wild colonial girl

A freelancer moves to Castlemaine

Festivals: Clunes Booktown, Sydney Writers’ Festival + how to approach them

Alex Miller, Castlemaine-based author and winner of Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Coal Creek, will feature at Clunes Booktown

Alex Miller, Castlemaine-based author and winner of Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Coal Creek, will feature at Clunes Booktown

Before I head into a general ramble about festivals, I’ll get the topical bit out of the way to say: yes, I am in! May is festival time so if you live in Sydney, Melbourne, or the regions surrounding me (Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine, etc), please come and see my fest debuts; it’s always nice to have bums on seats. And I always like to get audience questions from people I already know.

CLUNES BOOKTOWN, 3-4 MAY

This is one of my favourite festivals, where the beautiful old streets are taken over by second hand booksellers; a literary paradise. It’s a nice day trip from Melb or a fun weekender.

I’m excited to be including on the program, doing a session with graphic novelist Nicki Greenberg (where we push the boundaries of the novel), plus I’ll be pushing things even further when I head up on stage for the first time with my dad, Nigel Krauth, also an author (well, he did win the Vogel Award for his first novel Matilda My Darling and the NSW Premiers Literary Award for JF Was Here). We’ll be duelling light sabres and talking about how to write fathers and daughters and how we both get caught up in our own and shared fictions.

My sessions at Clunes:

Sat 3 May: 11.15-12.15, Pushing the Boundaries of the Novel, with Nicki Greenberg, Venue: Warehouse

Sun 4 May: 12.30-1.30, Writing the father Writing the daughter, with Nigel Krauth, Venue: Warehouse

The highly esteemed Alex Miller and Henry Reynolds will also be in attendance. Full programme is available here.

SYDNEY WRITERS’ FESTIVAL, 19 + 22 MAY

Felicity Castagna, Friday Night Fictions author, will be doing a session with me about first novels at Sydney Writers' Festival

Felicity Castagna, Friday Night Fictions author, will be doing a session with me about first novels at Sydney Writers’ Festival

One of the things I love about writers’ festivals these days is that they’re spreading like a virus out of the inner-urban into regional areas. I’m very excited to be appearing in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains (where just_a_girl is set) alongside another debut author Felicity Castagna (whose work appeared in Friday Night Fictions).

Again, city-dwellers could do a great day trip or locals will probably already have their tickets. Apparently they are selling well.

What I’m really keen on is that two of my favourite writers of the moment (Richard Flanagan – YES! – and Emma Donoghue) will also be in Katoomba. I’ll be staying at Varuna, the famous retreat for writers, so I’ll be able to suss it out before returning to hopefully work on the second novel at some point this year.

I never would have dreamed when I was about to launch my book that down the track I would be talking about marketing, but there you go. At Forest for the Trees, an all-day NSW Writers’ Centre seminar on the state of publishing, I’ll be hanging out with Kate Forsyth and discussing how you go about marketing novels, and how social media (and blogging) can help. I like to target these sessions to the modern introvert (like me) who can go a long way to promote their work without moving from their bedroom (except to get the occasional cup of tea).

My sessions at Sydney Writers’ Festival:

Here and Now: Debut Fiction, Monday 19 May, 10–11.10am, Carrington Hotel, Katoomba. (More info – tickets for session at venue or day passes available.)

Forest for the Trees: Writing and Publishing in 2014, how to publish and market a debut novel, Thursday 22 May, State Library of NSW, 10am–4.30pm. (More info – tickets available from SWF website.)

THE GENTLE ART OF APPROACHING WRITERS’ FESTIVALS

Richard Flanager, author of my fave book from last year, will also be appearing in Katoomba as part of the SWF

Richard Flanagan, author of my fave book from last year, will also be appearing in Katoomba as part of the SWF

I don’t tend to think of myself as naive, but if I’m being completely honest, perhaps I’m a bit more like my character Layla than I tend to admit.

Along the marketing ride (I mean gallop)  for just_a_girl, some things have taken me by surprise. One has been the notion of the writers’ festival.

Now I have been going to writers’ festivals since I was a child. My dad Nigel Krauth (see Clunes above) sometimes took me along to his sessions (I remember CUB Malthouse in Melbourne) and I’d watch with pride and awe as he read filthy passages that made me blush and roll my eyes, and fielded questions from the audience as if he was very important. In my twenties and thirties I attended many festivals as a reader, never in quite as much awe, but keen to glean as much know-how as I could, for the day when I would be a famous writer.

But back to earth. Writers’ festivals are quite hard to get into. I didn’t know this. I never did the maths (ie 10,000 aspiring writers does not equal 400 writers in festival program). I thought that once I had a novel published, there it was. I was a WRITER now. I wasn’t emerging any more. I was OUT. THERE. There’s this book in your hand. Anyone can see it. Feel free to programme me.

But no. Like anything else these days, it is no longer just about the book. It’s about the writer. And you have to sell your soul! I mean, your self. This is all about strategy. It’s taken me nearly a year to break into the festival circuit (since just_a_girl was published). Here are a few things that I’ve learnt so far that could help:

Tim Ferguson, author and DAAS (see earlier blog post), will be teaching comic writing at Sydney Writers' Festival

Tim Ferguson, author and DAAS (see earlier blog post), will be teaching comic writing at Sydney Writers’ Festival

1. You need to get in early. It’s good to think about approaching festivals pretty soon after the last one has finished. Not too soon … but.

2. The personal touch works. Don’t just send a media release with a review copy of your book. Write about you, what you’re about, why you wrote your book, how your angle differs from everyone else’s.

3. Offer to do extra stuff. Look you’ll get taken advantage of, but that’s the fucking industry all over, isn’t it! Offer to convene other sessions (if you’re the extroverted type) or blog about other sessions (more my style).

4. Try the regional angle. Of course everyone wants to get into Sydney and Melbourne and they have wonderful prestige and the chance to hobknob but in terms of promoting your books, you might get lost in the crowd…Look for festivals in your area (see Clunes Booktown again!) or check out online databases of literary festivals and try a smaller one that concentrates on your genre.

My good mate Walter Mason (Destination Cambodia) will be appearing with Stephanie Dowrick at Sydney Writers Festival

My good mate Walter Mason (Destination Cambodia) will be appearing with Stephanie Dowrick at Sydney Writers Festival

5. Rejection is hard. The difficult thing about being knocked back from festivals is if you focus on point 2 above, as you need to, it can start to feel personal. Not only does the festival not want the book, they can’t place you as a person either. But each festival director is different, looking for a new angle on old topics. Look at the program and see where you slot in. Try again next time. Try and find another writer working in a similar vein. Are they sexier than you? Good. Use them. Pitch as a team.

6. Look to the experts. I commissioned Angela Meyer, of LiteraryMinded fame, to write a terrific sum-up of how to appear at writers festivals for Newswrite magazine (NSW Writers’ Centre) because she’s been to loads. Her article has since been reproduced at ArtsHub so it’s a great starting point…

AND WHAT ABOUT YOU? DO YOU GO TO WRITERS FESTIVALS? WHICH ARE YOUR FAVOURITES — AS READERS OR WRITERS?

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Anthony Lawrence: poetry, passion and plagiarism

 

Anthony Lawrence, Blake Poetry Prize 2013 winner

Anthony Lawrence, Blake Poetry Prize 2013 winner

After leaving school at 16 to become a jackeroo, Anthony Lawrence decided with an almost grim determination to become a poet, teaching himself technique and mixing with other poets like Robert Adamson who greatly inspired his early work.

I first encountered Anthony pounding the streets at Clunes Booktown and my introduction to his writing was with The Welfare of My Enemy, an experimental and disturbing book-length poem looking from all-angles at missing persons: who they are, who stole them in the dark; why they return.

His most recent book is Signal Flare and you can read Judith Beveridge’s wonderful intro to this book (from the launch), which gives real insight into his practice and predilections.

He now lives in Queensland where he writes and teaches poetry.

I spoke to Anthony Lawrence after his poem ‘Appelations’ won the 2013 Blake Poetry Prize.* You can hear Anthony reading his winning poem on Radio National.

At what point did you decide you wanted to be a poet? Was it a gradual process or a struck-by-lightning moment?

There was no decision. My early childhood was fairly normal, although I do remember being called ‘different’. Poetry was never a part of it. I was a below average student in primary school, and at high school my efforts ebbed below the Plimsol line and stayed there. I hated school and many of the teachers. I can’t remember poetry being a part of any English lesson and, if it had been, then Mary MacKillop would no doubt have been dragged out, hence my inability to remember. It wasn’t until Year 10 at a rural boarding school, where I’d been sent for being uncontrollable (a potent variation on the word ‘different’) that poetry came sharply into focus.

