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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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The television of intimate connections: True Detective, Girls, Rake, Homeland, Redfern Now

Marty (Woody Harrelson) & Rust (Matthew McConaughey) in True Detective

Marty (Woody Harrelson) & Rust (Matthew McConaughey) in True Detective

TV’s True Detective has started off a conversation, the idea that long-form television series can be compared to the ‘old novel’—most notably 19th century serialisations—offering viewers the chance to develop along with the characters on a week by week basis as the episodes screen live to air: to confront their lies and peculiarities, to see structural and psychological changes, to find compassion even when they do diabolical things.

Charles Dickens’ and Alexandre Dumas’ novels often started out as instalments in magazines or newspapers, giving readers the opportunity to see the characters gradually emerge over months or even years, before the entire series was published as a novel. Television in the US (and it’s starting to change in Australia) is giving writers the freedom to challenge conventional TV wisdom by offering philosophical meanderings and deep psychological insights, compassion for the building complexity of characters who are initially difficult to like, the chance to draw on a number of intertwining perspectives, and movement between main and minor characters as the series unfolds. Central to many of these shows—Girls, Homeland, True Detective, Rake, Redfern Now—is an argument for empathy for those stuck in a wasteland of socio-economic-moralistic ambiguity, where the rage against the machine is no longer heard, where characters—and viewers—are no longer sure where they are placed when it comes to the slippery line between good and evil.

We Are All Refugees 

Allie (Lisa Flanagan) & Aaron (Wayne Blair) in Redfern Now

Allie (Lisa Flanagan) & Aaron (Wayne Blair) in Redfern Now

In Rake, Frank the priest (Tony Barry)—who Cleaver (Richard Roxburgh) visits regularly to ‘confess’ —argues that “we’re all refugees in one way or another.” And it’s this idea that underpins most successful contemporary TV series, where we grow to care intimately about characters who are outsiders, drifting aimlessly, despite (and because of) their exposed flaws.

In Redfern Now, the residents of the inner-city suburb are shown to be displaced even on their own turf. Aaron (Wayne Blair) is ostracised within his Indigenous community, for being a copper and for letting a man die on his watch. When he walks down the street he takes his granddaughter “as a shield” against the hostility of local residents. Allie (Lisa Flanagan) tells him he’s “not a proper blackfella,” even when he has just come to the front door to help after her husband has assaulted her. Listening to karaoke at the local pub, Aaron is refused bar service and Allie stops mid-song to confront those judging her bruised face. They’re united in their exclusion: Allie asks if she can join his “leper colony.” When they go out on their first date to a ‘flash’ Japanese restaurant in Surry Hills, Aaron says to Allie as they are walking in, “We’re Brazilian, not blackfellas—remember?” to put her at ease.

Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls

Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls

In Girls, Hannah (Lena Dunham), an aspirational writer, doesn’t fit into the NYC ideal of heavy-hitting glamorous go-getter and stands on the outside looking in. She is often seen naked, her voluptuous, soft un-Hollywood body a revelation with its unsexualised bulges. Watching her with Dunham’s neutral gaze, we want to be exposed to her, even when she’s grating—and she can be (in that funny, neurotic way that Woody Allen and George Costanza can be). When Hannah’s editor dies, she feels nothing, only concerned about whether her e-book will still be published. Attending her editor’s funeral, she cries, “Oh my God! I think I see Zadie Smith. That is definitely her.” Just when we’ve had enough of Hannah’s solipsism, the focus pulls back and we see her in bed, counting everything in eights, contending with OCD, sticking a Q-tip in her ear so hard she ruptures an eardrum, alone, cast aside and so vulnerable it wounds us too.

 The limits of compassion

Richard Roxburgh as Cleaver Green in Rake

Richard Roxburgh as Cleaver Green in Rake

The ABC’s Rake has become ever more expansive, series two taking Cleaver Green to the limits of our (and other characters’) compassion. He’s like the Aussie larrikin (the questionable stereotype that our identity is apparently based on: mischievous, rowdy, a lad) taken to the extreme, to the point where he’s completely devoid of charm, in a slow process of disintegration. When Cleaver gets out of jail he’s repeatedly punished for his casual neglect: by the young man (Dan Wylie) who stands (too close) by him in prison and then kills himself; by the son (Keegan Joyce) who accepts Rake’s failures with complete and unnerving clarity; by the wife (Caroline Brazier) who has literally moved on and sold the family home; by the woman (Jane Allsop) who refuses to sleep with him and ends up in hospital three times as victim of Cleaver’s suspected domestic violence. At one point, the show’s sleazy TV show host, Cal McGregor (Damien Garvey), asks, “I mean, what country are we living in, people? The United States of Self-Interest?” It’s only when Cleaver finds an emotional connection and empathy with his clients—one, a priest (Paul Sonkilla), who reveals his brother, also a priest, was a paedophile—that he starts to win his cases. And the wider scope of Rake, which gives the second series its pace, is that it’s always up for seeing through systemic oppression and hypocrisy, exposing upper class cruelty, the cover-ups and silent witnesses among the silks, the Gina Rineharts, the tax lawyers, the priests who look past sexual abuse, the pollies who rely on polling for their shifting morality.

Claire Danes and Damian Lewis in Homeland

Claire Danes and Damian Lewis in Homeland

In Homeland we are continually forced to navigate large-scale hypocrisies and cross narrative boundaries where the line between good and bad is not stretched thin, it is completely gone. Both CIA ‘case manager’ Carrie (Claire Danes) and ‘terrorist’ Brody (Damian Lewis) are shown to be worthy of respect yet deeply conflicted, and their lives are often paralleled: Carrie is forced against her will into a mental institution for bipolar disorder, Brody is strapped down in a high-rise slum in Caracas, reliant on heroin to deal with the horrors of incarceration. Carrie and Brody are seen as the heroic anti-heroes because they are guided by intuition and how they relate to others, compared with the failures of the large impersonal corporations they work for. The turning inwards and isolationism of US culture and policy at large after September 11 is exposed in Brody’s being turned over by the US to his Islamic torturers. Forced to perform his prayer rituals while cowering in a corner of his locked garage, he is seen as unforgivable: a US marine who has converted to Islam.

