Interesting settings for novels?
While it’s a pretty large field to choose from, a number have distinguished themselves and set like amber in the reading public’s collective memory over the years.
David Antrim’s THE VERIFICATIONIST (2000) cast the action for his story solely within a 24 hour pancake manor. U.S writer Nicholson Baker’s debut novel THE MEZZANINE (1988) dealt with a man’s lunchtime trip up an escalator. LIFE OF PI (2001) by Canadian author Yann Martel, which sold in excess of ten million copies after being initially rejected by at least five major publishing houses, unfolded its events within a solitary lifeboat bobbing on the Pacific Ocean. And HORORSTOR (2014), a book I read only last year, let its characters loose amid the confines of a haunted Ikea Store.
Now we have Brisbane writer David Cohen’s DISAPPEARING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH (2017), a story set amongst the sometimes comical, sometimes dark but definitely always tier-one-weird world of commercial storage units.
I spoke to David this week about his new novel and the writing life.
You work as a creative writing tutor at the University of Queensland. Could you tell us a little bit about your duties there?
I’ve done sessional teaching on and off over the last six years, although this semester I’m not doing any due to other work commitments unrelated to writing. I’ve tutored in various writing subjects, ‘creative’ and otherwise, but the subject I’ve taught most frequently is a first-year unit which is essentially an introduction to short fiction. We look at diverse short stories—mostly by well-known practitioners like Chekhov, Carver, Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, and Jennifer Egan—and analyse the different approaches and techniques they use in relation to structure, characterisation, dialogue, and so on. The students do a number of short writing exercises so they have an opportunity to experiment with these various aspects of fiction writing. The aim is to acquire an understanding of the form, to apply the fiction-writing skills they’ve developed, and to start to learn how to critique other students’ work and give editorial feedback. The main assignment is a 1000-word story. Some of these are very good. What I find is interesting is that a lot of the students who enrol in creative-writing subjects don’t seem to read much creative writing, or they’re not very adventurous in their reading. I sometimes get the impression that everyone wants to write books, but not that many people actually want to read them, even though reading—and reading widely—is the best way to learn how to write.
Your second published novel DISAPPEARING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH is set amidst the comings and goings of a commercial storage facility. There’s been some unique uses for rented storage units by people over the years, including using them as meth labs, love hotels and places to keep pet snakes. There was even the story of one woman in Victoria who used hers to collect and keep every daily edition of the Geelong Advertiser newspaper for the last 10 years in the hope that one day a particular edition might become valuable. In the course of your research for the novel, did you come upon any interesting stories of rented storage spaces being put to unusual uses?
One could write a whole book about weird or unexpected things found in abandoned storage units: human body parts, weapons stockpiles, stuff belonging to celebrities—apparently Aretha Franklin used to store a lot of her wardrobe in a facility in Michigan, but she stopped paying rent at some point; the unit was auctioned, some lucky bidder picked them up for a bargain price and is now presumably walking around in Aretha Franklin’s clothes, or maybe setting up an Aretha Franklin museum. I’ve come across at least two cases where someone’s deceased mother was found in a storage unit—in each case for a different reason. I read another story about a guy who while in the process of robbing a storage unit somehow got his head lodged in between the ceiling and the wall and was choked to death. Potential thieves, take note!
This is a transcript of an actual conversation that took place between a customer who was renting a 10 X 10 storage unit and the manager of the facility.
Customer: “I don’t want to pay for my whole unit; I’m not using it all.”
Manager: “OK, I have smaller units avail—”
Customer: *interrupts* “NO! I don’t want to get a truck to move, but I don’t want to pay the full amount. I just want to pay for what I’m using.”
Manager: “I apologize, but that’s not how it works. Because we can’t rent out the rest of that space, you have to pay the full rent or move to a smaller unit.”
Customer: “Fine, I’m moving everything out into another facility.”
Manager: “You’re going to move everything out to a new facility, but not into a unit just six metres down from the building where you currently are?”
