Way back when the VISION writing group was in its infancy, Dirk Flinthart walked into a session and life has never been the same since. I think of Dirk as the Greenman of pagan mythology. Larger than life and full of life! His stories have been a finalist and received an Honourable Mention in the Aurealis Awards, and has been working on a libretto ‘Bedlam’ which the operetta company hopes to premiere in Brisbane in 2011 (subject to grant funding).
Dirk has a copy of Worlds Next Door to give-away. Watchout for the question at the end of the post.
Q: While studying Entomology at UNI, I believe you led a rather dissolute life which led to the publication of ‘How to be a Man’ co-wrote with John Birmingham? Have you considered doing any more forays into contemporary humorous self/help books?
I’d argue it wasn’t dissolute so much as anarchic, bohemian and poverty-stricken. Birmo took all the worst and ugliest parts for ‘He Died With A Felafel In His Hand’, simply by asking all of us for share-house stories. That the book did so damned well is a testament to his ability as a writer – and to the resonant, shared nature of those stories. Everybody who share-housed through the eighties and nineties had lived through the dark heart of that book, which only goes to justify my earlier statement regarding my putative dissolution.
Look – it was the tail-end of Whitlam’s free tertiary education era. We were the children of early baby boomers. We were smart, and we were fairly savvy because of our exposure to modern media culture… but we had nothing. No money. No venerable ancestry. No old-school ties. All we had was our brains, our attitude, and most importantly, each other.
Felafel’s a good read. Funny as hell. The movie – not so much. But the movie manages to touch one thing the book doesn’t really dwell on strongly enough: the trust. The sad, brave, desperate, hilarious trust that kept us all going, all living together, bickering with each other, struggling, and eventually, escaping into some kind of adult life.
I don’t think it’s really possible to put that kind of thing into a book. Not if you really plan to do it justice. John made a brave attempt, particularly with the sequel (The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco, in which yours truly plays a larger-than-cameo role as a somewhat exaggerated caricature of himself) but the truth is a lost country, a past that binds together some of the cleverest and most influential people in Australia today.
The book I wrote with Birmo was “How To Be A Man”. It was, yes, an informative and funny sort of guide to getting one’s manly shit together in the late nineties and early noughties. It did surprisingly well.
Birmo’s gone on to bigger and better things. I’ve gone on to… oddities, actually. But both of us now have kids, and being parents plays a big role in our lives. I haven’t told him yet, but I’m giving serious thought to “How To Be A Dad”. What do you reckon?
Q: A while ago you put a humorous upper primary novel to the ROR group for feedback. How is it going and are you planning to write any more books for children?
Lots of good feedback from various publishers and editors, but no serious bites. You win some, you lose some. I’m not giving up on the novel, but I’m moving on to other projects, as one must. I’d love to revisit it, however. Perhaps if I can put the Flinthart name out there on the back of a few novels, someone will pick up “The Farnsdale Incident” and its truly odious alien invaders.
As for writing for kids – yeah, why not? I’ve got three, and they love the things I write for them. Including “The Farnsdale Incident”, by the way. Kids are fun.
Q: You have edited ASIM and Canterbury 2100, a themed anthology. What did you learn from this process?
Yeah. Okay. Editing is not writing. But it is closely akin. And if you have to have a certain sensitivity when allowing your work to be edited, then you need fifty times that to edit another’s work.
I’m fortunate in some ways. I read quickly, with a very high rate of comprehension, and I have a knack for working within the style of other writers. There were a few stories in Canterbury that I altered – with permission and co-operation from the writers, naturally – and I’d defy you to pick which ones purely by reading the text.
Editing ASIM was just plain fun. Mostly I got to pick good stories and run with them. However, with “A Day In Her Lives”, I had the distinct pleasure of helping a new writer take a very interesting story and lop about three thousand words off it, making it sharper and stronger in the process. That was a real privilege. I wouldn’t mind doing more editing work, actually. The collaborative side of it is truly rewarding.
Canterbury was a major challenge. It was an homage to the Canterbury Tales: a collection of oral stories by travellers on a stranded train in the year 2109, on their way to Canterbury in an England trying to recover from a century of climate change, ecodisaster, economic catastrophe, plague – a collapse of the worldwide civilisation we have today.
