Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Magdalena Ball: A Voice in the Wilderness - Part One

Part One

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, this month, 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, – and look after her children, Dominic (10), Oliver (7) and Genevieve (4).

She said: “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,” Magdalena said. “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 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.”

Part Two coming soon

Interview by Alexander James

Interview first appeared in Twisted Tongue Magazine

Read an excerpt from Sleep Before Evening

Listen to Magdalena Ball read an excerpt of Sleep Before Evening

View the Sleep Before Evening book trailer

Click here for Magdalena Ball's biography

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