poet, fiction-writer and literary critic
Maria Takolander is the author of four books: a collection of short stories, The Double (Text, forthcoming in August 2013); two books of poems, Ghostly Subjects (Salt, 2009) and The End of the World (Giramondo, forthcoming in early 2014); and a book of literary criticism, Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground (Peter Lang, 2007). Her poems have appeared annually in The Best Australian Poems or The Best Australian Poetry since 2005, she was the winner of the inaugural Australian Book Review short story prize in 2010, and she was the recipient of a $25,000 Australia Council new work grant in 2012. She is currently working on a novel, Transit, for Text Publishing, and she is a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies and Professional and Creative Writing at Deakin University in Geelong.
Can you describe your earliest memory?
I can remember a lot from my preschool years, although such memories tend to be perturbing (which is probably why they have stayed with me.) One more palatable memory is of crawling through furniture stacked in a large shed in the backyard of our rented house. There seemed to be tens of couches stacked on top of one another, the seat cavities creating tunnels and hidey holes. I can’t imagine what those couches were doing there. As a parent now, I can’t imagine why I was allowed to undertake such a dangerous activity. Memory is, of course, ridiculously fallible.
What was the first book you ever loved and why?
I’ll single out Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair. It was so wholesome and otherworldly (my parents were Finnish migrants, not English), and I loved the idea of a magical escape. I think the book also intuitively represented for me, in a metonymic way, the power of books more generally to facilitate mesmerising flights of fancy. I talk a little about that in an essay published in Meanjin (http://meanjin.com.au/editions/volume-69-number-3-2010/article/lessons-learned-from-literature).
When was the first time you realised that the world may not be as it seems?
I’ve recently described, for Going Down Swinging (http://goingdownswinging.org.au/site/why-do-you-write-poetry-maria-takolander/), a game I used to play as a young child. It involved pretending that I was an alien visiting Earth from another planet. This anecdote suggests that I probably always felt like an outsider, and the world never seemed ‘given’. I think this had something to do with being the child of migrants. In my preschool years I lived a secluded life, confined to the house with my mother and sister (while my father went out into the new world to work), and trapped within my family’s language. In addition, my neighbours and peers always made it known to me that I was an outsider who did not see the world as they saw it.
What has been the most formative place in your life? Why?
The place of one’s childhood is always the most formative, I think, though places of education allow one to think critically about that. In terms of more strictly geographical ‘places’, I have travelled a lot and felt the impact of a lot of different landscapes. I am intrigued by the ways in which we respond in powerful and irrational ways to the Earth on which, through an extraordinary living process, we have come into being.
Which literary or historical character do you most identify with? Why?
I have always strongly identified with Gregor Samsa. I’m hoping that might not sound like such a strange admission in the light of the preceding anecdotes! In more romantic moments, I saw myself as Jane Eyre.
What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
I spend time with my husband, young son and stepdaughter (when she’s around) at home, which is my favourite place to be.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I had a lot of tedious jobs as a high-school and university student. The worst was probably working in the bindery section of a printing factory. I would stand at the end of a folding machine, wrapping bundles of flyers with elastic bands and putting them in cardboard boxes, during twelve hours shifts. There was a team leader trying to keep up morale, but one cannot be reduced to a cog in a machine and live happily.
If you could time-travel which literary world would you want to visit? Why?
As a child I always wanted to journey to prehistoric times, as represented in an imaginative (if not strictly ‘literary’) way by TV shows such as Land of the Lost. Another part of me yearned for the ultimately comforting worlds represented within English literature, from The Wishing Chair to Jane Eyre.
When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
I began to think of myself as a writer when I got a two-book contract with Text Publishing: for the book of short stories, The Double, which will be published in August 2013; and for the novel, Transit, which I’m working on now.
What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done in pursuit of your writing?
On an emotional and intellectual level, I always find writing extreme. A more conventional answer might see me refer to writing on Christmas day, and on every day of a subsequent interstate family holiday, in order to meet the deadline for The Double.
If you were to write yourself as a character, what would be your most defining characteristic?
In a recent blog for Southerly (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/2013/05/08/better-homes-and-gardens-and-the-role-of-impropriety/), I described myself as puerile, although perhaps I might better define myself as an outsider.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Why?
My superpower would be flying. I generally loathe dreams, but I enjoy the rare dreams in which I can fly.
What is the most important piece of advice you would give an unpublished writer?
Read well in order to write well! Literature is a conversation about the world. By reading, you can find a way of joining in.
What’s next for you in your work and life?
In the next year I will be: finishing the novel, Transit, for Text Publishing; earning a living at Deakin University in Geelong; and trying to bring up a humane and thoughtful son.
An extract from ‘The Obscene Bird of Night’, a story in the forthcoming collection, The Double (Text Publishing, Melbourne).
The man walked along the street. The winter air was still and cold, and the night was coming. Soon it would take hold of everything, although the city had yet to turn its face completely away from the sun. Already in the skyscrapers and on the streets the lights were being switched on. They stuttered into life against the darkening sky and shone there like talismans.
‘It doesn’t matter what you do,’ the night said in a soft voice. ‘I’m so much bigger than all of you.’
The man heard the words but kept silently on.
He stopped, along with a dozen others, at a pedestrian crossing. Mist was emerging from his nostrils and from the exhaust pipes of passing cars. The pedestrian lights switched from red to green, and a belligerent noise started up.
‘Hurry,’ it said. ‘Hurry.’
Stooped in his khaki jacket, holding a gym bag, the man walked slowly on. Snow began to fall from storm clouds kilometres above the darkening city.
‘Where am I?’ the snow said as it fell.
It drifted onto the road, dashed through by vehicles and their headlights. It collected with cigarette butts and hamburger wrappers in the gutters. Some of it alighted on the top of traffic poles and street lamps, soon hardening on the steel there. The snow settled on the man’s head. It seeped through his hair and slowly melted. The man felt the drops of water crawling on his scalp.
‘You can’t ignore me,’ the night said to the man as he walked. ‘I’m all there really is.’
The man stopped on the icy pavement, next to a bin, standing aside from the other pedestrians, and scratched his head. He dropped his bag and scratched with two hands, as if he was having some kind of a seizure, until the skin beneath the hair felt raw and hot, blood prickling at the follicles. Then he pulled up the collar of his jacket and picked up his bag.
Bowing his head to the growing chaos of the city lights and the falling snow, the man moved on.
He stopped, with the other men and women hunched in their coats, at the next intersection. A delivery van sped through an orange light, hurtling through the slush forming in the middle of the road. There were black letters on its side: THE PREMIUM BUTCHER. Cars cried out in alarm, skidding to a stop in the crushed snow. The van disappeared down the street, its tail lights blurring. The pedestrian lights flashed green, and again came that raucous instruction to panic.
The man took his time and crossed the road. He no longer had it in him to care, but he followed the others just the same.
Links to short stories & poems available online
‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, originally published in Griffith Review and now forthcoming in the story collection The Double (Text): https://griffithreview.com/edition-26-stories-for-today/the-red-wheelbarrow
‘Winter war’, originally published in Overland and now forthcoming in the poetry collection The End of the World (Giramondo): http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-209/poem-maria-takolander/