By Alexander James
Author and poet Magdalena Ball left behind the concrete canyons of New York and the sleepy spires of Oxford to find her voice in the rural mountains of Australia.
And with wombats and kangaroos for neighbours, she’s producing the best work of her life.
In the past five years alone, she’s seen wide publication of short fiction and poetry, non-fiction book, The Art of Assessment, her Quark Soup poetry anthology and, her debut novel, Sleep Before Evening.
With work underway on two other books, 42-year old Magdalena even finds time to run her bustling review site, The Compulsive Reader -- and look after her children, Dominic (10), Oliver (7) and Genevieve (4).
It’s hard to believe that we’re only an hour’s drive from Sydney. It’s very rural here and, as I type, the lyrebirds are singing, kookaburras laughing, bellbirds tinkling. Chickens are tearing up the lawn looking for grubs, and I really do need to follow-up on those fox baits
It couldn’t be more different from the New York I grew up in. There’s anonymity in the country that is actually similar to that in a big city. You’re surrounded by sound and bustling activity, but completely unnoticed. I like that. It makes me feel both ‘in the midst of’ and yet absolutely alone.
In some ways Sleep Before Evening is an extended love letter to a city I can never go back to except as a tourist. What I looked for when I came here, with my British husband, Martin, and we grew into a family, was Ithaca (in the Homeric sense of the word). And I’m not entirely sure why I had to be so far away from my roots to find it. To a certain extent a door just opened and, young an unencumbered, I walked through it.
The home I have here is exactly what I always wanted as a child: stable, rooted, safe: two parents, strong ideals, three regular meals on the table -- stability.
Magdalena Ball’s critically acclaimed new novel -- released by BeWrite Books -- tells the story of a middle class teenager cast adrift by the sudden death of her brilliant grandfather-mentor and her struggle against a self-centred artist mother, a succession of drive-by stepfathers and her desperate escape into a nightmare of drugs and sexual degradation.
Set in and about New York, the gritty, relentless tale unfolds with the same cool detachment that motivates the central character to peel back the layers of her life and expose the painful scalding within. There are lonely vigils in city parks and subway journeys to oblivion. In the city she meets Miles, a hip musician busking the streets and playing seedy venues with a rock band.
Her new, exciting, dissolute world challenges Marianne’s preconceptions about art and life. Here, in contrast to her prescribed upbringing, she finds anarchic squalor, home-grown music and poetry, substance abuse, sex and crushing disappointment and fear; but above all, exhilarating personal freedom.
Addictions -- of all kinds -- and the redemptive power of art and music, love, loss and beauty are all explored in a young girl’s difficult journey from sleep to awakening. The book draws on Magdalena’s own rich life-experience, as a daughter and a mother, to bring Marianne startlingly to life.
But Sleep isn’t autobiographical at all -- I’m happy to say! It’s pure fiction. It’s set in a real time and place where I lived when I was Marianne’s age, and there are flashes of characterisation, dialogue and situations that came from memory rather than pure imagination. There are many reasons for that -- the key one being my lack of inventiveness. I need something clear and visual to work with as a writer, and it helped to ground the characterisation in a specific place and time where it seemed to fit.
The other reasons are that, like Marianne, my mother and stepfather were going through an ugly break-up during that period of my life and there was tamped tension and unresolved pain that I was able to use for verisimilitude by setting the book in that particular time and place.
And, of course, like most writers, I do tend to be a magpie and have taken all sorts of observations, memories and experiences to put into the fictional situation. For example, I did like to go into NYC from Long Island when I was a teen, and like Marianne, could never find someone brave enough to come along, so tended to go alone.
I also attended a few of those poetry sessions Marianne goes to, including a gorgeous all-nighter on New Year’s Eve with [Allen] Ginsburg, Jim Carroll, Lou Reed, Anne Waldman, Richard Hell, etc, at the St Marks Church.
I even remember listening to a harmonica player under the arch at Washington Square Park and talking to him afterwards, but I never ended up in Marianne’s situation, falling in love with him. There was a little bit of my brother’s mother, an artist and writer, in Marianne’s mother, Lily, and a little bit of my stepfather in Marianne’s stepfather, Russell. And there are plenty of places in the book I remember being in myself and things I remember seeing, but the overall story is completely made up.
