Ramona: Are you, have you all got places at home to write, you know, your little writing place? And if you haven’t, why haven’t you? And if you have, does it drive you nuts to stay there all day? I mean what’s your routine for not getting cabin fever? Morris?
Morris: Masturbation helps sometimes.
Morris: Did I just say that out loud? [Laughs] God!
[Carrie hides head]
Shane: There’s a lot of it going on.
Ramona: That’s what that fog that she could smell in the Library was.
Morris: No no, I was there a different year, it’s, please don’t ...
Morris: I’ve always had an office at home and there’s a bit of a cabin fever risk, but I reckon I’ve saved so many thousands of hours. I talk to other authors about this; not travelling to work over a lifetime, there’s a couple of books that we’ve gained by doing that, so if ever it feels a bit constrained, but ...
Ramona: But what’s your routine – you get up ...
Morris: I get up, and do a few ...
Ramona: ... limbering-up exercises?
Morris: ... limbering-up exercises, yeah, make some tea and ...
Ramona: ... now your tea, I know for a fact that your tea is very important to you.
Morris: Mmm, it is.
Ramona: You’re obsessed with tea actually, aren’t you?
Morris: I’m quite obsessed with tea [gestures with hand].
Ramona: How many kinds of tea do you have to choose from?
Morris: I have, well I like classic Chinese tea and there are about 15 classic types and so I have them all, but I ...
Ramona: And how important are they to the writing process?
Morris: Very important to me because I used to be passionate and obsessive about wine, but I never allowed myself to drink wine while I was actually writing. But I was getting to the point where probably I was going to start giving in and then I discovered the classic Chinese tea which gives me the same flavour pleasure, the same aesthetic of taste and smell as wine. So now I drink tea all day and remain fairly lucid.
Ramona: And do you have a tea that you start off with because you say, ‘this is the morning tea …’
Morris: Um-hum, yep.
Ramona: ‘… and I can’t write without this morning tea’?
Morris: Yea, I like white tea first thing and then red tea through the late morning, early afternoon, and then I go into green tea as sort of bedtime approaches.
Ramona: And that’s why you’ve got that little bathroom right next to your room.
Morris: Absolutely right. That’s right, which, and I have to say fortunately it wasn’t only the domed reading room that was adjacent to my office here, because I used to bring my tea in here, there was some very good facilities as well.
Ramona: Good, right [laughs]. What about you Carrie, you don’t write at home? You’ve got to hold this up right close to your mouth.
Carrie: Oh sorry. Look I’m a hobbyist compared to these chaps. I have a full-time job that’s not about writing fiction and I don’t really have somewhere to write ...
Ramona: Which is being an agricultural journalist.
Carrie: Yes, [turns to Shane] really. [Laughs]
Ramona: Carrie just told me before that when she first met, um ...
Ramona: ... Shane, he said, ‘What do you do?’ and she said, ‘I’m an agricultural journalist’, and he said, oh you said, ‘I’m a farm journalist’ and he said ‘Pull the other one’, or something. But she’s been trying to convince him that she really is, for six years, apparently. So you go to work at the agricultural paper?
Carrie: Magazines, I write magazines, so and my writing’s pretty peripatetic, I do it here and there, I try and save up, I certainly don’t write every day. I would try and work really hard to get some stuff put to bed and then get time to maybe spend three or four days writing and I think I wrote my last book Mate–
Ramona: Writing at home or somewhere else?
Carrie: Oh all sorts of places, I counted, I wrote the last one in 13 different places. Occasionally ...
Ramona: What kind of places?
Carrie: ... some people took pity on me and lent me a room in their house, I’m not very good at working at home. And then last year, this fantastic thing, I got a room above this gorgeous pub called the North Fitzroy star, and I was so excited about this and I would go several times a week and sit in this room. Then my daughter, who’s a postgraduate at Melbourne Uni, came and saw the room and thought it was pretty damn cool and she lives there. [Laughs]
[Panellists and audience laugh]
Ramona: Lives there!
Carrie: So I lost that but maybe one day I might get it back, yeah.
Ramona: Can I just say – why have so many places, what’s wrong with working at home?
