Tag Archives: Tim Winton

Vexed on sex

Back in May I attended a hypothetical session entitled “So you want to be a YA writer?” Run by the State Centre for Youth Literature as part of their annual Reading Matters convention, it was a fun night.

The hypothetical YA manuscript up for discussion included a bodice-ripping lesbian sex scene, prompting the question ‘How far do you go in relating sexual encounters in YA fiction?’

One of the author panellists was lost for words. Another, New Zealand’s Bernard Beckett, essentially said “Go for it. It’s important. It’s on the minds of teens.”

A representative of the Penguin marketing team cited the Twilight series and said the safest bet is to go for URST (unresolved sexual tension) rather than explicit encounters.

I like the URST option, partly because writing these scenes without sounding cliched, crude or gynaecological is tough. URST is also a reason to keep reading. We all want to know whether the “unresolved” ever loses the prefix.

Alternatively, I introduce the idea, tease a little and then drop the curtain. Sometimes the reader’s imagination is the author’s best friend.

John Marsden writes about adolescent sexuality matter of factly in his Tomorrow series. Scot Gardner does it really well in his Wayne books (One Dead Seagull and White Ute Dreaming). There’s nudity, desire, humour, anxiety and absurdity. It’s utterly believable and never crass.

Then there’s Tim Winton’s Breath. I highly recommend this book to male readers because the narrator lives and breathes that phase of adolescence when immortality (seemingly) applies and risk is appraised differently from any other stage of life.

My reservation in recommending the book is in one of the ways the risk-taking manifests. As a journo, I’m aware of stories of teenagers experimenting with erotic asphyxiation – and justified police alarm at the numbers of deaths and near-fatalities. We’re all aware of the celebrity cases that went tragically awry.

In recommending Breath, which is a terrific read, do I risk a teenager absorbing the novel and then doing some experimenting at home? If so, how culpable am I if things go terribly wrong?

I guess the same reader could admire the surfing scenes and then drown searching for the perfect break. Would I feel responsible then too?

Here’s part of what Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan had to say about Breath on July 13:

“Winton does not simply exploit erotic asphyxiation for dramatic purpose; he tries to understand why people, like the extreme surfers in his novel, go to the edge of oblivion for pleasure:

It’s like you come back pouring into yourself. Like you’ve exploded and all the pieces of you are reassembling themselves. You’re new. Shimmering. Alive. Unless you’re dead.

“The mainstreaming of erotic asphyxiation in this novel is another element in the process of mainstreaming the values that have exploded out of the largely hidden margins of society thanks to the advent of the internet. The porn industry, more than any other, has been able to export some of its sensibilities into schools and homes, to the point of social conformity among the young.”

I rarely find myself agreeing with Paul Sheehan. I do find myself worrying about the social conformity he refers to. Young people are exposed to sexual material much earlier now. (My five-year-old daughter just requested Lily Allen’s catchy It’s Not Fair on her playlist, prompted by her older brother’s preferred choice of radio stations. I refused.)

As authors, do we write more sexually explicit stories because our readers have greater awareness? Because kids are trying more stuff? I suspect that the answer is yes. Fiction strives to be contemporary.

Should we write more sexualised stories? That’s trickier.

As Bernard Beckett said, sex is on the mind of teenagers. Believable characters will think about it and talk/brag about it. Some of them will actually do it.

So where should an author draw the line? I’m going to sit on the fence and say the plot will determine how explicit the story needs to be.

Wide open road music

They say when you return to a place you once lived it always looks smaller. Sadder. Less impressive than you remembered.

I’ve just returned to an album I bonded with and listened to regularly. It was a permanent part of my car collection (on cassette!) when I was commuting to university and my first year in newspapers. I haven’t listened to it, in its entirety, for more than 15 years.

Born Sandy Devotional from The Triffids features some totally trippy and menacing tracks of heartache, hurt and loneliness. There’s also one of my all-time favourite songs, Wide Open Road.

It sounds bigger and better than ever to me today. With my teen years ever distant, the lyrics have gained new meaning – essentially a short story in each track. It’s not the sort of album I’d listen to daily (too melancholy!) but man, I’m glad it’s been re-released.

As a kid from the bush it always felt like an album spiced with the dust of remote rural Australia and steeped in an appreciation of the vast distances people travel seeking somewhere to belong, live and love. Fifteen years down the track, it feels like the soundtrack to a Tim Winton novel – quintessentially West Australian.

If you’re heading out on a long rural road trip, give it a spin. I reckon it will give you chills.

