16 October 2015
Spotlight On Scribe: Elizabeth Bryer
For the next two weeks, we’re bringing you daily Q&A’s from our Scribe Nonfiction Prize Long-listed writers. Read on for more information on their work, writing journeys, and all their tips, tricks and advice for budding young non-fic creators.
Elizabeth Bryer is curious about the world and our place in it, and in her short fiction and essays writes about memory, identity and cultural imaginings, as well as the ways in which we are shaped by place, history and politics. She is a contributing editor to art and literature magazine Higher Arc and also a translator. One of her essays is forthcoming in Best Australian Science Writing 2015 and you can find links to more of her work at www.elizabethkbryer.com or say hi on Twitter, @plumeofwords.
How old are you?
What state or territory do you live in?
How did you begin writing?
Through imitating the stories I loved: an early one, I remember, was about a journey into a deep, dark wood (no doubt ‘inspired’ by June Melser’s In a Dark, Dark Wood…)
Why do you write nonfiction?
I love nonfiction’s writer–reader pact that nothing is fabricated. Whether reading or writing, I enjoy communing in that space (and loosening the binds of the pact occasionally).
Tell us a bit about your longlisted Scribe submission.
My submission is an experimental memoir called ‘The Laws of Thermodynamics’. Each of its chapters engages with one of the laws of thermodynamics or related laws of natural selection.
This overarching structure is echoed by the internal structure of each chapter: short segments, drawn from life and from history, that elaborate on a moment linked to both the chapter’s theme and one other section in the same chapter. In this way, the chapters are made up of doubles or counterparts, with the one drawn from the narrator’s life and the other from history, linked by a shared image.
It’s definitely a creative risk for me, but it’s an idea I want to work hard at—I’m curious to see how it turns out.
Why did you choose to write on this topic as a young writer?
I chose to write on this topic when I was supposed to be writing about another. I had successfully pitched an essay to a publication, and now only needed to write it. Yet I kept sneaking off to write this other essay, one that I couldn’t even envisage a home for—it just seemed too weird, and yet it was what kept drawing my attention.
I did end up getting that pitched essay written, after a timely kick up the rear from a friend, but the homeless essay was where I really felt something was happening. I was lucky enough that Seizure accepted it. And I was surprised, when it was published, to receive more of a response from readers than I had for any other published piece. Their forthcomingness might have been because of the online rather than print format, I’m not sure, but either way it encouraged me to see if the essay could go further, which led to the idea for the manuscript.
How long have you been working on your submission, or where in development was your piece prior to entering the Scribe prize?
When I entered the Scribe prize, I had completed about two-thirds of the first draft. I have set myself the challenge of not engaging in analysis (something I really like to do), but instead letting the spaces between sections do all the work—letting meanings live and stretch their legs there. It’s a tricky urge to resist, analysis, but I keep reminding myself how much it frustrates me as a reader when the writer doesn’t trust me enough.
I’m fortunate to have been an awarded an Australia Council for the Arts Development Grant to complete a first draft of the manuscript in November, so that’s when I will be madly working away at other chapters.
How important is Australia to you and your writing?
What the best and worst piece of advice that you’ve received about writing?
That the best teachers are the works you read. On that note, here’s a piece of advice from ‘Literature and Mathematics’, a piece by Masahiko Fujiwara (trans. Sayuri Okamoto): ‘Perhaps dream thoughts are composed not of logic but of subconscious aesthetic sentiments, better suited to literary creation than mathematics.’ I can’t think of a bad piece of advice.
What is your favourite or most influential work of nonfiction that you’ve read? How has it affected your writing?
Can I name more than one? I love Eliot Weinberger’s work, especially his books Karmic Traces and An Elemental Thing. There is so much to admire in the writing—he takes list making to another level, for example—and I love his rebellious use of the categorical statement. His essay ‘The Falls’, a kind of deep-past history of racism, manages that tricky blend of a sense of urgency with timelessness: a piece that should be read right now, but which I could recommend in ten years’ time and that still be the case. I also admire Toni Morrison’s, Marilynne Robinson’s and Gustavo Faverón Patriau’s essays, and Primo Levi’s ‘Carbon’. And I have to mention a work of nonfiction I treasure: the Qing-dynasty book by Shen Fu, Six Records of a Life Adrift (trans. Graham Sanders), a memoir with a fascinating structure that represents the very process of remembering. It is, movingly, mostly a paean to the author’s wife.
As for Australian works, I am a big fan Maria Tumarkin’s nonfiction—tracing the contours of her thoughts as they appear on the page is an exquisite experience—and I was impressed by Rachel Robertson’s Reaching One Thousand, which didn’t get the coverage it deserved (if you had no interest in the vaccine debate but found yourself enthralled by Eula Biss’s On Immunity, you’ll love Reaching One Thousand). Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile, a collective biography that melds mostly fact with some fiction, is brilliant. I also treasure Gerald Murnane’s collection of essays, Invisible but Enduring Lilacs; Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man; Michelle Cahill’s evocative, politically engaged essays; Brenda Walker’s ‘The Long Fall into Steel’; and Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Andrew Bolt’s Disappointment’. A recently published essay, Elena Gomez’s ‘How I Started Writing an Essay about “Side Eye”’ at The Lifted Brow is a gem, and in terms of future publications, I can’t wait to read Rebecca Giggs’s first book, forthcoming from Scribe.
As for how any of these affect my own writing, I can only hope they might lend me a smidgen of their magic through that mysterious process of osmosis.
Can you share a piece of your published nonfiction work that you’re particularly proud of?
I can share the piece that started the ‘Laws of Thermodynamics’ manuscript, which is called ‘Light Dance’. At the moment I’m particularly proud of an experimental essay called ‘24 November 2014: Springvale Woman Descends to Underground’ but I can’t share it because it’s not published until next year with Hotel Amerika—thrilling, for me, because it’s a publication I’ve admired for a long time.