Carrie: Because I do my other work from home, there’s something a bit polluting about that and I needed separate sort of place and space. And if I’m at home I’ll, I don’t know, muck about with the dog and do things like that.
Carrie: No, no, no.
Ramona: What about you Shane, I know that you’ve got a studio haven’t you, out the back?
Shane: Brunswick Institute?
Ramona: Yeah, I’ve seen it.
Shane: I’ve got somewhere to work at home and sometimes I use it but I do find for all of the reasons hitherto outlined by my colleagues that, you know, by the time I’ve cleaned the bathroom with a toothbrush and then gone round and checked Morris’s and cleaned his as well [laughs] and then walked the dog and then gone up to, you know, get a loaf of bread and found that I could get a box of eggplants for a dollar and spend the afternoon making baba ganoush …
Shane: … I mean, you know, the work pattern consists of faffing, followed by a sort of desultory assault on the white page, followed by guilt and remorse.
Ramona: So what do you then, I mean say ...
Shane: Well that’s it, I’ve just outlined my working day. I have someone ...
Ramona: But, no, but you sounded like you have somewhere, you know, you’ve got a little bolthole ...
Shane: No I do have a bolthole, there are small offices down at the old Meat Market which Melbourne City Council provide ...
Ramona: And the smell of old meat doesn’t put you off?
Shane: ... and the smell of old meat is just great for my line of work frankly ...
Shane: … the thought of those meat hooks dangling below. But I have in the past actually managed to write, in fact, books. I’m thinking now probably all the books that I’ve managed to write, I’ve done so in libraries where what I have sought has not been on the shelves but the quiet environment. So if I’m writing my ‘Encounters’ I come in here all the time because the collection has stuff which is not on the internet. So you know, I’m thinking about my next one and my mind is already, I’m running my finger down in the domed reading room looking for Graham Freudenberg’s biography of Whitlam, A certain grandeur, because I want to go to the index and see how many mentions there are of Rex Connor who is, you know, my next topic; and I’ll go to the La Trobe and I’ll get in and get out and the stuff will be here and it won’t be online, and it’ll be much more detailed and much more interesting, and provide many more opportunities for serendipity.
But if I’m sort of half way through a novel and I know what I have to write and I don’t need to do any research and I need to knuckle down, then I will work in, you know, I have in the past worked in libraries ...
Ramona: In a carrel or something?
Shane: ... in a carrel. I used to go to the library across the road there at RMIT but then in the sort of early-2000s they had this incredible building jag and so the builders used to come into the library. They were fantastic, these tradies, and they would do in the library what they did on every other job: they’d come in, lay all of their tools out, plug in the radio really badly tuned to Triple M, turn the volume up high and then go away for two hours.
Shane: So I sought somewhere else and I started writing in the biomedical library, the Brownless biomedical library at Melbourne University – the attraction of which was there was absolutely nothing on the shelves that I could read. There was, you know, I mean, I did try ...
Ramona: What about the pathology books and the forensic books?
Shane: Well and look, that’s right, I’d browse the volumes of the American journal of forensic dentistry 1938–1947 occasionally, but you know, essentially it was all stuff that you know, all of that science stuff.
Ramona: I used to know.
Shane: And it was great, it was a fantastic sort of work environment. But then they decided that they, I don’t know, something happened, but I couldn’t get into it anymore. But certainly libraries provide, apart from the collection, a certain sort of, you know the quiet, a kind of validation really. You can sit in a carrel and write and nobody’s going to come up and say, ‘What are you doing?’ or, you know, the phone isn’t going to ring if you’ve turned it off, so it’s a great atmosphere to write in.
Ramona: So writing with groups of other writers is kind of popular because, I mean I’ve got a little room at the moment in an old National Trust house near where I live, and there’s nine writing studios there – except that I find – well, I found for the first three months, because I had been used to working in a great big organisation with a whole lot of adrenaline and lots of things happening and lots of people interrupting you and exciting things happening and stuff – and I found it very, very difficult to just be by myself writing.