Having said that, I was worried that my mother would see herself in Lily but instead she identified with Marianne, and reminding me that she lived through something very similar indeed, as she did have a brief dalliance with heroin addiction. So perhaps instinctively, because I never really knew my mother’s full story -- it all happened when I was a baby and I was mostly out of the situation, safe with my grandmother -- I knew and understood something of my mother’s pain and put it in there. She tells me it’s uncanny, but it was entirely unintentional.
I think there are aspects of me in every character, from Grandfather Eric to stepfather Russell, to mother Lily and to Miles, to the boy in the park. They all have something of me in them and something of other people I knew in them, but ultimately the resemblance to both people and places was only a starting point. Once the story became strong, it took on its own life, and the characters developed their own imperative which was completely unique to this particular story and these particular characters.
The road from New York to the outback and writing success was a winding one.
When I was an English major at CCNY, a counsellor suggested I apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. I didn’t get it, but in the process, I became enamoured of the idea of going to Oxford, especially since I’d just finished studying Jude the Obscure and those spires were as appealing and seemingly distant to me as they were to Jude, so I applied anyway and got in. I went, but the college I got into (St Cross) didn’t have any permanent accommodation for me so I had to find a place to live.
I did find something at Crowley; a cute house which was being sublet by an even cuter guy with round glasses like John Lennon, and who, despite his gentle demeanour, was wearing black leather trousers and had some amazing looking motorbikes parked outside the door. It didn’t take us too long to fall in love. When I moved in, Martin had just quit his DPhil in Philosophy to do a PGCE teaching certificate and then did some teaching of French and History. His BA was in French and Philosophy.
I was totally awed by Oxford and had the silly idea that I could write something new about James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and W. B. Yeats. The bulging bookshelves already full of theses on these authors, as well as my own lack of linguistic capability made it quickly clear to me that I was off-track. But I knew I wanted strongly to write about the limits of language and how these three authors were able to move beyond those limits. Although I passed my qualifying exams and a VIVA -- the little thesis I wrote for that was pretty much all I was able to do on the topic using academic prose. I tried a few different supervisors but it was clear that I had nothing more to add to an already bulging canon so I left.
I was also working at a language school, waitressing (research for Sleep perhaps, though I didn’t know it at the time) at a restaurant called The Crypt, and eventually got a secretarial position at a biotechnology company. And there was my advancing relationship with Martin, who was an active member of Oxford University Motorcycle Club. We had a reasonably strong social life, so leaving the university wasn’t that difficult. It just began to assume less and less of a role in my day-to-day life until I decided there was no point continuing to pay fees.
Though I hate not finishing something I’ve started -- my thesis topic is, in a way, covered by the themes in Sleep, so I feel like I’ve now finished it. I even sent a note to my old supervisor telling him. Being a Yank, I’ve never had much notion of protocol.
So we were bumbling around in Oxford. Martin was teaching and I was doing secretarial work, both no longer tied to the university, and we decided to get married. After the wedding and a wonderful honeymoon in Brittany, we knew we wanted to buy a house, but house prices in the UK were high.
As Martin’s folks had migrated to Australia some eight years prior, and Martin had just returned from a long visit when I met him, and loved the place, we decided to apply for migration. I had never been to Australia, but what the heck -- I was young and adventurous. It sounded remote and exciting.
It took over a year, though, for the application to be processed, points tallied, qualifications assessed, so we decided to try our luck in the US for a bit first, ending up in North Carolina, which completely cured me of any desire to return to the US permanently. It’s hard to go back. When the Australian migration came through, we went, staying initially with Martin’s parents who are still within walking distance from where we currently live.
And now this is home and our three children were born here. They’re all gifted; charming, gorgeous, challenging, and outrageously and sometimes terrifyingly intelligent (I’m not exactly objective). My daughter, for example, yesterday asked me to explain to her how liquid nitrogen could be ‘boiling cold’ -- and she was only satisfied when I looked it up on the Internet and gave her the appropriately specific scientific answer. My eldest son has been reading her passages from Sophie’s World and he asked her if she understood it. She said, ‘I understand all the words you’re saying and can picture the scene and the girl, but I don’t quite get all the rubbish about existence.’
My children are certainly my biggest inspiration as a writer. Dom is a pianist and he was practising Dvorak’s Largo while I was writing Sleep -- which is exactly why I used the music in the book.
