wild colonial girl

A freelancer moves to Castlemaine

Archive for the tag “first novel”

Do you remember the first time? Part 2: readings + The Voice

You can pre-order my book, just_a_girl. Just click on the pic.

You can pre-order my book, just_a_girl. Just click on the pic.

I’m one of those people who would rather die than get up and say a few words. I think this is in part genetic (my grandmother on my mum’s side and my grandfather on my dad’s side were both content to sit in corners and observe at social situations, and confessed their fears to me of standing up to speak) but also influenced by my experiences in primary school.

I don’t remember being self-conscious until about Grade 4. I feel like I can pinpoint the moment it began. When — as my character Layla takes up the narrative in my book — I had a teacher who decided to conduct a class experiment. Mr S told me to go outside and pick up rubbish. A strange request but I was a dutiful student (pretty much). When I returned I went to my desk as usual. Later in the day he smashed his ruler down in front of me and got me to stand up in front of the class while he accused me of hitting and hurting a small boy. This was so against my nature that I threw it off for a while, but then he got a student to go and get the little boy in question, and he lied convincingly. I felt stranded and confused. Did I actually do it? Without realising? When I sat down, my teacher revealed it was an experiment. To see how boldly I stuck to the truth. To see if I changed my story. The class all had to write about me (and the scenario). I felt completely exposed.

And recently I realised: when I stand up in front of an audience now, I feel like I’ve done something wrong — even though I haven’t. It’s a hard thing to shake off. Of course, a therapist may say I’d feel this sense of dread anyway (many writers do). So, when I finished the book, I realised I had to confront it. The public/private persona. The exposure to strangers. Writers are expected to speak and be comfortable speaking (even when this is a completely different skill to writing). I heard a saying recently, ‘hiding in plain sight’, and I relate to this well. Every day I confront it. The need to compose myself.

Harrison Craig on The Voice

Harrison Craig on The Voice

I’ve been hooked on The Voice lately. This show is my guilty pleasure. I watch all the auditions. I watch them again on the net. It’s the only TV show I get really addicted to. I love singing, and distinctive voices. But when I’m watching it’s as if I’m searching for something. For clues. And I realise I’m fascinated by that moment of connection. When the singer touches the audience (or judges). It’s about letting yourself be vulnerable. Being unique. Allowing emotion to move through your body. It is a mystery to me.

Now, singing and dancing are different from speaking. I could get up on a stage and sing and dance in musicals at school. The Wizard of Oz. Godspell. Musicals meant you could hang out with older boys (I went to a girls’ school) who played guitar. There was a freedom there. But I never auditioned for a play. I guess, people who stutter would understand this. It seems a different part of the brain handles song, as opposed to speech. When I get nervous, I go mute. Not just my voice, but my brain! I can’t access what I need when asked a question in front of people. Many times at school and university I had to leave the room. For fear of not being able to find the right words.

But recently it all came to a head. I was asked to do my first reading of the book (a preview) at the Castlemaine Word Mine with Simmone Howell and Ellie Marney. I knew that this was make or break time. That from this point on, leading up to and beyond the launch, it was only going to get harder. Or easier. Depending on how the night went. And you know what? I drove home pumping my fist at the moon and screaming ‘Fuck, yeah!’ because I got to the other side. Where it actually felt good. And here’s what I learnt.

Join a writers’ group 

Even though I’ve written my first novel, I’ve never had any group feedback. I chose a research masters to avoid classes (of course). One on one feedback I can handle. But in Castlemaine I stumbled upon the most wonderful group. All experienced writers. All willing to be both gentle and pernickety. I started to tentatively read aloud. I couldn’t look up from my page. But I started to hear my own voice.

Say yes first and panic later

Q&A with Kirsten Krauth, Ellie Marney, Simmone Howell, Castlemaine Word Mine

Q&A with Kirsten Krauth, Ellie Marney, Simmone Howell, Castlemaine Word Mine

Make a commitment to doing the talk. All writers deep down really want to share their work. While I didn’t write my book for an audience, it has ideas I want to share. Find out as much detail as you can about the event. How long will you read? Are you on with a panel? Who’s on first? Is there a Q+A? Can you get an idea of the questions?