So I used to leave the door open and when I heard anyone arrive – in fact the writer’s hours are really, really terrible, I mean I was there at 8 o’clock and all, you know, because I’d been used to getting to work early. Nobody would arrive til 11 or 12, it was incredible. But when they did, I could hear them and I’d leave the door open and I’d wait to be interrupted and I’d, you know, if they walked past I’d go, ‘Hi, hi, how are you?’ I found I really wanted to be interrupted; I found it very, very difficult. How have you stopped yourself from doing that Morris? You just – I mean apart from getting really grumpy with other people, which you do.
Morris: I hate being able to hear other people being productive and creative. I mean for years …
Morris: … no, for years I lived with a writer who was a really noisy user of the keyboard, she just used to hammer the keyboard and I slowly had to move my office further and further away because I couldn’t bear any sense that when I was having a down moment, sort of doubt about my own capacity as a writer, that she was churning out 47,000 words an hour, you know, it was horrible.
Ramona: And laughing about it and enjoying it?
Morris: Cackling sort of fiendishly sometimes, yeah, yeah. But so here, even the lovely little row of – I’m pointing over there [points with hand] but it’s the lovely little row of offices they’ve got around the perimeter of the domed room for the Fellowship holders is, they’re not super-soundproofed and there was a little bit of that going on as well. And some have got kind of glass between them so you can kind of actually see people having moments of great creative fulfilment. I don’t want to see that.
Morris: It’s really, no.
Ramona: Carrie, what about – is hell other people for you, when you’re writing?
Carrie: Well, just generally.
[Morris and audience laugh]
Carrie: Yeah it’s a very private thing for me. I don’t understand people who can write in cafés, I think that’s quite obscene. I couldn’t ever write in a café and in fact I wouldn’t like to think that somebody could see me when I was writing. I’m not sure why, I ...
Ramona: Why, what do you think you look like?
Carrie: I don’t know, I’m not sure if I’m hideously contorted or not, but the idea that someone could see me, it seems to me it’s a very private thing. It’s about me seeing someone else, or something else somehow, if someone can see me that interferes with it. It’s very private.
Ramona: Now Shane I could hear you mumbling about other people, you seemed to be agreeing with Morris over there – what’s your, what’s the essence of your experience about other people who write?
Shane: Well it’s like that Bismarck quote about, you know, laws are like sausages, it’s better if people don’t understand how they’re made.
[Ramona and audience laugh]
Shane: And a novel is kind of a bit like that, you know, yeah. [Laughs]
Ramona: What could you possibly be doing that would be surprising?
Ramona: Are you speaking aloud the dialogue? Are you getting into funny hats? Are you going, ‘I’m being this character now, I’m being that character now’. Is that what you do?
Shane: Yeah, you might be, you might be working nude that day!
Ramona: Or working hot.
Shane: Working hot; or you’re not even getting dressed for the day. Reading is a way of being alone. It’s a kind of licensed way of … we all learnt that as kids, where if you were reading a book it was still kind of reasonably rare for adults to say ‘put that book down, stop reading’. They certainly wouldn’t say it now. Maybe there used to be a while ago. But it’s a licenced way of going into your own world. So writing is just that, in a sense, kind of concentrated; there is no space for other people in there. There you are, you’re in the yawning abyss of your vacant mind and the phrases are swimming up from the void, killing each other as they come …
Shane: … and to do that while you’re playing Twister down at the Melbourne Writers Festival with eight young prospective bloggers: it’s just horrifying to me.
Ramona: What about you, Morris?
Morris: I think it is a fascinating notion about what we look like when we write. I remember reading in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, there was a bit of research that showed, from really high speed film, that when we lie, even if we’re really good at it, for a tiny fraction of a second, our faces distort. Some people can perceive this, sort of semi-perceive it, and that’s why some people always know when they’re been lied to, but most of us can’t and because fiction is a kind of form of making up of stories maybe there’s something going on.
Ramona: Long bow.
Ramona: Long bow. [Laughs]
Morris: Oh, I don’t think so. In fact, I’m going to be doing some selfies over the next couple of weeks.
[Ramona and Shane laugh]
Morris: I will send them to you!
Ramona: I want to see them, I want to see them.