 The gender divide

 With True Detective, the main characters Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson) come to us fully formed. Like babies seen as ‘old souls,’ they appear as if they’ve been here before, lived other lives. This is accentuated by the opening sequence with its cinematography by Australian Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom; Lore): we feel like we inhabit the landscape, and the language, of these men. The opening image arrests us. We begin in a cane field, looking at a tableau of a naked girl, her body purple-hued, huddled in prayer position, delicate antlers crowning her head. A deer in the rifle sight, she sets the detectives off into a meandering expose of Southern comfort and culture, how men relate to one another, and how they fail to communicate. As the men look longingly at the pretty, dead prostitute laid out in extreme closeup on the slab, she is, in all her glory, ‘fridged.’

Michelle Monaghan as Maggie in True Detective

Michelle Monaghan as Maggie in True Detective

But when the women are alive, they get to the heart of the matter very quickly, and perhaps this is a problem for the shape of the overall narrative. It takes Marty’s wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), who’s not a detective, five minutes to find out what Rust has been concealing from Marty for months. Perhaps if the series let Maggie speak more, she would get past the bullshit and solve the crime, and the show would be over in an hour. The exciting thing about True Detective is that the men are deeply flawed, contrary, enigmatic and compelling characters—but portraying women as ‘whores,’ ‘crazy bitches,’ ‘teenage sluts,’ ‘corrupted innocents,’ or the open-all-hours attractive women that sagging Marty seems to seduce with ease, ultimately reduces the series’ dramatic possibilities.

 The demanding viewer

Vince Gilligan, creator Breaking Bad, is appearing at Sydney Writers' Festival on 1

Vince Gilligan, creator Breaking Bad, is appearing at Sydney Writers’ Festival on 1 May

While Australian TV series writers and creators don’t yet have the lit-celeb status of those starting to tour here (like Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, and David Simon, who crossed boundaries with The Wire), shows like Rake and Redfern Now are pushing characters beyond the usual conventions of prime-time TV, blending dysfunctional family dynamics, occasional tragedy and off-the-wall humour. Like their 19th century counterparts, some people are happy to view their show at the same time each week, sometimes waiting months for the final instalment. Meanwhile the impact of iView, Apple TV and illegal downloads means more viewers are binge-watching entire series, just to keep up with social media conversations. Either way, the new-found popularity of TV series is forcing writers to keep up, to create characters that invite intimate connections, stimulate discussion and open up new narrative possibilities for increasingly demanding viewers.

This article was originally commissioned for the April-May 2014 edition of RealTime, which focuses on Art, Empathy and Action. Check out the full edition.

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE CHARACTERS IN TV SERIES?

DO YOU STICK BY THEM EVEN WHEN THEY’RE ANNOYING?

If you’re into TV, you might also like to read:

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

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.

Debut author profile: Michael Adams

Michael Adams, star of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS, and author

Michael Adams, star of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS, and author of The Last Girl

I must confess I didn’t know too much about YA until quite recently. I always had in my head that it was a closed genre, featuring vampires and werewolves and girls with ballgowns and insipid romance. But everyone makes mistakes. Reading more widely this year — and the YA community’s quick embrace of just_a_girl led me down this path — I realised that it’s an enormously diverse market with exactly the kind of narratives that excite me, a genre often caught in between the adult and teen worlds.

I’m always a sucker for coming-of-age-girl-as-outsider-awkward-moments-until-she-realises-everybody-is-like-that narratives. Blame the 80s and Molly Ringwald. When I was an adolescent, the idea of books for teens was just gaining ground. I devoured SE Hinton, Paul Zindel, Judy Blume, Robert Cormier. These writers tackled dark subjects, spoke of sex and drugs and religion (and all those things I’m still writing about), and empowered teens to fight for themselves.

Michael Adams’ The Last Girl is a strong addition to the genre, that also fights to be let out into literary fiction. Highlighted in the September edition of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS, it demands close reading. While lead girl Danby confronts an apocalyptic vision of Sydney, where most of the inhabitants can read each other’s minds, it’s also about communities separated by high-density living, soaring property prices, environmental catastrophe, the legacy of stealing someone else’s land, and addiction to personal-technologies.

Michael knows how to cram in big ideas. His background as a film critic (editor for Empire — where he employed me to write on Bergman [bliss]  — and even appearing on The Movie Show on SBS) serves him well here. The fiction is full of pop-culture references, sly humour, out-of-the-blue violence, and challenges to narrative conventions.

Danby is a memorable figure through the death and destruction around her, intuitive, strong, countering expectations to be led astray by wayward boys, dealing with challenges effectively with humour and courage. I’d like to meet her one day. Let’s hope she makes it to the end of the trilogy (The Last Girl is the first in a series). Knowing Michael, this isn’t entirely certain.

Here I talk to him about Stephen King, Sydney and the Blue Mountains on fire, and heroines that break free of conventions…

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

Not the precise moment but it goes back as far as I can remember. As a six-year-old I’d write and illustrate little stapled books about soldiers and sharks and dinosaurs — sometimes all in the same story. By the time I was in my early teens I was trying to write novels. Then I got into journalism and creative writing took a backseat. It wasn’t until I’d tried my hand at screenwriting and non-fiction that I finally, finally, achieved the goal I’d set for myself when I was about 13. Oddly — or maybe not oddly — The Last Girl contains echoes of those adolescent efforts.

Michael Adams, The Last GirlWhat inspired you?

