A corner of my mind with Laurie Steed

This week I welcome to my blog Laurie Steed, who is not only a widely published, successful Perth author, he’s also that friendly approachable guy, always happy to chat, talk writing and share his wisdom.

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I first met Laurie at Mattie Furphy House, Swanbourne, a few years ago.  He came along to a meeting of the Fellowship of WA Writers Book Length Project Group to talk about his writing journey and share the lessons he’s learned along the way.  He was humble, funny, honest and relatable.

Earlier this year, Laurie launched his debut novel You Belong Here.  I was delighted to read it and hope you enjoy this review and Q & A with Laurie.


Book review of You Belong Here

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Life is made up of moments, many of them.  As we grow and age, and look back on times past, there are always standouts.  The terribly tragic and life-changing moments, the ones that challenge us to find the strength that we didn’t know we had and demand us to push on even when it seems impossible.  There are other moments that shine, even years after they have passed, for the happiness, fulfillment and excitement they brought.  And then there’s the in-between, all the day to day moments that help to make up a life, but not mark out a life.

Laurie Steed’s You Belong Here is a book of the big moments.

Set in Perth and spanning three decades, You Belong Here follows the Slater family.  Jen and Stephen meet as teens, marry and have a family, only to find that their marriage, like so many these days, is not what they imagined or hoped for.  The trauma of the separation stays with their children, Alex, Jay, and Emily, and manifests in a myriad of ways.

Despite these challenges, Steed is careful not to turn this book into a tragedy.  The characters’ problems are like our own problems.  We’ve heard them before, perhaps lived them ourselves.  And at turns, each character plays antagonist or protagonist, as we all do in life.

As the poet Dylan Thomas wrote in Under Milk Wood – 

‘We are not wholly bad or good…’

Steed is a master of a rollicking good yarn.  At times, the story bubbles off the page with the rhythm of a bunch of mates, a few drinks deep at the pub.  Cricket scenes so real you can see and hear them.

But perhaps the highlights for me are the references to Perth in the 80s that mark this as a truly West Australian novel and had me laughing out loud on the train.  Laurie Potter’s gym, Wendy’s ice cream, Central Video and best of all, fried ham steaks with canned pineapple.

As a backing track to You Belong Here, is a mixtape of music.  As I read, I hummed the tunes, recalled the lyrics and felt the rhythm.  It occurred to me as I turned the last page, that as well as being a collection of moments, You Belong Here is itself a mixtape.

We all listen to music streaming services these days, where the line up of songs is ever changing.  What is missing, is the journey.  The change in pace and mood as an album or tape builds from one song to the next, the familiarity of the order comforting.  Personally, I love belting out lyrics to songs that I’ve heard a thousand times in the same order from a record, cassette or CD.  Yes, I remember all of these.

Each chapter of You Belong Here is a song, with its own unique beat, rhythm, and cast of characters (instruments if you like), which forms one part of a much bigger journey.

You Belong Here is a nod to the familiarity and comfort of family and music.  While at times it is a sad reflection on what went wrong and what could have been, it is also a celebration of the intangible and enduring connection that binds families together.

A corner of my mind with Laurie Steed

Q. There are scenes in You Belong Here which I, perhaps incorrectly, assume stem from your childhood.  Riding recklessly down suburban streets before helmets were mandatory, and smashing sixes at the local oval.  How much of You Belong Here was inspired by your childhood?

A.  That’s where things get interesting.  While I lived in Mount Lawley growing up, and most certainly took the turn of Beaufort and Central as a teen on a mountain bike, bunny-hopping onto the footpath, the characters are in many ways different from me. It’s as though I took Mount Lawley as a stage and threw new people into the setting to see what they would do.

When I was in Iowa, my teacher ZZ asked why I wouldn’t write You Belong Here as memoir, and the answer is deceptively simple: because You Belong Here is not memoir, and were it so, it would be a different book.

What was my childhood like?  In some ways kinder, in some ways harsher than the characters in my novel.  Aside from the divorce (parental break-ups leave fingerprints on even the most hardened soul), those things you’d assume directly stem from my childhood most likely don’t; the characters that seem less significant, or more extraneous are more likely the threads from my real life.

‘parental break-ups leave fingerprints on even the most hardened soul.’

Nothing is true but thinking makes it so.  Or, to be more specific, the job of the writer is to give enough emotional authenticity to the characters that the literal details are more scaffolding on a greater, more identifiable moment, feeling or experience.  Such are the ways fiction bends our literal truth in search of a greater emotional truth.

Q.  There are many voices in You Belong Here, each of them so convincing?  How did you ensure authenticity for each? 

A.  Thanks for the kind words, it’s heartening to know I could pull-off what at times seemed an impossible achievement!  I’d long been interested in multi-character narratives.  Olive Kitteridge, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Trailerpark by Russell Banks were like fictive fever-dreams to me, a handful of photographs, spread out on a coffee table.  I’d long wanted to write a family story but had previously been bogged-down by the need to have a protagonist as a key figure.  Having written two novel manuscripts using this technique, I felt as though I was trying to drill with a hammer.  I knew that for my book to really work, I would need to adopt an array of voices and tones to fully replicate a family.

I knew that…I would need to adopt an array of voices and tones to fully replicate a family.’

How did I manage authenticity?  Strange answer, but most likely by having the ‘sameness’ of the voices pointed out in an earlier draft.  Sometimes as writers we put on the clothes but forget to walk, talk and feel as the characters.  I wrote letters to them, interviewed them, made playlists for them.  Sometimes was them at a park, or in café.

I never really saw them as characters.  To me, they felt like real people.

Q.  Do you still own a cassette player?  After reading You Belong Here, I imagine you rifling through shoe boxes of cassettes, teaching your kids about music from the good old days. 

 A.  I’ve sadly lost both my cassette and CD players, which I sold to fund following a girl to Queensland.  But yes, I’m a browser, a rifling superstar of some note, and indeed there’s nothing I like more than finding an old eighties compilation at a Good Samaritan or Salvation Army shop.

As for teaching my kids about music, they’re still non-committal at such a young-age.  I think that’s OK.  Music is there for whoever it speaks to.  Maybe once, you loved Led Zeppelin, only now you’ve mellowed, and would rather the latest album from Imagine Dragons.  Or you grew up in the golden-age of hip-hop, only now you’ve tired of machismo and misogynist lyrics.

While I loved cassettes and CDs, the songs remain in digital form, and it’s easier to share them with friends and family.  What have I learned about music while writing You Belong Here?  That there’s no right or wrong, just lyrics that resonate, ways in which we’re brought to life by a progression of chords.

That your track is both yours and yet everyone else’s too, if it’s something that lifts, them, sinks them, or connects them to a way of feeling, thinking or belonging.


You Belong Here was published by Margaret River Press in March 2018 and is available in all good book stores.

 

 

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