Writing & News

Letters authors write

I ask Upswell authors to prepare a letter to readers who subscribe to annual packages of books they have been included in with an insight to their book or their approach or whatever they wish to share. April and May have been extremely intense months of activity and deadlines–and success for a number of Upswell books. I thought I’d share them here because each of the following three letters get to the heart of what it is to write and then prepare a book for publication. I hope you enjoy these words from Sam Elkin, Abbas El-Zein and Dominic Gordon.

Subscriber letter from Sam Elkin Detachable Penis: a Queer Legal Saga

Dear Upswell Subscribers,

The most incredible thing happened to me recently. Twenty-one years after enrolling in a creative writing subject at Curtin Uni, I have published my first book. Can you believe it? I cannot. I didn’t think that the Australian publishing industry would be interested in my very niche experience as an emotionally avoidant transgender lawyer in the LGBTIQA+ not for profit industrial complex. But after pitching my story to Terri-ann on the one day of the year that she accepts submissions, my whole world changed. She took a chance on me and helped me to shepherd my confused meanderings into a shiny, full-length book complete with chapter headings, page numbers and endorsements from some of my greatest literary heroes. She even let me whack a beige crochet penis on the cover!

It is a strange thing, finally achieving the goal that you set out to achieve as a teenager, after the brash confidence of youth has long passed you by. Was my whole life leading up to this moment, my fate to one day succeed? Or would I still be languishing as a frustrated, unpublished author who had never managed to finish a novel-length work but for Terri-ann’s timely intervention? I suspect the latter.

So, I am grateful that Upswell is bringing lesser heard stories to the fore. In a world where the big publishers are bankrolled by celebrity chefs and AI-enhanced detective novels, we need small presses dedicated to telling important truths more than ever. Just this year, I’ve delved into the cruel and short lives of factory-farmed pigs, drugged-out graffiti kids and an anxious executor in a far-flung mining town in country WA. I can’t wait to see where my next Upswell read will take me next. Thank you for subscribing to Upswell. Sam Elkin

Subscriber letter from Abbas El-Zein Bullet Paper Rock: a Memoir of Words and Wars

 Bullet Paper Rock is a collection of mostly small personal stories, organised in about 70-75 chapters, usually no more than 3 to 4 pages. It follows a loosely chronological order, from my childhood and teenage years, to my undergraduate years, leaving my country of birth, Lebanon, for England then France, migrating to Australia in the late 1990s, down to the present time. The stories are set against a background of multiple wars unfolding over the past half-century in the Levant and the Middle East, including September 11, the Iraq war, and the upheavals of Arab Spring. 

Weaving these stories together are several thematic threads that run through them. Both my parents died over the past few years and something about their passing gave me a new perspective on life and death. I now felt freer in writing about them and about the worlds that made them: how those worlds fused into the ones I grew up in, and the ones I grew into. And, most interestingly, how those worlds persisted inside me, well after most physical traces of their existence had vanished. Another thread in the book is about the wars that have destroyed several ancient cities in the Arab world in the past decade or two, from Baghdad to Aleppo and Beirut, from Sanaa and Khartoum to Benghazi. 

There is a quality of a recurring nightmare to this calamity – the same thing happening again and again in different places – but also a quality of escalating crisis – things getting worse and, underneath it all, a sense of futility to the events, all of which I explore in the book. Yet another thread in Bullet Paper Rock is the competitive multilingualism of Beirut – Arabic, French and English – which many Lebanese see as an essential part of who they are and their place in the world. I am thinking here multilingualism not as choice and cultural richness – although there is definitely that – but as tension, hierarchy and power dynamics, in a city that has internalised colonial perspectives on language, looking down on Arabic in favour of French. Part of this story is my relationship to my native Arabic and my gradual rediscovery of its exquisite power of expression. 

Why do we read memoirs? I can think of many possible reasons of course. Sometimes the writer’s name is enough but only if they’re called Barack Obama, Taylor Swift or Julia Gillard. But putting aside the famous and the powerful, a good memoir is one that says something insightful about the world and the value of what it says stems from something unique to memoirs, namely the combination of personal history, hindsight and the act of writing. Hindsight is the biggest advantage that the narrator has in memoirs. It is, for example, the feature that most differentiate memoirs from diaries – the former have them, the latter don’t. Writing, for its part, turns raw memories into memoirs, and transforms them quite profoundly in the process. 

While personal history belongs to the past, both hindsight and the act of writing are situated firmly in the present (at least the present of writing, if not that of reading). This is to say that memoirs are not just about the past: they are also about the present, and good memoirs say something insightful about today’s world. That’s certainly been my ambition in Bullet Paper Rock. Whether I’ve succeeded or not is, of course, up to the reader to decide. I hope you enjoy the book.  Abbas El-Zein, April 2024.

Subscriber letter from Dominic Gordon Excitable Boy: Essays on Risk

 Excitable Boy: Essays on Risk began life as something else entirely. Back in 2103, I was awarded a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship based on an idea I had at the time for a novella entitled ‘Bright City’. It would be ‘set in a semi-dystopic, but current Melbourne and the main character, Jimmy, suffers from schizophrenia, and we follow his journey through a waking nightmare’. I also went on to say, ‘Melbourne is the main character in my work, I am using my voice to yell out to the streets, screaming, spitting, laughing, pissing and kissing the concrete of my birth’. I hadn’t written much of anything at the time but I was given the chance to put into words an intense rage and alienation I felt at the world. I guess, like so many other writers, without realising it, I was using narrative as a form of therapy, working away at rugged blind spots, that over time, morphed itself into the structure of a fiction manuscript. From then, I was lucky enough to get in contact with Christos Tsiolkas, who encouraged me to keep writing. 

In 2018, three months prior to being hospitalised in the trauma ward for substantial injuries, I submitted, then forgot about, an application for a Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library. Six weeks later I came home. I’d lost a lot of weight, had a limp, and the multiple fractures in my fingers that were still healing, meant writing was literally a painful exercise. I got a phone call to tell me I’d won the fellowship. It was a glorious shock and gave me the impetus to keep going. At the time, my fiction manuscript has gone stale, so I decided to try my hand at narrative non-fiction. And from 2018-2019 I made a start on what would become, five years later, Excitable Boy. There were times when I stopped writing for long periods, as I was still struggling with addiction and dysfunctional behaviour. In 2021, I was living by myself in a flat in St Kilda, getting high, but I was getting tired of it. I wanted a change. So, I bit the bullet and moved in with my long-term partner. Then, in 2022 my son was born. I feel as though my journey as a writer has mirrored my growth as a man. With new awareness, came new ways of seeing, reflection, and desire for deeper understanding. And after many years in the wilderness of my own life, I was home. And now, I can begin the next chapter of my life. 

Thanks so much for subscribing to Upswell. Australian literature needs risk taking and Terri-ann has gone above and beyond in that regard. I hope you enjoy my book and all the other fascinating titles published by Upswell this year. Happy reading. Dominic Gordon