One of the things I love about Martin is how engaged in the family he is because my parents were divorced so early in my life; before I was one year old. The whole missing father thing in the novel is a key element in my life, although my own dad has always been around -- seeing me on weekends, taking me to the zoo, planetarium, etc -- all that paternal stuff Marianne’s grandfather took her to.
But Martin has, on occasion, criticised me for being a wee bit secretive about my writing -- doing it on the sly and not talking about it much. I guess I’m conscious of it being something of an indulgence (maybe having a novel out will change that -- giving me a mandate), and also conscious of the juggling act in my life. I try to focus on whatever I’m doing at the time and not let anything suffer too much from the diversity of my roles. And I’m still turning a buck at a steady day job. I kind of like to hedge my bets on the Hopeville thing -- doing it while earning at something that has no element of hope in it.
I do have to combine writing heart wrenching life or death scenes with ironing. I do sometimes burn dinner because I’ve had to write something down. My typical afternoon could easily involve the following simultaneous activities: breaking up fights between my children, making dinner, writing a scene from novel number two, working on a poem for a competition, fixing up a spreadsheet error for my day job, assessing someone’s manuscript, and talking on the phone to the rural lands department about the fox that keeps eating the chickens.
I court busyness and I do suffer from guilt when anything goes wrong or if I feel I’ve been neglecting the children by working too much. There are a lot of balls in the air. I chose to be a juggler so I’m not complaining. But sometimes someone throws one extra in there and they all fall.
I could build my Ithaca anywhere now -- having my family with me makes anywhere a home. Australia feels safe -- clean air, space, peace -- I can let my children go out and play and not fear for them (except for the snakes and spiders -- another story!).
Even out in the wilds, Maggie feels part of a sophisticated literary community.
I’ve been surprised at the support, both emotionally and financially that I’ve received from The Hunter Writers Centre -- a local committee of writers which has a reasonable amount of government funding. People still complain about the low level of arts funding here, but the truth is that it is higher than in the US, and there are many opportunities for writers and artists to do some fairly avant garde things with their work that aren’t at all about commercialism.
Of course writing isn’t the only thing I do, and it may be true that most of the other mothers who I meet while taking my kids to soccer or attending the parents’ meetings at school are not literary. But the mother in me has plenty in common with those people too, and I find all character interesting -- god knows where the next victim (I mean protagonist or antagonist) might come from. Most of the people I know are intelligent, generally well-educated, interesting, and insightful. So I’m not a fish out of water.
My oldest boy, Dom, reads very well indeed. Once, being the little poseur that he is, he took my copy of Finnegans Wake to school with him. He had no trouble reading it at all, at least until he became bored. And he very much wants to read Sleep. It’s a bit of an issue for me as I don’t think it’s suitable for anyone under about 17. I just don’t want him to have to go where Marianne goes -- even virtually -- so I’ve discussed it quite candidly with him and told him I’d give him a copy but wouldn’t let him read it until he was much older. He seemed to understand.
My other son, Oliver, likes Harry Potter but isn’t nearly so obsessive about reading as my older son is, so I don’t have to keep as close an eye on his reading matter. He likes Jackie French books, funny stuff like Terry Denton and anything about chickens.
My daughter has a steady stream of picture book review copies, but lately she’s been into longer books like Enid Blyton and Emily Rodda’s The Fairy Realm. We’re both partial to anything by Dr Seuss, Tohby Riddle and Pamela Allen.
My husband, being English, tends to be more private than I am. I don’t have much input into his work as a lawyer, other than to keep him as sane as possible. I often have no idea what he does at the office and although I find it reasonably interesting, I can understand that, at the end of the day, it isn’t something he likes to talk about much. I’m fairly calm, mostly, and I think I help him keep perspective.
He has plenty of input into my work. but I’m not sure he always wants to. I’m the kind of awful wife that, in the midst of an argument, will say something like, ‘Oh, that’s good -- I can use that. Can you say that again?’ Actually though, he’s unbelievably clear thinking and his editorial input is something that I both fear (I don’t like to show him work too early) and admire greatly (he never misses an error and his aesthetic sense is pretty close to perfect). He keeps my feet on the ground. And he’s an absolutely wonderful, committed father, who will do things like take the kids out for the day to let me get on with the mountain of stuff waiting my attention.