Morris: I’ll leave the final judgement up to you as to ...
Ramona: Now, what about ...
Shane [to Morris]:Go on, give us your impression of a full stop!
[Audience and panellists laugh]
Ramona: Now Morris, what about, do you write in restaurants or coffee shops or do you feel embarrassed about that or ... I find that you have to keep buying coffee all the time, you know, you’re renting the table and you’re just out of your mind by midday.
Morris: I’ve done a lot of writing out of the office. Not so much since I’ve been writing books, but I started out writing for TV. We did a lot of that and some movies where there were lots of rewrites on location, stuff like that. I wrote the Norman Gunston show for a few years and we did lot of that on the run. We did shooting trips to Hollywood where we didn’t really know who we were going to be interviewing until we got there and found that – we used to crash a lot of places, so we’d get to Hollywood and find there was a celebrity tennis tournament and so we would, basically, crash it to see who was there. So, I’d be sitting outside in a car, and these were days when mobile phones, this was back in the ‘70’s, so mobile phone were, late ‘70’s, pretty rudimentary and you could barely fit one person and a mobile phone in a car.
Morris: And I’d be sitting out in the car and the producer/director and Gary McDonald would basically just force their way in somehow with a couple of fixers. Then I’d get a call on this great big thing which basically said, ‘Farrah Fawcett-Majors here, can you do some lines in the next five minutes, some questions for Norman to ask Farrah,’ and I’d be thinking Farrah Fawcett-Majors, I’ve heard that name somewhere.
Morris: This, of course, today it would be easy, you’d Google. But I’m there, I’m thinking, I’m ringing friends in Australia saying, ‘Have you got a magazine handy with Farrah Fawcett-Majors because I think it’s to do with hair,’ and you know, anyway ...
Ramona: So, you’ve written in cars.
Morris: And we did a series called Gunston’s Australia, which was a send up of the old Bill Peach/Harry Butler type things where we flew around Australia for three months in an old DC3. This was our transport and our main set because it was Norman’s personal plane, but it was also my office. So, I did a lot of writing in an unpressurised aircraft, which is pretty good for the creativity, because there’s something where your brain swells slightly if it goes too high without pressurisation.
Ramona: What about eating and writing? Carrie, do you have any special food things that you like to do. Do you write better after a meal?
[Carrie is shaking her head]
Carrie: This is actually pretty hard for me because, I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t actually remember writing a word that I have written. Like I know I have kind of written it, and I’m not lying about my name being of the cover, I think I did write it, but in truth, I cannot really remember writing those words at all. So, I can say, perhaps I wrote them around that time in my life, or in that place, but there’s no, I don’t know, do you guys have writing memory? I don’t have sentence memory at all.
Morris: Yeah I do a bit, but I think I know what you mean...
Ramona: Because you’re in the zone and you can’t remember anything else about it?
Morris: But it sounds like you go into the zone hugely, which makes your place, you must really have to trust where you are that you don’t have any domestic duties or anything to switch on or off or …
Morris: I leave things on the stove all the time. So, habitually now, even when I was in my office here, there was a small part of my mind that would say every five minutes, [Morris sniffs] can you smell burning?
Morris: No it’s fine. Which now I hear, apparently, no I shouldn’t say that should I ...
Morris: That this place needs $32 million worth of renovation and that we’re all sitting in a fire trap. I shouldn’t say that should I. No? Okay, but please rest assured that if a fire does break out in the next half an hour, I will smell it immediately and let everyone know.
Ramona: Because you’re on alert.
Morris [to Carrie]: When you go so totally into your writing world, you must feel able to just disconnect totally with the environment you’re in. That’s pretty brave in today’s world, I think.
Carrie: Well,I don’t have any memory of this at all so I’m not sure if you’re right. It sounds good.
Ramona: She’s probably not going to remember being here in the morning either. Shane, what about you, do you have writing rituals? Do you have to wear your special trousers, do you have to have your tea cosy on your head? Do you have to have your special stationery? I know lots of people love stationery. Lots of writers love stationery. Is that you?
