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Stigmatised Buildings

Above: I walk by this house all the time. I’d love to go inside

Buildings call to you. The shape of windows, the colour of a door, the height of the roof, the patterns in timber, a romantic garden: bricked-bodies reaching out for your love. Then there are those buildings which make you grit teeth, tease the blood from your heart, this guttural sixth sense of knowing that unspeakable things have occurred behind that façade. These buildings are monuments to some of our darkest fears. Most towns have them: the witch house, the murder house, the creepy building, the haunted house, the place everyone crosses the road to avoid. Gaston Bachelard sees houses as ‘a body of images that give[s] mankind proof or illusions of stability.’

Perhaps it’s these images of unstable illusions that have always attracted me to buildings and houses, not because I am an architectural enthusiast (I know almost nothing substantial about architecture) but rather the stories that are hidden inside, the memories that exist under the floorboards. I am attracted to the feelings of a space.

Outside the realm of writer dreamscapes, houses and buildings which are associated with murders, suicides, meth labs, cruelty and hauntings are called ‘stigmatised homes’. Properties ‘with history’ will often see a 25% reduction in value and take longer to sell. For some investors, this might be music to their ears: historically expensive homes going for cheap. As recent as 2016, the Amityville horror house, Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood home, and the Kreischer mansion were all up for resale. Needless to say these are not my idea of smart, first-homeowner investments.

Buildings call to you, want to whisper their secrets in your ear. Here are four stigmatised homes, buildings and places which have stories to tell:

The Queen Mary, docked permanently at Long Beach Harbor, California

Said to be one of the most haunted ships in the world, over the course of it’s life the Queen Mary has been a luxury cruiseliner, a warship named The Grey Ghost during WW2 which carried 800,000 sailors and prisoners of war, before being restored once more as a passenger vessel.

Behind its opulent interior is a history of death, beginning in 1936 when the first captain, Edgar Britten, died from a stroke in his cabin. As the years progressed, senior second officer, William Stark, was poisoned to death after he drank from a gin bottle filled with laundry detergent (there are claims it was actually acid); a woman and a child drowned in separate incidents in the ships’ swimming pools; during WW2 three Australian soldiers threw one of the ship’s cooks into the oven, burning him alive; and in unrelated incidents two men were crushed to death by door 13 in the ship’s underbelly.

However the events of 2 October 1942 provides The Queen Mary with it’s most significant record of death. The HMS Curacao was escorting The Grey Ghost through the ocean, zigzagging through tides in an effort to confuse any U-boats that may have been hiding in the water. This routine passage for both ships became a nightmare when The Queen Mary unexpectedly caught up to the Curacoa. Colliding with the much smaller ship, The Grey Ghost split the Curacoa in half, killing many of those on board instantly. Horrifically dozens upon dozens of men were then dragged underneath the water into The Queen Mary’s propeller, their screams loud and wild, siren calls. Somehow a few hundred men, now scattered in the freezing water, managed to hold onto their lives however due to war protocol, the Queen Mary couldn’t stop to pick them up. An SOS was sent to ‘nearby’ British ships to rescue those stranded but by the time those ships arrived two hours later, only 99 men were found alive.

Hinterkaifeck Ranch/ The Gruber family farm, Germany

Before the six inhabitants of the Gruber family farm were slaughtered, rural-strong father, Andreas Gruber, reported strange and mysterious occurrences to neighbours and friends: there had been odd footprints in the snow leading from the forrest to the house but none leading back. He told them how their last maid had left six months before because she believed the house was haunted, kept hearing unsettling knocks throughout the house, kept hearing someone walk around in the darkness. Mystery after mystery .

The day Maria Baumgartner, the new Gruber family maid moved in, a final mystery came for them all, mattock in hand.