The Last Girl came as a bit of a flash — at least in concept. In 2008 I was in New York and at dinner at a restaurant with my partner. We were having a great time talking to another couple who’d survived Hurricane Katrina. But at another table there was a couple who didn’t say a word to each other all night. At some point I wondered: what if they could read each other’s thoughts, hear everything that wasn’t being said. Then I wondered what it’d be like if the phenomenon spiralled out to encompass the city, the country, the world.

My book and yours share some common themes: teenage girls on the edge; a narrative that swings between Sydney and the Blue Mountains (on the train tracks); the questioning of digital cultures and their effects on psychology and relationships. Why did you decide to pursue these ideas in a YA novel?

Initially I thought I was writing an adult book about a young adult character. It wasn’t until I’d sent the book to Allen & Unwin that it was explained it was a YA. The definition was that YA focuses on young characters who have to make their own decisions in the absence of adult authority. That pretty much summed up Danby’s situation in The Last Girl. But I’m not sure about the YA label because it wasn’t used to describe similar books when I was growing up. The Catcher In The Rye and Lord Of The Flies spring to mind. Back then they were literature — now they’re YA. And then there’s the US statistic that says 84 per cent of YA is purchased by people over 18. I guess what’s important is that it’s a good story well told and in a voice authentic to the age of the character.

You’ve written extensively on film (as a reviewer and non-fiction writer). To what extent did cinema, and in particular B-grade films, influence your narrative?

I wanted the story to grab readers by the throat, take them to a cliffhanger and then tease them with backstory that’d become important throughout the trilogy before plunging back into an ever-escalating series of disasters for poor Danby. But I wanted to throw her and readers constant curveballs so it’d be difficult to predict where the story was heading. So the movies I kinda had in mind were those that’ve had that effect on me: Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, Psycho, The Usual Suspects, Night Of The Living Dead are a few that spring to mind. I also put as much black humour into the book as possible and in that the touchstones are films like Dr Strangelove, Bride Of Frankenstein and Repo Man.

Breaking Bad

The biggest influence on The Last Girl? Breaking Bad…

But the biggest influence wasn’t film — it was Breaking Bad. I watched the entire series twice and really tried to understand how Vince Gilligan created an emotionally charged character-driven suspense thriller that was so dense, complex and funny — while also layering in all of his narrative callbacks, in-jokes and Easter Eggs. There’s a lot of that kind of thinking in The Last Girl. Seemingly throwaway details become pivotal to survival. References to pop culture echo the themes. There’s a reason Danby’s dad orders a plate of shrimp and a Miller. Google it and you’ll see why.

The Last Girl is the first in a series. Did the publisher commission a number of books at once? How hard is it as a writer to plan out a series?

Yes, A&U bought the trilogy. By that stage I had a solid first draft of The Last Girl and about 20,000 words of the sequel. Now book two, The Last Shot, is at the final proofreading stages and I’ve got three months to finish the first draft of The Last Place, which will wrap things up. When I started The Last Girl, I was pretty much making it up as I went along. The ending I eventually decided on and worked towards would’ve left a lot unresolved. I wanted to know what came next. The fun — and tough — thing is to ensure continuity while you juggle drafts. But I’ve really enjoyed playing with the world — or end of the world — and seeing how the puzzle pieces actually do fit together. Mostly it’s been an organic process. But I’ve also worked to ensure the books don’t repeat scenes or scenarios. I hate sequels that’re just a reheat.  So I see the series as one story, which also means that I need the end of book three to be bigger and more powerful than what’s come before. I want it to be my Toy Story 3 and not The Godfather Part III.

Your novel is playful and toys with genre conventions: the romantic lead; the heroine as victim/survivor; futuristic horror; the quest. Was this always something you had in mind when you started writing, or did it evolve as you went? How did this go when you were trying to get the book published? Was there pressure to make it one thing or another?

There was a lot I didn’t want my book to be. Passive heroine? Fuck that. Instant love between characters? No thanks. Scared suburban types who suddenly become fearless warriors? Uh-uh. I hate reading or watching stories in which you spend your time shaking your head at bad character decisions and/or illogical scenarios. So as much as possible I wanted Danby’s nightmare to feel real, to be blow-by-blow. Yay, she’s made it to the car! But can she drive? Can you feasibly escape a burning city on clogged roads? And if not, then what? I wanted characters who haven’t got all the answers. I tried to imagine myself in her shoes and in doing that painted Danby into some seemingly inescapable corners. A few of these took months to figure out. And that meant walking the actual locations until the “A-ha!” moment struck. Writing like that intrinsically bends genre expectations because we’re so often fed the same-old people and situations. Tough guys walk in slow-motion from the explosion without looking around? Stupid. How about sensibly shit-scared guys run but one can’t help looking back and gets flash-blinded while another’s cut in half by shrapnel and they all end up concussed by the shock wave that shatters every window for five blocks? By doing the latter you’re being logical and realistic but it’s also bleakly funny and subversive because it’s not what we’re used to seeing. As for how A&U reacted, they were brilliant. I was never asked to make it anything other than what I’d envisaged. The cuts and changes suggested were more to do with me overwriting, paying too much attention to secondary scenes or wandering away from the character voice.

You live in the Blue Mountains (I used to as well). Your book deals with catastrophic events, including, it seems, a whole city and mountain on fire. How did it feel when the recent Springwood fires were happening (after the book had been published)? Did it feel like life imitating art in some hellish way?

It was freaky because a few scenes, particularly smoke blanketing Parramatta and Silverwater, were exactly as I’d imagined them. I got a few messages from people saying, “Whoa, dude, that’s spooky.” But we were too busy packing up our and getting out of Katoomba to think about it too much. I did get asked by a big newspaper if I’d comment on the book’s similarities to the events but I declined because I thought it disrespectful to trivialise an ongoing situation threatening people’s lives and homes. Writer turns down publicity: film at 11!

Is there a writer community in the Blue Mountains? Can you survive being a writer up there, or do you still commute to Sydney for a day job?

