battling galactic turmoils, we can relate to his journey of somebody who wants to get to a better place.
But it doesn’t always have to be a good place. I love Michael Corleone in The Godfather movies. A child born into a mob family, he wants something different for himself. A war on the family forces him to take a stand. While he holds onto the ideal of becoming somebody better, he also embraces the cruelty of his world and thrives in it. You can see he enjoys the power, and leaves behind the idealistic young man who returned from the war wishing for an honest life.
I love seeing characters change – especially when they’re coming from humble beginnings, or are against the odds. While we have our skilled heroes – like James Bond – I think the story’s always more satisfying when it’s the every-person who evolves into something greater, because it’s a reflection of ourselves as we move through life.
 
What is your best tip for getting into screenwriting?
The obvious tip is to be educated to do it – there are good courses you can find. But, like prose, the thing you can do is immersion: watch how television shows and movies operate. Read scripts. There’s a great website called ‘Drew’s Script-o-Rama’, which has scripts from a lot of movies – even earlier drafts that had been abandoned.
Watch the best storytellers and how they build stories, characters, and events. While I’m biased towards the 1970s and 1980s, there are so many good movies from that era that are educational: The Godfather and The Godfather II, A Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Rocky, Superman, The Verdict, Kramer vs Kramer, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, E.T., Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, etc., that introduce an interesting premise and then build on it.
I’ve always thought the three best genres to watch in terms of world-building are courtroom dramas, horror movies, and sporting underdog stories. In today’s action movies, there’s a tendency to just throw as much action at the screen as possible at the sacrifice of world and character building.
A courtroom drama has to build both sides of the case, introduce stakes, and have a logical, cohesive argument that works its way to its conclusion. A good horror is always a slow build up to get us to care about the characters, meet their world, and then be aghast when it goes awry. The sporting underdog story is simple: an underdog individual or team battles the odds to get to a big contest.
I think those three genres – when done well – have an inherent structure that needs to be employed for them to function. They always set their characters on a journey, start them somewhere basic, and then have them encounter obstacles, grow from their encounters, and then end the story in a different place to which they started it.