Exact events surrounding the day of the unsolved 1922 murders remain unknown however the best anyone has ever been able to determine is the following: one by one, Andreas Gruber (63), Cazilia Gruber (72), their widowed daughter, Viktoria Gabriel (36) and her daughter, Cazilia (7) found their way to the barn and were murdered by someone wielding a mattock. Shortly thereafter the perpetrator walked into the house, into a bedroom where 2 year old Josef was still a ball of sleep in his cot and killed him before heading to the bedroom of Maria Baumgartner (44) and killing her too. Over the course of a few days, the killer made themselves at home, eating food from the kitchen, feeding the farm animals and making a fire to keep warm. When days then nights on the farm became too silent, the murderer left as quietly as they had arrived, leaving behind the family’s remains for neighbours to discover four days after the crime.

Although the house was demolished in 1923 and a shrine erected in its place, the farmlands still grow green, still waits for the murderer to be found.

Pripyat Amusement Park, Pripyat, Ukraine

The children of Pripyat daydreamed about the new amusement park for months leading up to its scheduled grand opening of 1 May 1986: how fast would the carousel go? How hard could they drive the dodgem cars into each other? What would be seen from the Summer-yellow coloured Ferris Wheel? How many sweets could they eat before feeling sick?

As children counted down the days, the town of 50,000 residents (and founded in 1970) went about their lives: workers made their way down the road to the Chernobyl NPP like they always did, mothers dropped off their children at daycare before going to work, teenagers made weekend plans. Everyone watched the construction of the amusement park move from skeletal mechanics to full grown life. And they waited.

History tells us what happens next. After the devastating Chernobyl disaster on 26 April 1986, Pripyat, like so many other towns nearby, was evacuated a few days later. There are conflicting reports as to whether the amusement park ever opened with some claiming it did for a few hours on the 27 April and others stating it never opened at all.

Pripyat has been a ghost town for over 30 years. Residents ever returned. The amusement park remains: instead of children’s feet hammering laughter into asphalt, neon green moss spreads like a cancer, fights with the decimated shades of green, brown and bleached grass growing through concrete faultlines. The Ferris wheel, sour-yellow rust, is an angry God, looms over strewn Dodgem cars and the carousel. The buildings in Pripyat are old bodies dropping paint, dropping walls, dropping skin, fingernails, hair. It’s a town largely without colour, without sound, without life. Some days not even wind comes to play at the amusement park.

Pripyat is now a destination for ‘extreme tourists’ armed with Geiger counters and a curiosity for what might have been.

The John Sowden House, Los Feliz, United States

Before this Los Feliz house was built in 1926, painter and photographer John Sowden asked his friend, Lloyd Wright, to design a home for him, something architecturally significant where he could entertain his Hollywood friends. The result was a Mayan revival house with a cave-like entrance and tomb-thin staircases. Although ridiculed by many for it’s appearance this would be a home to make memories in.

Years passed. John sold the house in 1930 and after many owners it was eventually bought by Dr George Hodel and his family in 1945. At first the Hodel children embraced the labyrinthine house, fell in love with the magic of a building that was a world onto itself. But not all was golden. George frequently beat his sons in the basement, was accused of raping his daughter.

The Hodel’s eventually sold the house and when George died in 1999 his son, Steve, then a retired LA homicide detective, found two photos of a dark haired woman amongst his father’s belongings. She looked familiar. Memories of overheard conversations from Steve’s childhood in that house came back.

15 January 1947: over eleven miles away from Los Feliz, Betty Bersinger and her three year old daughter were out for their morning walk throughout Leimert Park. Fresh air, car movement, birdsong. Joy. It was then the three year old noticed the mannequin in the grass beyond the sidewalk. What an odd place to leave one. Betty went to the mannequin to investigate. Closer, closer she went, her body probably registering what lay in the grass before she had the chance to verbalise horror: the body of Elizabeth Short, cut in half, drained of all blood. Somebody had slashed Elizabeth’s mouth from the corners to her ears, had sliced whole pieces of flesh from her thighs and breasts. In that moment: horror of what men thought they could do to you and your body, your life. Betty would carry this with her for the rest of her days. Betty screamed, called the police. In the moments after the murder, reporters rushed to uncover as much ‘sordid’ information about the victim by any means necessary. They even gave Elizabeth a new name, ‘The Black Dahlia’, these attempts at reducing her to an image, someone not real. At one stage, the LA Examiner located Elizabeth’s mother, Phoebe, told her that Elizabeth had won a beauty contest and would she mind sharing stories about her daughter’s personal life? Phoebe agreed, opened up. It was only after they nabbed their information that the Examiner told Phoebe that her daughter had been murdered.