There are a lot of writers in the Blue Mountains but I work a day job in Sydney so I haven’t had much time to explore the community. Couldn’t even go to the SFF events they had last year. Sad face. But the dream is to do exactly that: hang out up there and write. But for the foreseeable future I’ll be commuting to the office gig — and freelancing my butt off to supplement those wages. It’s all freaking glamour, me tells ya.

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?

I guess it’s something you learn and re-learn every time you pick up a pen or sit at the keyboard: you’ll think your first jottings are amazing and you’ll be so very wrong. But they’re a start. And the next draft will be better …  and then the next …  and the next …  and so on. But what’s equally important is to be ruthless, murder darlings in the nest before you get too attached. The first submitted draft ran to 111,000. The final book’s about 87,000. The 25,000 words or so that were cut were words I’d spent a long time writing and polishing. There was a lot in there that didn’t need to be but I was too close to it. By contrast, the first draft of The Last Shot was 80,000 — and it’s ended up at 93,000. So maybe I swung too far the other way. Perhaps the third book will be just right — but I doubt it!

Dead Zone

Michael’s favourite book as a teen

What were your favourite books to read when you were a teenager?

I am indebted to Stephen King. I loved that supernatural events were happening in our very ordinary world and to ordinary people. The Stand and The Dead Zone were hugely influential. Later, at school, we did Lord Of The Flies, The Loved One, Nineteen Eighty Four, Shakespeare: and I loved all of them too. So a mixture of the high and lowbrow — but, like YA, I’m never sure exactly where the border lies.

Of course, the book screams film rights. If you could choose anyone (director, actors) to adapt and star in your film, who would they be?

David Fincher [Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Social Network]. I love his obsessive attention to detail, the mood he creates. As for actors, I’m going home-grown. Eva Lazzaro as Danby. She’s the right age, she looks the part and she’s really talented. I thought she was the best thing about Tangle. Alex Russell as Jack. He was funny and charismatic in Chronicle and he had an edge to him. Nathan’s young and from Sri Lankan parents. I wonder if cricketer Ashton Agar can act?

Michael Adams’ The Last Girl was featured as part of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS for September. You might also like to read an interview with August’s debut author, Nina Smith and YA author of Girl Defective, Simmone Howell.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE YA AUTHORS? IS IT TRICKY TO DEFINE YA? OR HAVE YOU READ MICHAEL’S BOOK YET? LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

Meet the locals: author Simmone Howell

Simmone Howell

Simmone Howell

Simmone Howell’s recent YA novel Girl Defective is a smart and punchy coming of age tale set on the meanstreets of St Kilda. In a record store owned by her dad, Sky negotiates love, loss and a little brother who always wears a pig mask.

Simmone’s narrative voice (in whatever character she is writing) is the kind that you long for, so strong it becomes a part of your own interior monologue, and changes how you see the world for a while. Her dialogue, description and humour are fresh and seamless. Her rapid fire delivery floors you. I’ve read a lot of YA fiction recently and this book stands out in the genre (or any genre, really).

As it happens, Simmone is also a local (for the moment, anyhow). I first saw her on stage at Castlemaine Word Mine, hosting a session with Martine Murray and Sally Rippin, and we recently did a session together (with Ellie Marney) on teen fiction. 

Here I speak to her about writing, nostalgia and folk music …

When did you move to Castlemaine? What drew you to the area?

I moved here in 2008. I wanted to try living in the country and Castlemaine had good coffee, plus a cinema and a train to Melbourne …

How does the area inspire your own writing?

I’m yet to see if the area has inspired my writing. I’m not sure that it does except for the fact that I walk a lot more than I used to and as a result have more ‘forward thoughts’ … but I also seem to have less time to write them down. And I spend a lot of time dreaming of escape.

How does a writer survive in Castlemaine? Do you do other work as well?

I do a little freelance writing stuff here and there, and I run creative workshops with Lisa D’Onofrio. I live lean and am nearly always thinking of finishing a Grad. Dip.

You seem to be drawn to YA fiction, novels with strong and humorous young female voices. Does the teen voice come naturally to you?

Yes! Even when I write an old man character he manages to sound like a 15-year-old girl. (This could be a problem …)

You’re a writing mother. How does having a family influence the way you work? Your characterisation?

Having a family means I have more resources in one way – I am constantly being pulled into the child’s perspective and I think it also makes me very nostalgic about my past and the feeling of time passing. I think being a parent has made me a nicer person. Not sure if that helps with the novelling though.

Girl DefectiveYour new novel, ‘Girl Defective’, seems to be about the importance of preservation (records, St Kilda’s iconic buildings) and an embrace of the vintage. Do you collect things? Are you drawn to record stores and op shops?

Yes and Yes. I have always been a collector and a cataloguer. I also love to throw things away and then mourn them.

‘Girl Defective’ has a wonderful sense of place. Why did you decide to set it in St Kilda?

I lived in St Kilda for a little while, and it was also the land of my teenager dreams. It always seemed like a mythical place to me – like Australia’s version of Los Angeles where everything is surface and the darkness is never far away. I love the history of St Kilda and the geography. I’m not sure if I would live there again so it was great to be able to live there vicariously through Sky.

Sky seems to be a girl coping in many ways on her own, with a lot of responsibility (her mother is absent, her dad relies on her to look after her brother). Do you think she is essentially taking on the parenting role in the narrative?

Yes. I think responsibility is one of the themes of the novel. Put baldly like that, ‘responsibility’ seems to be quite a boring theme, but when I was writing I was thinking a lot about the roles that people take on, how we can fall into them without wanting them, and then, sometimes surprisingly, be good at them.

You’re currently working on your latest novel. What’s the process? Do you research extensively? Or do you hit the ground running once you’ve found a character?

No research unless I really have to. I’ve been quite good about writing forward. With Girl Defective I remember I changed the tense about fifty billion times, re-writing the book each time … with my current manuscript I’m playing around with the voice. I’ve been writing it in 3rd person, but now I think I’d quite like it to be in 1st. Basically my process is to write something and then at a crucial point in the narrative go back to the start — this way it takes me years to finish.

