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David P. Reiter

james hörner

dr. David P. Reiter directs Interactive Press from his current home in Brisbane, Australia. Reiter has lectured in professional and creative writing for a number of years, but now focusses his attentions on writing and publishing, in print and on the Net. He is the author of several works of fiction and poetry including Hemingway in Spain and Selected Poems and, most recently, Triangles.

david

cancon
what sort of stuff do you read for 'fun' these days?

David P. Reiter
I seldom have much time to read for fun these days. I suppose that's what I get for being involved in so many things, since I have projects on the go in theatre script, and film as well as poetry and fiction, not to mention growing a publishing house. Which makes me a ruthless reader. If something doesn't grab my attention and keep me there, I move on. But I'm reading The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler and enjoying it at the moment. Zimler passed through Brisbane recently and gave a very interesting talk at one of our local bookshops, which would have sold me on his book, if the subject matter hadn't already achieved that. My work Hemingway in Spain was based on my own research in Spain, so I was keen to compare notes with Richard, whose book arose from his time in Portugal. My interest in things Jewish has led me to exchange work with Elisha Porat, a distinguished Israeli author. We read and comment on each other's work and sometimes appear in the same e-zines ? e.g. Ariga, The Poetry Magazine. The internet is a boon to readers like me who haven't got much time to browse bookshops, and I find myself reading more and more stuff online.

cancon
how does australian lit differ from canadian lit to you?

David P. Reiter
I left Canada in 1986, so I'm out of touch with what's happening there now, though I make a point to go whenever a Canadian author tours down here. Stephen Scobie and Douglas Barbour did so a few years ago, and I was offered a spot on the bill as a Canadian writer, though I'd been an Australia citizen for a decade by then! There's a telling point in that, because one current in Australian writing sees itself as isolated from and antagonistic toward things North American. Such visitors are regarded with grudging admiration, and those who choose to settle here find it hard to gain total acceptance even when they've made a commitment. In Australian Lit, I can't think of a single example of a North American character who is treated with respect. It's more convenient to simplify them into Hollywood stereotypes and demean them. You may have heard of our "Tall Poppy Syndrome", usually reserved for those individuals who try to excel and set themselves apart from their "mates". It's the Australian version of the "cultural cringe", though somewhat more aggressively put. Win a major literary prize and watch your back may be sound advice here. Because Americans are viewed as "high achievers" by inclination if not in fact, they make brilliant targets, when they are not being ignored. Visiting Canadian authors, on the other hand, once they've established that they're not Americans, do very well here on tours.

That said, I think there's a vibrant writing scene here, in part because Australian authors waste little energy debating their cultural identity and seizing upon differences from Americans. Though I think they may be more skillful than Canadians in appropriating some American models and seamlessly making them their own. We have many authors who make Australia their reference point and then successfully address universal issues. And others who use their "multi-cultural" roots as a starting point by transporting us to other places without losing the Australian perspective, that of the larrakin outsider, constantly questioning authority, looking for the soft underbelly, creating work that's "in-your-face", rather than introspective. Of course, as soon as you generalise, you begin to think of exceptions that cloud the rule, those authors who find a receptive market abroad, like David Malouf, Peter Carey, Frank Moorehouse, Dorothy Porter, Les Murray, and so on.

And we have a crop of exceptional young talent, too many to be supported by our limited reading public and the paltry grants offered by the Australian Council, which never seems to do very well in attracting funds from our Federal Government. Writing as an artform fares poorly relative to other artforms in chasing the grants, which may give a brittle edge to a lot of our writing, because so many of our authors feel marginalised, deciding to follow their inclinations rather than courting an audience they may not be there when they need them. Like Canada, we have our regions, which I would describe as those from Sydney and Melbourne (The Hubs) and those from elsewhere (The Hinterland). There is considerable pressure on writers to gravitate to The Hubs, where most of the publishers and agents as well as the Australia Council reside. Authors from The Hubs do get more than their share of grants and invitations to festivals, etc, for reasons that should be obvious to Canadian authors. And yet the reality is that centres like Brisbane are beginning to fight back. Interactive Press is but one example of things happening Up North, while "mainstream" publishers Down South like Penguin are abandoning literary publishing in droves. I still remember a delightful little book I read while studying for my master's at the University of Alberta called Cape Breton is the Thought Control Centre of Canada, and it was with that in mind that, at last year's Poets' Union Festival in Sydney that I declared I was from the new Cultural Centre of Australia! That I failed to offend anyone shows how utterly incredible my southern colleagues found the proposition.

cancon
did moving to australia change the focus of your own writing?

David P. Reiter
It took a while. I find there's a lag time between experiences that I have and the writing of substantial work, as opposed to "occasional" material. In revising Triangles, I enjoyed returning to those stories set in Canada and noting the difference from my more recent Australian work. But I have an enduring love of satire, which I'm happy to apply to place and person no matter where I reside, or even visit. I find travelling very stimulating. It keeps us off balance, because we can no longer rely on stifling routines. Some people can escape where they live through their imagination; whereas I find I need to "get away" from time to time to get the juices flowing and gain a perspective on where I've been. These days I find myself more profoundly affected by currents of thought and events, as well as other artforms that I encounter, than any sense of being an Australian or a North American. The Net will continue to blur those distinctions, and I think that's a good thing. Nevertheless I haven't been travelling for a while and find that I'm eagerly awaiting my next tour, which will be to North America this September. Coming home is a good reality calibration on the views you've formed while you've been away, and it almost always prompts new work.

cancon
many people complain about the downturn in contemporary writing- how do you feel about the overall quality of manuscripts that come across your desk?