The murder remains unsolved to this day. Except for one thing: Steve Hodel’s memories. After finding the photos he asked older family members to fill in memory-gaps for him, answer the questions he’s always had about his sadistic father. After long conversations, Steve believed Elizabeth had been to his childhood house in Los Feliz. He believes that his father tortured, murdered and dissected her body in the basement.

Sometime after 2011, Steve Lopez, a reporter for the LA Times went through a stack of old DA files on George Hodel. At the time Hodel was being investigated for his daughter’s rape, the house was bugged and everything was recorded. Steve Lopez found those tapes, found those transcripts in the file. He listened, he read and discovered: George had in fact been a suspect in Elizabeth’s murder. There was also another tape in the file, one where George can be heard on the phone to a friend saying, ‘‘Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia… they couldn’t prove it now.’

Somewhere in that house is a memory with an answer.

Above: Ralph Eugene Meatyard. One of my favourite photographers. For obvious reasons


Draft Season

The transformative relief of drafting is what I look forward to the most when writing: taking small ideas, making raw words, rewriting them over and over until the project finds its true self. The beginning of things is daunting. Everything else that comes after that is hard work and the part of writing I enjoy the most. Because this is the moment you find out what you and the novel are really made of.

I’m in the middle of typing up several notebooks and am amazed at how my (still unfinished) first draft has both managed to retain original structure and intent and yet has completely obliterated itself. I had no idea the project wanted to be the shape it is becoming.

Recently I ran a writing workshop and afterward I was asked if I find my first drafts embarrassing. Yes, sometimes I do. But mostly I’m just glad it exists.

First drafts are not publishable. Most likely the next couple aren’t either. I’ve mostly kept what I have of the first draft to myself but I have shown a few snippets recently and most of that has been typed up straight from my notebooks without editing or even a second thought. And so I figured I’ll show some of that now. I realise that I often post parts of it on here but I figured it was time for some more.

Not because I think it’s great–far from it–but simply because it’s important to be reminded that all books start somewhere and they never arrive fully formed (at least for this writer). I also think it’s important to air your flaws so that when you do arrive at that place of accepting that you’ve done as much as you can for your project, that it’s the best version it can be, you can see the distance you’ve travelled, the progress you’ve made as a writer, a human.

And so some first draft material (some of which I’ve recently

shared elsewhere) :

It’s an odd thing to look at these minuscule sections of the draft and know full well how much of this project I am currently hiding from everyone, even my publisher and agent. These extracts reveal so little. And yet. Because what this novel truly is, what I’m positive it now wants to be, is perhaps something I’ve been hiding from myself until just a few months ago. And so now it’s time to get to that, to draft out the first version and then beat it into submission.

Photo Reel Night #2

Most times I never know why I’ve chosen something to photograph for my novel until after the fact. That intuition. These past weeks I’ve been in the gut of novel, that space where I only take things in and think only ‘yes’ and ‘no’: would my character do this? would air like this exist in my novel? Is this the texture of fear? Is this the longest night? Is this, is this, is this?

Here are some answers intuition gave:

Give yourself the future: SLV

This afternoon I explored the no-public-access belly of the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne. From the basement where they keep rare books (among some of the absolute treasures were several copies of Milton’s Paradise Lost–none of which were a first edition, first print but were early editions ( i.e. second printing from 166something), to the conservation and preservation room, the elephant lift, to a walk on top of the library’s roof. I was in a state of nerdish awe. And at some stage I realised I’d tuned into smells and sounds, begun focussing on small corners and hidden things. I was writing something for the future, those stockpile thoughts.

It was another reminder to keep with curiosity, to keep exploring, keep searching for new ways to present the past. Because to be open to experience is to give yourself a future. Give yourself something to write about.

