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Friday Night Fictions: author profile Laura Jean Mackay

Friday Night Fictions debut author: Laura Jean McKay

Friday Night Fictions debut author: Laura Jean McKay

I first came across Laura Jean McKay’s collection of short stories Holiday in Cambodia when I was researching new books set in the region, inspired by Walter Mason’s Destination Cambodia. After a brief trip there in 2005, it’s a country I have remained fascinated with. I wrote voraciously about it at the time (must fossick for that notebook!) and remember, at the end of each day travelling, being exhilarated and exhausted by the conflicting imagery — the gut-wrenching violence of the Killing Fields tour; the joy on the face of a girl as she gave me a tarantula to eat — and the sudden awareness of the richness of my life, in all senses of the word (see Laura’s reflections on this later).

So I was thrilled when Laura sent in her book to be featured in November’s Friday Night Fictions club for debut authors. Her collection is harrowing, gutsy and makes you squirm at times. She takes on a variety of perspectives, all confidently characterised, including the dreams of local Cambodians — a young prostitute; a woman who works in a factory — interspersed with the more familiar terrain (for Australians) of the tourist abroad.

The writing is straight, finely tuned and never sentimental. And while I don’t think shorts exist merely as a lead-in to longer work (see my recent review in The Australian of The Great Unknown and Sleepers Almanac), it’s a sign for me of the writer’s potential if I’m left at the end of a short story desperate to know more.

When I interviewed Laura, I was particularly interested to hear that her dad was a writer — as my father is too. I’ve often wondered whether people can have a ‘writer gene’, where they are born to write, as it often feels like this when I do it. I still think it’s pretty much all about hard work and resilience but, comparing my books with my dad’s, there’s a similar voice that emerges, a style that we seem to share. I also love her comments about shyness and eccentricity (as I’ve unearthed ideas about this on the blog along the way).

And I’m very grateful that she chose to ignore those people who told her not to bother with a short story collection, because ‘people won’t read it’. We need more of them published! You can hear Laura reading one of her short stories ‘The Expatriate’ if you fancy a taste.

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

Laura Jean McKay's debut collection of short stories, Holiday in Cambodia

Laura Jean McKay’s debut collection of short stories, Holiday in Cambodia

I don’t think there was a moment where I thought ‘I will be a writer’ but there was definitely a point when I started writing. My dad, who was a poet, died before I was born. Mum and some of his friends published his poems in a book that was always around the house when I was little. When I was 11 or 12 I found a suitcase of all his drafts — those scraps of paper and notebooks that most writers have. I think seeing that process, a whole suitcase filled with process, and knowing about the final product of the book had a big influence on me. I started writing poetry using sort of the language he used. So there was this kid poetry — often written in texta — with this adult man imagery. It makes for pretty strange and interesting reading. I guess poetry taught me how to look at the world — and then I found prose.

Your book is a collection of short stories set in Cambodia. Did you set about from the start to publish a collection of short stories? Or did you write one story at a time and start to see the connections?

I actually started off writing an historical novel about the 60s surf rock music scene that was rocking Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge. I wrote about ten or twenty thousand words of it and realised I couldn’t fit all I wanted into that structure. I naturally default to writing short stories — I think I always will — and so as well as struggling through the novel I’d been bashing out these stories about modern Cambodia. After a while I realised that I was working on a collection and that this was the only structure that would allow me to say what I wanted to say. The novel is in there though! It’s a story called ‘Breakfast’ and I reckon I wrote a whole novella’s worth to get to the final 5000 words. I don’t know why it was so hard — maybe because it was carrying the weight of the novel or maybe because so much was lost when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in April ’75. It’s not a sad story but I found it incredibly hard to write because I was writing about a lost time, a time not without problems, but when Cambodia was independent and thriving.

A lot of people told me not to write a short story collection, that it wouldn’t be published and that people didn’t read them. I thought, ‘Well, I can either write a novel that I know isn’t going to be what I want it to be, or a short story collection that will.’ My partner says I’m dogged that way …

Why Cambodia? Did it start off as a holiday?

I first went to Cambodia as a volunteer aid worker in 2007. Phnom Penh, and Cambodia, was really doing pretty well by then — a lot of people had adjusted to independence from the UN and there were facilities in place, roads and mobile phone services, cafes etc. Cambodian people were reviving traditions and doing incredible things with education. I got a job working up in the remote north and expats told me stories about how all the aid workers used to meet every Friday night as a rule so that they would know everyone was still alive and not lost or shot somewhere out in the jungle. Still, I was completely bowled over by the levels of poverty, the lack of infrastructure, the corruption and the violence. I saw a man using his chin to cross a busy road in Phnom Penh because that was what he had left to use. I knew that behind the polite and smiling exterior that most tourists experience on a holiday, the levels of domestic violence were (and possibly still are) astronomical. The tourist/expat scene of which I was a part, completely shocked me as well. I was repulsed by the things I said and the assumptions I made and the way I acted. My perception of what ‘rich’ is completely changed as I realised that money in the bank was one thing, living in a country that will care for you if you’re old, young, physically or mentally disabled, a single parent etc, is another. I realised I was billionaire-rich because I was from a location in the world and of a race and had a passport that meant I would probably be looked after. This all makes for a lot to write about …

Why did you choose the Dead Kennedys song as your title (other than that it’s catchy!)?

The title for the book came very late in the piece, after I’d completely rewritten the first draft and I was about to send it out to publishers. I used to hang out in the 90s punk scene in Brisbane, where my contribution was having blue hair and attending a lot of gigs, and I remember hearing ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ on a CD for the first time and thinking that the Dead Kennedys really knew about everything. I think I was singing the song to myself in 2012 when I was taking a break from writing and realised that the lyrics of that song (written in 1980) still applied, that I had experienced a version of what Jello Biafra was describing, and that Holiday in Cambodia was the title for my book. If there is a central question to the collection, I guess it’s: how can you have a holiday in Cambodia? It’s like having a holiday in Rwanda, or Syria.

Recently Jello Biafra’s agent wrote asking for a few copies of the book …

What is it that you love most about writing?

Everything and nothing. I love the first image that I see so clearly it’s as though it has happened, and I know there might be a story there. I love when I’m writing absolute shit and it’s impossible and it’s only the fear and guilt that’s driving me on (fear that I won’t finish it, guilt that I’ve given up everything else to do it) and the shitness builds and builds like a bubble and then pop I’m through it — I know what I’m writing and that it will be okay. I love that every time I write I have to solve a series of problems and if I do that I can handle most things. I love getting something to the point where it’s as good as I’m physically and mentally and emotionally capable of producing and knowing that, with a good editor, I’ll be able to take it even further. I love being inside a story — where I’m not thinking about it but I’m so in it that it takes up my everything, even when I’m not working on it. You know?

How did you go about getting the book published?

It wasn’t as hard people said it would be but it wasn’t as easy as some publishing tales I’ve heard either. I sent it to one publisher before it was ready and that was a mistake. I imagined they would see what I envisioned for it and instead they, understandably, saw what I gave them. I got some truly lovely feedback and only one shitty rejection. Most people wanted to see ‘my novel’. It didn’t take too long before I had a great meeting with Black Inc. who said they liked the work and wanted it. I admired the hell out of their books already so it was exciting but also it felt just right.

