In Episode 289 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Historical short story competition is now open. Meet Alex Landragin, author of Crossings. We also have writing tips for kids, and Allison Tait will be at the Whitsunday Voices Youth Literature Festival. Little Bookroom has a charity drive. Plus, we have 3x signed copies of The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers by Kerri Turner to give away.
Writers in Residence
Alex Landragin is a French-Armenian-Australian writer. Born in France into a family of champagne-makers, he migrated to western Victoria as a child. Now a freelance copywriter, he is a former Lonely Planet author of guides to Australia, Europe and Africa, and has previously been an online content manager for the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas. He holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne and is a past recipient of an Australia Council Emerging Writer's Grant. Now residing in Melbourne, he has also lived in Washington DC, Paris, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Alice Springs and Marseille
His novel is called Crossings and it is set across centuries and continents and can be read in two different directions.
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Thanks so much for joining us today, Alex.
You're most welcome.
Now you have written a book that is getting a lot of chatter around the place because it's a little bit different. Now for those readers who haven't grabbed a copy yet of Crossings, can you tell us what it's about?
Well, it's about… I don't know how much of it to give away. But I always describe it as being about a couple of characters who have the ability to cross from one body into another by looking someone else in the eyes for a few minutes. And that crossing, as I call it, is an exchange. So the protagonist passes into the body of the other person, but the other person's identity or soul passes into the protagonist's body. So it's a swap.
Now it's a pretty unique… You've written it in a pretty unique way. And I swear, I was sitting there going, how in the world did he do this. But basically, your book can be read in a couple of different directions. You could probably better explain it to listeners than me. Perhaps you could explain how that works in this book.
Okay. So I should mention that the book is a historical novel. It begins in 1791 and ends in 1940. And is set mostly in Paris. I initially wrote it a little bit in the style of David Mitchell's The Cloud Atlas, and that was definitely one of the influences while I was writing the book.
But quite late in the writing process, I realised that I had the opportunity to do something that had never really been done before. Although there are other books that are quite similar, notably Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch. I realised that I had the opportunity to write a book that could be read in two completely different directions. Same book, but different beginning, middle and ending.
And I found that idea very compelling for a number of reasons. Not just because it's never been quite done before as far as I know. And not just because it's fun and exciting and compelling. But also because it really takes up a number of the themes in the book.
There are two different directions. But this is also a book about two lovers who separated. It's a book about exile. It's a book about multiplicity. It's a book about a choice that is made very early on that has repercussions that last 150 years.
So it just made so much sense, even though it came quite late in the writing process, to follow up on this idea and to make it work as a book that could be read in two different sequences.
Now I have so many questions about this. But before we delve into that aspect of it, which is fascinating, the premise itself. So your story, the spark of the story. How did that idea form in the first place?
Well, that is a long story in itself. So I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was 16. I'm from a very dispersed or cultural dispersed background. French, Armenian, but not just Armenian, but Armenian from different places. Came to Australia as a kid. When I was 16 I decided in a vocational sense, almost like a conversion experience, that I wanted to be a writer.
But my problem was that I didn't at the time identify really as Australian, although I do more so now. That's been a process. A lifelong process. But as a writer, I really struggled for a long time. And I had to explore for a long time to come up with what I wanted to write about.
For example, I did a creative writing degree about 15 years ago and wrote a realist rural family novel, similar to many others that are around. But I didn't really strongly identify with it enough to want to pursue that to the very end.
So around the time when I was 40, so by that stage I'd wanted to be a writer for more than 20 years and I'd been calling myself a writer for more than 20 years. I'd had a career as a travel writer and as a freelance writer. But creatively, I was still at that same impasse where I just didn't know what to write. And I knew that I associated myself with a tradition that was not mainstream in Australia at the time. And that was the tradition of, for example, Borges and Cortázar and Georges Perec and the metafiction. Umberto Eco is another good example.