And so to the stockpile:

Windows, Light, Memory #1

Tonight I was supposed to be spending time with the third project but I could only think of the novel-in-progress, of one character in particular who keeps reinventing himself every time I want to write something new. All his ways of speaking, his voice the only thing I’m capable of writing at the moment. He never leaves me.

Better to leave words before they get you down. There was only one thing to do: I went into the night, went to find the things the corner of my eye might hold onto the longest, hoped some pattern would emerge so I could find my way back to the project/task at hand, tune into a voice I hadn’t been able to find for a few weeks.

After 30 minutes, a pattern: light and window, people living just beyond eyesight. The way dark leads you to memory and repetition. That’s when I heard the woman’s voice, the character that has evaded me for weeks. She was back. And she was thinking in memory, was living in them, had been lost in them. She was in the dark. It’s where she had been all along: I just hadn’t thought to look for her there. I realised in that moment that I don’t know this character half as well as I thought I did. My reasoning: if I did, I would’ve known where she’d been hiding…

I think about memory a lot, all the preoccupations I have with it when it comes to my own work. Always memory: either the loss of it or the repetition of one signifying moment over and over. Lately I have been trying to remember certain moments of my life but here’s nothing but blank space. Why is this? Why can’t I remember half my life at age sixteen but remember age five vividly?

Is there something about the third project that will help me unlock those blank spaces? Or am I just creatively tired and need a day off from writing? Sometimes I suspect I should only work on one project at a time…

The walk didn’t bring me any closer to a resolution for these question but a new path for the third project became clearer. And when I came home I reached for three books, opened pages randomly and somehow found passages that fit the pattern I’m trying to make:

“Often he would lie there the long night through, sleeping not a wink and just scrabbling for hours on the sofa. Or he would embark on the strenuous task of pushing an armchair over to the window and then crawling up to the sill, where propped on the chair he would lean against the window-panes, evidently inspired by some recollection of that sense of freedom that looking out of the window used to give him.”

The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

I slid into my memories. Or rather, the memories (at least so it seemed to me) rose higher and higher in some space outside myself, until, having reached a certain level, they overflowed from that space into me, like water over the top of a weir.

Vertigo, W.G. Sebald

“Time,” says Jorge Luis Borges, “is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river.” Our movements, our actions, are extended in time, as are our perceptions, our thoughts, the contents of consciousness. We live in time, we organise time, we are time creatures through and through. But is the time we live in, or live by, continuous like Borge’s river? Or is it more comparable to a succession of discrete moments, like beads on a string?

The River of Consciousness, Oliver Sacks

The Dolphin: or how my tendency to procrastinate allowed me to distill random ideas and write a short story

I was on a writing retreat at Varuna attempting to finish another draft of the manuscript that would go on to become See What I Have Done when day four arrived and I lost the will to write another word from Lizzie’s point of view.

I still had three days left of the retreat ahead of me. I needed a way to procrastinate without feeling guilt. One of the writer’s at the house was working on a short story collection and had told me, ‘Short stories are like the easiest thing to write.’ Sounds perfect, I thought. That’s exactly how I’m going to spend the rest of my time here at the house.

Here’s a tip I’d like to share with you about short stories: they’re not easy. They are their own art form and can take just as long to write as a novel. Sure, you could write a 3,000 word story in a single sitting but to get it right, to make it look like magic-ease takes drafting and time. They’re not for everyone. Hell knows they’re not for me. I’ve literally got one published short story to my name and that’s probably the extent of my career as a short story writer.

Let’s leave that moment at the retreat where it is for now and come to the future:

I am often asked where I get my ideas for writing and when I say I usually dream them, most find this unsatisfactory. And I don’t blame them: I sound like a complete wanker. But I think what people are really asking is how do you take small ideas or random thoughts and turn them into something sustainable for a short story or a novel or something else altogether?

It’s not easy to answer this question. Every writer I know has a different process but I think it’s safe to say that a guiding point of reference for all of us is that we cling to the ideas that are utterly irresistible, that speak to us on a particular level. Basically: write the ideas and stories that you are passionate about.