Anthony Lawrence's The Welfare of My Enemy looks into the disturbing undercurrents of Missing Persons

Anthony Lawrence’s The Welfare of My Enemy looks into the disturbing undercurrents of Missing Persons

I’d discovered the novels of Alistair MacLean and Wilbur Smith, and I was in the library one night, checking the shelves. I strayed into the poetry section which from memory was quite extensive and (I know now) adventurous for a private boys’ school. I found a book called Rommel Drives On Deep Into Egypt by Richard Brautigan, which had a black and white photo of a man in a sad-looking hat playing in a child’s sand pit with a bucket and spade. I loved that the title and cover were completely at odds, and I sat down and started reading. Those poems were what I’d been hoping for all my life. They were strange, compelling, and moved me in a profound way. It was the first time I remember being involved with something that gave me a glimpse into the miraculous, even if I didn’t understand some of what Brautigan was saying. Poetry. Magic. Full immersion. I finished the book and went looking for others. The next book was Selected Poems by Leonard Cohen. Magic. Hurt. Delight. Confusion. Poems about sex and travel, longing and the writing life. I stole those books and kept them under my mattress. I devoured them. I was 15 and my life had changed forever.

After I was expelled from boarding school, I worked on a sheep station outside Jerilderie, in the Riverina. It was here that I started writing poetry, without any idea of what I was doing. I had my stolen books, a pen and writing pads. I wrote constantly and, when I came home to Sydney a few years later, my parents bought me a small Olivetti typewriter and I typed up all the bad and sentimental poems I’d written by hand over the years. They were concerned. I was much quieter, and writing poetry and reading it to anyone who’d listen. One afternoon I came home and mum told me she knew what I had to do to become a real poet. She handed me a piece of paper with a list, in her hand-writing, down the page:

Read poetry every day, whatever you can buy or borrow.

Write whenever you can.

Meet with other poets.

Clearly mum had had an epiphany that defied the wildest expectations. Then she told me that, while I was out, she’d gone through the Sydney White Pages phone book, looking for anything under P for Poetry. She found Poetry Society of Australia, and dialled the number. A man answered. She told him that she thought her son may well have become a poet, and she was worried about him. The man said, ‘Don’t worry, that’s wonderful.’ Then he gave mum his address and asked her to pass it on to me, that I should visit that week and there was going to be a poetry reading and film night. The man was Robert Adamson. I’d never met a real poet, and this news was just what I needed. So a few nights later I drove over to Lane Cove and was met by Cheryl Adamson, Robert’s wife. I could see a man on the carpet with wild black hair in a purple jumper, leaning over a large sheet of paper. Robert Adamson was designing the cover for an edition of New Poetry magazine.

That night the house was filled with poets. I met Robert, Dorothy Hewett, Nigel Roberts, Geoffrey Lehmann, Judith Beveridge, and the visiting American poet Robert Duncan. At the end of the night, Nigel Roberts came to me and said quietly: ‘You’re not going to know whether to curse or bless your mother for what she’s done, casting you into the lion’s den of Australian poetry. But my guess is you’ll thank her, and often.’

 Your poem won the Blake Poetry Prize (and a number of others were highlighted by the judges). Why did you decide to enter your poems?

I’d entered the Blake Poetry Prize twice before, with the poem from my second entry, ‘Winging It’, being short-listed. I loved that the Blake Prize for Religious Art was now including poetry as a vehicle for celebrating the religious, spiritual or sacred. And William Blake has been a major source of inspiration for me over the years. It was an easy decision.

Was your winning poem ‘Appellations’ written specifically for the awards, or a poem that was in gestation for a long time? Tell me how you came to write it.

‘Appellations’ was not written for the Blake Prize. It was begun six months earlier while riding a pushbike along the coastal path from Casuarina to Cabarita Beach. The first two lines arrived, fully formed, and they started changing as I pedalled, and I didn’t have a pen and paper, and my memory can’t be trusted. So I found a small stick, dug into the grocery basket, found the tin foil, ripped off a sheet, and carefully inscribed the lines with a splinter of watttle. At home I typed them up. Later, when I had to let the poem go, I decided to enter it into the Blake.

Anthony Lawrence's In the Half Light: a novel about the impact of schizophrenia

Anthony Lawrence’s In the Half Light: a novel about the impact of schizophrenia

How much of your poetry is about exploring spiritual themes, the big questions?

Many of my poems explore the spiritual or sacred elements of life, though rarely directly, and never with a singular focus. If I write about landscape or the natural world in general, I do so with one eye on the subject matter and one on the spaces between the pandanus palm, the pair of Brahminy kites, the dolphin pod and the headland. This is where the wellspring of magic and the ineffable live. They can’t be summoned at will, and tamed. They can be teased out into the open, and glimpsed, and from these rare sightings, we can try to define that which gives us the ghost-print of something sublime. The commonplace is riddled with amazement and stunning metaphors. We can train ourselves to find them, but it takes years and a willingness to work hard, in isolation, for long periods without goals or thoughts of success. Sounds very zazen, I know, but the similarities between meditation and writing poetry are vital and real, as is self-hypnosis.

You were an instrumental part of the discovery that award-winning poet Andrew Slattery was plagiarising other poets’ material. How did you initially make that discovery?

I was a guest at the 2013 Josephine Ulrick Poetry Awards dinner, where Andrew Slattery read his ‘winning’ poem. I’d not met Slattery previously, and had liked many of the poems I’d read in magazines and journals over the years, so I was looking forward to hearing him read.

Halfway into the poem alarm bells started going off. First I heard a few lines from Billy Collins’ poem ‘Forgetfulness’, and then a couple of lines from Philip Larkin’s ‘Days’. While I was on edge, I assumed Slattery must have acknowledged these lines at the end of his poem. MTC Cronin, one of the judges, was at my table. I mentioned what I’d heard to her, and she said nothing had been acknowledged, and that she was going to look into the rest of the poem.

And so began weeks of forensic investigation, led by Margie Cronin and David Musgrave. They discovered that almost all of Slattery’s poem contained the work of other poets, stolen from the internet or books.

It was just good timing that I was there on the night. I read everything I can get my hands on, and all the time. Judging poetry competitions that often attract over 200 entries, with poems ranging from between 100 to 200 lines, is a lot of work. Cracks appear. It’s wonderful that Slattery and Graham Nunn, another long-term serial plagiarist, have been cornered and brought to account. It does make me wonder if other Australian poets are giving their poems a spark and drive they can only manage through the theft of others’ work. I’d say there are most likely several who are hoping this scandal will die away quickly so they can get back to working under cover of someone else’s darkness.

It seems amazing that a number of poets seem to have been plagiarising for years, and winning awards too. Do you think there has been a great amount of trust in the local poet community, unlike in academia (for example), where writing is regularly screened for copycats?

You want to believe that when someone publishes a book of poems or a poem in a magazine or newspaper, that they’re the author. To think otherwise seems so odd, and yet now of course such thoughts are valid.

Plagiarism is a curious beast. A writer might steal and then shoehorn the words or lines of another poet into their own work because they know it makes the poem stand out, whereas left to its own devices, it would read and sound flat, ordinary. It’s a matter of achieving a quick fix to a long-term problem — the problem of paying serious attention to craft, and technique, and of not pursuing recognition for its own sake. Plagiarists don’t like too much attention — just enough to get them seen, to be heard, to win a prize or two, and then they slink back into the shadows, to seek out more likely lines to add to their collection.

Anthony Lawrence's Bark is a poetry collection shortlisted for the Age Poetry Book of the Year, 2008.

Anthony Lawrence’s Bark is a poetry collection shortlisted for the Age Poetry Book of the Year, 2008.

Do you think there’s a real sense of community in the Australian poetry scene? Do you ever work collaboratively or do you see it as very much an isolated pursuit?

There will always be a brittle sense of community within Australian poetry. Most poets who write for the page, however, have effigies of their contemporaries on their desks, and they are bright with pins and needles. The eyes are a popular focus for sharp objects. As is the mouth.

I like to call them Pagers and Stagers, and in the blog I wrote with Bob Adamson (The Waggafish Letters) there was a war on an island north of Sydney where many were taken out and down, and many left disabled. This was a light-hearted look at a dark truth. Poets are fiercely competitive and many have glass jaws and a skin so thin you could read their poems through it.

You have taught poetry for many years. Has the way poetry is taught, or the students who come to learn, changed significantly in recent years?

I’ve been teaching poetry, in schools and universities, for many years. I try to turn people onto poetry whenever possible. The way I teach hasn’t changed at all. It’s about encouraging wide-reading, and exposing people to poems and poets that I believe will help change their way of seeing the world. Now that I’m teaching full-time, I’m able to pass on to students many of the tricks of my dark trade that I’ve been practising and developing for over 30 years. When I tell my first year Creative Writing students that I won’t be able to teach them how to write successful poetry; that this can only happen if they already have the essential inner spark and drive that can work with crucial information to create something enduring; a collective moan goes up around the lecture theatre. They wonder why they’ve signed on. They look at me with disdain. Some throw things. Abuse is common. Then, when they’ve settled down, and I start laying some spells on them, and get them writing, they forget about the end result, and start with the basics, and most love the journey. Some may even publish poems. But teaching is sharing information. I worked for many years doing whatever I could to support writing poetry. At the age of 54, I began an academic career. Imagine. Getting paid well to talk about poetry and fiction, and offering guidelines for the writing of them …

Anthony Lawrence's Signal Flare is his latest collection, published in 2013

Anthony Lawrence’s Signal Flare is his latest collection, published in 2013

Where do you look for inspiration these days when you start a poem?