Are you a writer who likes to stick to a routine, who finds comfort there, or do you embrace spontaneity?

I would love to stick to a routine, but I seem unable to. My only routine now is that I use the software Freedom which allows me to turn off the internet.

You’ve worked in other genres including an award-winning screenplay. What drew you to film, and how does writing a short film differ from narrative fiction.

I love films. I spent most of my teen years lurking at the video store slowly working through actors and genres … the short film Pity 24 came from a short story which was basically an oral biography, so in that instance there wasn’t a lot I had to change. (The film is like a fake documentary, though not a ‘mock’ documentary because no-one’s being mocked in it … I think there’s a difference.)

Actually I find screenwriting really challenging. I would love to adapt one of my books but think I might need a bravery injection first.

You’ve been successful in exporting your fiction internationally. Do Australian writers in YA stand a chance in the US market?

Definitely. There is a lot of love for Australian YA in the US. Margo Lanagan, Melina Marchetta, Jaclyn Moriarty, Marcus Zusak, John Marsden — the big names here garner a lot of respect there. Very generally speaking, I think they love the ‘direct’ Aussie voice. My writing has been called things like ‘unvarnished’ and ‘raunchy’ in the US and for some reason it feels like a compliment!

You have recently hosted a local radio show, Folkish on Tuesday mornings (currently in hiatus). What are your top 5 folk tracks (at the moment)?

Simmone’s earlier novel Notes From The Teenage Underground won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for YA Fiction and the Gold Inky in 2007. The short film Pity24 won an AWGIE for screenwriting.

A UNIQUE VOICE IS SO IMPORTANT IN FICTION … WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE WRITERS — WHO MANAGE TO CREATE A VOICE SO MESMERISING THAT YOU DON’T WANT TO LET GO?

IF YOU ENJOYED THIS, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE TO MEET LOCAL WRITERS JON BAUER AND ADAM FORD …

Talking Writing: an ebook featuring great Australian writers

Talking Writing ebook, NSW Writers' Centre

Talking Writing ebook, NSW Writers’ Centre

I love having the flexibility to swing between freelance writing and editing. I’ve been commissioning editor of the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, Newswrite, for a number of years now. I enjoy commissioning articles almost as much as writing them. There’s something about the ideas process, talking through possible articles with an editorial team, and then seeing writers respond to a theme and bring it to the page fully formed. More often than not, writers completely surprise me with what they bring back.

For an editor, working on a magazine composed by writers is a dream job. The writing that comes in is taut and well-shaped, with virtually no typos. I can just sit back end enjoy. For a writer, I’ve always got a lot to learn. Writing short stories. Or sci-fi. Or the love poem. I’m always keen to try new things. This ebook covers the gamut.

Newswrite has always been a members-only magazine, for those based in NSW. One of the frustrating things about editing each edition has been that I haven’t been able to use social media to share the articles that I find exciting and helpful for writers (and there are many).

So the Centre came up with an idea: we’ve produced our first ebook, Talking Writing, a collection of the best articles from the past couple of years. It was launched last week. Yes, it does cost money. But $9.95 is a pretty reasonable outlay for some of the finest writers in the country, both established and emerging.

My favourites from the book include:

  • John Safran on writing TV comedy. I went to uni with John. I was involved with making an early music video at RMIT of his song ‘Melbourne Tram’. His work has always fascinated me. Here, he berates writers for being so precious. To come up with ideas. Lots of them. 
  • Kate Holden on writing good sex. I’m intrigued by Kate’s evocation of the erotic in her nonfiction. She has lived it. Writing sex (that’s not cringe-worthy) is one of the hardest things for a writer to do. Kate has some great tips.
  • Arnold Zable on writing as therapy. In the aftermath of the bushfire tragedy in Victoria, Arnold did workshops with some of the survivors. They wrote about what they had lost, shared, and remembered. It’s an article full of spirit and rejuvenation amidst the devastation.
  • Writer on WriterThe magazine has a regular column (that I get very excited about) where writers are asked to talk about the author who has had the greatest influence on them (writing practice and reading). It’s a wonderfully intimate space for reflection and featured writers include Emily Maguire (on Graham Greene), Benjamin Law (Zadie Smith), Jon Bauer (Ray Bradbury), Sam Cooney (David Foster Wallace) and Mandy Sayer (Ernest Hemingway).
  • And then there’s Rebecca Giggs on writing and the environment; Sam Twyford-Moore on writing and depression, James Bradley on blogging, Kirsten Tranter on the second novel and Geordie Williamson + Angela Meyer on criticism in the digital age.

If you’re an emerging writer looking for hands-on nuts and bolts help, this ebook will be useful to dip into. It covers a range of genres so teachers of writing can add it to their syllabus.

You can read it on your computer screen, iPad, Kindle or other e-reading devices.

This release is a bit of an experiment. If we get lots of digi-readers, the plan is to keep publishing Newswrite articles in a variety of formats. I hope you enjoy reading the articles as much as I have over the years.

Meet the locals: author Jon Bauer

Author Jon Bauer, Rocks in the Belly

Author Jon Bauer

I remember first encountering Jon Bauer in a session, with Fiona McGregor, at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on writing about mothers. As you know, this is a topic that continues to engage me (on many levels) and I was intrigued because it was unusual to have a male panellist (a refreshing change, actually), and he spoke eloquently about writing female characters.

After his debut novel, Rocks in the Belly, was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2012) and won the Indie Award for Debut Fiction (2011) it became one of the first books I downloaded onto my Kindle. A mistake, I now realise, because I want to share the damn thing with everyone!


It’s a stark and brooding novel with a mesmerising and seductive mix of young boy and adult male voices. Reading through responses on Goodreads, it’s one of those love/hate books, the kind I think I want to write. I mean, really, does anyone just want an indifferent response? If you’re willing to trust the author to take you on a dark journey, this one is beautifully structured and carefully constructed. As Jon intended, it embraces and then repels you.