Practise for a week

Choose an excerpt from your book that you really love, and that has strong narrative drive. As a fellow writer told me, don’t go for beautiful words. They may look good on paper (and the reader will appreciate this) but they inspire daydreaming. Take your audience on a trip; include them in the journey. Read your excerpt out loud, once a day, for a week leading up. Learn the words that you stumble on and change or eliminate them. Write down where to pause. Write down where to smile. Reminders are great. Most importantly, write yourself an intro, even if you have to write ‘Hello! I’m Kirsten Krauth’! For me, the stumble is that initial opening. Once my voice actually comes out, I’m getting there…

Good old NLP + love your toes

Neuro-linguistic programming seems odd. Replacing words and concepts with others. Too good to be true? But every time you say ‘nervous’ to yourself or friends and family, replace it with ‘excited’. I did this and it worked. Couldn’t believe it. By the time I got to the reading I was pretty fucking excited. But actually, something weird happened and the nerves seemed to evaporate as the (very long) day wore on.

Moments before I stood up to read, I concentrated on my feet. They were dug into the ground. I scrunched my toes up (another tip from a friend) and thought only of them. When the time came my feet were happy to move me from A to B.

The art of performance: become your character

When I hit the stage, my only goals for the night (other than turning up) were to slow down and look up from the page once. But as I started to read the practice paid off. The words and timing seemed effortless and as I was reading in first-person, I started to play with the voice of 14-year-old Layla. I started to embody her, and she started to embody me. It turned into a performance rather than a reading. As we moved together, I actually started to enjoy it. Character acting. That’s what it was about.

Invite your friends and family

I’ve had lots of conversations about this one. Most writers agree that it’s easier to speak to a room full of strangers; and to read from a script. But as my eyes furtively darted from the page, I began to see people I know. People I like. People who had given up precious time to turn up on a cold night and listen. I saw they were smiling. They were keen. They were encouraging me to keep going. And this was an amazing help.

I wasn’t in a classroom being humiliated or attacked. Things had moved on.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU A NERVOUS (READ EXCITED) OR COURAGEOUS PUBLIC SPEAKER? ANY TIPS OR ADVICE? HAVE YOU EVER BEEN BLOWN AWAY BY SEEING A WRITER SPEAK? HAVE YOU EVER WISHED YOU COULD SINK INTO THE FLOOR?


PS And … the exciting news is that you can now pre-order  just_a_girl online (it comes out 1 June). I’m really excited about the cover. Although I originally didn’t want a girl on the cover, I was talked around. It’s dark and techie and murky — not girlie — and represents the book well, I think. If you can’t afford to buy a copy, and let’s face it, many people can’t, it would be great if you could request it at your local library. That way, they can order it in:-) Or, if you want to get a review copy for your journal or blog, let me know! It’s also available as an ebook.

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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.

Ampersand Project: new voices in YA

Melissa Keil, Life in Outer Space When you’re writing your first novel in any genre it can be challenging getting it into the hands of publishers. First, there’s the question of agents (to have or not to have?) and, then, how to stand out among the thousands of other unsolicited manuscripts sitting in piles around editors’ desks.

So it’s always exciting when a new venture is announced that’s actually calling out for debut novels. The Ampersand Project emerged in 2011, a Hardie Grant Egmont scheme looking for first-time YA novels with a distinctive voice. In March, they release their first title, a nerdy romcom, Life in Outer Space.

I spoke to debut novelist Melissa Keil and Ampersand editor Marisa Pintado about how the project is encouraging and attracting dynamic new writers.

(This is the extended version of an article originally published in Newswrite magazine.)

Why did you decide to set up the Ampersand Project? Did you see a gap in the market?

