8 October 2018
Imprints Bookshop, Adelaide
I know you’re all here for a book launch. But I feel like I’m here for something a little different. Maybe a 21st birthday party, or an 18th, depending on your generation or school of thought—a coming-of-age party for somebody I’ve known since they were really little. Earworm.
Earworm, yeah. Lemme tell you about Earworm.
The first time I first met Earworm, it was just a tiny little thing, maybe about 4000 words long, nothing more than a handful of printed A4 pages and a paperclip.
And there it was, in a stack of other pieces of fiction, all about the same length, all of them hopefully intended to be the beginnings of something bigger, each one of them a slice of the heart and soul of a student in the creative writing class I was teaching. The students were new to me; I hadn’t had a chance to do much more than form a few vague impressions of the way they handled themselves in the classroom. I’d observed the beardy dude in the back trying desperately not to be noticed, and I’d begun to suspect there was something going on behind the shyness. But, as I say, these students were new to me. I really knew nothing about them. Now they’d handed in the first instalments of their work, and it was time for me to find out what they had where it really counted: on the page.
So, I picked up the stack of 4000-word submissions, and read the first few. Then I got to Earworm. I was only a paragraph or so in when I knew that this was one of those moments. One of the moments that keep creative writing teachers in the game. One of those exciting moments when you realise that you’re not jaded and hard to impress, it was just that you were waiting for something to turn up that was really alive. And Earworm was alive in that special way, right from the very beginning. Whose work was it? I asked myself. Ah, the shy beardy dude in the back.
Colin Varney. Yeah. Lemme tell you about Colin.
Of course, a lot of people here today could tell me about Colin. Many of you here today have known Colin for longer than I have, and many of you know him better than I do. Helen, you doubtless know things none of us will ever know. Look, I don’t know much about Colin as a drummer in a rock ‘n’ roll band, for instance. I don’t know much about him as a librarian. But I do know this. When it comes to writing, Colin Varney is the real deal. Cracking open his debut novel, Earworm, is a bit like cracking open Colin himself and having a look at just some of what he, oftentimes, keeps under wraps—the observing eye that’s so keen that the Australian Federal Police could probably use it for something devious; the wonderful sense of humour—wickedly funny, but never mean; the tender heart.
For those of you who don’t already know about Earworm, its central conceit is that it’s narrated by a song. A song with a consciousness—a pop song, a love song, called ‘Empty Fairground’. When a person is listening to ‘Empty Fairground’, the song can lodge in their minds and access their memories. Some visits are fleeting, some uncomfortable, but the place the song likes best is the consciousness of a young woman called Nicole. And Nicole’s foundational narrative in life is that she’s been conceived to ‘Empty Fairground’s’ strawberry flavoured pop perfection.
I’m not going to say too much about the plot. Suffice to say that Earworm is a novel in four tracks—more or less—and it tells the story of what happens after Nicole’s dear dad, a creative soul who spends seasons in the grips of depression, has one last encounter with the black dog, and loses. This tragedy sends Nicole on a sometimes self-destructive journey of discovery. But ‘Empty Fairground’, the song itself, is as much a protagonist as Nicole, and apparently it’s never too late to teach an old song new tricks. Even a love song, it seems, might have new things to learn about love.
I love Earworm for its story, for its characters, for the way it makes me laugh, cry and hum, but what I loved most about Earworm from the first minute I held it’s little A4 shape and adjusted the paperclip, and what I continue to love about it, most, is the way it uses language. ‘Empty Fairground’, the musical narrator, speaks just the way a pop song should. It rhymes, it puns, it makes language a game. Song doesn’t hold back on the assonance. It goes full throttle with the consonance. It allows alliteration to be a-liberally allocated throughout.
Here’s a tiny example. [READING, p.69]
Something I noticed while re-reading Earworm for today’s launch is that ‘Empty Fairground’ has a bit to say about the creative process. At one point, when talking about song writing, our narrator says: ‘See, it’s not easy. Something as well crafted as I am takes a great deal of inspiration and perspiration. Practice, revision, re-arrangement.’ ‘Fairground’ also observes that for Nicole’s songwriter father, songs are like evil twins—much better in his head, when they’re just an atmosphere. It’s the curse of the creative that you can see such beautiful things in your mind, but when you try to make them manifest in the world, you come up against your own limitations as a craftsperson.
Writing fiction is no different. To have a finished novel in your hands takes a great deal of inspiration, perspiration, practice, revision and rearrangement, not to mention the drive to keep going, even when the words on the page aren’t quite conjuring, for you, the perfect thing you can see in your mind.
Before we go ahead and smash a bottle of bubbly over the prow of the good ship Earworm, I’ll give you a tiny glimpse of what it was like to sit on the sidelines and watch Colin do the work of practising, revising, rearranging. As his MA supervisor, I saw many drafts, and gave feedback along the way.
What I remember about our supervisory meetings was the pleasure of experiencing the sparky delight of Colin’s brain. I also appreciated his willingness to join me in silliness. Mondegreens were shared. We both enjoyed the alternative Bob Dylan song, ‘the ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind’ as well as the great Australian national anthem mondegreen, ‘Australians all are ostriches’. I seem to remember that one supervisory meeting devolved into a game of charades, with band names as the answers. I believe Colin confounded me on ‘The Grateful Dead’.
Long after Colin had graduated, long after after I had met Colin’s alter-ego—the Picky Pen—and entrusted that entity with the editing of my creative work, and long after Colin’s characters Johnny and Morris Jones had agreed to write the lyrics for a broken-hearted love song composed by one of my characters—Blessed Jones—who might in fact be related to one or both of them. Yes, after all those things had transpired … Colin revealed to me that I was on occasion, a little bit scary in the way I gave feedback about Earworm. This surprised me. I couldn’t remember that part.
Colin, I hope you know that I never meant to be scary. If I did seriously roll up my sleeves, and maybe roll back my diplomacy, it was only because I really loved your work. I also want you to know, that right from the beginning, when Earworm was just a tiny little manuscript, reading your words stirred up in me that good-natured writerly envy that says, ‘Wow, that line is good; I wish I’d written that.’ I’m not sure there’s any bigger or more deeply felt compliment for one writer to give to another than that one.
Colin, thank you for your work. Thank you for trusting your characters—Nicole, Bryce, Mum, Dad, Spencer, Vivienne, Marla, and, most unforgettably, ‘Empty Fairground’ itself—to lead you, and now us, on the wild, witty, wonderful, wordy, whimsical, journey that is Earworm.
To everyone here tonight, I urge you to buy Earworm for yourself, and for several of your dearest friends. Spread the word. Spread the love.
And now, ah yeah, it’s time to give it up for Colin Varney and the first of his masterworks: Earworm.