We’re excited to host Magdalena Ball — poet, fiction writer, mentor, friend we’ve not had the pleasure of meeting in person (yet) — as she travels cyberspace to share her latest book Black Cow. Most stops on her schedule focus on the novel and writing fiction. Here, she’s at home in poetry, and gave us permission to post the poem that started the story.
Poetic Muselings: Maggie, welcome to the Poetic Muselings blog! You are to blame, you know, for what we as a group have accomplished.
Maggie Ball: I enjoyed writing writing that blog post, and was so proud of what you’ve accomplished with Lifelines. But blame? Perhaps your readers should take a look at the post: Am I Really to Blame?
PM: Is there anything you’d LIKE to talk about that doesn’t come up in on your book tour?
MB: Would love to talk poetry. I know that seems odd in the context of a fiction book tour, but for me I always start with poetry – the impression, the irritation, the itch.
I even began Black Cow as a poem many years ago (it’s published in my poetry book Repulsion Thrust) as I always do with fiction, getting the general overall feeling and theme I want clarified in poetic form before I begin to work on the formal structuring, characterisation and plotting.
So, since I know no one else will ask me if there’s anything I’d like to talk about (thank you!), I thought I’d provide the whole poem in its entirety. When you read the book, and for anyone visiting who has read the book, I’d be interested in how close to my original conception I came.
PM: We love exclusives! Thank you. We have your poem at the end of this interview.
PM: As I began reading Black Cow, I was struck by your startling poetic images to describe the mundane. Freya, your “Mom” character scratched out a tiny bit of time for herself to workout, in an early scene. She isn’t doing it to feel better, but because it’s another thing that’s expected of her. I loved the language about grabbing a bite to eat:
“Talk about insect morphology. She felt like an arthropod right now, her mandibulate mouthparts working quickly to munch down a late lunch in the car on the way to the office.”
This is Kafka meets American Beauty! Can you share something about your process?
MB: Well I must say I like “Kafka meets American Beauty” (better than the “Dilbert meets The Good Life” riff I’ve been bandying about!). You know, aside from being a long time fan of Kafka’s (and Gregor Samsa was definitely on my mind when I wrote James’ character), I’m also a fan of American Beauty, and the idea of a stressed out real estate agent has been on my mind since seeing (several times) Annette Bening’s “I will sell this house today” scene followed by that amazing scream So you’ve really nailed it, and maybe even nailed my process as well in a very tasty soundbite.
A character or image will lodge itself in my head and won’t go away until it’s driving me crazy enough to want to write about it. The idea of our modern obsession with ‘success’ and the way in which we’re driven harder by financial trouble rather than reorienting is something that I also couldn’t shake. My first novel, Sleep Before Evening, was very much about youth and art as my female Portrait of the Artist.
For Black Cow I really wanted to play around with middle-aged creativity and the work-life balance in the context of recession, financial crisis, and consumerism of the sort that is rampant in American Beauty. So these were the motivating principles. I always begin with a poem or two, then a story, and then I usually begin mapping out the scenes and structure and characters of the novel, getting the nitty gritty in place before I can then go and write more scenes.
PM: Do you have a favorite scene in Black Cow? If so, what makes it so?
MB: I quite like the scene where the family arrives at Cradle Lake in Tasmania for their first holiday. Mainly because it’s so beautiful there, I was able to just give in to the utter pleasure of the scene and describe it, but also because it’s a real epiphany for them all – a kind of turning point when they’re so stunned by the natural beauty of the place –the magic of reality to use Dawkins’ phrase, that it wakes them up, just a bit, becoming a catalyst for everything that happens afterwards.
PM: What else can you tell us about the poetry of Black Cow?
MB: I wasn’t quite so free and easy in quoting other people’s poems as I was in Sleep Before Evening, but Wordsworth does get a look in, as does The Prose Eddas, a fairly important collection of Icelandic mythology generally thought to have been written by Snorri Sturluson in the year 1220. This work is a combination of prose and poetry but has a rhythm, and many references to poetry and Norse mythology which also picks up on Freya’s name and background.
PM: Any other questions you wish you’d be asked as you wander around the universe?
MB: I suspect that people will want to know where to pick up a copy (and will want one straightaway!), so they could just hive off right now to Amazon’s Kindle shop and be reading the book within seconds. Apple has it too, as does Nook. It’s also available in print on Amazon, Book Depository (free worldwide shipping!), BeWrite Books (my publisher) and other good bookstores (you could just ask for it in your local shop). For anyone who wants to check out an excerpt, they can visit: this page. Or can check out the Black Cow Book Trailer
I’m more than happy to send out custom autographed bookplates, so people should just drop me a line if they’ve got a hard copy and I’ll happily post off a bookplate, bookmark and a few other goodies.
PM: I know you’ll never be far from your vivid imagery, no matter what you write, Maggie. Thank you so much for allowing us to present the genesis of your book here.
when the good life calls
simplicity for loose change
pressure drop freedom
lock the door
walk ten miles in fancy shoes
remove dreams from your pockets
a dozen crumpled receipts
and kiss the ground
the dirt tastes like shit
bodysore and boneache you fall asleep
no time to toss and tease
sleep matters now
it isn’t heaven
no candy floss choirs
fanning your every sweat
each serve on your battered table
reflects a cut or bruise
muscle knit tendon job
unlike anything you ever imagined
in those tower block days
glassed in tight
a pretty prison