“He would get her to write the kind of novels women loved, about families and children and losing weight and finding themselves. Joanna Trollope for the younger woman.”
One of the strangest questions I remember from my days of ‘higher education’ came from a very confused man who asked: “where do poets go to live?” How does one answer such a question? Should the reply have been the knee-jerk response? : If you have to ask you’ll never be a poet, moron. Or is the true question to be found in why he thought poets had to go anywhere? After all, it’s not as though poetry (and talent) rubs off through proximity or collective subconscious. But hold that thought…. What about writing workshops?
Gert Loveday’s hilarious novel, Writing is Easy, is set at a writer’s workshop–a workshop conducted by two published authors who occupy opposite ends of the publishing spectrum. On one end, there’s sturdy, bossy Lilian Bracegirdle, a showy, pretentious performance poet with a “couple of impenetrable experimental novels” to her credit, and on the other end is Marcus Goddard, a man who broke into the literary scene with a brilliant first book, and ever since then he’s churned out a series of salacious “unspeakable potboilers.” According to one hostile critic, Marcus’ latest novel Never Turn Back “reads like a hack version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles with a spot of Lawrentian stallion-business thrown in.” Both Lilian and Marcus are haunted by their fabricated pasts. Lilian, whose real name in Lois Hoggett, would really like to be some sort of ethereal creature, but in reality, she’s from “a sturdy farming family in New Zealand,”and she can’t ever seem to shake off the influence of T.S. Eliot. Lilian’s hidden past, however, seems only trivial next to Marcus’ secrets.
Arch-enemies Lilian and Marcus, both frauds in their own way approach the workshop with a separate agenda. Marcus has some nasty secrets from Lilian’s past he intends to amuse himself with, but mostly he just wants to lounge around and booze for 8 days and leave the work to Lilian. So with Lilian and Marcus setting the pace for the 8-day writer’s workshop, a handful of would-be writers pay the big bucks hoping to get advice, have their mostly horrible work critiqued, and with any luck at all, land a hook-up in the publishing world. Lilian and Marcus are both accompanied by their assistants: the long-suffering, stalwart Marjorie (with her “fetching little moustache,“), general dogsbody and companion for Lilian, and the sly, opportunistic Lester who works for Marcus.
But what of the hopeful, would-be writers, those poor sods who scraped up the money for an eight day workshop thinking that they might actually learn something useful? There’s Desma Brooks, a perennial attendee who’s trying to write a family history and “hadn’t worked out by now that no one would ever, no one could ever, want to read her family saga based in meticulous research into every last packet of biscuits of the shelves of her great grandfather’s grocery store.” Then there’s Rex Random, an accountant who compensates for his hum-drum life by writing a cheesy crime novel, Broads and Booze, and imagining that he’s the next Raymond Chandler. Also attending is housewife Marilyn Boots, writer of sentimental crap, who has managed to escape her abusive husband for 8 days. Attractive Helen West, protégée of mousy Trader Cheeseman (author of Sicko Psycho and Hangmeat) is also attending the workshop thanks to the grant she’s received, and the final attendee is John Brow, a fitness fanatic who only eats raw vegetables, who’s given himself a week to write his book, and who refuses to sit down as he believes that this is against primal man’s natural state and “blocks the intestines.”
The workshop is held at Gagebrook, an exclusive Australian country resort run by husband and wife team, Andrew and Mandy. Andrew rules the kitchen dreaming up gourmet meals for guests who don’t appreciate his talents, and while Andrew throws a few fits about his kitchen and his cooking, Mandy, Andrew, and worker Janie are the ‘normal’ people who are appalled by the behaviour of the writers and the workshop attendees.
One of the first things Lilian does after gathering the workshop attendees is to establish the hierarchy through her authority and reputation as a published author. Here’s Lilian Bracegirdle giving one of her performances about the “pathos of beginnings” and “the confusion of identities” which seems to be more a precursor to a séance:
The students shifted in their seats and exchanged glances as Lilian, her back to the audience began to make peculiar huffing and hissing noises. Janie stood near the door so she could hear Mandy if she called her. Lilian hurled her body down on the floor. Lying on her back, she closed her eyes and raised her arms at right angles above her head. She let out a long howl, “Aaaaaaahhhhh, oooooohhhhh, aaaaahhhh.” Her voice rose and fell, deafeningly loud, then a tiny whisper. She kicked her legs. Janie thought she might be pretending to be a baby, but her voice was more like a siren. She went on and on. Janie’s ears were ringing. Lilian’s dress was riding up over her knees showing long pink knickers over the top of her tights. Just when Janie thought she couldn’t bear it any longer Lilian turned over onto her hands and knees, crawled to an armchair and dragged herself to her feet. She stood swaying, her arms held out in front of her like a sleepwalker. What did it mean? It was like a kind of charade. Lilian began to speak very quickly.
