Cover of Letters from Byron
Letters from Byron
Jim Williams

will stir the most lethargic imagination

Philipa Burgess, The Canberra Times
enigmatic, yet strangely satisfying, tales

Fiona Capp, The Age

Edgar Allen Poe in sandals
Gerald Ross, Imago

Down to
Book Description
Book Sample

Williams biography Next title
Previous title
Home page
All publications

Book Description
Jim Williams’ letters, written over a period of eighteen months to friends, acquaintances and antagonists, reveal his natural talent as a storyteller. Setting out to detail the day-to-day life amongst the humal flotsam and jetsam of Byron Bay he discovers unexpected tales: the mysterious influence of the Lighthouse, Pedro’s Gaucho history, the uncanny Beach Burial, the sinister Carers or the powerful Dice-thrower. He intrigues, jokes with, disquiets and enchants his addressees.

It is almost unprecedented that a writer’s letters are published within his own lifetime. Jim Williams’ letters could not await his death. Their sheer humour and their pleasures are too compelling.

ISBN 187604408X
Published 1997
129 pgs
Letters from Byron book sample

Back to top


November 3 (The Ledgers)
November 29 (The Lighthouse)
January 5 (The Old Masters)
February 11 (The German Couple)
March 11 (The Yiralinga)
April 24 (Pedro
s History)
May 31 (The Dice-thrower)
June 5 (Some Old Letters)
July 4 (The Intellector)
July 17 (The Carers)
July 26 (Accuser)
August 14 (Identifit)
September 28 (The Bikers)
October 5 (Whale Watchers)
October 28 (A Walk at Night)
November 30 (The Afternoon and the Shadows)
December 23 (A Beach Burial)
January 19 (Feral Hitchhiker)
February 3 (The Sacrifice)
March 15 (The Lovers
April 1 (The Doctor
s Children)
April 19 (Gubba)
June 16 (The Mute Woman)
July 11 (The Other One)

Back to top


The Seductive Microcosm
Jennifer Maiden
Overland, No. 150, Autumn 1998

Australian critics are often charmed by the combination of modest scope and sumptuous detail. The details in themselves need not be trivial. They can be about migraines, mountains, melons or misalliances. But they must be sharp, sensuous and original, and their larger context must not be ambitious. Broken or wistful love affairs, dull jobs, lifeless marriages, ‘small’ people trapped uncomprehending in large wars or the results of large wars seem permissible. Characters or authorial personae who think, strain or question too far beyond the initial philosophy of their writer or reader seem open to literary suspicion.

The reverence for detail is reinforced by the natural tendency of people in shock, mistrust or mourning to partialize their sense-data into manageable portions, to notice only bits and pieces of things and to notice those with an increased brilliance of perception. To question such processes can seem almost sacrilegious at times. When I received this miscellany of recent Australian writing, I expected the books to rate very high in wonderful sense-data and rather lower in surprising concepts or situations. The word ‘high’ is applicable, too, because fixation on bright details is also characteristic of most forms of intoxication (as it is of childhood and prison).

One suspects, too, of course, that (despite the undoubted compensations - as in Borges - of enforced metaphor) there is an element of sexual evasiveness in some of the splendid evocation. Even in Patrick White’s novels, the powerful settings might have dwindled in perspective to personality had his central characters not been the rather one-dimensional Mrs Roxburgh and Mrs Godbold but someone like the rather more voluptuous and much more multi-dimensional Mr Munday.

Many of these current books, too, have powerful Australian settings.

The oddest is Letters from Byron, in which the seductive locale of Byron Bay serves as a ready made backdrop for what are essentially tight, tense epistolary fictions in which the reader is made to understand more about the nature of the events - usually scientifically impossible and occasionally simply illegal - than the narrator ostensibly does, As short stories, the ones illustrating straightforward indignation at ‘idealistic’ social experiments I think work best, but the self-consciousness of the autobiographical device as such makes the narratives seem much more contrived than they really are. This author deserves to relax into the luxury of third person characterization and the full freedom of fiction.