I’m an inspired writer. I only write when I’m compelled to. This means that during any given year I might have two or three extended periods when I give myself over to writing poetry. It’s a fertile, productive, driven time. Trying to balance full-time work with the demands of the imagination can be tricky, but I manage. There is never one thing that lights the touch paper. It can be anything from reading a line in a book of poems that then sets me on ‘stunned fire’, or seeing an osprey stalled over Cabarita headland, or hearing my son say something amazing. It’s always new, and raw, and the only rules are those I’ve learned to pay attention to completely: never disregard what seems obvious — drag it into the light and look into its shadow; always harness subject-matter into the service of imagination; drink single malt Islay Scotch.

INSPIRATION AND FURTHER READING

Anthony Lawrence has been influenced by many poets in his career.

The poets that most inspired him, back when it all began, were Brautigan and Cohen, and later, Robert Adamson, Geoffrey Lehmann, Nigel Roberts, Michael Dransfield, Dorothy Hewett, Judith Beveridge, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Keats and Shelley.

Other favourites include Philip Hodgins, Elizabeth Campbell, Philip Salom, Kevin Hart, John Forbes, Jan Harry, Alan Wearne, Ted Hughes, Simon Armitage, Philip Larkin, Glyn Maxwell, Ciaran Carson, Peter Redgrove, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Roddy Lumsden and Jacob Polley.

The Blake Poetry Prize is now open for submissions. Visit the NSW Writers’ Centre to find out more about the competition and to download and entry form.

*This article originally appeared in Newswrite, the magazine I edit for the NSW Writers’ Centre. For more info on becoming a member and subscribing to Newswrite, visit their website.

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

DO YOU READ POETRY?

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE POETS?

AND DO YOU SEE A STRONG CONNECTION BETWEEN WRITING AND THE SPIRITUAL WORLD?

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Throw your arms around him? No. Carry a Big Stick by Tim Ferguson

Tim_Ferguson_Carry_a_big_stickTim Ferguson may want to throw off the shackles of being a Doug Anthony All Star but I’m not going to let him. I’m 18. It’s New Year’s Eve. It’s late. It might even be midnight. I’m feeling like I’ve taken an E but the rave scene is yet to come. I’m screaming like those girls at the Beatles. I’m in the audience for the Doug Anthony All Stars and a girl in doc martens is chasing Paul McDermott around the stage like she’s going to eat him alive. She is fast but he is faster. They are both completely desperate. I want to be her.

DAAS had a huge impact on my life at the time. They were inventive, creative (I bought a great deal of their memorabilia), sexy, at times scary and often just plain filthy. I spent many hours weighing up which one I desired most. Poor Richard never got much of a look in, but I was drawn to Paul’s on-the-knife-edge humour and voice (of course) and Tim’s sweet looks and sense of vulnerability (and ability to harmonise). Once I saw them lounging (and I think Richard fell off his chair) at Mietta’s (where I was pretending to be posh by ordering a Brandy Alexander, the way you order completely wrong drinks when you’re 18) and spent hours trying to work out a strategy to approach (and which one to choose) by which time they’d left. They were like Violent Femmes meets Monty Python: a heady mix.

I always followed their careers as they meandered through Good News Week, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and Radio National. I felt that Paul and Richard kind of found their natural fit in the media but with Tim, I was never so sure. His puppy dog cuteness meant he could get away with everything, but he still always seemed too subversive for mainstream Channel 9. He’s wandered his way around to teaching and writing about comedy, now wielding a big stick, and it works.

His memoir, Carry a Big Stick, traces the usual steps: childhood, parents, family, poor sportsmanship, difficulty with girls (who could have thought?), monumental success, looking for jobs in all the wrong places, and a body that starts to let him down. He reveals here why he walks with a stick:

When you’re reading memoirs (good ones), they trigger memories as you search for connections. Tim’s career is clearly shaped from early experiences. When he talks about moving from school to school, never settling, it reminds me of the many times I was new kid at the door, teachers doing their best (or very little) to settle me in. I love Tim’s interrogation of the strategies he would use for making friends; I had my own.

I also start to recognise, with an increasing sense of dread, characteristics I fast-tracked to my later years — influenced and explained by the transient life: the fear of being unmoored; the inability to handle conflict; the desire to be noticed (if indirectly); and the strange way I used to let friendships sail off without me.

I was constantly nervous and didn’t know why … it was the dread of drifting … The ache for performance racked me. I was desperately, breathlessly jealous of my friends and lovers, envying their lackadaisical confidence in their futures. Adrenaline would kick my system at the slightest change in their circumstances.

* * *

I hadn’t learned how to lose my temper – after so many years in strange seas, why would I have learned to rock the boat.

* * *

As attracted as I was to new people, I had to maintain the friendships I’d already developed. The darker side of the many shifts of my childhood had given me an ability to let people drift away as soon as they were out of my line of sight.

All of these things struck a nerve because I could see the threads going back, unravelling, to my time in the playground. As a child I desperately craved standing out (for my passions) while being at the same time extremely self-conscious. These two competing forces often threatened to tear me apart. For Tim, he desperately wants fame for the same reasons. He sees a therapist, who comes up with:

 … after my childhood attending so many schools in so many cities and towns, I was after something beyond cash and a gang. I was anxious to achieve a feeling of recognition, to no longer be considered an anonymous ‘new kid’.

This becomes the driving force for Tim’s career — and the strength of his memoir is based on it. I lingered over that passage for a long time, as it revealed something profound to me. It explained my desire to write just_a_girl, and the sense of release that writing it achieved. It was like all those ‘new girls’ in the playground had merged to become Layla and my adult self could shuffle forward like a Darwinian monkey to stand tall and walk away.

Tim also frames the Doug Anthonys’ success (and his general desire to perform) within an analysis of a wider Australian culture:

Australia’s convict past instilled in the culture a deep suspicion of anything classy, clever or feminine … No other country would bother with such self-defeatist numb-nuttery. Only Australians strive to pretend they’re dumb and downtrodden.

Given his years of practice, you’d hope Tim’s memoir is funny. This is his forte and what he’s spent most of his life researching. At times cocky, at times blunt, Tim challenges the accepted view (especially among filmmakers; they get a good serve) that good dramatic writing needs to be, well, serious. He argues that the two masks — comedy and tragedy — are weighted equally, that all drama writers need to learn the craft of comedy too. It’s an interesting observation, especially as some of the best Oz television at the moment straddles that tragi-comedy divide beautifully: I’m thinking of Rake, Offspring, Chris Lilley’s exceptional series and The Moodys.

While Tim lets the audience in to MS and its effects, his intention is made clear: he wants no sympathy. The focus is on working around the illness and carrying on. Sometimes this skating around topics means there are obvious gaps. For example, he refuses to talk about his children, his former relationships, his breakdown. While I understand this reluctance, it means there are layers to him that we miss. To not see him as a father, for example, given the wonderful evocation of his own dad, is ultimately frustrating.

But for Tim, it all comes back to the comedy. And what’s the grand principle?

Surprise the audience with a truth they recognise.

I guess that’s why the Doug Anthony All Stars appealed to me so much. I saw myself in their diatribes against and for feminism, art, wankers, and musical genre. They tore down my defences and allegiances, and rebuilt them in ways that challenged, frightened and excited me.

As for comedy, I’m working on learning from his approach. I find just_a_girl and Layla’s adventures pretty funny in parts but most readers use the word ‘disturbing’. Before I write the next novel, I’ll be looking into the craft behind comedy — and using it to get up to no good.

What about you? Were you a Doug Anthony All Stars fan? Have you ever tried to write comedy?

Friday Night Fictions: February 2014

Michele Forbes, Ghost Moth

Our FNF debut author of the month is Michele Forbes. I look forward to reading Ghost Moth and talking to her about it…

Welcome back to another year of Friday Night Fictions, for debut authors (novelists, short story writers) in all genres and formats (self-published and digital-only welcome!). Over the break, I did a wonderful interview with Tracy Farr, author of the lyrical and memorable The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. I also met a number of other writers featured here (at the Victorian Premiers Literary Awards, all pomp and ceremony) including Kate Belle (The Yearning, in the August edition) and Laura Jean McKay, who you will meet soon, talking about her short story collection, Holiday in Cambodia (November edition).

This year I’ve decided to make FNF a three-monthly event, rather than monthly, and I hope it continues to grow in 2014 and recognise new talent.

I’ve found myself a tad time-poor lately and I’m keen to return on the blog to writing about issues burning within me — like the transformation of Matthew McConaughey in True Detectives and Dallas Buyers’ Club. If you haven’t seen this TV series and film, his performances are extraordinary. I’d like to wrestle with that at some point.