Magdalena’s aunt, Susan Gordon Lydon, was the well-known author of Take the Long Way Home. Her story of heroin addiction helped Magdalena get under an addict's skin for Sleep Before Evening. Uncle Ricky Ian Gordon, who read her angst ridden but powerful poetry before she could put together a sentence, is a famous composer; his recent opera of The Grapes of Wrath is receiving serious critical attention. Also Audible founder, Don Katz' Home Fires was written about Maggie’s family.
I'm in it -- real names used -- my maiden name is Magdalena Shapiro and Katz was taken with the unusual combination, so cites the name in full every time he mentions me.
Her mother plays both piano and guitar, and her father plays mandolin, guitar and a mean game of chess.
Magdalena opened her popular Compulsive Reader website five years ago to provide the kind of in-depth serious reviews found in top review sources like The Observer or SMH, but online and for a mixture of books including small presses and new authors, primarily literary fiction.
I've been writing for as long as I've been reading, which is roughly from age four. In many ways, reading and writing are flip sides of a coin to me, especially with things like reviews, where the process of writing is almost like a second, more in-depth and more analytical reading.
When I need a break from the big, bloodletting that writing a novel is, I turn to nonfiction like reviews, articles, and even parenting pieces fairly regularly.
Prolific Magdalena’s advice to developing authors is:
First and foremost, to turn up. That may sound trite, but like any other art/craft/skill, writers need to work at their craft. Inspiration hardly comes into it. If you aren't putting words on the paper, you aren't growing as a writer, no matter how bright you may be and no matter how much potential you have. You just have to get to work -- give yourself a real goal like pulling together a chapbook, writing a story for a particular deadline or competition, or even writing a novel, and then get on with it.
Secondly, a good writer is a good reader. It’s instantly apparently to me as a manuscript assessor when a writer hasn't read much in the area they are writing in. Being a good reader doesn’t necessarily make you a good writer, but if you don't read, you won’t have that all critical writer’s ear, where you know what works and what doesn’t, and you know what quality work sounds like. Good writers have to read a lot in whatever genre they want to work in. It not only expands your vocabulary, it expands your sense of what you can and might be able to do with language. It's key.
Although my website isn’t specifically related to my creative writing work as such, what it has done for me is to build a following of like-minded readers. In other words, I have a ready market of ideal readers who know me like a friend. In a way, this is ideal because people visit me because they share my enthusiasm, and therefore will very likely want to read the kind of book I write. I have 7,000 subscribers to my monthly newsletter and these are all heavy readers who will hopefully have similar tastes to me.
I also write and publish on other sites on the Internet quite a lot so I have a strong Google presence and think a reasonably good name recognition. Living in such a rural area of Australia, my market without the Internet would be small. Now it’s huge, so I see the Internet as critical. I think in future that multimedia, ebooks, audio books and network sites like myspace and Book Place will be increasingly important and interesting for writers and their careers.
Right now, I’m working on my second novel, Black Cow, about a seachange; The Good Life set in Double Bay Sydney and Tasmania, and I also want to pull together another full length poetry book. Then there’s that literary cookbook I want to finish up, a million more reviews, articles, and stories, a novel about my grandmother set in the Catskills during the 1940s, and hopefully a few interesting collaborations on the way. I'm not great at saying no, so anything can happen!
I’m also just starting a new radio show of my own at Blog Talk Radio. The Compulsive Reader radio show will feature reviews, author interviews, readings and book talk (kind of like an audio blog), and is going to be an extension of what we do at The Compulsive Reader. I’m looking forward to playing with multimedia a little.
I also do a lot of online and in-person networking (I’m a member of the Hunter Writers Group) and it helps to hear what others are doing and what does, and doesn’t work. I get to interview a lot of writers, which also helps but probably the biggest source of learning for me is in reading the best of what others are doing in my genres. I’m always reading poetry and fiction, and great writers tend to keep the synopses firing. They expand the limits of what’s possible. The more I read the more I realise just what words can do.
- Twitterview with Gary Eby, Magdalena Ball, February 18, 2010
- Restless days of life for an author in a New York state of mind, By Michelle Harris, The Herald, January 9, 2008
- Interview with Magdalena Ball, by Lucille P. Robinson, Alternative-Read.com
- Interview with Magdalena Ball, by Sarah Cook, aussieauthors.com, July 2007
- [Interview] Magdalena Ball, Conversations with Writers, September 3, 2007