Marisa Pintado: We felt that there was room in the YA market for more debut writers, more fresh voices, and really, more variety. When we were still dreaming up Ampersand, a few years ago now, there was a glut of paranormal romance and gritty dystopian fiction. This went beyond mere trends, as far as we were concerned — there was simply very little new fiction available for readers who were into different things. We wanted to create some energy around different kinds of stories, so in the first year we focused on contemporary real-world fiction — and we were thrilled with the response from writers.

At what stage was your manuscript when you heard about Ampersand? Did it inspire you in any way?

Melissa Keil: The manuscript was complete, and I had been workshopping and editing it for about eight months before I seriously started thinking about submitting it to Ampersand. I was at the stage where I had done the bulk of the structural work that I could do on my own, and was just fiddling and making very minor changes — but I still think I would have sat on it for many months more if I wasn’t given a shove by my writing group. I guess Ampersand inspired me to be brave and put the book out there!

From the piles of manuscripts on your desk, how do you know when one is a goer for publication?

Marisa Pintado: A manuscript shines because it combines a multitude of appealing elements — a beguiling voice, intriguing concepts, skilful writing, well-developed characters, an authentic teen-feel, and an understanding of classic story design. It’s rare to find these elements all in the one manuscript, but when you do, it feels like the heavens are opening.

What we really love to see is evidence of hard work in the writing; we can tell when writers are sending in their first draft, and when they’ve laboured over a story for months or even years, painstakingly threading through subplots, re-writing chapters and refining character trajectories.

How did your manuscript originally come about? Did you come up with the voice? Or various plotlines?

Author Melissa Keil

Author Melissa Keil

Melissa Keil: Definitely the voice, and the character of my protagonist, Sam, came first. It was one of those weird, writerly light-bulb moments, when I had decided to set aside the novel I had been working on and begin something new. I had no idea what the new ‘thing’ was going to be, but I was sitting with my laptop in a café when I saw a poster for the Melbourne Horror Film Society, and Sam’s voice, literally, just popped into my head. I wrote the first chapter that afternoon, and though it’s gone through quite a few rounds of edits, and I refined and redrafted it as I got to know him better, the outline I wrote that afternoon is pretty much the first chapter in the published book. The plotlines evolved as the various characters took shape.

What was it about Life in Outer Space that singled it out to be the first Ampersand novel?

Marisa Pintado: Life in Outer Space really took us by surprise. When we launched the Ampersand Project, we’d expected to go for gritty, boundary-pushing fiction — essentially sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, with some cutting on the side. And then Melissa’s manuscript landed on my desk, and it was like having a warm bath in the sunshine. She’d written this gorgeously geeky romantic comedy that shredded a stack of awful YA clichés and pop-culture tropes, and it was just an incredible achievement.

At first we wanted to wait until we’d finished reading all the Ampersand submissions before signing Melissa up. This decision lasted about two days, and then we caved and signed her up so that we could launch into the editorial process. We knew we didn’t want to let her go, and we were prepared to have more than one Ampersand author in a year, if it came to that. She’s an amazing talent, and we could tell that she’d been working really hard for a very long time. She was absolutely ready to enter the YA scene as a fully fledged author.

I’m so looking forward to introducing her to readers in March 2013. I’ve read Life in Outer Space about a million times during the production process, and it has made me cry with happiness. Every. Single. Time. I just love Melissa’s writing.

I notice you are part of a writing group. How did this help you shape the narrative?

Melissa Keil: I can’t overestimate how valuable working with my writing group has been; not only for their advice and feedback as the manuscript developed, but also because of the emotional support that only other writers can really provide. They were the first people to flag issues and to suggest solutions for problems, but also, the first people to offer genuine encouragement and praise when things were working. It’s quite an exposing thing to put your work-in-progress writing out into the world, and my writing group has really been the perfect combination of critique group and cheer squad.

There are many 80s references in the book but it’s a contemporary world. Why did you decide to step back in time for influence?