I’ve got a busy year coming up. I’ve finally broken the festival barrier (more of that to come), I’m busily seeking an office in the Maine, I’ve started to apply for grants so I can actually afford to write, and I’ve just begun researching my next book (oh, how I LOVE libraries). In the meantime, I continue to look into ways to market and promote just_a_girl, I’m enjoying all the reviews and ‘best of’ lists that happened over the Christmas period, and I hope all you debut authors are enjoying success too.

If you are a writer keen to promote your debut novel published in 2013 or 2014 (or know someone who is), please read the guidelines before submitting your book to FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS. Australian and international authors all welcome. You can also check out previous editions too. The next soiree will be at the end of May…

Here’s the selection for February: as usual, a brilliantly eclectic mix… happy reading, everyone! And this month I’ve plucked the debut author Michele Forbes to be featured in an upcoming interview. I look forward to reading her novel set in Northern Ireland, Ghost Moth, and talking about it in upcoming months.

WARREN CRAIG SHAN, Abandoned

Abandoned, Warren ShanA girl of approximately two years of age is found abandoned on a park bench in Glasgow, Scotland in 1979.

Named Emily, by the Scottish welfare system, she is discovered to be fundamentally different.

Five narrators recount their experience when their lives cross with this extraordinary girl/woman as she journeys through the various stages of her life.

Genre: Mystery/thriller/science fiction

The book is available for sale via the folllowing outlets:

Amazon.com.au

Kobo

MICHELE FORBES, Ghost Moth

GhostMothA stunning new voice reminiscent of Maggie O’Farrell, which has been acclaimed by John Banville, Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright. Unabridged edition, written and read by Michele Forbes.

GHOST MOTH will transport you to two hot summers, 20 years apart.

Northern Ireland, 1949. Katherine must choose between George Bedford — solid, reliable, devoted George — and Tom McKinley, who makes her feel alive. The reverberations of that summer — of the passions that were spilled, the lies that were told and the bargains that were made — still clamour to be heard in 1969. Northern Ireland has become a tinderbox but tragedy also lurks closer to home. As Katherine and George struggle to save their marriage and silence the ghosts of the past, their family and city stand on the brink of collapse…

Surprising, mesmerising and astonishingly written, GHOST MOTH will show you the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Meet Michele at her blog

Buy the book at Amazon

ISABELLA HARGREAVES, The Persuasion of Miss Jane Brody

The Persuasion of Miss Jane Brody, Isabelle HargreavesThe Persuasion of Miss Jane Brody is set in Regency England. Jane Brody is a passionate follower of Mary Wollstonecraft’s beliefs in the rights of women. She campaigns for better education and employment opportunities for girls so they can be independent of men.

Jonathan Everslie, Marquis of Dalton, needs a wife and heir, but can’t find a woman who doesn’t bore him. Then he meets Jane Brody. He finds her attractive, but her politics dangerous.

After Jane’s father dies, she is left to raise her younger siblings. Her efforts to support them by running a girls’ school fail because Society decries her beliefs.

The conservative Marquis of Dalton wants her, but can Jane overcome her fears and put aside her beliefs to marry him to save her family? Will Dalton risk his political career to win Jane’s love and persuade her that they belong together?

Buy the book

Read an extract


LISA KNIGHT, The View From Here

The View From Here, Lisa KnightMillie has decided that this will be her year for a relationship and when she meets sexy plumber Adam things start to look up, until he dumps her after what she thought was a fabulous date.

Unknown to Millie, Adam is only trying to keep her out of harm’s way from the rather villainous Stan, who’s out to collect on a gambling debt.

It takes a bit of stalking and an accidental back kick to bring down the bad guy, leaving the path wide open for Millie and Adam to really get to know each other.

Buy the book

Read an extract

KIRSTEN KRAUTH, just_a_girl

Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girlLayla is only 14. She cruises online. She catches trains to meet strangers. Her mother, Margot, never suspects. Even when Layla brings a man into their home.

Margot’s caught in her own web: an evangelical church and a charismatic pastor. Meanwhile, downtown, a man opens a suitcase and tenderly places his young lover inside.

just_a_girl tears into the fabric of contemporary culture, a Puberty Blues for the digital age, a Lolita with a webcam, it’s what happens when young girls are forced to grow up too fast. Or never get the chance to grow up at all.

““Krauth’s debut is alive with ideas about isolation and connection in the digital age, particularly the way the internet raises the stakes of teenage rebellion.” – Jo Case, The Australian

Read an extract

Buy the printed version at ReadingsBooktopia or Amazon

The ebook is available at Amazon.com.au and iBooks.

See reviews of just_a_girl here.

Contact Kirsten at Goodreads, her blog (Wild Colonial Girl), Facebook and Twitter.

GABRIELLE TOZER, The Intern

The Intern, Gabrielle Tozer“Melons. The girls. Gazongas. I could rattle off every nickname in the world for my boobs — oops, nearly forgot jubblies — but it didn’t change the fact they were small. Embarrassingly small. Think grapes over melons, fun-size bags over fun bags, shot glasses over jugs.

Which was why I shouldn’t have been surprised when my boobs were the catalyst for squeals of laughter from my younger sister, Kat, on the eve of an important day. A Very Important Day.

‘Geez, put those puppies away,’ Kat smirked from my bedroom doorway. ‘Some of us haven’t had lunch yet and I’d hate to lose my appetite.’

I paused from rifling through piles of crumpled clothes on my bed. ‘What? I don’t know what you —’

‘Just look down,’ said Kat, tossing her jet-black ponytail. I hated when she did that.

Following her instructions, I looked down and saw my left nipple peeking out of my bra.”

Visit Gabrielle at her blog, Facebook and Twitter for more information

Available to buy in all good bookstores and online, via BooktopiaBoomerang Books and Book Depository.

ROWENA WISEMAN, Searching for Von Honningsbergs

Searching for Von Honnigsbergs, Rowena WisemanLawson is sent overseas to retrieve three paintings for a Kurt Von Honningsberg exhibition.

He has a thorny love affair with an anorexic Russian Latvian firetwirler, does a deal with two shady characters in Brazil and runs for his life from a madman in Beijing.

When Lawson discovers that he has actually become involved in an art world scam, he begins to question the true value of art.

Read an extract on Goodreads

Available as an ebook from Screwpulp

Contact Rowena via her blog or Twitter

Debut author profile: Tracy Farr

Author Tracey Farr, photo: Liane McGee

Author Tracy Farr, photo: Liane McGee

Tracy Farr’s debut novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt featured in the October soiree of Friday Night Fictions. Dame Lena Gaunt is in her 80s. She takes gentle doses of heroin, she swings between men and women as lovers and confidantes, she moves with the times via Perth, Sydney, various parts of Asia and New Zealand, all the while dreaming of her electrified passion: the theremin (see Clara Rockmore playing it).

As Lena raises her fingers and moves her body, Farr’s lyrical and elegant prose places us in the picture — an audience for memories and music — as Lena negotiates a documentary crew keen to capture a look-back at her life. The idea of documentary sets up a dynamic tension between what Lena wants to reveal, and what actually happened to her. She occasionally hides behind the persona of a vague elderly lady, all the while sorting out just who she can trust.

I’m always drawn to writers who pack an emotional punch by holding things back. Jon Bauer does it well. Jo Case and Annabel Smith too. It’s something I aim for in my writing: to not tell readers what to feel, but to hope they feel it deeply anyway.

It’s exciting to read a debut novelist as exciting as Farr, as she has a career set in writing novels. Her fiction is strong and unique. She is about to head (from Wellington in NZ) to Perth for the writers’ festival. I spoke to her about how to capture a long life in fiction.

Do you remember the moment when you decided you wanted to be a writer?

I don’t remember one moment. The ‘want’ was there from a young age. I wrote mostly songs and narrative poems when I was a kid, and I always kept journals and notebooks for scribbling and sketching. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started trying to write stories, though. Even then, I was tentative and unsure about my abilities. I was slow to come out of the author-closet and declare myself even a wanna-be writer.

What inspired you to set out on the long road to writing a novel?

The Life and Loves of Lena GauntThere are several unfinished novels in the bottom drawer; Lena wasn’t my first attempt at writing a novel, just the first one that was worth finishing. When I first started trying to write fiction, it was writing a novel that I had in mind — or a novella, in the vein of Brenda Walker’s Crush and One More River. But I just didn’t have the staying power — I’d get ten or twenty thousand words in, even forty thousand, then hit a big wall. I pulled back; I wondered if I could somehow develop my writing muscles by writing short stories, and that seemed to work for me. The novel and short story are very different forms, but I needed to learn how to write by learning to write short stories. Once I had the idea for Lena Gaunt, I realised I could trick myself into writing that novel by thinking of it as a series of related short stories. I’ve learnt enough through the process of writing this novel that I haven’t felt the need to trick myself into the next novel in the same way.

What is it that you love most about writing?

Moving words around until they start to sing; inventing other lives; surprising myself; shutting myself away and (literally or metaphorically) curving my arm around the page to write and write and write and perfect before letting the words out to the world.

