There has been some confusion about which Warren Ellis wrote the blurb on the cover of my recently released novel, The Burial. Is it Warren Ellis the writer of comics and novels or Warren Ellis the wiz with a violin?
In fact, it’s Ellis the wiz from the Australian band The Dirty Three. The question then follows, ‘Why is a musician writing a blurb for a novel?’
It was the American poet and activist Ed Sanders who said, ‘Never hesitate to open up a case file, even upon the bloodiest of beasts or plots.’
Ed’s an old hand – even Allen Ginsberg took up his writerly advice. So when I began researching The Burial so did I, by opening up my own case files on the real life female bushranger Jessie Hickman and the inspired-by-life but mainly fictional characters of tracker Jack Brown and the opium-addled Sergeant Andrew Barlow.
I discovered a whole lot of ephemera can fit into a case file.
In Andrew Barlow’s case file, I had acquired, through nefarious means, some broken strings from the bow of Warren Ellis’s violin. Those strings were as precious as teeth to me then, and I wound them up and put them in a glass jar, like an odd specimen.
Soon after, I found myself in a paddock up to my shins in mud, standing under a sky that was unleashing a 100-year storm, watching The Dirty Three. I saw Ellis raise his bow as lightening struck. I saw the sky light up. This was not metaphorical. This was real. Then, it wasn’t just watching and it wasn’t just listening. It was a wholly sensorial experience – a collision of bodies and music and weather.
As an after effect, I listened to The Dirty Three’s album Ocean Songs (1997) on repeat for a year.
That album became the way I continually entered the world of The Burial for about 7 years. Life was often chaotic around it but the album served me well as a sonic slippery dip.
In Ed Sanders’ manifesto, Investigative Poetry: The Content of History Will Be Poetry (1976) he urges writers to merge the emotional power of poetry with historical scholarship, so that readers might learn something of their national history in a way that empowers and enlivens them. He says the essence of investigative poetry is to create ‘lines of lyric beauty [that] descend from data clusters’ to create ‘a melodic blizzard of data-fragments.’
To me, Ocean Songs is a ‘melodic blizzard’ and the fragments it contains are fragments of stories – stories of lost and lonely souls moving through the landscape, some of those souls seeking each other, others doing their best never to be found. And each listening reminded me keenly of what, as a writer, I was trying to do.
And what was I trying to do? With any skill I have, to create a layered prose that somehow captured dirt and awe and history.
So of course I asked Warren Ellis for a blurb. And he responded in a generous way.
It’s odd to me, that when you have a novel published you are asked almost exclusively what authors have influenced you, rather than, say, what artists, musicians, friends or filmmakers. Yet, what inspired The Burial was all of that and more, as much as the life of Jessie Hickman herself.
Reading Ed Sanders’s manifesto again, I’m reminded that I am just a sticky old data cluster. And now The Burial is in bookstores it’s high time I dust myself down and move into the sensory realm of my second novel. It’s called The Walkman Mix – who knows what case files might collide.
The Burial, the debut novel of Courtney Collins, was released in Australia in September 2012 and will be released internationally in 2013. It has been optioned for a feature film. Courtney’s second novel, The Walkman Mix, is a work in progress.