I wrote two novel manuscripts in my 20s so I knew how to write longer works but I didn’t know how to take them to the next stage. I thought the process was: write the first draft, ‘edit’ it to make the sentences nicer, proof read, send to your favourite publisher. I didn’t understand how the process of rewriting 50 per cent of the book until it’s almost unrecognisable could bring it to a stage where a publisher could see it as a book. Now I’m writing a novel and I’m working on getting the story out and the characters and voice right without being too particular, knowing that in the next draft I’ll kick its arse.

You set yourself the challenging goal of writing from many character perspectives, both Cambodian and traveller. How did you research the Cambodian characters in particular? And how did you check that the writing seemed true?

I didn’t set out to write from a lot of different perspectives. I think every short story (or every piece of writing) needs to be treated as unique, something with its own needs that might be vastly different from the previous story I wrote. That’s probably where the different perspectives come from. Often I would write a story from one perspective and change it in the next draft. With the story ‘Like no one is watching’, I originally wrote the whole thing from the perspective of a Cambodian woman. It’s about acid throwing in Cambodia, which used to happen quite a bit as a ‘crime of passion’. Someone would get jealous about a real or perceived affair and would buy acid from the market for a few dollars and throw it on the face of their partner or the person they thought their partner was with. Often it doesn’t kill the person but maims them horribly — it’s incredibly painful and damaging. I realised that I needed to tell it from a Western perspective because not only is it an awful situation but it’s so culturally scary. I wanted to juxtapose that with the culturally awful things that Westerners do.

I did a Masters degree researching stories written about Cambodia by Cambodian and non-Cambodian writers. I also used my experiences, showed some stories to friends in Cambodia and generally sought advice. I worked with a great writing group in Phnom Penh who were so encouraging and inspiring. Although I don’t speak Khmer I was really influenced by the stories that I was told or that were published in English — both by contemporary and older Cambodian writers. One of the stories I wrote was published in Nou Hach literary journal in Phnom Penh — that felt really good.

I had a book launch of Holiday in Cambodia in Phnom Penh and Chakriya Phou — a writer whose work I love — launched it. Her take on the stories was so incredible — I learnt things about Cambodia from her speech that I wouldn’t have been able to access if we weren’t in touch through writing. Having said that, the stories are fiction. They’re not true. I would be very surprised if some people didn’t find them inaccurate and sometimes offensive. I don’t think you can escape that as a fiction writer, especially one writing about a different country and culture. I guess that’s another reason I called it Holiday in Cambodia, to make it clear that I am always a tourist in the places I write about.

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?

Janet Frame's short stories were a great influence on Laura Jean McKay's work

Janet Frame’s short stories were a great influence on Laura Jean McKay’s work

My partner, Tom Doig, is also a writer and last year we started our PhDs and moved to Portarlington, a bay-side town on the Bellarine Peninsula. We did that so we could write and to write we needed to be in a place where we knew no one. I have actively resisted making friends here. Before that we were living in a unit in Brunswick overlooking our concrete car space and we were pathologically social. We had spaces in an awesome writers’ studio and met with friends every other day and there were festivals and parties and I said yes to everything. Sometimes I think I was drawn to short stories because I could get one out in a couple of writing sessions and still go to the thing I had on that night. But I also want to write novels and a quiet town with the bay out the window is the company I need at the moment.

Now my writing community is more formal. I see people at writers’ festivals and meet up with a writing group every six weeks or so where we rip each other’s stories to shreds and drink tea. I miss my friends and family, though, and go into the city to hug them when I can.

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

Because I’d tested out a lot of my awful behaviour and mistakes on my first manuscripts, I felt that the creation of this one went pretty well, in that I had some terrific readers to go through the first draft and tell me all the things that needed to be done. I knew how much work I’d need to do to make it publishable. I wasn’t under any illusions about some magical muse who would take me away or that I would be discovered. In retrospect, with the first manuscripts, I had some incredible opportunities presented to me that I either didn’t recognise or was too shy to take up. I was so shy. People don’t think so because I like performing and being on stage. I’ve learnt that eccentricity is more productive than shyness so have settled for that.

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

I don’t love all of one author’s work and I think that’s a good thing. It shows that they’ve changed and developed and challenged themselves, trying new things that appeal to different readers. I adore almost every Janet Frame short story I’ve read, for example, but can’t read her novels. Same with Lorrie Moore. Gritty realist literary fiction with a dystopian edge is probably the book shelf I would gravitate towards in the ultimate bookshop!

Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things changed Laura's perception of the novel

Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things changed Laura’s perception of the novel

When I was younger, poets like William Blake, Sylvia Plath and Leonard Cohen (I didn’t know that Cohen was a singer for a very long time) influenced me. I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things when I was 20 and it changed my idea of how a novel could be. Janet Frame’s The Lagoon and Other Stories and JD Salinger’s To Esme with Love and Squalor are short story collections that I have read over and over again — they are so perfect and flawed: the best combination. I really love Raymond Carver’s work. I resist reading novels by Russian writers (translated) because I love them too much and I can’t do anything else while I’m reading them – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are my favourites. Knowing writers like Romy Ash and Anna Krien and seeing their work develop and their books come out has been amazing. I saw how hard they worked and how great that work was and thought, shit, I’d better work about three times harder than I do now!

Living out in the country means more time to read and in the last year I have read such brilliant books by Australian authors: Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, Jessie Cole’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish are three that have recently blown my mind. I’m just starting Charlotte Wood’s Animal People and Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. This list could change completely tomorrow. This is what has influenced me today.

The wonderful Angela Savage, who writes detective novels set in Bangkok, has written a terrific review of Holiday in Cambodia.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? HAVE YOU READ ANY BOOKS ABOUT CAMBODIA, OR OTHER COUNTRIES IN ASIA? HAVE YOU TRIED TO WRITE ONE?

If you are working on your first novel or short story collection, you can find out more about Friday Night Fictions here or read profiles of other debut authors Tracy Farr, Michael Adams and Nina Smith.

Author Kirsten Krauth aka Wild Colonial Girl is on Facebook. If you could LIKE I would surely LOVE.

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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?

 

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)…

just_a_girl Christmas competition: win a book-hamper

FracturedI thought I’d get in the Christmas spirit and hold a little competition …

So … I have a prize pack on offer of 10 BOOKS from some of the fabulous writers who’ve shared their stories on Wild Colonial Girl over the past year. The winning Christmas book-hamper features SIGNED copies of:

  • Simmone Howell – Girl Defective
  • Walter Mason – Destination Cambodia
  • Jon Bauer – Rocks in the Belly
  • Jenn J McLeod – House for all Seasons
  • Jessie Cole – Darkness On the Edge of Town
  • Annabel Smith – Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot
  • Dawn Barker – Fractured
  • Angela Meyer (editor) – The Great Unknown collection
  • Jo Case – Boomer and Me
  • Wendy James – The Mistake

TO WIN?

My novel, just_a_girl, has just been listed as an e-book at Amazon.com.au and it’s looking a wee bit lonely.

Simply write a review (2 words, 2 sentences, 2 paras, a thesis – I don’t mind) and put it on Amazon here by 31 December (gives you a bit of time to do some holiday reading).

I’ll be choosing the winner (most unique response) on 1 January, and will announce it on the blog early in the New Year when I’ve recovered from staying up to 9pm to watch the fireworks (it’s never the same after you have kids).

I’ll also feature some of the reviews I love on Wild Colonial Girl next year.

