I am frequently contacted by writers seeking avenues to get their hard work into print or into the book shops and e-libraries of the world. I try to help where I can but the truth is getting books published today is probably tougher than ever before. The big publishers are struggling to make ends meet as the internet consumes much of their traditional market. Even though the costs of publishing a book have fallen, so too have the sales. With book sales falling by 10-15 per cent a year in Australia, the idea of publishing books for small sectional markets, let alone for the public good, has gone by the board. Add to that the lowering of import barriers and the picture is bleak for Australian publishers and book sellers.
The worst side-effect of this crisis is the narrowing of the content that we get to read. Australians are avid readers. The ABC tells me that almost half the nation’s population is registered at public libraries which I find a little hard to believe but, if Auntie told me, it must be true.
I’m exploring the possibility of publishing my next work on the internet which provides a brave new frontier for writers to control their own destinies and to experiment with some interesting commercial models.
For instance I love the idea of interaction with readers who might have a chance to shape the content and form of stories. This is not new, even in Australia. Gwen Meredith, the writer of Blue Hills, the famous long running radio serial, used to get bags of mail each week from listeners advising her what to do with her characters and story lines. The feedback helped her shape the series and was one of the foundations of its success.
Serials have a long history. I’m told Charles Dickens used to release his books chapter by chapter to the audience who devoured each installment. Only later did they become books. The internet provides an extraordinary new platform for this kind of old model. I’m keen to explore it.
In the meantime, writers are still looking to find ways to connect with their audiences. Four authors have made contact with me this month, all with very different content but with the same purpose.
Father Kevin Lee, a courageous and compassionate Catholic priest, has a written a beautiful and harrowing account of the sexual abuse and dysfunction he witnessed in the church. Michael Madigan has written a detailed account of the bombing of the 1994 National Crime Authority building in Adelaide which publishers have deemed too hot to touch. Railway pioneer and political fundraiser Everald Compton has written a memoir of his extraordinary and productive life which was intended only for his family and close associates but I have persuaded him that it should be available to the public.
Meanwhile, an old school colleague of mine Monty Webber has sent me a riveting set of short stories and reminiscences under the title Random Rogues and Rat Bag Tales. Monty self-published the book and has printed a few hundred copies for sale. I really enjoyed it and I am sure in another era there would be mainstream publishers competing to put it out. I would be surprised if he couldn’t get this published but perhaps the self-publishing route is the way to go anyway.
When we spoke this week Monty wasn’t sure whether he remembered me from school and when you read the book it’s not surprising. He tells of a sometimes harrowing journey through a life of surfing, sex, drugs and booze. Nine years sober, he has put together what you might describe as a cautionary tale, were it not so laugh out loud funny. Particularly powerful is a chapter called The Acid Overdose which tells of a terrifying psychedelic journey Monty and friends took on LSD back in 1982.
The chapter sits a little oddly in a collection of humorous tales because it packs such a punch. It details the start of Monty’s own descent into substance abuse and captures the moment when he began to dislike himself, he writes. It was a seminal moment for all the young men who ODed on acid that day. One begins a depressive spiral that changed his life forever, another becomes a born again Christian. It’s a powerful chapter and beautifully written.
Separated from his mates, Monty rambles through the midnight streets of Bondi hallucinating and generally going off his head.
“I discovered a beautiful little old house that evoked nice feelings in me and went into the backyard. I explored every last corner of that old fashioned place. There was a Hills Hoist with a canvas peg basket, a table and two chairs at the back door next to some pot plants, and a path leading to a shed, which had an old washing machine and ancient clothes wringer. The shed was a world unto itself. Paint cans on home made shelves and tools hanging on the wall, each with their shape drawn around them, and missing ones looking like the chalk line at a murder scene.
I felt like I was back in the yard of my childhood and became very emotional. Why and where had all the time gone I thought. What was this slow and relentless moving forward through time? Wasn’t there any other direction we could go in? Was my memory really the only way back?
I wanted desperately to go back to my childhood and without knowing what I was doing found myself entering the unlocked back flyscreen door and sitting down in the lounge room. After sitting there peaking for about an hour –while imagining that I was in my grandparents’ house as a small child- I realised that I could hear breathing coming from another room. Very slowly I crept into that bedroom and lowered my face down to within a few inches of the old man who was sleeping there. I felt safe again, like I was plugging into his quiet brain. His sanity. After a few minutes I realised how mad this was though and snuck back out of the house.”
It’s just beautiful simple writing with vivid imagery recreating Monty’s fight to retain perspective as he goes through the stages of his acid overdose. He finally links up with one of his mates in the surf at Bondi and knows that he is “going to survive.” Yet there were rocky times ahead, and plenty of regrets.
Don’t let anyone tell you that drugs do not provide unique and valuable notions to their users. It’s just that only a few who take the journey that Monty has get out unscathed. Aldous Huxley’s “doors of perception” swing only one way for many drug users. The insights and experiences come at a huge cost. We seek to recreate those blinding truths we experienced when taking drugs for the first time but it’s always a diminishing return.
I have urged Monty to further explore the ideas he opens up in that chapter in a full narrative form, even for a film perhaps. If nothing else he’s got three young kids for whom his story of “what Dad did in the war with himself” would have great value. There are lots of kids besides who would benefit from his insights. I hate seeing great stories only half-told. Having said that, Random Rogues and Rat Bag Tales is a great read on its own.
Anyone who would like to buy Monty’s book can contact him on email at firstname.lastname@example.org It’s $20 a copy with $4.50 postage in Australia. The book is also on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/#!/RandomRogues.