But when I read David Mitchell, I realised – and also especially Roberto Bolaño – I realised that there was an opportunity for me to really fully explore the tradition that I identified with. And so I launched into a project where – I called it the Daily Fiction Project – and as part of that I wrote and published a story on a website every day. And I wanted to do that for 12 months.
Yeah. Every weekday. So I took the weekends off. It was five stories a week. And I loved it. I really plunged into it. But the weird thing was, about two or three months into it, I had a couple of very significant personal setbacks. And I decided to continue with the Daily Fiction Project despite these setbacks, because I thought, I had a hunch, that when you combine creativity with personal tragedy, that the creativity can help you through the personal tragedy. But also that the personal aspects can really deepen and make more interesting your creative work as well.
So I went through this process for eight months. By the eighth month, I was getting really desperate for ideas, as you can imagine. And I started really having to dig deeper than I ever thought possible.
And I thought back – it was story 151 – I thought back to a story I had been told by my creative writing instructor, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, at Melbourne Uni in first year uni, in a creative writing class I did at the time. And the story was very simple. I can remember it vividly because it really struck me so hard at the time. I was 18. And he came in one day and he said, I just read a marvellous story. It's about a ship that discovers an island. And on this island, the people can cross from one body to another, and by the time this ship sails away you don't know who's left and you don't know who's gone.
And I remember hearing that story and thinking, having that feeling that I wish I had come up with that. Because that's what I want to do.
But out of a sense of propriety, I never really followed up on that. Even though that story came to my mind many times in the intervening period.
But eventually, by story 151 of the Daily Fiction Project, I said, to hell with it. I'm going to write my own version of that story. And I'm going to attribute it at the bottom of the story. Which I did.
But the following day, I was thinking about it and I realised, it was obvious and I had never thought of this before, the real story, the most interesting story, begins when that ship sails away. And any islanders that have crossed with sailors, when they sail away on that ship, what happens to them? What's their journey? And it was from, at that moment, that crossing, it just kind of fell into place in a series of visions, you might call it, that occurred in the space of a day or two.
Wow. And how did you feel? Because obviously you realised something amazing was happening. Or converging together to create something that was greater than the sum of its parts. So how did you feel that day?
It was monumental. My life changed. And I realised that what I had been looking for for 25 years had finally come to me and that I'd had to dig so deep to find it. But I really fell in love with the idea. It was like a profound life-changing moment.
Wow. So you have this idea though. Now an idea can just stay an idea. You obviously took it to the next stage. What did you tell yourself you had to do? Or did you have some kind of plan, then, after you realised this is the thing I need to act on? Because it's so easy to not act on it.
Well, so remember that I had written 150 stories for the Daily Fiction Project before that.
As well as the countless other projects I've written in the 25 odd years that I've wanted to be a writer before that even, including a database of ideas that I've kept with hundreds of ideas. So in a sense, Crossings is not my 151st idea, it might well be my 400th idea or my 500th idea.
So I'd had a lot of training. I was 40 at this point. I mean, I had gone through this lifelong process. A quarter-century of looking and digging and trying and experimenting and failing. Failing over and over again.
And I think that what that meant was when I came across Crossings, I had an utter conviction in the idea. I knew it was right. I don't know, but I told everybody about it. I don't know what they thought. The must-have thought I was mad. The conventional wisdom is you don't talk about your projects while you're doing them. I told everybody! I never doubted Crossings for a moment.
Wow. But at that point, you had not… You had the premise. But you had not yet decided on the format. So that came later.
Yes, that's true. Well, not really. So as part of the Daily Fiction Project, I'd been working on another kind of… So what happened with the Daily Fiction Project is that I started experimenting with overlapping stories, intersecting stories. I started creating a kind of labyrinth of stories.
And one of those stories that had several chapters in it, I guess or had stories within stories, was about the final days and hours of the life of Walter Benjamin, the German writer who committed suicide running away from the Nazis in 1940.
And I must say I'm not the first writer to have been interested in this. And it does exert a certain fascination over some writers. And there are at least two novels that I know of that have been written on that subject. So it's a good thing I didn't tackle that subject on its own.