Jon has written a couple of great articles for Newswrite magazine — on the author Ray Bradbury (who recently passed away); and on the art of researching the second novel — and shortly after moving here, I heard he was also heading to town, to a little village called Chewton just out of Castlemaine. I spoke to him about the move (he started off in the UK) and how he goes about writing such memorable fiction.


You’re originally from the UK and have recently moved to Chewton. What attracted you to the area?

I think living in rural England. Australia is home now (Melbourne for the last 11 years) but I was always going to need some nature and space around me. Castlemaine isn’t far from Melbourne, but far enough that it has its own vibrant community. A garden and veggies and animal life, and a full view of sky makes me happy in a way that lattes and hipsters don’t.

Do you find living here has helped your writing?

Nope. Yes. Sort of. I’m busier here, where I thought I’d be ensconced in privacy. But knowing I can retreat whenever I want gives me a lot of comfort. I’m writing a lot right now though because I’m coming to the end of my second novel and can’t keep my hands off it.

Jon Bauer, Rocks in the BellyHow did you come up with the idea for ‘Rocks in the Belly’? Was it shaped by your own family at all?

Rocks is based on a picture I saw on a mantelpiece years ago. The image was of a young foster child with an intellectual disability. She had died, and the family who took her in really missed her.

I kept that image in my mind for years and it bubbled up again one morning while I was lying in bed looking up at clouds. In terms of the shape of my own family, I suppose Rocks has an emotional authenticity, in that I was completely befuddled by the family I found myself in, and very aware that I was bottom of their list of priorities. Do you hear violins? But otherwise, it is that fictional weave of authenticity and invention.

There are many confronting moments in the book where the reader wants to look away, step back. How did it feel going to those dark places, entering into moments of violence, brutality, cruelty, misogyny (and pain)?

At times my hands were shaking as I typed. But I felt purged afterwards. I think, early on, I wanted to punish the reader. The book softened a great deal though as I redrafted it. People are so multi-faceted, and all too often characters are polarised in films and in literature. It’s important to me to write the essence into my characters that we are all capable of almost everything. How else would murder, war, rape and brutality transcend time, geography, and culture?

As for misogyny, that was something I watched extremely closely in the book. It is important for me to go to the places in society that are unacceptable. I am writing about child abuse now, among other themes. What mattered to me with Rocks, is that it was not a misogynistic novel. Which I steadfastly believe it is not. Chauvinist characters, evil characters, racist characters, they’re all okay in my book, and can sometimes do more to highlight injustice and bigotry than writing an idealised character. But there are writers who write chauvinistic books, and racist books, and don’t even realise they’re doing it.

You mentioned that when you were writing the novel, you did an acting course where you were encouraged to improvise. How did finding your voice and experimenting with it here affect the way you were developing characters?

That is a big part of why the protagonist is less likeable than he might be. That acting course (Meisner) was a permissive space where I could explore my darker side. There was a moment in the writing where the protagonist did something small, like drop a piece of litter. But feeling anxious of keeping the reader sweet, I sent him back to pick it up. Then I thought, bugger it, drop the litter. It sounds small, and the moment isn’t even in the book anymore, but it was a turning point.

I wrote Rocks to walk a tricky line between compelling and repelling the reader. It’s a heady mix, kind of like doing the splits. I won’t have got the balance right for all readers.

‘Rocks in the Belly’ mixes the voices of a young boy and his adult self beautifully. How did you conjure up these two versions? Who emerged first?

Rocks is based on a short story I wrote, so the adult came first, but at times in the story, you can hear his voice lapse into younger language as he recounts the past. When I was coming to write the novel, I knew I had to try the younger voice. I wasn’t confident I could do it, but once I started it poured out. Kids are easy to write, I think. Just bring out your most narcissistic and associative side.

The book is essentially about vulnerability masked as something else — all the characters (and all of us) share these traits to some degree. Do you find as a writer you are stripping off the mask in some way?

Fiction is a safe place, so there’s no unmasking. But I am shining a light on the fact we’re multi-faceted, as I said. And that ultimately, most violence and anger comes from pain and woundedness. Also that childhood is brutal, no matter how happy you think yours was.

People don’t like you to talk negatively about the halcyon world of childhood, but it’s important to normalise the ambiguity and complexity of all spaces: religion, parenting, family, marriage, love, childhood, sex … We like to simplify things, and usually for the better. But they aren’t simple. Ambiguity is a larger place, and allows a lot more freedom in life, and in story.

You’re currently immersed in your new novel. What’s the process? Do you research extensively? Or do you hit the ground running once you’ve found a character?

Both. This novel took a long time to find the story. I knew I wanted to write about a man. Then he became a man going blind. That led to a period of research, which was long and interesting, and confronting, but ultimately inspiring. Then just writing the words. Lots of them. It ended up being 160,000. I’m now stripping it back and shaping and grooming it. Down to 116,000, but I want it lower, if it’ll let me.

Are you a writer who likes to stick to a routine, who finds comfort there, or do you embrace spontaneity?

Routine shmootine.

We’ve talked in the past about the importance of play. Is this something you incorporate into your writing process?

Creativity IS play. Certainly initially. If you aren’t largely enjoying it, you’re doing something wrong.

You seem to be always drawn to the psychology of young boys? What is your interest in psychology and this particular age group?

The more I write the more I see themes. The key ones, I think, are that I write children (of both genders) as brutalised heroes. I tend to write the elderly as vulnerable, and the adults as flawed and negligent. That seems to be the over-simplified gist. And children make great narrators, and compelling protagonists. Who can’t cheer on a child character?!

In a ‘Newswrite’ article (‘Writer on Writer’) you wrote of how you were inspired by Ray Bradbury. What other writers do you go to for inspiration?

