Today is a muggy Melbourne day that threatens with sunshine and rain, yet inside St Kilda café Galleon, fans sweep cold air and Ella Fitzgerald croons smooth and slow from the radio. Today, I’m meeting writer Bram Presser, who arrives on the dot of 3.30, folds a bookmark into ‘The Standing Chandelier’ by Lionel Shriver, orders a green juice and sits down to talk.
Bram has been many things. He was a university lecturer, a criminal lawyer, the lead singer of punk rock band Yidcore and the subject of a painting for the Archibald Prize. Yet through it all Bram has always been a writer. “All through my twenties, I travelled around the world making music” says Bram, “it was a fun, bonkers time – ten years of hurling myself around a stage with my friends, but what I loved the most was writing lyrics. After the band broke up in 2009, the planets sort of aligned, and I started writing seriously.” In 2011, Bram won ‘The Age’ Short Story Award with ‘Crumbs’, which would later come to form the prologue to his novel, ’The Book of Dirt.’”
A couple of streets away from where we are lies the Glenfern Writers’ Studio, a gothic mansion with cream walls and red curtains, surrounded by a garden of pine trees. In 2016, Bram was awarded a Studio Fellowship to Glenfern by Writers Victoria. “Glenfern was my own little corner of the world” Bram tells me, “a monastery – this Spartan spare room I got to cover with Post-It notes. I lived a writing life there, very peaceful, very secluded, just my laptop and me.” It was here that Bram finished ‘The Book of Dirt’, a personal, passionate, heart-aching book that took him almost eight years to write.
The book focuses on Bram’s grandparents, Jakub and Dasa Rand, survivors under Nazi rule of the Second World War, whose stories, he found out after they died, were not as he had believed. “I wanted to protect the legacy polluted by hearsay. I needed to discover the truth.” ‘The Book of Dirt’ was released by Text Publishing in September 2017. “I've always dreamed of having the ‘t’ on the spine of my book, and I consider myself fortunate that Text saw something in what I was doing and believed in me enough to bring me on board. Writing is lonely and hard – it’s a strangely foreign world, putting yourself out there, but everyone at Text gets it, and they really care. It’s a beautiful family.”
On writing, Bram is passionate and obsessed: “Once I’m hooked on something, I need to discover everything about that thing. I fixate on ideas, go hell for leather.” His biggest tip for writers is to write books that they would like to read, books that haven’t been written yet, books to be proud of no matter who reads it. “Never get caught up in what the book means or is, be true to yourself and don’t be railroaded into doing things you don’t like.” Reading, for writers, is essential. Bram tells me he reads “a ridiculous number of books”: two hundred to three hundred a year. He reads while he walks; “There are many occupational hazards, walking into streetlights being one of them, but it’s a compulsion and we’re lucky in Melbourne to have some of the best bookshops and booksellers in the world. Why wouldn’t you want to get lost in a good book?”
Bram tells me that the Victorian writing community has been paramount to his process. “It’s a supportive, friendly community where everyone is genuinely happy for each other’s successes. Best of all, it’s far from an ‘exclusive club’; if you are genuine, you work hard and you are producing good work then the community will embrace you.” A perfect example is Arnold Zable, who Bram calls his unofficial writing mentor. Arnold has always been supportive and generous with his time and advice. “He told me that writers are like sculptors,” Bram says. “We cast the stone and then we just have to chip away. It’s okay for it to take time. When you’re spending eight years on a single work, feeling like you’re going nowhere, advice like that is gold.”
Soon, he’s set to work on a second novel, one that won’t involve eight years of research. But for now, Bram’s life after ‘The Book of Dirt’ is occupied with a different kind of fulfilment. He shows me pictures of his baby daughter on his phone – she has wide green eyes and her hair has been styled into a mini rocker mohawk. “She’s a ripper,” Bram tells me. “I’m soaking up the wonder.”
The waiters in Galleon are politely stacking chairs on tables around us. The radio has been switched off. Outside, there’s a sun shower. Bram slides Lionel Shriver’s book off the table. He reckons it’s the sixtieth book he’s read this year, because he’s been busy with his book and his baby. He’s enjoying it, but is hungry to read more. We say goodbye and he walks out into the afternoon with the book open. As he goes, I think of his daughter, grown up, reading her Dad’s first novel, a book to be immensely proud of.
The Book of Dirt is published through Text Publishing and is available at all good bookstores now for $32.99
About Clare Rankine
Clare Rankine is a graduate from The University of Melbourne Creative Writing School and is working on a book of short stories. You can read her work at clarerankine.com