But what I was able to do when I had the idea of Crossings was to kind of integrate with this idea of the death of Walter Benjamin. And the reason why that worked was because Walter Benjamin was fascinated with Charles Baudelaire. And so it meant that in a sense, in terms of the chronology of the back story, I had my beginning in 1791 with the ship discovering the island, I had my ending with the death of Walter Benjamin in 1940. And suddenly I had my middle with Charles Baudelaire.
And of course, I was familiar with Angela Carter's great story “Black Venus,” which is about Charles Baudelaire's muse, Jeanne Duval. So I knew that there was a great love story there between those two, and a very complicated love story between those two. And so suddenly it all kind of came together in that sense. I was able to kind of create this figure of eight story, if you like, with those three nodes connecting them.
So how far into your first draft were you before you decided that you were going to do it this way? That you were going to change the format from a conventional format?
I was probably well into my 12th draft…
Yeah. So what happened was I went, I left Australia for a number of years to go and live in the US and France to write the novel, for a whole host of reasons. Mostly personal. But I'm glad I did that. I don't think I could have written this novel if I'd stayed in Australia, because so much research was involved.
But as I said earlier, I wrote it like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, in the sense that it was three stories that were mixed up together.
And then I finished a draft. It almost killed me. I was physically and financially spent. And I came back to Australia with this draft, which was very rough. And I shopped it around everywhere to anyone who would care to have a look at it. And I was rejected by everybody.
This was still in the conventional format at this point?
This was in the conventional format, yes. So in the Cloud Atlas style, if you like.
And then so I went back to the States and decided to do another draft. I thought, well, okay, it's not good enough. And it was while I was doing that draft, which was by this stage it's been six or seven years since I've started this. So this was about two or three years ago. So it was about two-thirds of the way into the process. That's when I had the idea of doing the two sequences.
And it was at that point that the novel began to attract some interest. I was able to get it to Picador Australia, who you can't pitch to directly. But through a friend, Chris Womersley, to whom I'm deeply indebted. And they took it on.
And at the same time, I got an agent in New York. A highly respected agent over there, who also took it on. Just off the slush pile.
So I think it was the format conceit of the double sequence that started to get it the attention that it didn't get previously.
So I have to ask, on a practical level, on your 13th or whatever it is draft where you decide, I'm going to change the format – what did you then have to do? How did you actually break it down so that it would all fit together? It would all make sense. Did you use index cards, Trello boards? On a practical level, can you describe how you made it all work? Because it's complex.
It is complex. But it's actually… I was lucky because I'd already written in this mixed-up way where you had a chapter from one story… Oh, let me be a bit more clear. Let's say, chapter one from story one, chapter one from story two, chapter one from story three, and in that kind of sequence.
So it was already very complicated. All I had to do was kind of extract all the chapters and bundle them together. And really that's all I did. I didn't at that point make any effort.
What happened was later, when Mathilda Imlah began – who is the publisher at Picador – began really engaging with the manuscript, she brought up all these issues that she had and I had to, at that point… So it's gone through a couple more drafts since then. So it's probably on its 14th or 15th draft now. I mean, I've lost count.
But I had to rewrite the middle section, “The City of Ghosts” section. I had to really do deep dive rewrites on several chapters in “The Tales of the Albatross” section to really make it work.
And it's been two years since Picador took it up. And in that time, it's gone through, it's had a lot of work. So this was a slow process. But the initial idea of making it readable in two different directions didn't require a huge amount of work.
Okay. So, I just want to make it clear to listeners that the complexity is not, as a reader, it's not a complex reading experience. It's an enjoyable reading experience. But on the back end, because I'm always thinking about how it's created, I kept wondering, you know, how does this all work?
So what's your feedback from readers? Because it can be read in one of two ways: a conventional way, and a way where you jump around. So what has been your feedback from readers as to which way they've chosen to read it?