Susan Sontag described writing best when she said that, ‘It feels like leading and following at the same time.’ I try to live life like that too. Otherwise, I’m a buffet reader — dipping in and out of many writers. Mostly, I read non-fiction: psychology and ontology. I think I’ll be a therapist one day, and am hellbent on gathering more and more information on that unassailable thing — life. Fiction is a good place to do that, both writing it and reading, but I devour books on how to live betterer.

HAVE YOU READ ROCKS IN THE BELLY? OR ANY OTHER FICTION THAT IS BOTH REPELLING AND COMPELLING? WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS.

If you enjoyed this, you might also like to meet another local writer: Adam Ford. As Castlemaine has such a vibrant artistic community I’ll be doing more of these interviews in the coming year.

The Next Big Thing: Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl

just_a_girlI’ve been tagged by great ‘suburban noir’ writer Wendy James (see my interview from the Writing Mothers series) in ‘The Next Big Thing’ blog meme, which is winding its way through literary blogs, to let us know about new books being released in 2013 and beyond by wonderful Australian and international writers. 

It seems a bit weird to claim yourself this way but I guess My Next Big Thing is also My First Big Thing (when it comes to a novel) so I’m excited to talk about it here.

What is the working title of your current/next book?

My first novel is called just_a_girl. It will be released in June 2013.

Where did the idea come from?

I used to spend a long commute from Springwood in the Blue Mountains to my public service job in Sydney. On the train I’d hear teenage girls talking about their lives. I began to wonder what it would be like to be 14 these days, with access to technology (the wonders and dangers) and strangers in your bedroom, and wanted to explore the idea of being disconnected in a ‘connected’ world.

I also heard a story from a close relative who was a primary school teacher. She talked of a girl in Grade 5 who went to a school camp and exposed herself in the showers to a male teacher. This had real resonance for me. I wondered and worried about this girl: where had she come from and where was she heading? Layla grew out of that story.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s contemporary literary fiction — told from the perspectives of three characters: a teenage girl (Layla), her single mother (Margot), and a Japanese man (Tadashi), who makes a cameo role, searching for lasting friendship.

Actress Rachel Griffiths

Actress Rachel Griffiths

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Rachel Griffiths can turn her talent to anything and she’d manage Margot, a woman who is numbed by her past, searching for meaning in her life after her husband leaves and finding it (or so she thinks) in the work of the Lord. Ashleigh Cummings was impressive in her role for Puberty Blues and she’d make a great Layla with her cheeky spirit. Takeshi Kaneshiro starred in one of my favourite films, Chungking Express, and has the composure and allure required for Tadashi.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Layla is only 14 but already has the world at her fingertips: she cruises online, catches trains to meet strangers, and her mother, Margot, never suspects,  not even when Layla brings a man into their home.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

just_a_girl will be released by UWA Publishing in June 2013.

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

The first draft took about three years (part time) as a research masters in creative writing at the University of Sydney. It’s had many, many drafts since then (and doubled in length), and been worked out around having two babies (all up about seven years!) and I’m still doing finishing touches.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It’s inspired by books with a strong and compelling younger voice like Marguerite Duras’ The LoverPuberty Blues and Emma Donoghue’s Room. I also like the quirky, strange nature of Haruki Murakami’s writing and this is a big influence.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was actually having a tough time in my life in my early 30s and needed to make a drastic shift. I decided to take a break from full-time work and go to university to see if I could write fiction (my real love and a dream of mine). It was a real process of renewal and realising that writing was something I really had no choice in: I had to do it. I needed to set myself on a new path. Or find some sort of balance. I hadn’t really written much fiction before (a few short stories at uni) but my supervisor Sue Woolfe was enormously supportive and encouraging (and David Brooks too), and convinced me I could get my writing published. I had faith in what she was saying. And began to see this character, Layla, take shape. So, taking the punt set me in motion for a career in writing and editing.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Drugs. Soft porn. The Lord. It’s Lolita with a webcam. And there’s a body in a suitcase.

Next up, I’ve tagged the following writers to give us the lowdown on their Next Big Thing and their posts will appear on their respective blogs in a week’s time (ish). They are all wonderful writers, and their novels and blogs are worth looking into or noting for a future date!

  • Anna Hedigan: The Moral High Ground blog and two novels in progress
  • Angela Meyer: LiteraryMinded blog and a novel in progress
  • Adrian Deans: novels include Mr Cleansheets and THEM and no doubt there’s a novel in progress
  • Samantha Bowers: Deliciously Fictitious blog and a first novel in progress

Tasting the erotic: Krissy Kneen

Author Krissy Kneen

Author Krissy Kneen

Inspired by all the media frenzy surrounding 50 Shades of Grey — and its even better spin-off, 50 Sheds of Grey — I decided to look into Australian erotic writing for the next issue of Newswrite (the magazine I edit for the NSW Writers’ Centre) and started speaking to a number of authors about how they create sex scenes.

Pretty soon I came across Krissy Kneen.

Based in Brisbane, Krissy is the author of two short collections of erotica, Swallow the Sound (see Angela Meyer’s review) and Triptych. She also writes regularly at her blog, Furious Vaginas.

The author Emily Maguire (who writes about sex brilliantly in her debut novel, Taming the Beast), describes herself as a huge fan of Krissy’s work:

 I rarely find her work ‘erotic’ in terms of arousal, but I think she writes about sex and the erotic in a deeply intelligent and empathetic way. I always come away from her work feeling warmer towards strangers and humanity in general. It’s like she uses the erotic to uncover the gorgeous, hugely varied vulnerabilities of human beings. She really captures the desperate need to be approved of in all our most private weirdness, to be touched and loved.

Intrigued by Krissy’s writing, and her appearance on ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club (as part of a panel on erotic literature), I spoke to her about her favourite writers, the history of erotica in Australia, and how to write great sex when you’re not in the mood.

Who do you see as the most interesting contemporary Australian writers working in erotic writing (short stories / novels / nonfiction)?