As I’ve said before, most of my best work happens when I sleep. But this is a fraction of the truth. Most of the time I’m observing everything around me, listening to stranger’s conversations, reading newspapers, going to a gallery or museum, looking at old photographs, sitting in nature…just waiting for a little spark that I think I might be able to use for something.

The most obvious and shortest example I can show you is how I came to write my short story, The Dolphin. And so now we need to go back to the Varuna, back to the day I decided to try my hand at a short story.

A few months before I went to Varuna I had dreamt about a woman driving to the Blue Mountains with a decomposing baby in the back seat of her car (sound familiar? That’s right, the second novel). The only thing I really knew about this woman was her name, Eleanor, and that she was in her twenties during the early 1970s. Then I went on retreat. At that stage of my life I’d begun having thoughts about becoming a parent, wondered what that might be like even if I only experienced it once. I’d always loved children but was never overtly maternal, never grew up desperately wanting to have children of my own.

So I tried my hand and around this time experienced the first of many miscarriages that would occur over the next few years. Given my body’s inability to accept a pregnancy, it was natural I began thinking about the role of parents, the role of children, especially as I was writing about a dysfunctional family. Then I started thinking about the dream I’d had and what that might mean on a psychoanalytical level. The first thing that occurred to me was that the dream was probably about the anxieties of parenthood. I won’t bore you with the other revelations I had (no, no. Instead you can read all about it in book two. I know, I’m very generous like that) but suffice to say these were the background thoughts I had while at Varuna.

On the day I could no longer write Lizzie I went into town to a bookstore. And I found this gem:

I absolutely adore shit like this and often spend hours and hours flicking through them partially out of curiosity, mostly looking for something that might spark a narrative idea. I didn’t even open the book. I bought it sight unseen. My gut instinct told me that between those pages was my short story.

Back in my room at Varuna I randomly flicked the pages, stopped to take in the photos from the 1930s to ’50s. I then closed my eyes and flicked once more. I opened to see this photo:

I was completely taken by the image, not least because this was taken a few years after WW2 and the image of a smiling woman with a breathing apparatus reminiscent of gas masks worn in war painted a disturbing image and feeling in my mind. And that’s when I thought of my dream, of Eleanor. I started writing what I saw in the photo and as I sketched the image out, tried to give a reason why this woman would be at the beach with this apparatus, I realised that she was deeply unhappy. And she also had a secret. Over the next three days I wrote a rough draft of The Dolphin and had a kernel of something bigger: a woman in an unhappy marriage goes on her annual summer holiday with her friends and husband only to commit suicide later on.

I knew after the first draft that on its own, this wasn’t a very interesting story. And yet. I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman who I’d named Eleanor and her husband, Braun. I didn’t know it then but this was the first version of two characters who would never leave me and would end up in my second novel years and years later.

After the retreat I went home and started draft two. I began thinking about why Eleanor had such an unhappy marriage and wondered if she’d ever tried to leave it. A few weeks later I was pregnant again and again I miscarried. Then I heard a woman’s voice in my head whisper, ‘You’re lucky you got out of that.’ It was Eleanor. In that moment I knew more about her and her story than I had before: she’d been coaxed into being a mother and then one day she’d decided she no longer would be one.

It took months of drafts to develop the story, to invent a world that felt complete and true for this character but I was completely obsessed with Eleanor and this situation and I would keep going until I had it right. Unfortunately I had no idea how to write a short story, so each draft was also a discovery of how to tell a story, the patterns you could use and so on.

A year after the initial idea, I had finished The Dolphin. It remains one of the most difficult things I’ve ever attempted to write.

So to go back to the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

Well once I had a dream, found a photography book, had a miscarriage and thought about what it might be like to be a parent, to live in a world that might require you to need a breathing apparatus.