I prepared a simple outline of a future history for the writers, and asked them to riff on it any way they wanted. The proviso was that we were not telling the future history, though: we were telling the STORIES of that future history. So they had to be tales that travellers might share, to pass the time, and to bond with one another in the face of a night of storm and fear.
I was really pleased with the collection in the end, but it nearly did my head in. So much of basic SF technique had to be thrown out! Historical exposition, for example: why would characters who’d lived through history bother explaining it to each other? The truth is that they wouldn’t – so I had to teach myself to see that kind of thing, as an editor, and then remove it.
It had to be that way. The goal was to create a collection of stories that challenged readers to wonder; to imagine what kind of century led up to the events of the train journey. Answering those questions in the stories would have been counterproductive – which is completely contrary to the usual SF storytelling technique.
On top of that, I had to come up with a framing narrative to hook the stories together. When Chaucer and Boccaccio did it, they were only creating a frame for their own stories, and to be honest, their narratives are pretty weak. The stories are great, but the framing tales are just fluff.
The problem for me was that I was putting together a collection of disparate stories from twenty different authors. If I’d written a piece of ‘fluff’ to frame them, it would have been a disaster. It would have seemed forced, and false.
In the end, I created a narrator character, and gave him a reason for being on the train, and for observing the storytellers carefully. I also gave him his own adventure, which weaves in between the others, and allowed me to write a kind of ‘afterword’ without actually breaking register.
It was a monumental challenge, actually – and I count myself lucky that all the writers were so very wonderfully helpful and supportive. I hope that means I did something right!
I fell into the New Ceres stuff by helping out as an assistant editor. ‘New Ceres’ is a setting dreamed up by several writers and editors, including but not limited to Gillian Polack, Alisa Krasnostein, and Tansy Rayner-Roberts. It’s an interesting, challenging kind of setting – a planet some seven hundred years in the future that deliberate restricts itself to 18th century technology and manners – and as I edited, ideas started to roll.
I figured a planet which eschewed visible, conventional technology might be prepared to accept biologically altered humans who were, in a way, victims of that technology. Equally, it was obvious that such a planet would need a very effective spy system to defend itself from infiltrators.
In this fashion, George Gordon was born. He’s appeared in three tales, now, as Proctor General of the planet. His job is to monitor offworlder incursions, and to eliminate them where they represent a threat to planetary security. It isn’t a nice job, but Gordon wasn’t genetically engineered to be a very nice man.
He’s a fun character to write, because he’s smart, cynical, incredibly dangerous, but flawed as hell. He isn’t exactly human, and he will never be a simple, comfortable human being, but he desperately wants to believe in humankind, and the possibility of some kind of redemption.
‘Angel Rising’ pits him against one of his fellow Proctors, on a group of islands where the inhabitants try to mimic 18th-century Japanese culture. A refugee from the ongoing space war between two major forces in the human expansion falls to New Ceres, bringing with her information which can change the whole face of the war – and possibly even more. Gordon gets to fall in love, fight lots of bad guys, discuss Zen and ethics, and maybe save his world. Oh – and he also gets to take sides in a pitched battle between ninjas and Zen Buddhist nuns. What else could you ask for?
Q: You put your Libretto to the ROR group for feedback last time we met and it has since been turned into an operetta called ‘Bedlam’. This opera is set in bedlam and two of the main characters are Lord Byron and Mab, Queen of the Fey. Tell us a little about how this project came together and what your inspiration was.
I’m not certain she’s Mab. She’s certainly a Faerie Queen; if not the very last, then one of them. And she’s been trapped in Bedlam Asylum for three generations, due to the machinations of the doctors that run the place – the Monro family.
Inspiration is a quirky thing. I never know where it’s going to come from. I do know this: the more restrictions you place on me, the more likely I am to come up with something quickly. I don’t know why that works, but it does.
In this case, an old friend rang and asked if I’d write something for her. Intrigued, I asked what she was after. She told me the setting she wanted, and the kind of thing she was after, and while we were still on the phone, the outline started to come through.