I love what comes after the writing, too; that once my novel is out in the world, what I intended as its meaning is irrelevant — it comes down to what the text says to a reader, and how the reader receives it. I love the idea that there are readings of the book that I haven’t foreseen (or consciously invited, or intended), and that it has a life beyond and without me.

What do you put off doing when you sit down at your desk?

Housework (happily). Gardening (wistfully). Socialising (guiltily). Television/DVDs (smugly). Reading (mournfully).

How did you go about getting the book published?

It was a long, long road. When I finished the first polished draft of the novel, I didn’t  — I still don’t — have an agent and I knew that, without one, I needed to rely on my contacts, and/or submit it to the few publishers that will still accept unsolicited manuscripts directly from authors. Several of the publishers I fancied fell within that set, so I thought I’d give it a go without an agent.

So I sent that finished, but early, draft of the novel to a New Zealand publisher who I’d been in touch with over the years, and who’d been keen to see a novel from me. They knocked it back. I was devastated, even though I’d been pretty sure that the novel I’d written wasn’t the novel they were looking for from me, and even though I knew the novel needed more work, and wasn’t yet the best it could be. In that devastated, desolate, rejected state, I fired the MS off in a mad hurry — as it was, still needing work — to the slush pile of an Australian publisher. That rejection, when it came, hurt less. I pulled my head in, paused, took a breath.

I worked for a solid six months on a major revision, overhauled the MS, took in comments from my wonderful early readers, then sent the much-improved MS, unsolicited, to Fremantle Press. Fremantle Press was always in my sights as a natural home for the novel, particularly because the story was so strongly grounded in place, and that place was Cottesloe Beach, near where I grew up in Perth. It was nearly six months after sending them the MS that I received the news that they were keen, but thought it still needed work; would I consider working with them to revise the MS? Yes, I would. We worked back and forth for nearly eighteen months — slowly, but as fast as their schedule and mine allowed — on the MS before, in June 2012, we signed the contract to publish.

Your writing moves between Perth, Sydney, New Zealand, and various parts of Asia. How did you go about researching and recreating these very different parts of the world?

I’m originally from Perth, I lived there until I was nearly 30. I left Perth in 1991, the year the contemporary part of the novel is set, so Perth in 1991 is very real, very specific to me, sort of set in amber — a time before mobile phones and the internet, before we were all connected. When I started writing the novel I was living for a month in Perth, up in the hills at Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers’ Centre as Writer in Residence, and I’d catch the bus and the train and the bus to Cottesloe and walk around and breathe the air, watch the light, listen to the streets, when I needed to remind myself of the setting.

I’ve spent time in most of the places the novel is set in. The sections of the novel that are set in Sydney I originally set in New York, where the theremin was actually invented in the 1920s. But I only knew New York from movies and, more importantly, I wanted to move firmly away from the ‘real’ characters — Leon Theremin, Clara Rockmore — who had inspired my characters and their story, and move them closer to what was home for Lena. It was only when I started rewriting scenes from their New York setting that I realised the gift that a move to Sydney in the timeframe of that section would give me: Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction. I layered research on Sydney in the 1920s and early 1930s with my own memories of a long summer spent in Sydney at the age of 16 (about Lena’s age when she arrives there).

I had fantastic resources to draw on for the sections of the novel set in (and travelling to) Singapore and Malacca. My paternal grandmother shares with the fictional Lena Gaunt a birth place and year (Singapore, 1910), childhood in Singapore and Malacca, and jaunts back to boarding school in Perth, and in writing Lena’s story I leaned heavily on stories my grandmother told me over the years, as well as written resources from her father, my great-grandfather. I was able to overlay their experience of South-East Asia early in the twentieth century with mine of the same places sixty or seventy years later.

In all of these very specific settings, though, I wasn’t aiming for strict historical realism. I was seeking to create a version of each time and place that was intensely believable within the context of the novel, yet was — filtered through Lena’s eyes and experiences — slightly off-true, off-kilter.

The novel shifts from historical to contemporary fiction as you trace Lena’s life. How difficult was it to structure this so it moves seamlessly?

That was one of the biggest challenges in the revision process. I wrote the contemporary sections quite separately from the historical sections, and I wrote each of those historical sections quite separately from the other historical sections. There was also a whole other part of the novel in earlier drafts — it didn’t make it in the final cut — in the voice of the filmmaker character, Mo Patterson, and stretching forward in time to the 2010s. I worked hard, through revisions, on the relative weights (in word length as well as emotional weight) of the sections, and on where and how to interleave the contemporary sections with the historical sections. I found it really interesting that in the final structural revision — a really fantastic process of tightening and fine-tuning, and the murder of a few darlings — some of the most effective changes were those that shifted a paragraph or even a whole chapter, say from the end of one section to the start of the next; it was unpicking the endpoints that were artefacts from my writing process. Working collegially with my editors was a really pleasant and unexpectedly energising part of the publishing process; I had great editors, and I always felt as if my book and I were in safe hands.

With your lyrical prose, you beautifully capture the magic of the theremin. When did you come up with the idea of Lena playing this mesmerising instrument and was the character based on an existing figure?

Lucie Rosen and the theremin, Caramoor Centre for Music and the Arts

Lucie Rosen and the theremin, Caramoor Centre for Music and the Arts

I’d first seen the theremin played live when I went to see the band Pere Ubu in Vancouver in the mid-90s. Mesmerising is just the word; I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was more than ten years later that I watched the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. The film — a history of this bizarre musical instrument and its inventor, Lev Termen (usually anglicised as Leon Theremin) — was where I encountered Clara Rockmore, the first virtuoso player of the theremin. About that time, I’d started writing notes, circling around a character I wanted to write about, a musician. I knew, when I watched that film, that I’d found Lena’s instrument — an instrument you play without touching was perfect. But I knew I didn’t want to base my character, Lena, strictly on Clara, so I more or less stopped my research then and there. Film and still images of Clara — from a young girl to an old woman — in the documentary gave me some really strong visual cues for Lena. I started with a lot of notes based on my recollection of the film, then as I developed the character, I aimed to distance myself and Lena from the film and from real life events. Clara Rockmore was a starting point for Lena, rather than a model.

Do you have a writing community where you live? Do you like the company of other writers when working on drafts, or are you someone who prefers to go it alone?

Wellington has a really strong community of writers and people who care about writing and books. We have the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, and writing courses at Whitireia and Massey University; New Zealand Book Council is based in Wellington, and we have an active local branch of the NZ Society of Authors. There’s always something happening.

That said, my tendency is to be a loner; but there are times when the input and company of others has been hugely helpful. I’ve been part of writing groups at various times, mostly arising from workshops or classes I’ve taken. Being able to sit in that classroom or living room or cafe, to swap writing, to give and take criticism and comment, is a great thing. But I do find that the more my time is squeezed and limited and precious, the more likely I am to just shut the door on everyone else and write, by myself. It’s much later in the process that I seek the company of others.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned in the process of writing your first novel, that you wish you knew at the beginning?

Be patient. The process takes a long time. Don’t rush. Find a great editor/editors, and trust her/them.

Which authors have been instrumental to your own reading and writing?

My first loves were my parents’ books from their childhoods: A.A. Milne in my dad’s precious editions from the 1940s; Enid Blyton from Mum. As a teenager, I read widely — I spent a lot of time in the school and public libraries — but developed obsessions with authors who I’d focus in on at different times: science fiction writers (Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury); the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie (after an earlier diet of Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, Famous Five, Secret Seven et al.); an assorted bunch of American writers (J.D. Salinger, Paul Zindel, Sylvia Plath, John Steinbeck, Richard Brautigan); the short stories of Katherine Mansfield.

By the time — years later, in my late twenties — I was starting to try to work out how I might write, I was reading and inspired by Helen Garner, Beverley Farmer, Brenda Walker, Elizabeth Jolley, Peter Carey, Tim Winton; Patrick White, too. I was in love with Australian writing. I was in love with women writers: Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt. I somehow didn’t discover Alice Munro and Carol Shields until I lived in Canada — they joined my pantheon. Men got a look-in too: Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Jim Crace. Moving to New Zealand in the mid-90s, I was struck most by the poetry that runs through this country’s literature (poetry and prose) — Elizabeth Smither, Jenny Bornholdt, Bill Manhire, Sarah Quigley, Fiona Kidman, Damien Wilkins, Ian Wedde.

This is a very white, very anglo list, I know. But the writers who have influenced me most have been overwhelmingly white, writing in English from the mid- to late-twentieth century onwards.

My reading (I’ve resisted the silly urge to qualify and diminish this with ‘for pleasure’; all of my fiction reading is for pleasure) always circles back to one early obsession: murder mysteries and thrillers. I return again and again to Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Peter Temple (a recent discovery), Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, John Le Carré, Henning Mankell; I find strange comfort in reading and re-reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. One of my early, unfinished novel MS is a murder mystery; I still fancy writing one, one day.