You can read an extract of that story here:

Eleanor, dressed in her bathing suit, appeared taller than she was. The beachgoers had laid her flat on the short blades of grass by the side of sand dunes and waited. They watched her. They did nothing. Her face might have been considered pretty if it wasn’t for her swollen cheeks and bruised skin. A time passed. They continued to wait and watch, and eventually they realised she was dead. By her side was a mask with a long rubber hose connected to an oversized bag, which could fit easily over one’s shoulder. The rubber hose was wrapped around Eleanor’s bony shoulders; attempts at strangulation. Everyone on the beach had one: the entire length of sand was lined with men and women lying in the sun, skin cooked or raw, their faces buried behind their masks, hoses running the length of their middle-aged bodies. They called the contraption The Dolphin: a new era in personal life-saving and fresh-air apparatus. Everyone had one. This was summer living.

The day before Eleanor died she had spent the afternoon drinking cocktails with her friends. They all wore The Dolphin. It clashed nicely with their red sundresses. They said to each other, ‘I am so glad that we decided to bring them. Don’t you find it’s been getting harder to breathe?’ and they all agreed. Especially Eleanor. She had worn The Dolphin all summer. Her husband, Braun, had bought it for her. If Eleanor had been honest, and she knew she shouldn’t be, she would have admitted to the others that The Dolphin hadn’t helped at all. It had only made breathing worse.

The group of friends had stopped telling the truth a few years ago.

They were drinking Old Fashioneds. They liked Old Fashioneds. They were drinking Old Fashioneds wearing The Dolphin, enjoying themselves. They sat around the table and watched each other through masks. They always came to this beach for summer. Their husbands were around somewhere. If she was being honest, and she knew she shouldn’t be, she would tell her friends that she was more than happy that Braun left her alone. She had gotten used to it. The friends had done everything together the last few years and sometimes it felt like they were the same person. They looked around the table at each other, sipped and smiled. The afternoon moved slowly. Eleanor looked at her watch. Conversations were had but were unimportant. They had all become unimportant. Eleanor was tired of them.

After a time a waiter came to the table with another Old Fashioned and smiled.

‘Oh goody,’ they said as he placed the glass on the table. They looked around the table and admired each other.

‘You’re wonderful. And you’re wonderful.’

‘Oh goody.’

Nothing was better than a compliment. They sipped.

‘This has turned out to be a delightful afternoon.’

‘Oh yes, very delightful.’

Eleanor looked at her watch. She let herself think of the end.

Later that afternoon, the friends decided to take a walk along the beach. Arms linked, they walked slowly and spoke of their respective daughters, Chelsea.

‘Chelsea did well in the swimming competition.’

‘Chelsea always does well in swimming.’

‘Chelsea is taking ballet classes this summer.’

‘Chelsea will be good at ballet.’

‘Chelsea is growing up so quickly.’

‘We’re all proud of Chelsea.’

Chelsea had become a problem for Eleanor. If she was being honest, and she knew she shouldn’t be, Eleanor would have admitted that daughter Chelsea was suffocating her. Just like the last time.

After the walk Eleanor went back to her room leaving the women behind her. It was quiet. Braun was nowhere to be seen. She sat on the bed and removed The Dolphin from her face and held it in her hands. She tapped the plastic visor. It made a shallow sound. She held the rubber hose up to her ear and listened closely for the hiss of oxygen but nothing came. The room was very quiet. Eleanor’s arms lowered and her shoulders sank. Her breathing was laboured. She let herself think about the past week. Then she let herself think about the past year. The past two years. All the years before that. Now that she was alone she realised that she hated it all. Most of all she hated the other women. She felt the Old Fashioneds swim through her blood. She hated that, too.

When Eleanor was young her mother had told her that hate was a strong word to be used sparingly. Eleanor agreed. It was a strong word. It perfectly described how she felt about her life. Eleanor wasn’t sure what exactly she hated the most. She thought. She thought that perhaps she had gotten her feelings wrong, that it was dissatisfaction that she felt. Braun would say she was dissatisfied. Chelsea would say that she was dissatisfied. Chelsea would say anything. Chelsea had died when she was very small.

Eleanor thought. She was right. It was definitely hate.

The wonderful people at Overland published this story in journal #207 which is also online as archive. The rest of the story can be read over there