Back to top

New Writing
Gerard Ross
Imago, Vol. 10, No. 1, Autumn 1998

Whether the letters in Jim Williams’s Letters from Byron were ever genuine letters (does anyone actually write to a friend Byron, the eternally green and bountiful, with its rich pastures and tropical orchards...?) or whether the presentation itself is a fiction is not especially relevant here. For each letter is, in fact, a bizarre or macabre apocrypha wrapped around a warmly observed vignette of Byron Bay life - sort of an Edgar Allen Poe in sandals. Surprisingly - and, I must add, fortunately - most of the letters express bemusement and gentle mockery of the New Age orthodoxies of the area.

It’s all quite pleasant and distracting, but is it a book worth publishing? There are a lot of ideas running through it; however, the choice to run these stories as letters restricts the whole to a meandering collection of half-formed starting points. There is some good stuff in here and the letters probably would be fun to find in your post box, but... Black Pepper would have done well to have encouraged the author to develop these notes into something more substantial.

Back to top
Tom Sharpe in Byron Bay?
Letters from Byron
Paddy Ryan
Social Alternatives, Vol. 17, No. 1, January 1998

In Letters From Byron, Jim Williams exhibits a sketch of one of Australia’s favourite destinations for those who wish to pursue an alternative lifestyle. This sketch is in the form of a series of short ‘letters’ written to friends, most of whom seem to be based in Melbourne’s café culture. The stories are short and simple enough to read over a café latté in a chic espresso bar and give a sense of the pace of life in Byron Bay and some of its more colourful fringe dwellers and local entrepreneurs. The tales he spins are sometimes reminiscent of the bizarre short stories by Peter Carey.

The author appears ambivalent towards some of his more alternative characters. Often, his judgement of these characters becomes antagonistic, similar to the cynicism seen in P.J. O’Rourke’s stories. However, there is a sense that the author is ultimately sympathetic to his characters and their causes. Indeed, he may even be one of them himself.

During those moments in Letters From Byron when the author is at ease, the reader is reminded of another comic writer. As he relaxes into his role as story teller, the riotous antics and vaudevillian frivolity of the likes of Tom Sharpe can be seen in his character development. In these instances, his potential as a teller of tales shines through and the reader is left wishing for more.

However, throughout the book there is often a sense of self consciousness. Sometimes parts of some of the stories seem far too wordy. There are also occasions where the stories become bogged down in the technicalities of the subject. For example, in one story the author concentrates on the use of the internet and computers as a focus for his ideas. Rather than exploring the story’s central characters in more detail, he labours over lengthy explanations of his understanding of how the technology works. For a while it seems as though one is reading a beginner’s text on the theory of computing and the internet. It is only after this brief lesson that he rejoins the essence of his story. In this case, one with lots of imagination on and potential.

At times, it is not until near the end of a story that the pace picks up and then within a dozen paragraphs the colourful ideas quickly form but end prematurely. Just as a story becomes interesting and gathers momentum, usually in a bizarre kind of way, the reader is left up in the air only to imagine what might have developed.

A particular favourite was ‘The German Couple’ story in which the author describes an out of body experience. Whilst visiting a mysterious ‘new age’ couple’s house somewhere in the Byron region, the author tells of a mystical and disturbing experience while in a trance. The story begins with a cynical view of all things not scientifically based. However, by the end of the story, the author is bedazzled by his experiences and can only wonder at what might be.

Overall, a light and easy read. A good companion while biding your time over an aromatic cappuccino in your favourite café.

Back to top
Letters From Byron
Andrea Moss
Australian Book Review, No. 197, December 1997/January 1998

‘There always seems to be a fine line between the real and the unreal, especially here on the North Coast’. So writes Jim Williams to a friend ‘down South’.

This slim volume of letters is written from colourful Byron Bay and surrounds, where he leads a somewhat nomadic existence among eclectic Byronites. The letters form a window into Williams’ life, the oddities of Byron Bay, and the bizarre experiences that Williams finds himself having: which may or may not be figments of his imagination.