Customer: “Yeah, because you’re a bedwetter and I’ve got better things to do then stand here debating the issue with you, bloody wombat!”
The way dialogue is written is obviously one pivotal way characters are able to come alive in reader’s minds. How important was crafting dialogue when it came to your central characters Ken (manager) and Bruce (assistant) in DISAPPEARING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH.
That’s a classic—no arguing with that customer’s logic! I get the feeling that a lot of those colourful Australian turns of phrase are disappearing; the language seems so bland now—how many times can you hear the expression ‘game changer’ without wanting to kill someone? But I do enjoy using meaningless and annoying expressions—whatever their origin—in fiction. With Ken and Bruce, I wanted to capture the feel of everyday banter you hear between two co-workers: exchanges that you can tell they’ve been habitually using for ages—expressions, jokes and so forth that have been repeated so often they’ve lost all their meaning. I tried to bring out the tension between this commonplace, often banal-sounding dialogue, and the strange things going on in the background. The very expression ‘disappear off the face of the earth’, which has become a catchphrase for Ken and Bruce, is one we use a lot without giving it much thought, but in the context of the story it takes on a sinister meaning. I like giving characters their own catchphrases, usually ones that other characters are irritated or offended by for whatever reason. Bruce, in particular, has a bunch of expressions he habitually uses—throwaway ones like ‘We had a little chat’ to describe his encounters with clients. At first those expressions might sound irritating—particularly to Ken—but fairly innocent; but they seem less so the more you get to know Bruce.
Sales-wise, has DISAPPEARING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH been disappearing off the shelves? Being the book business is one of most overcrowded, over-saturated markets there are, what are your expectations and the expectations of the publishing company (Victoria based “Transit Lounge”) regarding volume traffic for this novel?
I probably won’t know the actual sales figures for another couple of months, but my expectations are fairly modest. As you say, it’s tough to make your book stand out in the marketplace, unless you happen to be Peter Carey. From what I’ve heard to date, it’s selling quite well. Transit Lounge puts a lot of work into publicising their books, and I think the fact that mine has been classified by various retailers and reviewers as a ‘crime’ novel—even though it’s not a crime novel as such—has induced more people to buy it than might have been the case had it simply been regarded as ‘literary fiction’ or whatever. The reviews have been favourable overall, but I don’t know to what extent that translates into sales. I’m appearing at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September, and at a couple of bookshops—Avid Reader in September and Dymocks in October—so that should help sell more copies. Apologies for the shameless self-promotion, but business is business.
In the book, the character of Ken reveals a liking for the English rock band YES. A month or so ago I compiled a list of my all-time favourite Top 50 songs and a remix version of YES’s 1983 hit Owner of a Lonely Heart came out on top. Have you heard the remix version by Canadian-based DJ Max Graham?
It’s pretty good, but it makes me feel very old because I was in high school when the original came out! And even then I didn’t like it as much as the earlier Yes songs I was familiar with—admittedly there were only two at that point: “Roundabout” and “Your Move”. I was a music snob even as a teenager. My favourite Yes albums—Time and a Word, Fragile, and so forth—date back to the early seventies.
Any ideas taking shape yet for your next writing project?
I’m writing another novel, but I’m still figuring it all out so I don’t like to talk about it too much. It’s set entirely in Brisbane, the main character is an archivist, and buses play an important role in the story. Make of that what you will. I also have a short-story collection, entitled The Hunter, which Transit Lounge plans to publish in 2018.
Ps. Congratulations everyone on surviving another ‘near miss’ from an asteroid collision today. Asteroid 1981ET3, nicknamed ‘Florence’ by astronomers, was, at roughly the same size as the suburb of Forest Lake (4.8kms in diameter), the largest Earth-bound asteroid observed since NASA first began keeping records. And just to temporarily flood your comfort zone with pepper spray, know that scientists have calculated any space rock wider than 0.9 kilometres could entirely extinguish life on this planet as we know it. Good thing it hurtled past us just before 4pm Brisbane time at a hair’s breadth distance away of a mere seven million kilometres.