On the night of January 16, 2012, Maria Tumarkin and I were at Melbourne's Athenaeum theatre to see Ira Glass, the American colossus who bestrides radio, practically invented podcasting, and preaches the gospel of the power of storytelling perhaps more enthusiastically and persuasively than anyone alive.

Tumarkin and I weren't there together - it was only last week I discovered she'd been there at all. I was there with my girlfriend. We were in Melbourne on holiday. Tumarkin lives there. I don't know who she was at the Athenaeum with. It doesn't really matter.

It had been a hot day and it was a lovely night. I know that because after the show my girlfriend and I left the theatre and walked down to fancy, starchy, celebrity chef restaurant Ezard where we ate a degustation dinner that left us so full she didn't particularly want to go on the post-dinner walk I suggested, along the banks of the Yarra River.

Never mind, we went anyway. We walked for a long time, a strangely long time, an unnecessarily long time. It was late - 10.30pm? 11pm? - but there were a lot of people still out: mostly spectators leaving the Australian Open, but also regular strollers, the restless, the homeless, the romantic, the bored.


I waited and waited for an opportunity but it seemed it would never come. My girlfriend was talking and talking about some triviality and there were so many people and why wasn't it more romantic than I'd imagined? The city centre started to recede and if we'd walked any further we would have ended up God knows where, so finally I told her to stop and I got down on both knees and I asked and she said yes.

Where was Maria Tumarkin while my wife and I were getting engaged? What was she thinking about? Why am I telling you any of this?


We know some of the answers to some of these questions because of an article Tumarkin wrote two years later, in which she discussed her experience that evening at the Athenaeum: "I came out of the theatre that night feeling warm, fuzzy, and nodding all the way back to Elsternwick," she wrote.

In the article, in Australia's Griffith Review, she quotes Ira Glass describing story as, "the back door into the deepest parts of us not accessible in other ways. Its power is not explicable to rational analysis, it is far more animal, far deeper, far more pre-rational. Narrative 'gets to us' in ways that other things don't."

She loved that, loved Glass, loved his famed radio show This American Life, couldn't get enough of its stories. In her prior life as an academic historian, she'd employed the methods of storytelling in her writing as an act of resistance: "I just felt that the writing I was expected to do was very dead and the way to make it alive would actually be through narrative."

NPR's Ira Glass. Photo / Getty Images.
NPR's Ira Glass. Photo / Getty Images.

When I interviewed her last week, in advance of her appearance at next month's Auckland Writers Festival, she told me the story of an academic conference she'd attended where people were presenting, "highly structured, very rigorous" research papers, and then she got up and told a story instead. "I felt like a real revolutionary, and I just thought the air in the room changed," she told me.

But that conference took place years before the Griffith Review article, in which she took issue with Glass's claim that "A story is like a train going to a station". Her own depiction of a story: "sometimes, and increasingly, it can feel like a tank crushing all sorts of things under its tracks. Something in the way the form pushes itself onto the experience; something about how the obligatory reflection framing the story often feels subtly untrue."



This American Life starts each week with Glass describing its format with the following words, or ones like them: "Each week on our programme we choose a theme and bring you a variety of stories on that theme."

Tumarkin's new book of nonfiction, Axiomatic, is told in five chapters, each of which starts with an axiom [let's call it a theme] like "Time heals all wounds" and brings us a variety of [if not stories, then what?] on that axiom.

There are stories, of course - she doesn't hate stories; she's not an idiot; she knows their power - but they are not stories in the Glassian sense, which is to say they're not a series of events leading to the crucial moment Glass calls a "moment of reflection" and which he says requires saying to your audience, "here's why the hell you're listening to the story. Here's the point of the story. Here's the bigger something that we're driving at. Here's why I'm wasting your time with all this."

Stories in the Glassian sense require their events to lead to meaning. The problem with meaning is that well-practised storytellers can always find it, even when it doesn't exist. "A series of events does not always have a meaning" is itself a moment of reflection.