Your central character, Lena, lives into her 80s. How do you see yourself when you reach this age?

I look to my grandmothers. I was thinking a lot about them when I wrote this novel, and I dedicated it to them. At eighty, both of them were feisty, active, interesting, stroppy, interested, full of life and opinions. I hope I’m the same. I see myself as a kick-arse crone.

For more about Tracy Farr, or her debut novel, visit her website.

Each month I choose a debut author to profile from Friday Night Fictions. Read interviews with Michael Adams and Nina Smith. Next up is Laura Jean McKay, writer of the short story collection, Holiday in Cambodia — from the November soiree.

WHAT ABOUT YOU, DEAR READER? HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE WHEN YOU TURN 80? OR ARE YOU ALREADY THERE AND CAN OFFER SOME ADVICE?

 

And the prize goes to…

Hope you are all idling away the hours reading and relaxing, and not back to the daily grind just yet.In the latest news to hand, a BIG congrats to Amy, who has won the book-hamper pack — 10 signed copies of great Australian books — for doing a review of just_a_girl on amazon.com.au.

Thanks to all who posted reviews, and here is Amy’s take on the book:

I read ‘just_a_girl’ within the first week after publication. I loved it. Layla’s voice is one of the most authentic teenage narrators I’ve ever met in fiction, and being a PhD candidate studying YA fiction, I have read A LOT of teenage narrators in the last two years. I understood Layla and believed her and I wanted to protect her (haha) but at the same time enjoyed following her through her experiences as she navigated teenage life. Her mother Margot’s narration was interesting and a nice contrast too … Tadashi’s narration, though seemingly disconnected from L and M’s lives, provided some nice, complementary commentary about the nature of femininity. For me, the novel (at times) seamlessly blurred the lines between reality and fantasy; the real and imagined lives of three different people.

As a long-time YA fan, I studied YA for my Honours thesis a few years ago, looking at subverting the conventions of YA and moving beyond censorship. The best thing about Kirsten’s novel was the honesty created by Layla’s voice. She told the truth about teenage life; no sugar-coating or self-censorship! We need more of these voices in fiction with young narrators and I truly believe Kirsten has tapped into some new territory here, crossing over between adult, YA and possibly even New Adult fiction. Amy x

Thanks, Amy, for the insightful review, and I like how it’s placed within the context of adult/YA novels in general. I look forward to reading the PhD…

Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan’s book: yep, it’s sensational.

With the sweltering days hazy around me with smoke, and red-blood moons, I’ve been hiding in my airconditioned rooms and trying not to look at the CFA app every two seconds. I’m busy editing Newswrite, writing for ABC Arts online, seeking funding/grants for my next book, and deciding which authors to read next in 2014. I’ve also been invited to the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Awards shindig, so if anyone is there who reads the blog, let me know, and we can match voices to faces.

Over the hols I’ve been reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and agree with many commentators that it is sublime. I’ve always liked his books — but this novel is faultless and mesmerising; the best book I’ve read in years. I’ve also just finished The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, an impressive debut (from Friday Night Fictions) and I’ll be interviewing author Tracy Farr in upcoming weeks.

What have you been reading over the holidays? Anything stand out?

Reasons to love a novel: issues and empathy

Kirsten Krauth:

Given I’ve reviewed Dawn Barker’s debut novel Fractured, and she’s reviewed mine, I thought I’d reblog Amanda Curtin’s lovely analysis of ‘issue’ novels, and our books too…

Originally posted on looking up/looking down:

When I was writing the novel that eventually was published as The Sinkings (2008), I used to become anxious whenever anyone asked me that dreaded question What’s it about? It wasn’t that I was trying to keep it a secret, nor that I was lacking in focus. But I believe it can be creatively disastrous to talk too much about a work still in development; that it can have the effect of closing off what is, and should remain for some time, an open question. My novel was ‘about’ many things, and I didn’t have a neat one-sentence answer handy. (Come to think of it, I still need more than one sentence to describe The Sinkings!)

I remember, one time, mumbling, Oh, it’s about a convict. And, another time, mentioning intersex. In the latter case, the person I was talking to responded, Oh, so it’s an issues novel

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All I want for Christmas is…

Fancy a Sylvia Plath doll for Christmas?

Fancy a Sylvia Plath doll for Christmas?

I’m one of those people who is easy (some would say dull) to buy for. Every year, when my family asks what I want, I usually say books, books, books, magazine subscriptions or notebooks to write in. God, how I love touching and feeling notebooks. And there’s a Moleskin now that links up to Evernote so you can scan in your notes. Wow! I know this is starting to sound like a sponsored post, but I can’t help it if I’m a bit passionate.

I’ve also just been mouth-watering over Allison Tait’s list of gifts for writers (Ernest Hemingway or Sylvia Plath doll, anyone?).

What I like most of all is getting book vouchers so I can wander through indie stores like Gleebooks (Sydney) or Stoneman’s (Castlemaine) or Readings (Carlton) and just browse and choose randomly, usually going purely on design (yup I like doing that).

In the past year, though, I’ve been more and more seduced by the Kindle. Covered in soft leather, I can read it lying on my side in bed (my favourite position). The idea that it holds instant access to not just worlds, but whole solar systems of material, still blows my mind. I need a book right now, and I have it. Great for lazy, procrastinating types. I also prefer it for books to do with work. The highlights and notes function is incredibly useful for reviewing and analytical work, and very quick to jump around and trigger memories and ideas – and I’ve never been comfortable with writing in pencil directly in books; I like the pages designed and clean.

Which leads me to my book-hamper competition in a roundabout way. Just a quick reminder! If you are a fan of any of the following Australian writers — Jon Bauer, Simmone Howell, Walter Mason, Jo Case, Dawn Barker, Jenn J McLeod, Jessie Cole, Annabel Smith, Wendy James or Angela Meyer (first edited collection!) — there’s a chance to win autographed copies of all ten books!

All you need to do is write a little review of my novel, just_a_girl! If you’ve read it, just hop to amazon.com.au and pen a few lines here.

If you haven’t … the book is also available to download for under 10 buckeroos at the same place or you could offer it to someone you love for Xmas (parent of a teenage girl, perhaps!).

All authors really love reviews of their work, and the Amazon.com.au site is pretty new so would love some commentary there. Just see it as a gift to me:-)

I’ve also decided to extend the date of the competition to 15 January. Gives you a bit more time to read just_a_girl in wind-down time…

Which leads me to pressie time. All the books in my Xmas hamper have been carefully selected and fawned upon over the past year. I’ve been thinking about who I might give them to in my inner circle (see below). I’ve linked to their Kindle editions if you’d like to buy them too. They won’t be signed, but, so you can still enter the competition.

Walter Mason, Destination CambodiaJo Case, Boomer and MeWendy James, The MistakeDarkness on the Edge of TownFracturedThe Great UnknownJon Bauer, Rocks in the BellyGirl DefectiveAnnabel Smith, Whisky, Charlie, FoxtrotJenn J Mcleod, House for all Seasons

  • Jon Bauer‘s Rocks in the Belly  would go to my Mum. I’ve been raving about it since I first read it, and then he moved to Chewton and joined the writers’ group I’m in. I was a bit scared of him at first (read the book and you’ll get it). But, seriously, it’s a tense and brutal drama, and Mum would enjoy the edginess of it, and the strong characterisation.
  • Simmone Howell‘s Girl Defectiv would go to my mate, Klare. The seedy side of St Kilda. A record store on the verge of collapse. And a strong teen girl lead. She would love it. Simmone is also in my writers’ group and is one of the most dynamic authors I’ve come across in recent years. So witty and her characters have such unique voices.
  • Walter Mason‘s Destination Cambodia would go to my friend Jane, who I met on an Intrepid trip to Cambodia. The journey was characterised by hilarity and pathos, and Walter’s book captures the intricacies of the place well. Jane is always on an adventure somewhere and has just returned from trekking in Nepal *jealous*.
  • Jo Case‘s Boomer and Me would go to a fellow mum and friend I’ve made in Castlemaine, Karen. We have talked often about what it means to be a ‘good mum’ and what a relief it is to read a book by a mother, finally, who doesn’t pretend to be perfect and jolly hockeysticks and a domestic goddess. I mean, we can’t all be Nigella (although I’ve heard she has some ‘help’ anyway).
  • Dawn Barker‘s Fractured would go to my mother-in-law. I think she would enjoy the fast pace, the cool structure and the piercing narrative that makes you question all your assumptions about motherhood…and it’s scary in places; she likes thrills.
  • Jenn J McLeod‘s House for All Seasons would go to my Nanna. She is a big reader, likes drama and intertwining lives, along with strong female characters and a good dose of mystery. Whenever I visit Nanna, she has the week’s TV viewing circled into the wee hours of the morning, nearly all crime and suspense. I usually head off for my nanna nap at 9pm and leave her to be a night owl.
  • Jessie Cole‘s Darkness on the Edge of Town would go to my boss, Julia. I’m cheating a bit here because she has already read and raved about it. So I know she likes it! When staff at the NSW Writers’ Centre were asked to pick their favourite reads for 2013, Jessie’s debut novel came out on top.
  • Annabel Smith‘s Whisky Charlie Foxtrot would go to my sister in law. The book is cerebral, sensitive, pared back and unconventional (just like her). Annabel Smith is my great find of the year. As I’ve said often to anyone who will listen, she should be on the world stage, people! Soon she’ll be mentioned in the same para as Christos.
  • Wendy JamesThe Mistake would go to my best friend, Jill. Like Fractured, it’s a thriller that manages to straddle the literary and popular worlds. It teases the reader with its ‘suburban noir’, a dark underbelly of the domestic.
  • And finally, Angela Meyer‘s brilliant new edited collection, The Great Unknown, would go to my husband. With its short stories capturing the fantastical, macabre and absurd, he’d be able to dip in and out (while working on his laptop, checking his iPhone and looking at films on his iPad at the same time).