It's really interesting. I can't tell just yet how many people are choosing to follow the Baroness sequence. Mathilda did fear, initially, that most readers would choose not to read the Baroness sequence. But at this point, I'm getting the sense that people are going 50/50. So I'm not sure. And I'm looking forward to seeing what people think.
I have really made an effort with the setup of the book, if you like, to encourage readers to take up the Baroness sequence. So the Baroness sequence is the name I've given in the book to the sequence where you hop around.
And I explain that in a preface. And in the preface, I present myself not as a Melbourne-based writer but as a Parisian bookbinder. And in the bio of the book, I extend the fiction to the bio of the book, where I say Alex Landragin is a Parisian bookbinder. And I did that – and I even dedicated the book to the Baroness who is a fictional character in the book – and I did that because I wanted to really get people into the concept from the get-go and to encourage them to read the Baroness sequence. It's a slightly more challenging method of reading, but I think it's a more rewarding method of reading as well.
I think also the choice you make must say something about you as well. I suspect.
No doubt! Well, yes. And the other thing too is that I think that both sequences have their own tonal qualities. So that I suspect that if you read it conventionally, what you get is, what is foregrounded is the puzzle aspect of the book, where you have to kind of construct the back story from these quite disparate clusters of information that you're given. Whereas if you read it in the Baroness sequence, as the name suggests, what is foregrounded more in the Baroness sequence is the romantic aspects of the story.
Now you have described this as a 25-year journey. And it's one that you haven't wavered from. You knew from when you were young, a teenager, that you wanted to be a writer. A) what sustains you to continue pursuing your dream? And b) if you could just give us some idea, a potted history of your career so we know what you did alongside what you're writing?
Right. What sustains me in what sense?
To keep ongoing. Because you said that you've written a lot, you said you've had failures, you've had some rejections. What kept you going?
Well, everything you could imagine. To me, being a writer it's my life, it's my identity. But also, I'm… It's such a big question, you know. I could answer you in so many different ways. I think failure is part and parcel of writing. And failure is part and parcel of living. And if you want to be a writer and you give up after a couple of years then I would suggest, with all respect, that perhaps you didn't really want to be a writer in the first place.
So being a writer is, to me, like being a ninja warrior. It's a life. It's an existence. It's a calling. It's a vocation. And it's a privilege and a blessing. And a huge form of wealth.
And a lot of people have given their lives over to writing. It's a huge thing. So you don't give up if you fail after year five or year ten. I believe you just keep going. You keep going until you find something great. And even if you never find something great, you keep going anyway. Because you are in a huge ocean of poetry and beauty and struggle and all of those things.
When you were in the depths of your manuscript – or no, it doesn't even have to be actually this manuscript. I mean, when you're in the depths of writing when you're fully focused on a particular project, what's your typical day like? When you've got an end goal? Like, you want to finish this manuscript, you want to finish a particular story. Do you have a particular routine? Or a word count goal? Or anything like that?
No. I thrive on chaos.
So every day is different. And actually I've learned that if things get too repetitive I get stale. So I find that I have to move around. Like I'll find a new workspace, for example. I might find a new library and get really excited about it and a huge amount of energy will come out of the novelty of the place.
And then I'll get stale after a certain amount of time. I never know how long it will take to get stale. And so what I found, writing this book, what I found to be really energising was not just moving from workplace to workplace within the one city, but moving from country to country and from city to city. And I must have written this book in about five different places. And I think the energy of all those places can be felt in the novel when you read it in that sense.
And now that this is out, are you already working on your next thing? And if so, what is it?
Ah, no I'm not. So to go back to your previous question, you said what sustains me. Well, I've been lucky enough to have a career, a paid career, as a writer. I was a Lonely Planet writer for a long time. Currently, I'm a copywriter.
And I don't believe… I'm not sure that talking to me is a great way of learning how to go about the business of being a writer. Because I flout a lot of conventional wisdom. I don't believe you need to write every day to be a writer, for one thing.