Here’s my favourite track, sometimes hailed as one of the best Australian songs ever. You’ve gotta love the Interweb. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this clip before…

Books for Boys update

I’ve managed to attach a website traffic monitor doo-hickey to this site so I know the posts here that are attracting the most eyeballs.

Books for Boys and Books for Boys 2 are the most-read posts on this site by a country mile. Judging by the search keywords, there are parents and teachers out there desperate for titles that might tempt young males to turn off the PlayStation and turn over some pages.

So, I’ll keep posting lists of books I reckon boys will enjoy. Here are a few titles I’ve read recently that I think boys might tackle willing – and hopefully get hooked by.

Little Brother – Cory Doctorow (15+) – An exciting, contemporary spin on surveillance, hacking and George Orwell’s 1984. Can get a bit mired in techno-babble at times but otherwise this is a gripping, alarming yarn. One for the web-heads and X-Boxers in your household.

The Story of Tom Brennan – JC Burke (15+) – Rugby, testosterone, drink driving and living with guilt and grief. Should be compulsory reading for every teen male who ever wants to drive. There’s a reason why car insurance is so expensive for blokes under 30.

Ten Mile River – Paul Griffin (14+) – Homeless boys trying to survive in New York. There’s a constant sense of dread about what might happen to these kids next.

Jackdaw Summer – David Almond (14+) – This story, about resisting growing up and entering a seemingly crappy adult world, won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But there’s violence, bullying, running away and an enigmatic girl. I found it utterly persuasive.

Breath – Tim Winton (17+) – This is a story about the addictive, adrenaline-charging nature of risk. It’s a ripsnorter … but might need a “don’t try this at home” label.

Before I Die – Jenny Downham (15+) – A knockout. Yes, I know, the narrator is a teenage girl but trust me and keep on reading guys. I couldn’t put this down.

Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing With Fire – Derek Landy (10+) – Funnier and bloodier than the first book. Currently reading this to my 8.5 yo son for a bedtime story and he is completely entranced.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman (12+) – Growing up with ghosts. Literally.

For the record, I haven’t read the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer but noted these titles on the desks of Year 7 (13 yo) boys at some workshops I did earlier this year. That was at a boys’ school. At a co-ed school more recently, the Year 9 lads (15 yo) said there was no way they’d be seen dead reading this phenomenally successful series. (Just about every girl had though.) Not sure what to read into that observation but I won’t recommend a book unless I’ve read it. And for some reason, (professional jealousy?) I’m reluctant to go there.

Anyway, if you click on the Books for Boys tag in the left hand column on this page, you’ll get all the articles I’ve tagged as being relevant to boys and reading. Have fun turning those pages.

Awakened by The Big Sleep

It’s not often that the language in a novel prompts an actual smile, as distinct from the internal “nice one” moment of appreciation. There was a period, prior to a trip to the States, when I read Bill Bryson at night. His descriptions of small-town America made me laugh out loud. At other times authors such as Ian McEwan or Tim Winton will describe something so well my jaw drops. I’ll read these passages over and over, savouring the images used.

At present I’m reading Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. It’s a detective novel, perhaps THE detective novel, hailed as the benchmark for crime fiction. And it’s fantastic.

What I’m enjoying most are the devil-may-care descriptions the narrator, private investigator Philip Marlowe, serves up like raw steaks. The imagery is so vivid it makes me grin.

A few samples follow. I could have chosen umpteen others. Page references are from the 2008 Penguin edition (introduced by Ian Rankin):

On a hothouse full of orchids: “The light had an unreal greenish colour, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” (p6)

On a femme fatale: “She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a businessmens’ lunch and tilted her head to finger a stray but not very stray, tendril of softly glowing hair. Her smile was tentative, but could be persuaded to be nice.” (p23)

On an ingenue: “Dark silent mystified eyes stared at me solemnly, the doubt growing larger in them, creeping into them noiselessly, like a cat in long grass stalking a young blackbird.” (pp 170-171)

On emptiness: “It was raining again the next morning, a slanting grey rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads. I got up feeling sluggish and tired and stood looking out of the windows … I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets…” (p174)

On a sad laugh: “Then she laughed. It was almost a racking laugh. It shook her as the wind shakes a tree. I thought there was puzzlement in it, not exactly surprise, but as if a new idea had been added to something already known and it didn’t fit. Then I thought that was too much to get out of a laugh.” (p213) 🙂

It’s great stuff. As I try to explain to students in my writing workshops, good writing is fresh and adventurous. Unexpected images and word combinations make the reader sit up and think. When’s the last time you pondered the contents of a scarecrow’s pockets?