David P. Reiter
I know excellent writing is out there, and many excellent authors are going unnoticed for the lack of a healthy market for literary work. Those who continue to publish literary work generally do so only out of a vague sense of altruism and because federal and state grants make it barely feasible. If there is a downturn in quality, I would suspect it has something to do with publishers relying too much on "name" authors, who will provide a reliable return. Few publishers take chances on nurturing untried authors, leaving that role to agents, who pass it on to professional assessors who expect to be paid for their trouble. When an exception does surface from the slush pile the author is sometimes valued beyond their worth, to the point where they begin to believe the blurbs.

Your readers may not have heard of a certain Helen Demidenko, who won the prestigious Vogel Award for first-time novelists a few years ago with her book The Hand That Signed the Paper, which was supposedly a reassessment of how the Jews were treated in the USSR during World War II. She lapped up the adulation that followed and happily consented to whatever interviews came her way. She packaged herself as the daughter of a poor Russian emigre, who had a story to tell. A starlet was born. Problem was she wasn't any of that. Her name was Darville, not Demidenko, and her father was as Aussie as the next bloke. She was accused of plagiarizing chunks of the work from elsewhere. Well, all hell broke loose. There were calls for the Award to be revoked, for the judges to be sacked, and so forth. It seemed that once the truth got out, people actually started reading the book and assessing it for what it was - a skilful contrivance, but not much more. Darville ended up as much a victim as some of the characters she tried to portray, and she'll be lucky to be published again, for all the wrong reasons. This is what can happen when the promoters take over and the product doesn't quite match the design.

Then there are those authors at varying stages of development, eager for publication, who need assessment and mentoring to bring them closer to the mark. These are the people who, never having sent out a story for publication, want to send you their 200,000 word novel in the raw. Without a synopsis. I suspect we have more would-be authors here on a per capita basis than in North America, where there are more opportunities for people to be educated about publishing protocol and the process of refining creative work. There are quite a few assessment services cropping up, but I don't know of any owners who are driving Mercedes as yet. The creative process hasn't got much easier, even with spelling checkers, but authors seem to expect that it should be easier - for them, at least.

cancon
is it difficult shifting between your writer hat and your publisher hat?

David P. Reiter
I look forward to wearing the writer's hat whenever I can and have been known to let my answering machine and voice mail run interference for me. Taking on the role of publisher forces me to think in terms of commercial issues, which I think reminds me of the need to write to an audience as well as for myself. I can be rather bloody-minded in dealing with authors, but most of them tend to respect what I say because they know I'm saying it for the right reasons. It's a cross between intuition and business sense, which is rare in publishers these days.

I enjoy participating in panels on publishing at festivals because it forces writers to confront outcomes as well as process. Publishers are a convenient scapegoat for authors, but authors need to be reminded that they must either meet the market or give up the game. It's harder to reject that advice from someone who's been there.

cancon
what prompted you to make the move into fiction?

David P. Reiter
It was really the other way around. I started writing stories as an undergraduate, and my first publication was a story in The Fiddlehead over 20 years ago. I completed my doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Denver with a collection of short stories as my dissertation. And I've continued to write and publish fiction over the years, although Triangles is my first published collection. But I had to take a graduate seminar in Poetry at Denver, and midway through the course something clicked, and the poems kept coming. And coming.

But if the truth were known, my heart is really in script writing. I enjoy the many components that go into making a script work, including the collaboration with other specialists. It's not a genre for authors inclined to be precious about their work. You have to take the attitude that your work can always be refined, and you have to be able to do it quickly. That's my next goal - writing the film script that will make it possible for me to do more of what I want to do, whether or not it pays.

cancon
do you think the internet is going to help shed light on some good obscure material, or is there a glut of bad writing just waiting for this sort of opportunity?

David P. Reiter
I think the Internet can be the best and the worst of worlds for authors. It's brilliant for freeing small publishers from some of the traditional problems they face, theoretically giving them access to a global market. But the sheer volume of the work on the Net makes it unlikely that smaller sites will ever be noticed. In a way this is a good thing because the bad writing you refer to probably resides for the most part on those unnoticed sites and will thankfully slip into the black hole between search engines. However, I think most authors can discriminate between this kind of publishing and the more credible forms. They may use their homage as a platform from which they venture on to zines with wider exposure, much as traditional authors used a notebook or diary for recording their impressions and impulses.

Since the economies involved in publishing on the Net are more reasonable than publishing in print, publishers can afford to take chances on risky material, so there may be an opportunity here, especially for "emerging authors", as we call them in Australia. But e-publishers will still need to be selective. I think the Net is particularly exciting as a means of publishing across artforms, and it may prove an excellent platform for testing new forms. Why should betas, and the feedback they can provide, be limited to creators of software?


james hörner edits canadian content.

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