I love Susan Johnson’s My Hundred Lovers [see Wild Colonial Girl’s interview with Susan in the Writing Mothers series] and Rod Jones, Sonya Harnett and Frank Moorhouse do sex so well. I am not a big fan of most of the ‘erotic’ novels as a genre. It is rarely done well without relying on cliche. I prefer literary books that are not afraid of their sensuality.

I know there are a great many Australian writers working in romantic erotic fiction, paranormal erotic fiction and just general erotic fiction, and they do very well internationally, but I am afraid I am a sucker for literary fiction and so my reading in those areas is limited. I am currently reading Jeff Sparrow’s book about pornography, Money Shot, and finding that fascinating, and am also just starting Benjamin Law’s Gaysia — not exactly erotic books but important books about sex.

Landscape with AnimalsI still find Landscape with Animals by Cameron Redfern (Sonya Hartnett) to be my favourite Australian erotic book, although her genre is usually YA, so I think I’ll be waiting a long time for another from her. I recently re-read Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me and the sex bits are excellent, very funny, and it is lovely to see her wrestling with feminism and women’s friendships within the genre. I also love Kate Holden’s The Romantic for great writing about sex. Kate is a fabulous writer and I am very much looking forward to more. Nightpictures by Rod Jones is another one of my favourite erotic books.

Is there a history of Australian erotic fiction that you can trace back? Do you know of any early examples?

The academic who has written on this subject is Xavier Pons. His book Messengers of Eros is a really thorough look at sex in Australian fiction. The thing is, I haven’t read a lot of the early examples of Australian sex writing, but Pons has and shows us that there is indeed a long tradition of it, and although we associate sex writing with women now, it was a very masculine domain at one time. My real foray into sex writing in Australia began with Justine Ettler (River Ophelia) and Linda Jaivin (Eat Me). There was a big stir when Nikki Gemmel came out with the anonymous The Bride Stripped Bare and, although there was a lot of well-written sex, that book was so inherently conservative in its relationship to sex (if you have extra-marital sex you will die), I am not a fan. Her second book With My Body is an even less discreet ode to monogamy, even going so far as to say that the most sexy sex is that which is performed to conceive a child.

I personally love sex books that challenge us on our relationship to sexuality, that do not see monogamous or heterosexual as the default settings, and that allow sex to be something celebratory and not something to feel shame about. That is a rarity in sex literature and a very rare thing in erotic genre fiction, which is why I tend to steer clear.

How do you go about writing an ‘erotic’ scene? Does characterisation come first?

Krissy Kneen, TriptychIt is different for everything I write. If I am writing a novel, the character will always come first and their sexuality is just an expression of character, but with Triptych I was specifically setting out to write pornographic literature and as a result I thought about it in terms of sexual preference first and character second. I knew I wanted to write about transgressions and therefore picked three ‘perversions’ of sex (voyeurism, bestiality and incest) and worked back to character and story from there. In my short collection, Swallow the Sound, I just used sex scenes from novels I had written that had not been published. I worked those up into short stories — so definitely they came from the characters and the story.

What makes a scene ‘erotic’ for you? If it’s not working, do you ditch it or keep trying?

Some days I don’t feel like writing sex, but that is rare. Mostly the sex is the easy part. I have more trouble sustaining a plot for the length of a book. Structure is my difficulty and the sex is the fun easy part of the writing. It is rare that the sex isn’t working. Recently I had the experience of finding it very difficult to get an orgy started in a book I was writing. It was pages and pages later and they still weren’t even close to getting their clothes off. It took me the better part of a week to finally realise that one of the peripheral characters had all the power in the situation and all my protagonist had to do was confess to him that she wanted an orgy and he very quickly and easily made it happen. Sometimes, like that example, starting the sex is the hardest bit. Sometimes characters aren’t ready to leap into bed but often if you make them just do it and it is awkward and embarrassing, that makes for a great sex scene.

I can tell when a sex scene is really working. I can always feel it. It feels like you are riding a wave and you just have to stick with it till it comes to a natural end. It feels a bit like sculpting actually. It feels physical, like you are touching the shape of the scene. It is very sensual work. Every bit of writing feels like a Krissy Kneen, Swallow the Sounddifferent craft. I have recently been editing my book and that feels like sewing. It is exhausting and hurts your eyes and requires a lot of concentration but when it is done well you feel a sense of achievement seeing something that looks seamless, even though you know there is a lot of invisible mending in it. The sex scenes are definitely the sculptural component, where the other parts of the story feel a bit more like painting with oils, laying it on, and then going back when it is dry and adding more colour, taking it from a flat inert thing to something that gives the impression of movement.

I do enjoy the sex the best. I suppose that is why people respond to it in my work. It feels like my more natural craft. Still there is nothing like tackling the parts of a book that come less naturally to me and making them work. That feels like a real achievement.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? WHAT MAKES A PIECE OF WRITING EROTIC FOR YOU? DOES IT HAVE TO BE ABOUT SEX? HAVE YOU EVER TRIED TO WRITE A SEX SCENE YOURSELF?

WILD COLONIAL GIRL IS NOW ON FACEBOOK. IF YOU COULD LIKE, I WOULD REALLY LOVE!

Writing Mothers: Kirsten Tranter

Kirsten TranterSydney-based writer Kirsten Tranter has published two novels in quick succession, The Legacy and A Common Loss, to international critical acclaim. While she has written widely about the trials and tribulations of writing a second novel, the setting of A Common Loss (the neon streets of Las Vegas) has distinguished her writing from other Australian contemporaries.

Angela Meyer, from Literary Minded, described the book’s appeal:

The complexity of Vegas — where people dream, work, gamble, are seduced, marry, play, and drink themselves to death in giant rooms under flashing lights — is the perfect setting for this book about a man, an intelligent man, an academic, who realises he’s not as aware (or even self-aware) as he thought he was. Eventually, in Vegas, he begins to see behind the surfaces to the wear and tear. Read more…

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