THE BOOK-HAMPER: here’s a spotlight on the books you might win

Simmone Howell, Girl Defective

Girl Defective“It was just Dad and me and Gully living in the flat above the shop in Blessington Street, St Kilda. We, the Martin family, were like inverse superheroes, marked by our defects. Dad was addicted to beer and bootlegs. Gully had ‘social difficulties’ that manifested in his wearing a pig-snout mask 24/7. I was surface clean but underneath a weird hormonal stew was simmering. My defects weren’t the kind you could see just from looking. Later I would decide they were symptoms of Nancy.”

This is the story of a wild girl and a ghost girl; a boy who knew nothing and a boy who thought he knew everything. And it’s about life and death and grief and romance.

All the good stuff.

From the award-winning author of Notes from the Teenage Underground, and Everything Beautiful.

Walter Mason, Destination Cambodia

Walter Mason, Destination CambodiaThe ancient and mysterious ruins of Cambodia have long captured the imagination of visitors, more so now than ever before. In Destination Cambodia, Walter Mason charts an affectionate, intimate and deeply personal look at a Kingdom that has drawn him back again and again since his youth.

Whether he’s watching young monks recite the Buddha’s life stories, visiting shamans and fortune tellers, or discovering the darker alleys of Phnom Penh with a romantic novelist and a world-weary street hustler, Walter takes the reader straight to the heart of this famously unknowable country. As heat, dust and weariness take their toll, he remains alive to the charms, and even seductions, of a place that was once a byword for misery and human suffering.

Destination Cambodia takes us on a joyful and constantly fascinating literary journey in which Cambodia is vibrant and its people excited about the future while never denying their haunted past.

Jon Bauer, Rocks in the Belly

Jon Bauer, Rocks in the BellyHow far can you push a child?

Rocks in the Belly follows a precocious eight-year-old boy and the volatile adult he becomes. During childhood his mother fosters boys despite the jealous turmoil it arouses in her son. Jealousy that reaches unmanageable proportions when she fosters Robert, and triggers an event that profoundly changes everyone. Especially Robert.

At twenty-eight the son returns to face his mother. He hasn’t forgiven her for what happened. But now she’s the dependent one and he the dominant.

Jenn J McLeod, House for All Seasons

Jenn J Mcleod, House for all SeasonsBequeathed a century-old house, four estranged friends return to their home town, Calingarry Crossing, where each must stay for a season to fulfil the wishes of their beloved benefactor, Gypsy. Here they finally face the consequences of the tragic accident that occurred twenty years ago and changed their lives forever.

Sara, a breast cancer survivor afraid to fall in love;

Poppy, an ambitious journo craving her father’s approval;

Amber, a spoilt socialite looking for some purpose to life.

Jessie Cole, Darkness On the Edge of Town

Darkness on the Edge of TownMy dad, he collects broken things … Where other people see junk he sees potential … My dad collects broken people too …

Vincent is nearly forty years old, with little to show for his life except his precious sixteen-year-old daughter, Gemma: sensitive, insightful and wise beyond her years.

When a stranger crashes her car outside Vincent and Gemma′s bush home, their lives take a dramatic turn. In an effort to help the stranded woman, father and daughter are drawn into a world of unexpected and life-changing consequences.

DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN is a haunting tale that beguiles the reader with its deceptively simple prose, its gripping and unrelenting tensions, and its disturbing yet tender observations.

Annabel Smith, Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot

Annabel Smith, Whisky, Charlie, FoxtrotWhisky and Charlie are identical twins. But everything about them is poles apart. It’s got so bad that Charlie can’t even bear to talk to his brother anymore – until a freak accident steals Whisky from his family, and Charlie has to face the fact he may never speak to his brother again.

‘It is rare to encounter fiction that will appeal to adults and Young Adults alike that so intelligently explores the downright messiness of family relationships through adult characters; rarer still to find an author who writes of traumatic injury and the looming shadow of death with such verve and sensitivity.’ Australian Book Review

‘… by far the enduring sense of this novel is of having been in the hands of a storyteller with more than just a good story, one with something to say about how to live, and the energy and pluck to say it.’ The Australian

Dawn Barker, Fractured

FracturedAn unforgettable novel that brings to life a new mother’s worst fears.

Tony is worried. His wife, Anna, isn’t coping with their newborn. Anna had wanted a child so badly and, when Jack was born, they were both so happy. They’d come home from the hospital a family. Was it really only six weeks ago?

But Anna hasn’t been herself since. One moment she’s crying, the next she seems almost too positive. It must be normal with a baby, Tony thought; she’s just adjusting. He had been busy at work. It would sort itself out. But now Anna and Jack are missing. And Tony realises that something is really wrong…

What happens to this family will break your heart and leave you breathless.

Angela Meyer (editor), The Great Unknown

The Great UnknownThe imaginative stories in The Great Unknown take inspiration from vintage American TV programs such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits—and their contemporaries and successors—paying tribute to the cultural influence these shows have had on lives ‘down under’.

Episodes of these programs were often metaphors for equality, justice, the nuclear threat and other issues, while being memorably spooky and fun. Editor Angela Meyer wanted to see what themes might seep into the writing of contemporary Australian writers working with the spooky, the strange, the eerie, the fantastic, the speculative, the macabre and the absurd.

Jo Case, Boomer and Me: a memoir of motherhood, and Asperger’s

Jo Case, Boomer and MeLeo is having trouble fitting in. Whether it’s pulling his pants down in the schoolyard or compulsively saluting Mazdas because the company sponsors his football team, Leo can never seem to say or do the right thing. And Jo is struggling to help him find his place as she juggles work and the ordinary demands of motherhood. But her beloved only child has been reading novels since he started school, amazes strangers with his encyclopaedic knowledge of sport statistics, and displays a wit sharp beyond his years – could he be gifted? In fact, it turns out Leo has Asperger’s Syndrome.

This is the bittersweet, blackly funny story of a boy and his very twenty-first-century family, and why being different isn’t a disability – it just takes a bit of getting used to.

Wendy James, The Mistake

Wendy James, The MistakeThe past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past …

Jodie Garrow is a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks when she falls pregnant. Scared, alone and desperate to make something of her life, she makes the decision to adopt out her baby – and tells nobody.

Twenty-five years on, Jodie has built a whole new life and a whole new family. But when a chance meeting brings the illegal adoption to the notice of the authorities, Jodie becomes embroiled in a nationwide police investigation for the missing child, and the centre of a media witch hunt.

Friday Night Fictions: November 2013

Howdy again, and hope you enjoy the final edition of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS for the year*. This NOVEMBER issue, we’ve got high-pumping action, a fair smattering of YA, short stories galore and literary fiction to blow your mind. I love the mix that comes in each month…

I also did a recent debut author profile of Mr September, Michael Adams, about his genre-bending novel, The Last Girl (that slips between YA and lit fiction). Coming up soon is Tracy Farr  (whose Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt featured in the OCTOBER edition).

AND my pick of the month this time is Laura Jean McKay’s Holiday in Cambodia. I’ve heard great things about this debut, and it continues a Cambodia thread that I seem to be following… I look forward to talking to Laura Jean and finding out more about her book.

I’m really excited to hear what all the FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS authors have been up to. Many are getting coverage on blogs and in mainstream newspapers. A big thanks to the writers who have started commenting on, and writing about, other writers’ work. I’ll be posting reviews and comments as they come in.

Sharon Kernot has done a wonderful review of Margaret Merrilees’ The First Week (see the Reviews section at the bottom of the OCTOBER edition). Even now, with a few reviews under my belt, I know how exciting it is to see someone engage in a meaningful way with the book (and finding out another writer’s views can be especially stimulating!).

If you’re new to FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS, you can find out more here, read the AUGUST, SEPTEMBER and OCTOBER editions + read my author profile of Nina Smith (Hailstone).