In Axiomatic\, stories appear and disappear. They interact with the axiom because they are juxtaposed with it, but they aren't there to prove or disprove it, or to tell you, necessarily, why they're wasting your time. Interesting, well-rounded characters, who are also real people, are present in each chapter, they act and react, but they don't exist within narrative arcs. They are sometimes confronted with obstacles, but those obstacles do not necessarily force them to undergo growth, transformation and realisation.

If not story, then what? Tumarkin thinks out loud, uses reported quotes and extensive literary references, she complains, sympathises with and advocates for her characters, she chastises herself and she entertains doubt. She is not in combat, exactly, with the notion of story, but you can feel her active rejection of its desperate pull.

The problem with meaning is that well-practised storytellers can always find it, even when it doesn't exist.

We live in a world so in thrall to storytelling that it's now a mainstay of the corporate conference industry, that brands are said to "tell stories", that politicians talk of the importance of narrative, that architects describe themselves as storytellers.

Tumarkin's previous book, Otherland, which stuck more closely to the traditional narrative arc - Tumarkin takes her Australian-born daughter to Russia, where she lived until she was 15, hoping her daughter will learn something - was marketed by her then-publisher as a motherhood memoir and released in time for Mother's Day.

Tumarkin hated that. The mother-daughter narrative was just a frame for a book which drew in big thoughts about history, friendship, home, nostalgia, art and whatnot. She later wrote an article about that publishing experience in the Sydney Review of Books. It was headlined "Against Motherhood Memoirs" and contained the line, "I was deflated by my book about everything being so categorically and swiftly reframed as a motherhood memoir."

This is how her new publisher is marketing Axiomatic: "A boundary-shifting fusion of thinking, storytelling, reportage and meditation." Another possible way of describing it: Life is about the journey, not the destination.


Here is a story, in the Glassian sense: We start with a character who is using stories to foment academic revolution, who then begins to look more closely at what she's doing, comes to suspect it of being inauthentic, begins to disdain it, and is finally transformed - to the point she now says this:

"Narrative? That's the fundamental condition of being human? Bullshit."

Another story in the Glassian sense: Axiomatic took Tumarkin nearly nine years to write, an astonishingly long time in a world in which publishers perceive a book a year as good practice. She wrote about suicide, particularly young people's suicides, at such length, in such depth, spending time in such close quarters with people affected by it so deeply, and was so deeply affected by it herself, partly because she's a mother of two young people, that she had to put it aside for long periods.

Her publisher dropped her. She took yet more years, so long that one of her most important characters went off and published her own biography, meaning she had to scrap 20,000 words from that chapter and start again.

What she eventually produced was a book dealing with a bunch of objectively awful subjects: not just suicide, but sexual abuse, kidnapping, the separation of children from parents, substance abuse, the holocaust.

She was told by people who had long been in the publishing industry that the book was too unfriendly to readers, that it asked too much of them. She didn't care. She is now not just a writer but also a teacher of creative non fiction - at the University of Melbourne - and she is therefore professionally required to think extensively about the form. What she did with Axiomatic was allow the material she'd gathered to dictate the book's shape. She says: "I cannot force the material to do something that it doesn't want to do."

She would not have had the confidence to do this earlier in her life, she says now, to stick to her principles in the face of publisher doubt, to take nearly nine years to produce her book in the face of publisher pressure.

She was told, and she came to believe, that Axiomatic would not find enough readers, that it would not sell, but months after its release it has already sold more than Tumarkin's previous three books put together and it is the reason she will be appearing next month in three sessions at the Auckland Writers Festival.

She reflected on this unexpected success thus: "I think that readers are much smarter, much more prepared to work, much more prepared to go into dark and difficult places. They deserve much more respect for who they are and what they're looking for. That has been my brilliant, heartening discovery."

I told her that this was a strong narrative about staying true to one's ideals and morals.

She laughed. "You have to destroy it!" she said. "You have to unsee it!" Although she was laughing, she may also have been shifting uncomfortably in her seat. I can't say for sure because we were talking on the phone.


In November 2012, less than a year after my wife and I had sat in Melbourne's Athenaeum listening to Glass' story diktats, we were wed in a ceremony in West Auckland. We have been married now for seven years and we have three children and no real problems to speak of.

Maria Tumarkin will be at the Auckland Writers Festival from May 17-19. writersfestival.co.nz