I want to say that it was all obvious. Bedlam is a legendary place of madness, and of course, there’s a long history of association between madness and the Faery folk. To be ‘elf-shot’, for example, is an old term for being mad. And then there’s the term ‘fey’, which is often used interchangeably with faery or fairy or elf – but also means eccentric, mad, ‘doomed’, ‘fated’, and so forth. I want to say it was an easy leap from there to trap an elf-queen in Bedlam, and to put the famous Lord Byron into the role of rescuer. And why not? Club-footed Byron (obviously marked by the faery at birth!) is as fine a role-model for the elf-shot, mad, romantic hero as ever you could want.
But the truth is, I suppose, it wasn’t obvious. Except to me. Inspiration is about what’s in your head, and how it interacts with what you see and hear. So it happens I knew enough about Bedlam and Byron and the fey/mad thing to see a shape, and to cut at it until it emerged.
I’m delighted with the direction it’s taken, in the end. The emerging story is complex, with a range of powerful themes and archetypal characters, working towards a gratifyingly tragic and heroic conclusion. I get to play with Elizabethan language for the characters of the Bedlam Court of the Faerie Queen, and I get to play with that lovely, formal, poetic language of Byron for the rest. If I can get away with this, I’ll be over the moon!
Q: What was it like collaborating? There were singers, dancers, a director and set designers, all interpreting your vision and bringing their own vision to the final production. It must have been a real change of pace from writing away in your study.
Collaboration is fascinating. It didn’t get me out of my study, though!
This isn’t the first time I’ve worked with stage or screen folks. Dragonwood Studios worked one of my stories into a short film a few years back, and I’ve written stuff for radio and for stage shows and so forth. Plus there was the book with John Birmingham, and the highly collaborative effort on Canterbury 2100.
I enjoy the challenge of collaboration. Whenever someone else picks up a piece of my work, or vision, they invariably bring something new and unexpected to it. The stories that came out for Canterbury gave me pictures and images of the Dark Century (ahead of us!) that I had never even considered, and I was absolutely delighted.
With Bedlam, I sketched out a storyline for my opera-producer friend, and talked her through the major themes over the phone. I explained the nature of the central conflict, and the role of the three major players – Byron, the Queen, and Thomas Monro, the Iron Doctor – and how they would have to develop in order to allow for a meaningful arc of conflict, resolution, and development.
Next thing I knew, I had an email from her: all stuff I’d put in front of her, neatly bundled into ten scenes. And could I please create dialogue to bring those scenes to life?
Right away, it was a challenge. Because, of course, I’m not just writing dialogue. This is a libretto. The composer (David Lazar) chooses the lines he wants and creates the song lyrics therefrom. Naturally, the first proviso is that the dialogue must be the primary means of storytelling. And almost as important, those lines of dialogue have to resonate. They have to have rhythm. They have to be singable: no clumsy, expository tongue-twisters.
After a quick exchange with David, we agreed that I’d write something like a play – and that it would probably run a lot longer than necessary. Poetic language and imagery is difficult to do well, and even more so if you’re working with archaic versions of English, such as are called for by this work. Rather than trying to boil it all down and refine it to the the sharpest, clearest moiety, I decided to offer David a range of imagery and poetry. I wanted him to be free to choose the elements which worked best for him in terms of rhythm, vision, and musicality.
Once I had the opening scene in decent shape, it went to David, and he very quickly put some music behind it. When I saw the demonstration video that Outcast put together, I was completely taken aback. I mean… sure, yeah, those are my words, but… that music! The dancers! The staging! The lights, the costumes! Holy crap!
That’s way past collaboration, there. I couldn’t even dream of taking credit for the gorgeous stuff those people have done. The story is a framework, and a good one. I’m proud of that. The words, though – the poesy is only one element of the operatic effect, and quite a small one, I personally feel.
Seriously: have you seen that video? Those people are amazing!
Hopefully, ‘Bedlam’ will premiere in Brisbane late in 2011. Assuming we manage it, I am absolutely, totally going to be there for the opening night. I will even wear a tuxedo for the occasion!
Q: Your Red Priest stories have been very popular and I know you put a Red Priest novel to ROR. With three small children and a wife who is a GP in the wilds of northern Tasmania, you don’t get much time to write. Have you had a chance to polish the Red Priest book?