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT BOOKS WOULD YOU LIKE TO RECEIVE THIS CHRISTMAS?

Dawn Barker: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

Dawn Barker, author of Fractured

Dawn Barker, author of Fractured

In the past couple of months, I’ve started a new series — where I review someone’s book, and they review mine — and we put them up at the same time. My idea was for it to be a kind of ‘two of us’ of books/authors, where we find the connections between our work — and our lives. The first wonderful exchange was with Walter Mason (I reviewed  Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the kingdom and he took a squiz at just_a_girl).

This time, I take on Dawn Barker’s popular debut novel, Fractured.

Just from the outset, this review is going to have *Spoilers*. There is so much exciting plot happening in Dawn’s book that I don’t want to pussyfoot around it…

I recently became familiar with Dawn Barker’s work, as part of a posse of writers in WA  (Annabel Smith, Amanda Curtin, Natasha Lester, Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, to name a few) and her book featured in Friday Night Fictions (August issue). Fractured also often featured in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, where it was a hot favourite with reviewers, and Annabel Smith did an in-depth interview with Dawn.

Reading Fractured brought up all kinds of memories. Nothing prepared me for the emotional and physical onslaught of having children. Pregnancy was tough. I spent the first three months pretty much unable to stand up due to so-called ‘morning sickness’ (god, that term doesn’t do it justice) — twice! Before the second pregnancy, I engaged in some heavy-duty magical thinking and decided that if I just wished hard enough, I surely couldn’t get that sick the next time. It was worse!

I learnt the true meaning of the term ‘shit a brick’ (constipation, OMG!) and then, just as I was starting to enjoy putting on copious amounts of weight and eating carrot cake every day, I found out I had gestational diabetes, which put me on a strict and boring regime of no sweets, rice, pasta, and involved injecting myself in my wiggly stomach each night.

After I gave birth (lucky for me, quick and straightforward: knew those dancing hips were going to come in handy at some point), I had the pinks the first time. I was joyous (verging on manic I suspect). The second time, I got the blues. I thought it would be easy peasy the second time around. No troubles with breastfeeding. Relaxed. Settling and swaddling a cinch. But no. GG decided she would not sleep unless in my arms (or my husband’s). For the first three months, due to various people pleading with us not to lie in bed with her, my husband and I alternated nights of trying to sleep half-sitting up on the couch. For the first three months, I never got more than two straight hours sleep.

I fought the definition of postnatal depression at the time because I thought ANYONE would go nuts having to endure that kind of sleep deprivation for so long (this is not to dismiss the idea of postnatal depression as a serious issue, though, for many women). It got to the point that, even when I had the chance to sleep, I just couldn’t seem to work out how.

FracturedWhich brings me to Anna, the central character in Fractured. Anna doesn’t sleep either. The world leading up to getting pregnant and giving birth is shown to be one of illusion, of unrealistic expectations. Highly organised, nothing seems to go to her often rigid plan. Her birth plan is ignored. Her feelings for her baby are not the way she had hoped.

She feels isolated and cornered, unable to communicate with her husband, Tony. He leaves the house to go back to work pretty soon after she returns from hospital, not understanding that she is afraid, anxious, and on the verge. She doesn’t have the language to ask him to stay. Or to ask him (or anyone) to help. The amount of responsibility she takes on completely destroys her.

And on top of that, the reader gradually learns that Anna is contending with something equally serious. She is starting to hear voices, urging her on an increasingly paranoid and soul-destroying route. Her son is not yet six weeks old. But she cannot protect him from her thoughts.

I was familiar with postnatal depression but had never heard of postnatal psychosis. Dawn Barker is also a child psychiatrist so her insight into this condition (and Anna’s character development) is crucial. The book also takes us into some disturbing contemporary hospital practices, including giving Anna ECT without her permission — in a very short timeframe (when she’s in no position to contest the decision). The idea that this is possible, that a patient’s rights are systematically stripped when they enter hospital for care, is terrifying.

The book’s clever structure, that interweaves chronology, and various characters’ stories, means Fractured takes a while to reveal important moments, and there’s a real sense of doom and mystery surrounding Anna’s uncharacteristic behaviour. It’s a cliffhanger of a book, in every sense of the term.

It’s also a book about blame. Certain family members are quick to withdraw from Anna, unable to reconcile her actions with their definitions of acceptable boundaries to cross. Tony wrings himself dry, wondering at his own absence, his selfishness, his culpability in the desire to escape family for work.

Self-blame can be the most poisonous thing of all. Anna condemns herself for not living up to her own ideas of what a ‘perfect mother’ should be. In just_a_girl Margot, Layla’s mother, shares this black-and-white way of looking at the world. When looking at Layla, she sees her own failings reflected, rather than a child who deeply loves her and is desperately seeking her attention. By continuing with her blinkered thinking from when Layla is a baby, Margot misses out on all the good things, unable to see beyond her own limited view.

Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin was a big influence on Dawn Barker's novel

Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was a big influence on Dawn Barker’s novel

I was excited to read that one of the main influences for Dawn when writing her novel was Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. It taught her that a mainstream novel could take on highly emotive and harrowing topics. I read it when writing just_a_girl and found it changed my whole idea of character too. I realised that Margot didn’t have to be likeable but her way of thinking needed to be believable (if misguided). The way she perceives Layla is, from early stages of motherhood, influenced by the fact that she can’t breastfeed, she feels guilty, she is isolated in the community, her husband is often away working, and her mother was no role model at all. She crucifies herself rather than acknowledging that it’s damn hard.

It’s also good to get a husband’s insight in Fractured. Dawn’s third-person narrative means she can fly in and out of all the characters’ lives, exposing their dreams and perceived failings. I can only imagine how hard it is, too, for the significant other like Tony who get no sleep, haul themselves off to work, feeling guilty at the sight of mum looking so exhausted and fragile (but hey, the experience is not like this for everyone, I hope!). I remember my husband leaving our house for his first day of work after my second child (at six weeks), and pleading with him to stay. Still operating on no sleep, I breastfed my daughter in tears for an hour, as my two-year-old son ran rings around us, asking for all the things he knew I couldn’t provide with a baby latched on; I had no idea how I would get through the day, and all the ones after that. In the end I called my best friend and she turned up, all action-stations, made lunch, sat me outside, told me everyone felt like that (in a sympathetic way), and those feelings drifted off for a while and I saw that I just had to get through it a bit at a time.

The death of a child remains a taboo topic. It’s not something people want to contemplate, let alone talk about. But this book opens up the subject for debate. The reader is constantly being forced to confront their own questions of morality, wavering backwards and forwards, and it’s a mark of Dawn’s skill as a writer that we can condemn and be sympathetic to Anna at the same time, asking: at just what point, is she ultimately responsible for her own behaviour?

You can read Dawn Barker’s review of just_a_girl here. I’m very curious to see what a child psychiatrist thinks of Layla!

If you’ve read Fractured, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Were you familiar with postnatal psychosis? Any other novels dealing with this issue, or postnatal depression? If you’d like to ask Dawn any questions, fire away! I’m sure she’d be keen to answer them.

Writing Mothers: Jo Case

Journalist and author Jo CaseFor a while last year, Jo Case and her book Boomer & Me seemed to be everywhere. An excerpt in the Good Weekend. An evening talk at the NSW Writers’ Centre. When I read her memoir, I was impressed, both with the story she told, and in her style of writing. It’s an unusual memoir with its pared-back, unsentimental analysis. I didn’t know much about Asperger’s when I began reading it, and I still had a lot of questions when I finished; I think one of the strengths of the book is that Jo doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.

I enjoyed, and cringed alongside, her honest and often funny appraisal of what motherhood is meant to be about, as she feels her way through it. I loved that she is not the domestic goddess type (at one point she tidies the house by throwing everything in garbage bags in a frenzy) and is happy spending whole days lying down, reading (guilty, your honour). But it intrigues me that, being messy in the home, doesn’t extend to the workplace. Both Jo and I are also editors (Jo is senior editor at the Wheeler Centre). I’ve been thinking about this. Perhaps, amidst the chaos, it’s comforting to be able to wrangle words and get them into order…

After reading Boomer & Me, I commissioned Jo to write the feature article for Newswrite (the magazine for the NSW Writers’ Centre that I edit) about revealing the self in memoir. Little did I know, that she agreed just days before being asked by The Australian to review my novel just_a_girl. So there we were, in contact regarding editorial stuff, but she had a little secret she was keeping from me. Thank god it was a decent review! The writing community in Australia does feel like a small town, sometimes.