Shane: Well, I do like a 2B pencil with a proper eraser because it’s a nice, waxy finish that’s easily rubbed out. But I don’t stop writing because I haven’t got the right pencil.
Ramona: But do you write with a pencil?
Shane: The outline, yeah, freehand and then [moves fingers as if typing].
Ramona: And what about the notebook, do you have the Chinese notebook, the black and red ones, or do you have the special ones with the little elastic thingy that comes over ...
Shane: What’s that one, I don’t know how to pronounce that one, what’s that one called ...
Ramona: Which one, the leather one?
Shane: Yes, that’s the one that Hemingway used.
Ramona: Hemingway used,I can’t remember, what’s it called?
Carrie: Moleskin, Moleskin.
Ramona: Moleskin! You can’t pronounce moleskin?
Shane: No, I thought well, Hemingway used it, it might be called ‘mol-eh-skin’ or something. I don’t know really. I mean so that kind of does limit my choice. No, look, if I did have, I’m convinced if I had rituals it wouldn’t be so hard. My self-discipline is absolutely appalling and so that means that it takes a long time for me to write a book, if you factor the faffing and all of that kind of thing in. But even people who write in a disciplined way every day, you know, it still takes a long time so I have very few memories of there being particular rituals: there’s just before and after.
But there are people I’ve met who do have different ways of telling. Janet Ivanovich once told me that she knows when she’s finished a novel because she’s eaten so many – what do the Americans call Cheesels? – but the crumbs have filled the cracks between the letters and the keyboard to point where it no longer functions.
Ramona: And that’s the end. She knows when she’s come to the end.
Shane: That’s the end! She’s just been sitting there eating Cheesels and dropping crumbs in her keyboard. Yeah, right, okay, it’s like the tree rings or something. No, I don’t have any rituals but if you have any spare rituals …
Shane: … if you’ve got any good ones, if you’ve got any that you know will work, you know, ‘go round three times and stick your quill in an apple’ or something, let me know.
Ramona: I’ll pass them on. Rituals, Morris? Apart from the tea ceremony.
Morris: I am pretty tidy. I do like to have everything on my desk at right angles to everything else.
Ramona: But who would mess that up? Like, who’s going to change that and you come back in the morning and you go oh well, I’ve gotta fix the desk again.
Ramona: I mean, have you got elves coming in at night?
Morris: Even the fact that you ask that question tells me that you’re not that tidy a person …
Morris: … and therefore you clearly have no, the world is full of people hostile to neatness.
Ramona: But you’re the only one who’s in your special little room, aren’t you?
Morris: Pretty much, but maybe it’s to do with centrifugal force from the rotation of the earth or something.
Ramona: And the black hole in the middle of the galaxy, that will do it.
Morris: So often, as I’m mid-sentence, my eye falls on something that is no longer at right angles to the things around it, and I haven’t touched it and … Shane, I’ve now realised Shane drops into my place to check the grouting, so it might be him!
Shane: You should come down to the meat market tomorrow and look at my desk. You will have a nervous breakdown.
Ramona: What does it look like?
Shane: Well, imagine, if you would, Morris’ desk. It doesn’t look like that.
Shane: But, I do have, you can be particular, if a fly comes into the room, for example, that’s it, the day’s over, I’m out of there.
Morris: Down in the meat market, that must be a fairly common occurrence there.
Ramona: And Carrie, do you find because you only have a little amount of time, because you’ve got this other job, that you’re really disciplined when you get that moment?
Carrie: No, no, no. You can still procrastinate, however little time you have.
Ramona: So there must be a certain percentage of procrastination time that’s important to the actual process.
Carrie: Maybe, I don’t know. I always write on a keyboard. I have dyslexia, so I think I would never have been able to write before computers were invented. I transpose letters like p and q and b and d, so if I’d had to handwrite, we’d have been reading Mateship with derdz.
Ramona: Lucky there’s not many q words you’d have to use.
Carrie: My handwriting‘s very poor and I’m very nervous when I’m signing books for people. I have always had to buy a few of my own books and have them on hand because I will often write ‘Darbara’ or something. ‘Thank you so much for buying my dook’.
Carrie: Which makes you look like a bit of an idiot.