No, dammit. Not to my satisfaction, anyhow. I’ve had a difficult stretch for writing over the last eighteen months. Kind of burned myself out over the fiendish Christmas period, and took too long to get my act back in gear. But I am very much looking forward to the year coming. All three kids will be at school five days a week, and all I’ve added to my personal schedule (which includes studying Iaido, and teaching ju-jitsu, as well as maintaining the property, helping out at the school, feeding the family and so forth) is a Masters degree. That shouldn’t be too much, should it?
So – goals for 2011 include finishing and polishing the opera; finishing a bundle of short stories requested by various people; polishing the Red Priest novel – actually, novels, thank you RORians very much for that; and at least one other moderately new project. I also want to manage my 2nd dan in ju-jitsu, and take another grading in Iaido, if I can. Oh, and the Masters degree, of course. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
Q: When Marianne and I approached you back in 2006 to see if you’d like to join ROR, you agreed and have been part of the group ever since. Did you find ROR helped you in developing or directing your writing? And if so, in what ways? (I felt we needed a question about ROR. Feel free to change the focus of it, if you like).
ROR is a bit of a lifesaver. Living out in the boonies, it’s hard to feel a connection to the community of writers and editors. Sure, I get to one or two conventions a year, but my daily life revolves around handling a fifty-acre property, holding three kids in check and running a household, teaching and practicing martial arts, and being a part of a busy rural community. It’s easy to lose the necessary focus on writing and storytelling.
A good writers group is a thing beyond value. Getting solid critical feedback on your work is indescribably important, and nearly impossible to acquire from the people around you. The ROR group has given me considerable confidence, and helped me maintain my determination to write, create, and publish. The insightful reading and sharp comments from dedicated professionals in the field is something I honestly feel it’s difficult to repay from my own moderate talents… which is one reason why I make the ROR retreat menus as special as I can!
One vital aspect of ROR is the very professional nature of the participants. All of you have more experience than I do at the sharp end of publishing, and your advice with regards to dealing with publishers and the various meta-aspects of writing and publishing have been like the very Word of the Lord unto me. You folk remind me that I’m not just writing stories because I like doing it: I’m writing them to be published, and there’s a vast and complex dance of behaviours which go with that particular territory.
I’m not good at those behaviours, I know. I’m storyteller, because I’ve always been one. But a storyteller is not the same thing as an author, and the ROR folk are my go-to source whenever I’m trying to make sure I’m on the right track, there.
Q: What are you currently working on?
The opera libretto. Five different short stories. Four novels. Various potential webcomics. (Know any comic artists who feel like collaborating?) A lot of silly animation, here at home with the boys, because it’s fun. (All you need is a digital camera, a computer, and some software – most of which you can get free on the Web. Animation is HUGE fun!)
I’d like to be more specific about the writing, but I find I prefer to keep things close until I’ve written them. Talking too much about them before I’m done is a sure way to kill my interest. I hate that.
Q: At ROR we always do our realistic goals and our dream goals. So what are your realistic goals (what are you currently working on) and what are your dream goals?
I’d like to make enough money to live on, thanks. But… writing, publishing, and seeing people enjoy my works is where it’s at.
I don’t really have dream goals. Things come as they will. Up until recently, I never even considered writing for opera. Now I’m having the time of my life watching my words and ideas become song, music, and dance. How good is that?
And the giveaway question:
Among the range of things I do, cooking rates highly. (So the ROR folk tell me, anyhow.) I enjoy cooking, and I like both learning and creating new dishes. Today, for example, I discovered that fresh, ripe raspberries dropped into gin will rapidly perfuse both colour and flavour through the spirit, turning it a delicate shade of pink, and imparting an utterly delicious raspberry tang. I therefore give you
Mr Flinthart’s Raspberry Gin and Tonic
Take 300gm of fresh, ripe raspberries. Place them in a sealed container with 500ml of reasonable gin. Refrigerate for half an hour. Now use the gin to make gin and tonic exactly as normal, but without the twist of lemon. Serve over ice, with a couple of extra raspberries thrown in at the last.
So – what’s your favourite recipe? Whether it be newly created by yourself, or stolen from the oldest, hoariest volume of Escoffier, so long as it’s a personal favourite, I’m happy.
The person submitting the most interesting recipe will win a signed copy of Worlds Next Door, from FableCroft Publishing – and I will do my damnedest to create the dish at the next ROR retreat!
Note – give-away questions will stay open until Tuesday of next week, when I’ll ask Dirk to select a winner.