If you’re a debut author who’s been published in 2013 (or 2014 as it comes), and would like to contribute, read the guidelines and contact me.

*FNF will take a few months’ break (I’m hoping to spend a bit more time offline) but will be back at the end of February. Have a great Christmas and New Year, relax, read, and write (if that’s what you’re planning)…

SCOTT BAKER, The Rule of Knowledge

Scott Baker, The Rule O fKnowledge Faith, history, science and love collide in this fast-paced action adventure. High school teacher Shaun Strickland is shocked when he receives a last-minute invitation from Cambridge University to deliver a paper on the relationship between space and time, something he has been studying for years. It’s the break he’s been longing for.

But as he speeds through the cold Carolina night, his car slams hard into something surging from the bushes; an old and tattered hobo, carrying an ancient package whose mystery is irresistible. But there is something else, a book, sealed airtight for millennia, written in modern English, and predicting the exact moment it will be found.

Relentlessly pursued, Shaun must immerse himself in an ancient world to uncover something bigger than he could have possibly imagined.

What he finds is that much more than his own fate is at stake…

‘Indiana Jones’ meets ‘Back to the Future.’

In stores now. Buy the book online.

KASPER BEAUMONT, Elven Jewel

Kasper Beaumont, Elven JewelThis sword and sorcery fantasy begins when the magical continent of Reloria is threatened by cruel, scaly invaders called Vergai from the wastelands of Vergash. These invaders are barbaric and are intent on destroying the protective elven forcefield and conquering peaceful Reloria.

Halfling friends Randir and Fendi and their bond-fairies are the first to discover the invaders and they embark on a quest to save the threatened Elven Jewel.

They leave their peaceful farm village with their fairies and race against time to stop the invaders. They join forces with dwarves, elves, men and a mysterious dragon, and call themselves the Hunters of Reloria.

The quest is perilous, with numerous encounters with the ruthless Vergai. The Elven Jewel is stolen and the quest becomes a race to the portal to retrieve the jewel before it can be taken to Vergash.

Online extract and YouTube clip.

Buy the book at Smashwords, Amazon.com and Writersweb.com.au.

FELICITY CASTAGNA, The Incredible Here and Now

Felicity Castagna, The Incredible Here And NowSomething terrible happens the summer Michael turns 15.

But The Incredible Here and Now is not about tragedy. It is about his place, the West, where ‘those who don’t know any better drive through the neighbourhood and lock their car doors’.

But Michael knows it intimately and lets the reader in: to the unsettled life of his family, the friends who gather in the McDonald’s car park at night, the one girl who will acknowledge he’s alive, the white Pontiac Trans Am that lights up his life like an omen.

It is here that he finds an escape from his mother’s growing silence and the absence of his brother Dom, who could charm the whole world with his energy and daring.

Michael’s stories are about love and joy and wonder, felt in the company of friends, and in the place he lives in.

Read an extract from the text.

Buy the book.

Meet Felicity at her website and on Twitter.

ELIZA CREWE, Cracked

Eliza Crewe, CrackedAt 17, Meda Melange is already an experienced serial killer. It’s not her fault, she doesn’t do it because she likes it (though she does). Meda eats souls, and there’s really only one place to get them — and it’s not the Piggly Wiggly. Then Meda learns she’s not the only soul-eater, she’s part demon, and the other demons are out to get her.

Fortunately, Meda finds the perfect place to hide — in a school for demon-hunters. The modern Knights Templar are dedicated to fighting demons and protecting Beacons, people marked by God as good for mankind. Because the demons are determined to kill her, the Templars are convinced Meda is a Beacon trying to fulfill her destiny.

Meda’s goals are far less saintly. She just wants to find out why the demons are out to get her and, well, that’s easier to do with back-up — even if her back-up would kill her if they knew the truth.

Meet Eliza at her Website + Twitter.

Buy the book:
Worldwide (except India): The Robot Reader (E-book).
AU: Booktopia + Readings.
UK: Amazon + Book Depository  + Waterstones.
US: Amazon  + Barnes and Noble + Indiebound + Powell’s.
Canada: Amazon + Chapters + Kobo.

LESLEY DIMMOCK, Out of Time

Lesley Dimmock, Out Of TimeLife is about to get really complicated for Lindsay ap Rhys ap Gruffud as Queen Elizabeth the First lands in her garden.

Not only does Lindsay have to try and find a way to get Elizabeth back to her own time …

… but she also needs to avoid the thing she dreads most — falling in love — as Lindsay’s best mate, Meg, enlists librarian, Kate Spencer on the quest to send Elizabeth home before a sixteenth century plot to seize the throne can succeed.

Time is running out … for Elizabeth I and Lindsay ap Rhys ap Gruffud

Read an excerpt.

Buy the ebook at Amazon,  iTunes and Lulu.

Meet Lesley on Facebook  and Twitter, and at her blog.

NICOLE HAYES, The Whole of My World

Nicole Hayes, The Whole Of My WorldDesperate to escape her grieving father and harbouring her own terrible secret, Shelley disappears into the intoxicating world of Aussie Rules football. Joining a motley crew of footy tragics — and, best of all, making friends with one of the star players — Shelley finds somewhere to belong. Finally she’s winning.

So why don’t her friends get it? Josh, who she’s known all her life, but who she can barely look at anymore because of the memories of that fateful day. Tara, whose cold silences Shelley can’t understand. Everyone thinks there’s something more going on between Shelley and Mick. But there isn’t — is there?

When the whole of your world is football, sometimes life gets lost between goals.

“A poignant coming-of-age tale with a fresh, original angle. No matter what your feelings are about AFL, this novel is bound to have you cheering by the end.” – Junior Books + Publisher

Buy the book at bookshops, at Random House, Booktopia and Bookworld, as an e-book at all the major outlets in Australia, and in the USA and the UK, where you can also buy the paperback.

Read the first chapter here. Find Teachers’ Notes at the Random House Website and an interview at Hypable.

Like The Whole of My World on Facebook and visit Nicole’s website for more information. Or follow her on Twitter @nichmelbourne.

AMANDA HICKIE, AfterZoe

Amanda Hickie, AfterZoeZoe’s not completely happy with the way her life has turned out but she’s even less impressed with her death.

She is blindsided by an afterlife of perpetual contentment arranged by paternalistic angels. Most of heaven’s population enjoy their eternity with the aid of an elixir which ensures they forget their loved ones, but Zoe doesn’t want to forget.

She joins an underground resistance group and starts to explore the might-have-beens with an old lover.

Zoe’s insistence on her right to absolute memory becomes more complex when her husband shows up.

This alternative heaven explores the nature of relationships, the possibility of identity without memory and what it would take to be happy for eternity.

The book is available in paperback and on Kindle, Smashwords, Kobo, iBooks and others.

Find out more and read an extract here.

JANIS HILL, Bonnie’s Story: A Blonde’s Guide to Mathematics

Bonnies StoryA Young Adult/New Adult chick lit tale told by Bonnie, a smart self-imposed blonde hairdresser with an attitude and cynical outlook on the life of science she grew up in.

The first time I met Rogan, he was wandering down my street taking pictures of the street signs with his phone.

His name wasn’t really Rogan, it was Josh, but due to the crowd he hung around with and the quirky sense of humour science geek types have, he’d become Rogan Josh. Rogan for short.

Still, this wasn’t something I learned until a lot later.