Melissa Keil: I knew that pop culture of all kinds was important for both of my main characters, but I also knew that saturating their story solely with contemporary references was going to confine it to a singular time and place; I guess I really wanted the story to have a ‘timeless’ feel, if such a thing is possible in YA contemporary! Also, Sam and Camilla are both quite ‘old souls’; the things that they love and that influence them come from all over the place, and lots of different time periods — having said that, yes, there are quite a few 80s references! There is something in the tone of the 80s teen movies I love that I wanted to invoke.

How do you see the current state of YA publishing in Australia?

Marisa Pintado: Australian YA publishing has gone through tremendous change since the glory years of the 90s, where writers like John Marsden, Melina Marchetta, Maureen McCarthy, Robin Klein and Gillian Rubenstein turned out books of the most incredible calibre and enjoyed strong sales. I think as the market has become more enchanted with the blockbuster-sales model (usually books by international authors), and review space is increasingly limited, Australian novels can find it hard to elbow their own space on the shelves.

But I remain optimistic, because you look at the quality of writers who have established themselves over the last few years — Leanne Hall, Fiona Wood, Cath Crowley, Meredith Badger (also writing as Em Bailey), Chrissie Keighery, Myke Bartlett, Penni Russon — and you think, it’s OK! We still have amazing writers coming out of this country, and they’re writing brilliant books that do sell, and do well overseas. The Ampersand Project is all about finding more of these talented people, and giving them as much support as we can to establish their profiles and kick-start their writing careers.

How important are projects like Ampersand in helping emerging writers?

Melissa Keil: The current publishing climate being what it is, it’s becoming more and more difficult for publishers to take a risk on an unknown. Knowing that publishers are still actively looking for — and are excited by finding — new authors to support is amazing. And I think it’s so critical for new writers to have a great editorial team behind them. A project like Ampersand, with editors willing to work with a new author to help shape their manuscript into the best it can be, is crucial for any writer looking to build a career.

In 2013, what kinds of manuscripts/writing are you looking for?

Marisa Pintado: We’re opening up to all genres across YA, so I’m really keeping an open mind. My reading tastes are pretty broad, so I want to be surprised! At the moment I’m particularly keen on horror, thrillers, accessible sci-fi, high-concept drama and contemporary romance, but overall I’m hoping to find raw talent in writers who are hungry for development, and stories that I have to stay up late to finish because I’m so desperate to see how it all turns out.

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE YA AUTHORS? ARE YOU A YA WRITER LOOKING TO BE PUBLISHED? LOOK FORWARD TO YOUR COMMENTS…

If you enjoyed this, you could also check out:

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

 

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.

Writing Mothers: Debra Adelaide

Debra Adelaide, author, The Household Guide to Dying

Debra Adelaide, author, The Household Guide to Dying

When I first read The Household Guide to Dying it felt as if the writer, Debra Adelaide, had somehow stepped inside my head for a while and borrowed my voice. Even though at the time I had no daughters, and I certainly wasn’t dying of cancer, the words felt like they were mine: effortless, flowing, perfectly formed, and delivered with precision timing (at certain key points).

There was nothing sentimental about Delia Bennet’s experience of confronting death. It was head on. Even funny. (I got the same tragi-comic feeling reading Sarah Watt’s exquisite contributions to Worse Things Happen at Sea, the memoir she wrote with husband William McInnes, when she was approaching her final days with courage and quiet humour.) Delia plans for the important things. Like how to teach her girls to make the perfect cup of tea. Like whether she is going to fit in her coffin and whether she should practise before the final day comes. Read more…

Writing Mothers: Fiona McGregor

Author Fiona McGregor

Author Fiona McGregor. Photo: Sarah-Jane Norman.