“Are you there, are you there, are you there, number please who are you number please are you there no don’t know don’t no don’t.”
She was really getting going now. It was like a steam engine getting started then going faster and faster and all the time Lilian was babbling.
“No oh no are you there no number please who whom who.”
Some words were very loud, Now she was marching up and down. Janie worried she would knock over a table. Helen and Rex had their hands over their mouths. John was looking at his watch, Marilyn had her mouth open in amazement, and Desma was nodding. Janie couldn’t take her eyes off Lilian. She kept on chattering more and more rapidly until it all sounded like one word, “Areyounumberwhononowho?” and her voice sank to a whisper. Then she opened her eyes put her arms by her side and let out an earsplitting shriek.
Apart from a short section post-workshop which follows the lives of the characters, most of the book covers the chaos which ensues at the workshop with Lilian trying to get Marcus to work, Marcus trying to avoid work, John Brow deciding that fat, out-of-shape authors make great guinea pigs for his fitness regime, and the workshop attendees who try their best to actually get their work critiqued. Throw into this mix blackmail, rivalry, really bad writing, and a few attempts at murder, and the result is a hilariously funny book.
As the days continue, tension mounts, behaviour disintegrates, and every evening the group gets together over dinner, there seems to be some sort of rampage; the fondue for example, brings out the very worst in everyone. While the book is consistently very funny (and it’s no easy feat to maintain humour over the course of a book), there are two specific elements to the book that go beyond humour and are psychologically intriguing: Marcus and Lilian are held in a position of respect by the workshop attendees and by their hosts at Gagebrooke. This currency goes a long way, and Lilian and Marcus’ impressive history of publication offer them a layer of protection. So the set-up alone, without a word written, is a segue into the expectations we place on writers, who just because they write well don’t necessarily behave well. As one of the attendees says: “I know writers like to think of themselves as bohemians,…, but that doesn’t mean they can’t behave decently.” Author vanity, a main target of the book’s humour, is just one of many poor character traits our published authors possess:
Several people opened notebooks and took out pens. Marcus began.
“Lilian tells me you have asked for a session on register today. This is an excellent starting-point. You may well have asked yourself, reading a novel, perhaps, indeed, even one of my own, what it is that gives this work such an authentic voice, such a sense that truth itself is speaking? One becomes oblivious to the fact that there is a writer’s mind behind it. Have you had that experience?”
“Oh yes,” said Desma. “That one of yours, you know the one about the crippled girl who falls in love with the neurosurgeon even though he’s responsible for her being crippled, honestly. I lived every second of that book.” She looked around at the others.
“I love that one, too,” said Marilyn, “and that book by Clough Gryffyd about the nun in Saudi Arabia.”
“I don’t believe I’ve read that,” said Marcus.
Author Gert Loveday isn’t afraid of playing with these characters, and there’s a no-holds-barred approach which approaches farce but yet manages to avoid it as the action at the workshop spirals out of control. Soon there’s “the prospect of an insurrection,” as the characters behave badly with marvelously funny results, but the genius here is while there are some very cruel truths revealed about workshops and their attendees, the author still manages to show generosity to her characters. We don’t completely dislike selfish Lilian or vain, pompous cheating Marcus even though they’re happy to take the money for the workshop while they secretly poke fun at the writing of the attendees. The reason we don’t dislike these two characters is that the author exacts revenge on them both through her plot. These two suffer, and we have a good laugh and a very satisfying read at their expense. I laughed out loud many many times, and while the fondue scene is a serious contender for the funniest part, Lilian reading as ‘inspiration’ I Drag My Way, the true story of how a woman dragged a sled with provisions across the desert for an insane explorer takes a close second place.
But underlying all the fun is the question whether or not writing can be taught, and certainly by the end of the novel all of the characters have come to various conclusions regarding whether or not the workshop was a waste of money.
The way I see it is, you can either write or you can’t.
Author Gert Loveday, in reality is writing team, Australian poet Joan Kerr and her sister, Gabrielle Daly, and Writing is Easy is the first novel they’ve published. Please let there be more….