Since meeting him, I’ve not just learnt this little soliloquy; I’ve visited the Moon, watched life begin, and discovered the true depth of mathematics. I can tell you now; maths really isn’t as boring as you’d have thought.

Click here to read the full sample and for details on how to purchase the book.

HEATHER KINNANE, A Faery Dream

Heather Kinnane, A Faery DreamEver had a dream you wished would come true?

Melissa is blessed, or cursed as she most often feels is the case, with the ability to dream true; an ability she knows was passed down from the mother she never met.

Now in her 30s, and plodding along in her failing relationship with Tom, Melissa is having dreams she wishes were prophetic.

Tall, strong and sexy Kellen lives in the forest, clad usually in nothing but a loin cloth. Though he makes her heart flutter, and is the man of her dreams in more ways than one, Melissa knows this dream is too far from reality to ever come true.

So when Kellen does turn up in Melissa’s life, with secrets from her past and plans for her future, can Melissa trust that this dream isn’t too good to be true?

Buy the book.

Read an excerpt.

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

“It’s about porn/love, isolation/connection, sexualisation/justification, misogyny/mentality, Facebook and the face-to-face. It’s about our world, right now, and it’s a little bit brilliant.” – Danielle Binks, ALPHA READER.

Read an extractBook Club Notes are available.

Buy the printed version at ReadingsBooktopia or Amazon. The ebook is available at Amazon.com.au and iBooks.

International readers please contact me direct…

See reviews of just_a_girl here.

Contact Kirsten at Goodreads, her blog (Wild Colonial Girl), Facebook and Twitter. You can see her read from her work at the Sydney book launch, along with Emily Maguire (who introduced it).

LAURA JEAN McKAY, Holiday in Cambodia

Laura Jean McKay, Holiday In CambodiaBeyond the killing fields and the temples of Angkor is Cambodia: a country with a genocidal past and a wide, open smile. A frontier land where anything is possible — at least for the tourists.

In Holiday in Cambodia Laura Jean McKay explores the electric zone where local and foreign lives meet. There are tender, funny moments of tentative understanding, as well as devastating re-imaginings of a troubled history.

Three backpackers board a train, ignoring the danger signs — and find themselves in the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Elderly sisters are visited by their vampire niece from Australia and set out to cure her.

A singer creates a sensation in swinging 1969, on the eve of an American bombing campaign.

These are bold and haunting stories by a remarkable new talent.

“Polished, Hemingwayesque snapshots, vivid and atmospheric” – Steven Carroll

“Subtly encompassing — these unostentatiously wrought stories look at the residual effects on their characters of the low, persistent fallout of catastrophe.” – James Tierney, The Australian

Buy the book.

Read an extract.

Read reviews in The AustralianCrikey and Artshub.

GERALDINE MEADE, Flick

Geraldine Meade, FlickFelicity Costello, aka Flick, is like any other 16-year-old — except for one difference. A difference she doesn’t want anyone to know about. A difference she hardly admits to herself.

Flick tells the story of a girl struggling with the secret of her sexuality and who goes to great lengths to hide the fact that she’s a lesbian.

In her efforts to conform to what she and her peers think is ‘normal’ Flick’s life spirals out of control until she sees no escape.

Will Flick succumb to the darkness? Or will she find the courage to realise that you can’t help who you fall in love with?

“Flick is the sort of book I wish I could have read in my teens. It never talks down to the reader but still manages to shine a light on some of the darkest and most confusing moments of becoming an adult.” – Graham Norton

Shortlisted for The Reading Association of Ireland’s Children’s Book Awards 2013.

Read an extract of Flick.

Order Flick here.

Buy e-book or paperback here too!

Follow Ger on Twitter or on Facebook.

Meet Ger at her website.

SKYE MELKI-WEGNER, Chasing the Valley

Chasing The ValleyEscape is impossible. Escape is their only hope.

Danika is used to struggling for survival. But when the tyrannous king launches an attack to punish her city — echoing the alchemy bombs that killed Danika’s family — she risks her life in a daring escape over the city’s walls.

Danika joins a crew of desperate refugees who seek Magnetic Valley, a legendary safe haven. But when she accidentally destroys a palace biplane, suddenly Danika Glynn becomes the most wanted fugitive in Taladia.

Pursued by the king’s vicious hunters and betrayed by false allies, Danika also grapples with her burgeoning magical abilities. And when she meets the mysterious Lukas, she must balance her feelings against her crew’s safety.

Chasing the Valley is the first book in an epic trilogy of magic, treachery and survival.

Buy the book at Random House.

Read an extract.

Watch the book trailer.

Get in touch with Skye at her website, Twitter and Facebook.

ANGELA MEYER (editor) AND WRITERS, The Great Unknown

The Great UnknownThe imaginative stories in The Great Unknown take inspiration from vintage American TV programs such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits — and their contemporaries and successors — paying tribute to the cultural influence these shows have had on lives ‘down under’.

Episodes of these programs were often metaphors for equality, justice, the nuclear threat and other issues, while being memorably spooky and fun.

Editor Angela Meyer wanted to see what themes might seep into the writing of contemporary Australian writers working with the spooky, the strange, the eerie, the fantastic, the speculative, the macabre and the absurd.

Authors include Paddy O’Reilly, Ali Alizadeh, Chris Flynn, Carmel Bird, Ryan O’Neill, Marion Halligan, Krissy Kneen, AS Patric, Damon Young, Chris Somerville, PM Newton, Deborah Biancotti and Kathy Charles, and the winner of the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award, Alex Cothren (with his first ever published story).

Find out more about the book at Goodreads and Facebook.

Available in December (and on pre-order) from Readings, Booktopia and Fishpond.

FELICITY VOLK, Lightning

Felicity Volk, LightningAmid the chaos of sweeping bushfires, Persia gives birth alone at home with tragic consequences. Traumatised and grieving, she travels north, and encounters Ahmed, a refugee fleeing deportation and his past in Pakistan.

So begins a road trip to the dead heart of Australia, a journey that transcends the limits of ordinary experience. In Persia and Ahmed’s world, ancient winds wreak havoc across generations, lightning ignites flames that both destroy and rejuvenate, and water drowns then delivers. Hearts break, days are leavened with loss, laughter kills and cinnamon preserves.

Lightning is an odyssey across continents and centuries that explores identity and connection, and our yearning to reveal ourselves even when cloaked in crippling grief.

A moving meditation on finding hope in the rubble of our lives, Lightning celebrates the way our stories and their telling keep us alive when all else is pulling us under.

Lightning can be found at most book retailers including Pan Macmillan, Booktopia, Bookworld and Amazon.

Read an extract.

Meet Felicity at her website and Facebook.

For reviews of Lightning see her website and, specifically, in The Weekend Australian. Read the story behind Lightning.

Writing Mothers: Annabel Smith

Author Annabel Smith

Author Annabel Smith

Novelist Annabel Smith is a writer who kind of slipped by me. I’m not sure how this happened (but she has blogged extensively on it).

I read her first novel A New Map of the Universe earlier this year as if I was in a fever. The language is at times extraordinary. The opening scene where the lovers trace maps of stars on each other’s bodies is *sigh* so erotic, in the best shape of the word, that I felt like I might dissolve. It’s a book about abandonment (something that, as a writer, I identify with strongly), and about mothers who disappear (slowly, slowly). It’s a daring and transcendent debut, packed with emotion and punch.