When I started writing my first novel (for a research masters in creative writing at the University of Sydney) I wrote from a daughter’s and a mother’s perspective. I was not a mother. But I had my own to fall back on. And many others to observe. I remember asking Sue Woolfe (my supervisor) whether I needed to be a mother to fully realise such a character? No, we agreed. It may help. But a character is a character is a character. There’s much debate about whether a white writer can write a character with an Aboriginal perspective; whether a male writer can fully inhabit the body/mind of a woman; even whether a writer can capture a sense of place if they’ve never set foot there.

I understand where these concerns come from but I’m all for experimenting. Where else, but in fiction, can we start to re-imagine, re-invent lives, explore the limits of who we are. I think it comes down to compassion for characters, the ability to drill into the psychology of another person (at any moment in time and place).

During the slow process of writing the novel, I became pregnant and had a baby. Then another one. I started recording the day to day changes. And I realised that my mother character, while not way off the mark, just didn’t have those detailed observations, didn’t fully engage with her daughter, didn’t live her life from within. I went back and started to rewrite.

The ‘Writing Mothers’ series (see also Anna Funder and Bianca Wordley) is not only about women juggling writing with motherhood. The topic can also been seen from another angle: how to write mother characters. I approached Fiona McGregor, the author of Indelible Ink (which won the Age Book of the Year award in 2011) — that features the unforgettable Marie King, a 59-year-old divorcée from Sydney’s affluent north shore who sets herself up for reinvention (and to confront her children).

Fiona, how do you go about writing a ‘mother’ character? Is it different from how you approach other characters?

FM: I don’t think it’s different in principle — a combination of imagination and empathy. I guess I attuned myself to mother-specific concerns — that is where the 24-hour job comes into play — noticing things on TV and in the paper that addressed mothers in a way that would normally not come within my frame of reference. In the same way, I was much more attuned to my sisters’ and girlfriends’ motherly preoccupations. I might do the same if my main character were an accordion player — seek that out in the world around me in whatever form.

Fiona McGregor, Indelible Ink

Fiona McGregor, Indelible Ink

I don’t and didn’t want to see mothers as just mothers — that is part of the struggle of the mother in my book, to assert an individual self, so I would have been looking at the women in my life in the same terms. I obviously thought a great deal of my own mother, but not too much, as her life and values were pretty different and I didn’t want them to overinfluence my book, my character of Marie.

Do you research — talk to and observe other mothers — or is it about intuition?

FM: Yes, I did ask my mother friends and family stuff, and pricked up my ears at mother conversations …

Also, I’ve been lucky to have experienced through the women I know and through both my blood and my queer family a really wide range of mothers. That helps.

Intuition — yes — the turning point for me, after struggling for literally years to get inside of Marie and finding it hard, was thinking about how similar I was as opposed to how different. That is one of the most important places for the fiction writer, to keep your feet on the common ground, a fellow human thing.

Also, in terms of being attuned, my reading steered towards stories of mothers, families, the middle-class.

How much influence has your relationship with your own mother affected the way you portray mothers in your fiction?

FM: I was juggling using and learning from my mother and our relationship, and also needing to refuse it because if it had overinfluenced me it would have strangled the book and the character; it wasn’t appropriate. My mother was 20 years older than Marie, and had eight kids and worked, and was a practicing Catholic. She was educated, quite erudite and comopolitan. All these things set her worlds apart. And she was incidentally intransigent in her hatred of tattoos.

I’ve realised you’ve asked about my relationship … Well, I think what we had in common with Blanche and Marie was something very prevalent to that generation — the struggle that mothers, post-war educated mothers, have where they fulfil the traditional role and get a chance at a public independent life and sometimes make a total success of that, but much more often feel a bit torn and frustrated. Their daughters grow up with much more freedom, largely due to their mother’s efforts, and when the mothers see this they are proud and gratified but also resentful, jealous, confused. They probably feel not acknowledged enough. Sacrificial lambs … A bittersweet love/hate thing. I have observed younger mothers being much closer to their daughters, much less friction in terms of gender issues, and older mothers favouring their sons. That was the case in my family and the case in the novel.