The mysterious yiralinga, Artificial Intelligence experiments, animal sacrifices, out-of-body experiences, toughs in search of valuable Argentinian manuscripts, ethereal people who disappear without a trace... all are treated with Williams’ entertaining description and detail.

Each letter details the strange twists and turns of the episodes and escapades, merging a spectrum of topics with storytelling, myth-making, spirituality, local history, science and even social commentary. And each letter ends with a decidedly fanciful twist and a lurking sinister tone. We are left to come to our own conclusion about what portion of each story exists solely in the letter-writers imagination: if any.

While light-hearted and humorous, there is a tone of underlying cynicism about the Byron Bay ethos, and its ultimate superficiality and emptiness. The letters become more enjoyable and engaging as the book progresses, and have a cumulative effect of drawing the reader into Williams’ curious world: ‘Even I wonder what sort of world I live in up here’.

Back to top

Phillipa Burgess
The Canberra Times, December 1997

If you haven’t been to Byron Bay and want a taste of café society, or you just have a nostalgic yen for the counter-culture of the ‘70s, Jim Williams’s Letters from Byron may motivate you to pack your-bags and board the next bus north.

Williams is a prolific letter writer and a great storyteller. His letters to friends and acquaintances provide detailed observations of the tourists and townsfolk that frequent the shores of this NSW coastal retreat and they will stir the most lethargic imagination.

His descriptions of the mundane and seemingly insignificant activity which occur in Byron Bay are intriguing. Williams’s scepticism and tongue-in-cheek detective approach to his subjects engages the reader as he sifts through clues and follows every new lead, excited by the prospect of solving some of the mysterious happenings in Byron Bay. We don’t always find out whodunit, but the investigation into the behaviour of Byronites as they embrace life and the New Age philosophies of the ’90s, while having their collective feet planted firmly in the ’70s, is stimulating summer reading.

Back to top

Paperbacks: Letters From Byron
Fiona Capp
The Age 16 August 1997

As you might expect from a correspondent in Byron Bay, these letters are not so much conventional despatches so much as tall stories that begin with everyday events and veer off into the gothic or surreal. Through playful irony, Williams provides a beguiling commentary on Byron’s weird and wonderful cultural mix. The result is a series of enigmatic, yet strangely satisfying, tales: a biologist mysteriously disappears in the Big Scrub; the Grim Reaper visits a Byron cafe in the guise of a man in a black suit carrying a pair of dice. While these stories resonate with all sorts of subtle allusions to ‘old masters’, they never lose their informal, conversational quality.

Back to top

Paperbacks: Letters From Byron
Jo Martin
Star Weekend

There’s something deliciously forbidden about reading other people’s letters. From the comfort of anonymity, one can quietly disrobe the shrouded secrets of others. That’s why Letters From Byron, by Jim Williams is such a dainty morsel - especially for locals who may wonder as to the identity of some of the characters.

‘It is a collection of letters written to genuine people over a period of about 18 months,’ Mr Williams said. ‘It has only cost me one friend so far.’

....Jim Williams is best known for his poems, particularly haiku, that have appeared in magazines and journals everywhere. Mr Williams now lives at Bullarto, Victoria. But his heart still is in Byron Bay. ‘I lived in this area for about five years,’ he said. ‘Mainly in Suffolk Park, Ocean Shores and Lismore. I see this whole area as The Golden Triangle. People come here to live out their dream and that is reflected in all the companies you see around here.’

Letters From Byron is a close-up of a handful of these dreams set amid the day-to-day goings on around town. The joy of the letters is that it’s hard to tell where reality begins and ends. ‘I have always enjoyed writing letters but sometimes I get the feeling that they have managed to go far beyond my actual experiences. They began as letters but became stories,’ Mr Williams said. There’s the one about the uncanny beach burials, the sinister carers, and the mysterious influence of the lighthouse. Mr Williams weaves intriguing, funny, sometimes unsettling but delightful tales of the unexpected.

Back to top

Williams biography
Home page