I read her second novel pretty much immediately, intrigued by her ability to manipulate me as a reader (in a good way) and pluck at my tender bits and vulnerabilities.  Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot is also assured but completely different in tone, a signal to me that Smith is quite an exceptional writer in the Australian cultural landscape. With this book, I think she deserves to be considered on the international stage (many Australian writers other than Peter Carey should be there). Beautifully structured, pared back in style, it’s a contemporary novel about technique as much as plot, about how words are shaped. As a family negotiates feelings around a brother (or son) in a coma (you can throw away all the cliches too), Smith negotiates how memories are formed and relationships battered by seemingly small misunderstandings — miscommunications and withdrawals — that grow into obstacles almost too big to crawl over.

Annabel Smith, A New Map of the UniverseI’ve got to know Annabel (virtually) in the past year. Her debut novel was published by UWA Publishing, like my own. And since just_a_girl was published she has been quick to review it and give feedback, helping me over initial hurdles. She invited me to contribute to her Which Writer For a Day collective blog (with other WA writers) and to think about my favourite book for her ‘Friday Faves’ series. She taught me the importance of writerly communities, and helping each other out online in innovative ways. I was also fascinated by her latest project, The Ark, a digital narrative that pushes the boundaries of fiction — I look forward to seeing it in final form.

Here I speak to Annabel about motherhood, writing, and writing mother characters in her fiction.

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

I prepared for pregnancy as I prepare for most things — by reading about it. What I read led me to believe that my baby would usually have 3 naps a day, adding up to 3 or 4 hours in total. Based on this information, I expected I might be able to spend perhaps an hour a day writing.

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

My son was colicky and difficult to settle. He had an abnormally short sleep cycle (only 25 minutes as opposed to the average 45 minutes), and never napped for more than 1 cycle. The time it took to settle him was often longer than the duration of his nap and was horribly stressful. I felt that getting him to sleep was one of my primary functions as a mother and I was failing horribly at it. Often by the time he fell asleep I was completely strung out, and there were a million things to do around the home, so writing didn’t get a look in. I didn’t write a word for the first six months after he was born and I felt incredibly frustrated and resentful about this. Eventually, we worked out a routine where my husband would look after him for half a day each weekend and I would spend a few hours at the library working on my book.

Did you find it difficult to sit down and write? Or was it the opposite? Were you more creative, as you had less time, and had to be super disciplined?

I was amazingly productive. My writing time was so precious, I didn’t waste a minute. I would sit down at the desk and barely look up for three hours.

Did you find the experience of motherhood starting to seep into your characters? Into the way you portray people?

Annabel Smith, Whisky, Charlie, FoxtrotI was writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot then. After my son was born I wrote a scene in which my protagonist Charlie goes to see his mother, and talks to her about his feeling that his brother was her favourite child. She reveals that it was in fact the opposite, and shares her guilt about this feeling. Parental guilt is something you can’t imagine if you haven’t had children. I’d heard people speak about the feeling that they were constantly doing something wrong, or letting their children down in some way and I’d think, just let it go, stop beating yourself up about it. Then I became a parent and I experienced it for myself and I understood how it gets hold of you. So I wouldn’t have thought of writing that scene unless I had experienced that.

Did having a child mean you had to go back and rewrite or change characterisation (of mothers or other characters) in any ways?

Not that I remember, although having a baby also affected my memory really badly so it’s hard to be sure!

In your novels, mothers are often seen as difficult to reach or disappearing slowly out of grasp. Is this a common thread in your work?

It isn’t always easy to see the threads in your own work because often they seem to be driven by unconscious impulses. My first two novels both focus on the idea of communication in families — things that need to be said and aren’t, things that shouldn’t be said but are. All sorts of the relationships are fractured, not just those between mothers and children. But when I think about it more carefully, in my third novel The Ark (to be published in 2014) I have a character called Ava, who has a nervous breakdown, and worries about the impact of this on her 8-year-old daughter. And my current work-in-progress centres on a cult built around a woman known as ‘la madre’ which means ‘mother’ in Spanish. So perhaps it is an idea I feel a need to keep exploring in different forms, but it is not deliberate.

Mothering can involve managing many conflicting emotions. To what extent do these emotions transform or play a part in your writing?

What a great question. But also a difficult one to answer. I have certainly had many conflicting emotions as a mother and perhaps more extremes of emotion too. I had post-natal depression so some of the lowest times of my life have been since the birth of my son. The silver lining of this, for me, is having more compassion for others, especially people suffering with mental illnesses. I think if a writer has compassion for their characters, the reader is more likely to as well, even the difficult characters. So I hope that my experience with depression has helped me to write characters with more depth, and characters who readers might be able to feel sympathy for, even if they are behaving in ways that are hard to understand.

Both your books challenge the idea that motherhood and nurturing come naturally. Your characters struggle with grief and detachment. Do you think these are feelings many women negotiate but feel uncomfortable talking about?

Undoubtedly. I think there’s a terribly repressive culture which perpetuates the myth that all women are natural mothers and that motherhood is the most wonderful thing that can ever happen to us, and this culture makes it difficult for women to express their true feelings about motherhood which are often ambivalent and complex. I think this culture is changing, which is great to see, but it still has a long way to go.

Annabel Smith’s novel Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot has been nominated for the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award, to be announced at the Wheeler Centre tomorrow night. Good luck, Annabel, and I’ll keep you posted.

THIS POST IS PART OF THE WRITING MOTHERS SERIES: You can also read interviews with Anna Funder, Debra Adelaide, Susan Johnson, Kirsten Tranter, and many other wonderful writers

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU A WRITING MOTHER – OR IN THE PROCESS OF WRITING MOTHER CHARACTERS? HOW DO YOU HANDLE IT?

Debut author profile: Nina Smith

Nina Smith, author of Hailstone

Nina Smith, author of Hailstone

Each month I hope to profile a debut author or short story writer who has featured in Friday Night Fictions. This month, it’s Nina Smith, a WA writer who appeared in the August edition.

Her novel, Hailstone, is an action-packed romp with a gun-totin’, pill-poppin’, alcoholic, ex-evangelical lesbian on the loose. I spoke to her about religious cults, creating her novel in CreateSpace and gothic bellydancing (I dare you to try it).

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

To be honest I don’t think it was ever something I decided; it simply was the only thing I ever wanted to do with my life. I was writing stories in early primary school, and my first novel at the age of 14. That, as I recall, was the most awful romance featuring guys on horses, and the heroine doing a lot of swooning, yelling and panicking. I’ve still got it scrawled in pencil in a notebook hidden away somewhere! At 15, my English teacher suggested I study creative writing at university, which was exactly what I ended up doing.

 What inspired you?

I draw inspiration from things that transcend words, like music. Sometimes I get novel ideas in dreams. Sometimes it’s from observing everyday life and the way people interact with each other. To me, stories are whole concepts as much as they are a series of events. Sometimes I will find a whole novel in a stark landscape, or a feeling in a song.

My book and yours share some common themes: religion and betrayal. Why were you drawn to investigating the dark side of church life and a preacher on the edge?

A lot of Hailstone was inspired by churches I came into contact with in my teenage years. Those teenage years were a stormy time, when I put a lot into religion, only to find there were aspects of it that absolutely alienated me. Since then I have had an enduring fascination with cults and the way some religions try to control people — not to mention the ways people rebel. Religion in general is a huge influence on the state of affairs in the world today, and we see it making people do crazy things. I wanted to explore those issues of control, of rebellion and most of all of fanaticism.

Hailstone is written in rapid fire, short sentences. Are you attracted to the crime genre?