Do you think it would be easier/different/harder if you were a mother — or do you think it’s like anything in fiction, possible to be conjured?

FM: Don’t know. I have been gratified to have scores of women of that age and so on tell me I’ve ‘got it’. That’s made me happy, to have connected with them, which is also I think a case of respecting them. One thing — if I were a mother, I could not have written a book like this which sucked so much of my time, my headspace, that kept me poor too. That is the irony.

Have you read Indelible Ink or any other books by Fiona McGregor? What did you think of Marie?

Do you have a favourite mother character in fiction? I’d love to hear them…


Writing Mothers: Anna Funder

Author Anna Funder

Author Anna Funder

I’ve been writing an essay for Island Magazine on the topic, Writing Mothers, where I’ve been looking at mother characters in Australian fiction (written by women), and talking to novelists and bloggers about how they even begin to juggle their writing with pregnancy and having children. I’ve also talked to writers (who are not mothers) about how they go about creating characters (who are mothers).

I’ve been surprised at how little research has been done on the topic (although the Australian Women Writers’ Network has been brilliant at giving me leads). It seems that mothers shimmy out of the limelight wherever possible. The article will be published in July but, in the meantime, I thought I’d start a series on Writing Mothers where I publish some of the interviews in full that I’ve quoted from in the article.

First up is Anna Funder, author of Stasiland (which won the world’s biggest prize for non-fiction, the Samuel Johnson Prize) and an outstanding debut novel, All That I Am (one of the best Australian novels of the past year, nominated for the Miles Franklin). She is one of Australia’s most exciting writers and here she talks about the challenges of writing when you have three children.

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

Anna Funder, Stasiland

Anna Funder, Stasiland

AF: I was finishing Stasiland when I was pregnant with my first child. I think pregnancy is a wonderful state, in that it chemically blurs all kinds of anxieties about the (completely and utterly unimaginable ) future that is coming. That applies to both babies, and books — how can anyone have any idea what it’s going to be like with either? I think I expected to have a quiet time with my baby, which I did for a little bit, but then the book took off and I was travelling and talking a lot for a couple of years.

When my baby was two weeks old I went out and bought a three-piece set of matching luggage on a whim. My dear friend, a mother of four, said to me, ‘You have a two-week-old baby. Where do you think you’re going??’ I had no idea, but I ended up travelling all over the place with my daughter.

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

AF: I wrote a lot of articles and speeches. I didn’t really have the mental wherewithal to nut out the architecture of a big novel — that came later. I found it hard to organise my time. My husband was overseas weeks at a time for about half the year, and I was in a city without much family support. I have three children now, and imagine I’m a bit better at outsourcing some of the care and making time to write. But truth be told, I put my novel All That I Am away for the first six months of my son’s life. I tried to have a break from it. Of course I wrote other stuff during that time.

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?

AF: I don’t find discipline so hard. I find writing hard, but I am more stressed out by not doing it than by doing it, so I organise my life to be able to work. What is not good for writing is sleep deprivation and lactation; the brain function that is important for writing — the wordy, analytical, associative, creative part of your mind — is shut down by prolactin I believe. This is so that grown women who are used to doing a great many things can stay seated the eight hours a day it takes to feed a newborn without going mad, so it’s a good thing.

Also, a mother’s focus is incredibly directed, and her emotional energy is absolutely heightened by having a baby. This intensity of living and loving — this experience of being part of a dyad — is a wonderful gift. Like all intense emotional experiences, it broadens you in the longer term, which can make you a better writer. Motherhood also makes you a whole lot more vulnerable to the world, you have a greater stake in the future, and in the little people you’re putting into it. That’s not bad for a human being, or a writer.

Anna Funder, All That I Am (Translation)

Anna Funder, All That I Am (Translation)

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

AF: One woman whose story I wrote in Stasiland was separated from her baby by the Berlin Wall. I always found it a terrible story, but I realised much more shockingly after having a baby what she must have gone through. It wasn’t possible to do this solely by an act of sympathetic experience. I had to have the emotional receptors for it, and the only way to get those is –—in this instance — to have had a baby. I probably wouldn’t have written the story any differently. I still think it’s fine. But this experience is salutary for me. If what you do is work to enable people to understand and experience others, and other things through words, it makes you realise the limits of them.