And I think you need, instead of writing every day, which I've tried, and which didn't work for me, I would say, spend a lot of time thinking about what you're going to write and what your concept is and all that kind of stuff. Which is what I did. But everyone has their own method.
But as for what comes next, I have about six different projects I'd love to engage in. And to some degree, I'm waiting to see what happens with Crossings. Because I want to see what opportunities Crossings opens up for me. I could go in any one of a number of different directions and they're all really interesting.
But I think in this day and age, you have to be mindful of where is the point of connection between what you want to do and what the world wants to read.
Yep. That's a great point. How do you determine what that is?
Oh… I don't know. Like with Crossings, it was just intuitive and it was looking and digging and it was a falling in love experience.
So what I have in mind, what I would love to do, is a sequel to Crossings that is even wilder than the original. But whether or not the industry, the publishing and all that, is ready to accept an even wilder version of the novel I've just published is really not up to me. And if I was to… Before I launch into the three or four or five years process that would entail writing this sequel, I don't want to write on spec anymore. It's hard.
This one, I barely made it with my sanity and my health. I scraped through. I'm not sure I want to push myself to those kinds of limits again on spec.
Sure. When you say you want it to be wilder, do you mean wilder in terms of the premise or the format?
Well… Yeah, both.
Yeah. What I have in mind is probably wilder in both senses. It would be, for example, most sequels will take up the story of the characters in the original. In the sequel that I have in my mind at the moment, I'm thinking of a story that actually tells the story of what happened to the manuscript Crossings after it disappeared in 1940 to the moment of its publication in 2019.
Wow. That would be cool.
Yeah. It would be cool. But, you know, as I say, it's out there. And it's even possible that the characters in the original, if they appear, would only appear in a background sense and we'd only get a sense of their presence rather than actually following what happened to those characters.
And then I have a third instalment which would be set in the near future. And I have about four or five other projects as well that are also pretty exciting. So as to what happens next, I'm waiting for destiny to give me a sign.
I'm pretty sure this is going to happen. I have a feeling.
But let me just circle back to you do work as a copywriter. You've done travel guides for Lonely Planet, as you've mentioned. Do you need to quarantine your kind of writing in the course of your day? Or can you easily switch between this and fiction? Between say travel guides and fiction? Or copywriting for a client and fiction?
Oh, that's a good question. When I decided I would be a writer, I decided to go all in. Which meant that even though I could have studied something else, for example, a lot of people might study law, I decided that I would go all in so that I couldn't back out.
Because I knew to decide to become a writer the way that I did when I was a teenager is a slightly suicidal kind of decision. My mother, for example, when I told this, being an Armenian she wanted me to be a lawyer. She said, when you are 40 you are going to be poor, mad and bitter.
And you know, the funny thing is that she was right. When I was 40, I was poor, mad and bitter. But what she didn't realise, what she didn't tell me is that life goes on after 40 and things can change.
But I thought, no. It was an act of rebellion at that stage and I went all in. So what that meant was that I studied arts, I studied English. And I came out, I didn't really have any skills, but I was lucky enough to graduate from Uni at the zenith of the great age of travel guides. Whether I was any good, I don't know. I think what I do best is write novels like Crossings. But I was good enough at it to create a career for myself.
And I think the fundamental principles of writing don't change. You need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of your reader. And with Crossings, it's exactly the same thing.
So at the moment, for example, in my day job, I call myself a UX writer. A UX writer is involved in the nitty-gritty of creating user experiences for people online. And it's all about putting yourself in the shoes of the reader.
But for Crossings, it was the same thing. I wanted to give readers of Crossings a unique experience that they won't get anywhere else. Which is what they have now. But creating that was also about putting yourself in the shoes, in the body – like almost literally a crossing – you have to put yourself in the body of the reader and try to orchestrate an experience for them. A strong enriching beautiful poetic experience.
Wonderful. Well, you have done exactly that. So good luck with the book. I'm sure you don't need it. But thank you so much for talking to us today, Alex.
Thank you for listening, Valerie.