I spoke to Jo about writing memoir, expectations to be a ‘good mother’ and what the future holds…

When you were pregnant, what were your expectations regarding having a baby and writing? Were you planning to write after the baby was born? Were you planning to write at all?

When I was pregnant, I think I was just concerned with getting through the experience and managing a baby. (I hadn’t planned my pregnancy and my relationship was precarious — I’d split from my partner a few days before I found out I was pregnant, and we got back together during my pregnancy.)

I starting writing book reviews for the trade magazine Bookseller and Publisher while I was pregnant — the first place I ever got my reviews published. And when I was pregnant, and later when my son was a few months old, I went back to uni part-time to do a Communications course, majoring in writing. So while I didn’t consciously think about it, I guess writing was both on my mind and being practiced.

What was it like in reality? Did you get any writing done in the first year after your baby was born?

I wrote a couple of short stories and some uni essays, as well as some book reviews for Bookseller and Publisher. I got a part-time job one day a week writing annotations of books for DW Thorpe (now Thorpe Bowker), the company that publishes Bookseller and Publisher. My son’s father and I broke up when my son was nine months old, so I wasn’t really doing any of that more personal project-based writing. It was mostly work or study-based.

As a working mother, do you find it difficult to sit down and write? Or is it the opposite? Are you more creative, as you have less time, and have to be super-disciplined?

I do find it hard to find the time to sit down and write — though actually, it’s less about making time (which I can do) than about making the headspace to start something new. When I was writing my book, I was able to immerse myself in it and write. Starting it was hard; I think I was held back by an anxiety about creating something bad. But once I was into it, I could slip in and out of the writing, and was more at ease (if not entirely) with the idea that what I wrote would, at first, not be terribly good. I am lucky in that my son, who is now 14, is pretty good at entertaining himself. I was often concerned about ignoring my family to write, but I’ve come to the stage where, if I follow my son into his room to spend time with him, he gently (or not so gently) suggests I go find something to do. Which is strangely freeing.

At what point, did you start thinking about shaping the life around you into Boomer & Me?

Jo Case, Boomer and MeMy publisher, Rose Michael, approached me after reading an essay I had written in the Age about my son, football and Asperger’s — and a couple of opinion pieces I’d written about motherhood. She asked me if I had ever thought about writing a book on these themes. As it turned out, I had, but I had never quite had the confidence to believe that my desire to shape my life into a book was anything other than narcissistic .(Doesn’t everyone think they can write a book?) I had started to think about writing a book soon after my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s. I kept a personal blog on an almost daily basis, at times, and I had written a lot about my experiences. I had also looked for memoirs by other parents and people with Asperger’s, and not found much that really spoke to me, so I suspected that there was a readership there. But Rose gave me the confidence to actually do something about my suspicion.

Was it always going to be memoir? Did you ever think it might be easier to write a novel?

It was always going to be a memoir. That was how it would be most useful, I thought, to others who were looking for companionship or insight into the experience of having a child diagnosed with Asperger’s, or struggling to be a ‘good enough’ mother and never feeling quite like they’d hit the mark.

Did you have a diary or journal where you noted down things in your life, or were you able to recall events as you started writing?

I was lucky: I had diaries, a blog and many, many emails back and forth to people in my life. All of these things made it much easier to reconstruct and reflect on the past, and to find details to make it come to life and give it texture. I’m especially lucky that I am a magpie for dialogue — I like to write down what people say.

With your book, a memoir of motherhood, it’s quite different to tackling a novel (in some ways it’s the same). How did you draw the line — in terms of what to write about, and what to keep to yourself?

I did what I call ‘write hot, edit cold’. In other words, I didn’t really censor myself as I wrote, but I thought carefully about what to leave in and what to take out when I redrafted and edited the book. I wasn’t too worried about what to write about myself; my main concern was protecting the confidences of others in my life. I drew the line at reporting conversations in a doctor’s office that went inside my son’s head, or revealing other people’s secrets. That said, I also made sure, before I agreed to write the book, that I would reveal my own flaws and insecurities. I don’t believe it’s worth writing a memoir if you’re not prepared to reveal what goes on under the surface of your life, or to take some risks. The trick is to make sure that the risks are ones you can live with.

The book really moved me, in the sense that it’s about you as a mother trying to meet (often unrealistic) expectations, and often you feel you have come up short. This balancing act, and tension it creates, is deftly managed in the writing. How difficult is it to be honest about motherhood, when you feel like you don’t live up to what’s expected?

It’s really hard to be honest about my own failings as a mother — well, it’s hard, but it was also a relief. By laying out all the things I felt held me back from being a ‘proper’ mother, I came to the realisation that the most important thing is that I’m there for my son in terms of emotional support, making sure he’s fed, clothed and housed, and that I nurture the person he really is. I show him he is loved, that I value my time with him, and I take an interest in what he’s interested in. I still feel guilty that I don’t cook every night, that the house is often messy, and that I don’t make the easy connections to other mothers that I see happen in the schoolyard, but I know at heart that it’s better to fail at these things than at the things I actually do well. Writing the book helped me to come to this conclusion.

Some of your dealings with other mothers bring about the most painful (and, at times, excruciatingly funny) moments in the book. Do you think that things have shifted these days and there’s too much pressure to be ‘appropriate’?

I suspect there’s always been pressure to be ‘appropriate’ — when I was growing up, there were probably higher expectations than there are now. And I think mothers have always judged each other. I think what’s changed, perhaps, is that there are so many different versions of what a ‘good mother’ looks like, and the different camps fiercely patrol and defend their own territory. Because if being a good mother can look nothing like you, what does that mean? Does it mean YOU’RE the bad mother? I think we all need to learn to be more tolerant of people who parent differently to us, and accept there are lots of ways to do it ‘right’.

One of the key aspects of the book is your son’s (and possibly your) diagnosis as being on the Asperger’s spectrum. Like you, as a reader, I felt torn between the desire to label behaviour, and the desire to seek joy in things just the way they are. Since writing the book, has knowing the diagnosis changed your lives in a substantial way? Or has it in the end just involved more questioning?

It’s hard to say. Sometimes I do worry whether the label is limiting — and you need to be vigilant against letting it impose limits, or make it easy to give up, because your Asperger’s means that’s something you don’t do well. But it can also be an explanation why certain things don’t come naturally, and a reminder to work on those things. It’s also been a passport to a community of like-minded souls. And understanding Asperger’s has helped with self-knowledge, which is always valuable. You can’t decide to change, evolve, or stay the same without knowing that there is a choice and what that choice means. There is always questioning, too. But I think anyone who is Asperger’s, or has Asperger’s traits, will question pretty much everything anyway.

I love the intimacy of the relationship that you recreate with your son: the way you watch Simpsons on the couch, read and discuss books, the toilet humour, the half-cooked cakes you bake for his birthday. As a mother who likes nothing better than lying on a couch all day and reading, I really enjoyed how you negotiate these spaces together happily (even though you forget to pick him up from school one day because you are engrossed in a book, but even that made me laugh with delight — oops). You mention early in the book that many of the problems your son encounters happen outside the home. Do you think your mothering style is just naturally aligned with him, and that teachers/schools could be more flexible to accommodate?

I think that my son and I are very much alike, and so we naturally suit each other. We can go to a café and read magazines or newspapers together in silence and be very happy, or watch a 30 Rock marathon for hours. But there are other factors. School is an institutional environment built to suit the average, whereas home is an intimate environment built to suit the individuals in it. Schools can be more flexible (and my son’s high school is) in helping to provide time out for when Aspie kids lose their tempers or have emotional meltdowns, and similar measures. I think schools are getting better as they learn more about Aspergers. But not all of them.

I feel like I need an update: of what happens to you and your son during the teen years. Are you interested in writing more about your lives in the future? Or fiction perhaps?

I won’t be writing about my son in the context of Aspergers again: I’m finished with that. It was a positive thing to do, but emotionally wrenching too. If I include him in personal writing again, it would be on the margins, and I won’t go beneath the surface of him as a character. He’s a teenager; he needs his privacy. Fiction is a possibility I’m toying with, though not quite about us.

WANT TO WIN A SIGNED COPY OF JO CASE’S BOOMER & ME? ENTER MY JUST_A_GIRL BOOK-HAMPER COMPETITION

HAVE YOU READ JO CASE’S BOOK? OR OTHER MEMOIRS ON MOTHERHOOD THAT YOU HAVE ENJOYED? WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS…

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to check out other interviews in my Writing Mothers series (including Anna Funder, Kirsten Tranter and Annabel Smith)…

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