To be honest, I haven’t read a lot of crime. My first love is fantasy, but every now and again I need to leave fantasy alone and write something completely and totally grounded in the real world, that’s all action and fast-paced. I love to read thrillers, and when writing them, I like to keep everything as tight and grounded as possible. I think however my day job as a journalist influences me here, as that has trained me to write in a way that wastes no words.

The title is an evocative one. Why did you choose it?

Funnily enough, the title came before the book. It occurred to me while driving one day that Hailstone would be an awesome name for a city, and that was where the story started. I like the name because hailstones, while not a natural disaster, are a force of nature that are incredibly destructive but also quite common. They suggest parts of life that are destructive but so ordinary people simply don’t pay any attention to them.

I was really drawn to both the cover and synopsis of your book. How did they both develop?

HailstoneThe synopsis was a result of days of writing, re-writing, occasional temper tantrums and then more re-writing. I find it so much easier to write a whole novel than a few paragraphs about it! In the end,  once I had distilled the most basic elements of the story — the gun, the church, the father — I was happy with it.

The cover was really interesting to put together. The model is a rather gorgeous woman I know who agreed to dress up and wander around our closest city with me one Sunday afternoon being photographed. That image is one of the last we took, and it was so perfect; the expression on her face, the way she held her keys, everything about her fit the character of Mags McAllister perfectly. I wanted to add something to it, though, so I went to the local wreckers and took photos of smashed windscreens. One of these images I overlaid, then put through filters until I had what I wanted: the feeling that I was looking through a smashed windscreen, watching the person who had smashed it storm away. To me it conveys the desolation, the anger and the brokenness of a woman who is trapped in an abusive cycle.

Your protagonist is a pistol wielding, valium-popping, alcoholic, ex-Christian lesbian. How did you uncover her? Did you do any research:-)

Ha! I might have ‘researched’ some things, but not others, in my miss-spent youth. I chose aspects for the character that were diametrically opposed to the environment she was in. I have to say, though, I’ve previously observed the children of authoritarian figures sometimes take such paths.

What were your favourite books to read as a child?

Everything I could get my hands on. I particularly loved the Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody and the Vicky Bliss series by Elizabeth Peters.

You used CreateSpace to publish your first book? What was the process and would you recommend it to other authors? 

CreateSpace was a brilliant experience. The program takes you step by step through uploading your text and your graphics and making sure everything is formatted correctly before you order a proof copy. (I picked up a lot of things in that proof copy that I missed on the screen.) You can price your book yourself, order as many or as few copies as you need and it is listed on Amazon.

I highly recommend CreateSpace if you want to get your book out there, so long as you are:  a) able to pay for an editor and cover designer; or b) have the skills to do those things properly yourself.

The end product is beautiful and professional, and having control over every step of the process is a fantastic thing. The one thing you have to be aware of is that once you have your published product, it’s up to you to market it, which is a whole other journey to set out on.

You live in WA. What is it like to be a writer there? Is there a writer community where you are?

Western Australia is a very isolated part of the world. I think it is because of that, that communities of like-minded people tend to be very close and supportive. There are some amazing writers out here, and a great network of people, organisations and festivals.

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?

Apparently its not a convention any more to put three spaces after every fullstop. That’s made editing some of my earlier efforts an exhausting process!

You describe yourself as a gothic bellydancer. Tell us a bit more…

Gothic bellydance is a branch of the amazing and diverse art of bellydance that explores the darker sides of life, human nature and music through bellydance. It is a beautiful practice where the costumes are mostly black, a little bit red (no hot pink!); the music is often industrial or dark — Rammstein, Tool and Nine Inch Nails are popular choices, along with bands like Maduro and Solace. It is a theatrical form where you can explore characters such as goddesses or demons, dance out your emotions or create a piece that is intense, confronting or dangerous. I love this form as it allows me to tell stories with my body and my dance in the same way I tell stories with my words.

Friday Night Fictions: September 2013

Howdy folks and welcome to the September edition of Friday Night Fictions, a monthly club set up to promote the work of debut authors (and short story/microfiction writers: where are you hiding?) both local and international, working in any genre or format (ebooks and indie authors welcome). There’s a sea of talent listed below. I hope you will read these new writers, let them and us know you think, and help them on to pursue their next book. I look forward to your comments and reviews on the blog.

If you want to be included in Friday Night Fictions, see the guidelines. And check out the August edition: I have updated with reviews where people have sent them to me. If you are featured in August or September, and have new reviews, interviews or social media links to mention, let me know…

Last month I announced that I would feature Nina Smith, and her book Hailstone, on the blog. Look out for a profile and review early next week [here it is…].

And to be featured from the September club? Michael Adams‘ YA debut, The Last Girl, brings this great writer on film and pop culture (and you may have seen him on SBS talking about movies) into the fiction realm. I look forward to hanging out with him in late October…

If I have missed anyone (it does happen), let me know, and I’ll add you to the October club.

*

MICHAEL ADAMS, The Last Girl

Michael Adams, The Last GirlThe end of the world happens in an instant. But it’s not caused by an asteroid or zombies or any scenario we’ve ever conceived. The apocalypse comes from within us. One second we’re wearing our usual social masks — and the next our every secret thought and feeling is exposed as a global telepathic outbreak drowns humanity in a psychic tsunami.

Within minutes, suburbs erupt in madness, cities explode in flames and countries collapse in chaos.

Sixteen-year-old Danby Armstrong is protected from the worst of the phenomenon because while she can tune into other people’s minds, no-one else can read her thoughts.

But it’s not much consolation when her family implodes, her neighbours start killing each other and every road out of town offers only more death and destruction.

Set in a very recognisable near-future, The Last Girl combines literary and pop-culture smarts with spectacular action in a frightening scenario that echoes our obsession with constant connectivity.

Buy the book.

See Michael talking about his YA novel.

November update:

Kirsten Krauth reviewed The Last Girl and interviewed Michael Adams for her September debut author profile.

 

ROSS CROTHERS, Running Dead

Ross Crothers, Running DeadAn exclusive London hotel. Two shots, two men executed. Ten years earlier they helped convict a conman. Ash Todd of the Australian Federal Police assisted Scotland Yard in that case. Now The Yard has called him in again.

The search for the killer propels Todd across Europe, the US and the Caribbean. In every city his life is threatened, his trust betrayed, his every move anticipated.

Worse, on the cusp of a breakthrough, The Yard seemingly withdraws support — which leaves him hanging.

Did they really want the case solved — or were they just Running Dead?

Alone and increasingly isolated, he can rely on no-one but himself. With a mounting death toll, and twists in the end that leave him distraught, Todd discovers some vital truths — to the murders; to the 10-year-old fraud case, and ultimately who had betrayed him.

Buy the book (paperback or e-book) from Ross’ website .

Read an extract.

SAM ELLIOTT, Sisters of Satan

Sam Elliott, Sisters of SatanIt all began as a fairytale…

Fast forward to a devastating text from Amelia and this magical evening becomes a terrifying nightmare. Devastated, Seth soon commits to drinking himself into oblivion.

Dead drunk and thirsty for conflict, the wayward soul stumbles into adesolate park.

Reality returns, Seth finds himself naked and shackled to a wheelchair, listening in disbelief to their unspeakable plans, his death wish may be answered but now he decides he wants to live.

To do that he will have to break free and rise against sadistic monsters.

The Sisters of Satan intend to carve him up and feast on his soul. Seth is all that stands between an endless rampage leaving many dead in its wake—a journey taking him through a labyrinth of blood and fire to a vicious showdown with the sisters in the arena where their wicked ways were born.