Have you written about any mothers in your fiction before or after the birth? Did having a child mean you had to go back and rewrite or change characterisation?

AF: I do write about mothers. Often it is influenced more by my own mother, than by my experience of mothering. But I feel pretty well-equipped now, after three children, to write a convincing mother character. Or twenty.

Stay tuned for the next interview in the Writing Mothers series: blogger Bianca Wordley (isn’t that just the perfect name for a writer?).

Have you read Anna Funder’s Stasiland or All That I Am? What are your thoughts on these books?

Or are you a writing mother? How do you juggle your writing time with looking after the kids?

Vulnerability in the digital age

Don Draper, Mad Men

Jon Hamm as Don Draper, Mad Men

One of the talks I like to watch again and again on the net is Brené Brown’s lively and moving dissection of vulnerability at the wonderful TED site. She speaks of the importance of embracing vulnerability, how difficult this can be in a world where happiness is often equated with success, and how admitting you’re vulnerable is often a first step to making a real connection with someone.

There are many situations where vulnerability is required, or even demanded: labour pains at birth; attending a funeral; giving a speech in front of strangers; going for a job interview for a position you really want; moving to a new place and trying to make friends (as we will be, soon).

And I think, for writers, it’s a constant theme in our work. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, your words (and your persona) are being examined closely: what do they reveal about you as a person, your past relationships, your current state of mind? When new fiction writers face audiences at festivals, or talk to people about their book at parties, they are invariably asked, ‘Is the book autobiographical?’ or ‘Is that character based on you?’

It can be a difficult question to answer. I see it as like making a jug of cordial. You add a bit of the sweet syrupy stuff (the essence, from your life) but then you mix in water and it dilutes, becomes a different substance, more tart, a new texture to swallow.

Nurse Jackie

Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie

Vulnerability is on my mind as I was offered a book deal this week, to publish my first novel. My first reaction (obviously) was to sing the most irritating song on earth, ‘I’m Walking on Sunshine’, for the entire week and open the bubbles. But then I started to get nervous. Would I feel exposed? What if my grandmother read it? Would readers start to think the central character was based on me? Would my friends and family feel betrayed?

Many of the most exciting narratives of our time are based around the central issue of vulnerability. What would The Sopranos be without Tony Soprano’s regular visit to his therapist and unexpected panic attacks (when he’s cooking sausages) — his central core fear of his weaknesses being revealed. And then there’s Mad Men, where all characters hide various shameful acts (or at least labelled shameful at the time) under a veneer of glamour and rigorous work ethic (helped by generous alcohol consumption during work hours). Don Draper is particularly vulnerable because it is his true identity he tries so desperately to hide, the shame of being a deserter; by creating a new character to hide behind, his links with reality are tenuous, and his decision-making is flawed. In Nurse Jackie, Jackie copes by having a double life: prescription drug addiction and an affair with the man who doles them out. In Breaking Bad, a man is so frightened of revealing his life-threatening cancer to his wife, he starts cooking amphetamines and becomes embroiled in murdering mayhem.

You’d think in today’s age, where revelation is all (Oprah style), that admitting you’re vulnerable may be easier. But I think the technologies that surround us — the way we can now text, FB, msg or email when something is too difficult to say face to face, or even on the phone — means we are protected (wrapped up in our techno-turtle-shells) from disappointing others, from revealing ourselves.

When my grandfather died, I got a text message. In six words a beautiful, humble, loving man was reduced (for me). The person on the other end of the phone was too vulnerable to speak, to tell others, in grief. But those moments can be the most important ones in day to day life, the ones we always remember, for what they reveal (and don’t) about the person on the other end of the line.

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