Recently, Melissa Ashley tagged me in The Next Big Thing — a kind of interview-chain for writers, asking ten questions about their latest project. I’ve been looking forward to reading Melissa’s project since I first heard she was taking a taxidermy apprenticeship at the Queensland Museum as research for her forthcoming work of historical fiction.
I had a challenge answering these questions, as once of my projects — a finished manuscript — is something I want to shut out of my mind for the time being (so I have fresh eyes next time we meet). For The Next Big Thing, I settled on a chapbook I hope to produce in collaboration with Brisbane-born, London-bound artist Bettina Wild.
1. What is the working title of your current project?
Epitaphs has been the working title for most of the project, but I’m fairly certain that won’t stick.
2. Where did the idea come from?
Back in 2009 I moved to Toowong. I was apparently much more fearless then than I am now, because I wandered the streets and — eventually — graveyard lanes of that suburb day and night for some time. The writing itself started with a haibun series (that I’m still working on, but has finally found a home) about my experiences of belonging to a suburb on my on terms. That, I think, grew out of past writing on the topic of belonging.
Anyhow, the aim with Epitaphs came to be to unearth some of Brisbane’s stranger cemetery stories through poetry. There are lots of them, it turns out; I’m still uncovering them. (Vulcana Circus kindly did some of the legwork for me in their spectacular show on the same topic, Grave Effects, in 2011.) Along the way, I’ve found strange graveyards in other places, too, so French and Russian cadavers make guest appearances.
3. What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry — of mixed form — hopefully with illuminations.
4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Well, I don’t think you could film a poetry chapbook without a pretty amazing vision. Terry Gilliam could probably do something with it, with David Bowie playing The Gravedigger, and all the characters, and possibly the graveyards themselves. Yep.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Poems in conversation with Brisbane’s best forgotten-dead (and others).
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Self-published, I expect, partly because I want to learn to use InDesign. Many birds, one stone, etc.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft?
I’ve been working on the damn thing for four-ish years, and still I find there are gaps I want to write into. With poetry, it’s hard to consider the first draft as a whole; I wrote each poem at different times, and each of them goes through the Zen treatment of 10 to 20 drafts (sometimes more) before I send them out into the world. I don’t mind how long it takes (though I’m sure Brisbane will be sick of me talking about graveyards soon enough).
8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I’ve never read a book of poems about cemeteries, though I’m sure they’re out there. There are plenty of goth-poets out in the world. (I wouldn’t call myself one of them, by the way.)
I read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (and wrote a poem about that, too) close to the time that I moved to Toowong, so even though the genre is very different, I hope Epitaphs speaks to the tone, warmth and episodic flow of that novel.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The people of Brisbane and Toowong Cemetery, which got off to a very peculiar start in the 1860s, when Brisbane was a very different kind of city.
10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Well, I’m about to send off this along with the draft manuscript to Bettina, who illustrated my first chapbook, The Voyage (SweetWater Press, 2009). I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Tina since high school, and along with being a spectacular artist she has a knack for translating my ramblings into ink. This collection, when we’re done with it, will be very much a collaboration or dialogue. I hope former governor Sam Blackall, up on the hill in Toowong, will be pleased.
Oooops — I forgot to tag the next three or four writers during the week, so I’m off to do that now! Watch this space.