Buy this book from: Customs Book Publications, Amazon.com, Angus and Robertson.

Read extracts.

DAVID M HENLEY, The Hunt for Pierre Jnr

David M Henley, The Hunt for Pierre JnrThis is a return to classic science fiction with a contemporary spin. While juggling a pacy storyline, filled with unexpected turns, David M Henley brings fresh ideas to the genre.

Book one of a trilogy, The Hunt for Pierre Jnr begins in 2159 CE. There has been fifty years of peace since the great collapse and a complex but egalitarian society controls the planet, but the foundation of their peace is rocked when a psychic event destroys a suburb of Paris.

Nobody is really sure who was responsible, but many believe it is the semi-mythical child Pierre Jnr.

This triggers a capsizing in the governing hierarchy and a new harsher Prime takes over the operation to find and pacify Pierre Jnr.

“I was deeply impressed with the way that neither side (and there are definitely sides to be taken) has a monopoly on what is absolutely right.” Read review.

Meet David at his website.

Contact him on Facebook and Twitter.

Buy the book.

JANE JERVIS-READ, Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall

Jane Jervis-Read, Midnight Blue and Endlessly TallWhen Jessica, a recently divorced mental-health carer, meets her new patient, Eloise, their lives quickly become entangled. The boundaries of their roles begin to dissolve and questions from the past are uncovered, revealing the fractured histories that brought them together.

Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall is an original and unpredictable novella about the relationships that consume us when we’re least expecting it.

Winner of the 2013 Viva La Novella Prize.

“Jane Jervis-Read’s beautiful little book … kicks above its weight … and shows the power of leaving things unsaid.” Cate Kennedy

Buy the book.

November update:

Jane read Ellie Marney’s book (see below) and commented: Just finished ‘Every Breath’ in two sittings. Total page-turner with a well-crafted plot and interesting characters. Loved every… breath of it.

SALLY-ANN JONES, Stella’s Sea

Sally-Ann Jones, Stella's SeaStella moves from her wheatbelt family home to a run-down house in Cottesloe on WA’s coast. Her daughter, Miff, has died in a motorbike accident; her husband can’t bear to look at her; her father is in a nursing home; her brother is overseas. Her only company is her daughter’s dog.

Every morning Stella walks with Miff’s dog along the beach. She’s not a part of the scene even though she’s conspicuous in her beekeeper things and mismatched garments.

Her yellow scarf sparks the interest of Ari, an ex-prisoner and coastcare volunteer. As a new friendship slowly forms, Stella recollects her past to deal with her present. But can she acknowledge the guilt that prevents her from moving into the future?

Stella’s Sea is a beautiful novel about the symbiotic nature of life: bees and orchids, loss and love, nurture and growth.

This novel will be released in October.

Pre-order from UWAP.

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.

Read an extract.

Book Club Notes are available.

Meet Layla on Pinterest.

Buy the printed version at ReadingsBooktopia or Amazon.

Read the ebook on Kobo. International readers please contact me direct…

See reviews of just_a_girl here.

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

You can see her read from her work at the Sydney book launch, along with Emily Maguire (who introduced it).

DARCY LEE-TINDALE, Her Story, My Story

Promise anthology by PenguiDarcy’s short story features in the Penguin anthology: Promise.

This anthology includes the top 15 stories selected from over 400 entries in the Monash Undergraduate Short Story Prize.

The book was organised by the Emerging Writers’ Festival.

Darcy is a dramatic arts teacher, director of stage productions, actor, author, theatresports player, puppeteer, and has appeared in TVC, film and on stage.

Her plays, poems, articles, short stories, radio satire and comedy skits have been published, performed and received numerous awards.

She’s studying a BA in Creative Writing.

Buy the ebook from Penguin, iBooks and Amazon.

ELLIE MARNEY, Every Breath

Ellie Marney, Every BreathRachel Watts has just moved to Melbourne from the country, but the city is the last place she wants to be.

James Mycroft is her neighbour, an intriguingly troubled seventeen-year-old who’s also a genius with a passion for forensics.

Despite her misgivings, Rachel finds herself unable to resist Mycroft when he wants her help investigating a murder.

He’s even harder to resist when he’s up close and personal — and on the hunt for a cold-blooded killer.

When Rachel and Mycroft follows the murderer’s trail, they find themselves in the lion’s den — literally. A trip to the zoo will never have quite the same meaning again …

Sizzling chemisty and urban intrigue combine in this thriller from a fresh, exciting new talent.

Buy the book.

Meet Ellie at her website.

November update: Jane Jarvis-Read (see her book above) commented:

Just finished ‘Every Breath’ in two sittings. Total page-turner with a well-crafted plot and interesting characters. Loved every… breath of it

FIONA McFARLANE, The Night Guest

Fiona McFarlane, The Night GuestRuth is widowed, her sons are grown, and she lives in an isolated beach house outside of town.

Her routines are few and small. One night, she wakes to hear a tiger walking around her lounge room.

The next day, a stranger arrives at her door, looking as if she’s been blown in from the sea.

This woman — Frida — introduces herself as a care worker sent by the government. Ruth lets her in.

How far can Ruth trust the mysterious, magnificent Frida?

And, with a tiger on the prowl, how far can Ruth trust herself?

Meet Fiona on Facebook.

Buy her book.

Read an extract.

JENN J McLEOD, House for all Seasons

Jenn J Mcleod, House for all SeasonsFour women. Four lives unravelled. The truth will bind them forever.

Bequeathed a century-old house, four estranged friends return to their hometown, Calingarry Crossing, where each must stay for a season at the Dandelion House to fulfil the wishes of their benefactor, Gypsy.

But coming home to the country stirs shameful memories of the past, including the tragic end-of-school muck up day accident twenty years earlier.

Sara, a breast cancer survivor afraid to fall in love;
Poppy, a tough, ambitions journo still craving her father’s approval;
Amber, a spoilt socialite addicted to painkillers and cosmetic procedures;
Caitlin, a doctor frustrated by a controlling family and her flat-lining life.

At the Dandelion House, the women will discover something about themselves and a secret that ties all four to each other and to the house—forever.

Buy, read a chapter, read the reviews at Jenn’s website.

ANDREW NETTE, Ghost Money

Andrew Nette, Ghost MoneyCambodia, 1996, the long-running Khmer Rouge insurgency is fragmenting, competing factions of the coalition government scrambling to gain the upper hand. Missing in the chaos is businessman Charles Avery. Hired to find him is Vietnamese Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan.

But Avery has made dangerous enemies and Quinlan is not the only one looking. Teaming up with Heng Sarin, a local journalist, Quinlan’s search takes him from the freewheeling capital Phnom Penh to the battle scarred western borderlands. As the political temperature soars, he is slowly drawn into a mystery that plunges him into the heart of Cambodia’s bloody past.

Ghost Money is a crime novel about Cambodia in the mid-nineties, a broken country, what happens to those trapped between two periods of history, the choices they make, what they do to survive.

Visit Andrew’s website.

Buy the book at Amazon.

Insight into how Andrew came to write the novel.

Andrew’s October Update:  

Ghost Money got this very favourable review on the travel website Vagabonding and will be for sale at The Readers Feast Crime & Justice Festival, 15-17 November 2013, where I will also be interviewing Australian author, Garry Disher.

HAVE YOU READ ANY OF THESE DEBUT NOVELS YET? ANY REALLY GRAB YOUR ATTENTION? I LOOK FORWARD TO HEARING YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE SEPTEMBER CLUB.

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