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Anthony Lawrence: poetry, passion and plagiarism

 

Anthony Lawrence, Blake Poetry Prize 2013 winner

Anthony Lawrence, Blake Poetry Prize 2013 winner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write whenever you can.

Meet with other poets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INSPIRATION AND FURTHER READING

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

DO YOU READ POETRY?

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE POETS?

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

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Writing Mothers: Jo Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Mothers: Annabel Smith

Author Annabel Smith

Author Annabel Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Move away from the computer: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr The ShallowsWhenever I move into a new house (and there have been many: 23 houses, give or take), for the first week I revel in the surroundings. The space. The views. I sit in various places. I observe what’s outside the windows. I lounge in the backyard. I notice where the sun falls, and lie in it.

By the end of the first month, I no longer notice. That space I created has already become cluttered. I look through the window but I don’t see what’s out there. I know what’s out there. I start living inside my head again.

In Tony Eprile’s article ‘Open Your Eyes: Seeing like a writer’ (March/April 2013 edition of Poets & Writers Magazine), he talks of the importance of sitting still and observing:

Simply paying attention is something anyone can do, but it requires training and patience, a Buddhist quietness of mind that allows one to look steadily and assiduously, to see and not just recognise. It requires an emptying of thought and an opening to vision … Look closely, and slowly, at the world, and it will reveal itself to be quite different from what you once imagined it to be.

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak MemoryHe goes on to talk about Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory that describes in gloriously delicate detail ‘the slow glide of a raindrop off a leaf’.

When I travel, things are different. The newly minted world has colour, texture, life. I carry a journal, write every night trying to recreate the day, and looking back, my words are always vivid and evocative. But I can’t seem to do this in my backyard. I don’t notice what’s happening to plants. I want to learn how to write about my everyday life in the same way.

Many writers are talking these days about the impact of the internet and social media on their daily practice. The constant feeling of being interrupted. The distractions. As I read Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, I became increasingly aware (read: alarmed) of how using my laptop (iPad, iPhone) was affecting not only my work but the way I interact with my family. I find it increasingly hard to switch off. In our kitchen, once the domain of toasters and kettles and slow cookers, the benchspace is lined with modems, various sized cables and different items charging all the time. As I do the dishes, the iPhone podcasts from the Wheeler Centre (only 98 more podcasts to go!).

While I apparently work three days a week, on the off days my laptop sits on the bench, dinging every time someone posts on Facebook or Twitter or enters something in iCal or even sends me an email (how old-fashioned). As I read to my kids, or bash on musical instruments, I have one ear out for an update.

Of course, I know I can change all this, I can adjust all the settings, but what bothers me is that I find it very hard to commit. Each time I hear that ding I get a rush of adrenaline; like it’s a news update. I feel compelled. Even though it’s very rarely a message that requires urgent attention — or any attention at all, really. I also feel queasy, as if I’m gambling into the early hours, while I’m pushing buttons.

There’s no doubt. When I have whole days away from the computer, I start to feel calmer. I start to notice. My writing takes on unusual shapes and forms. I feel completely peaceful when I have uninterrupted time for reflection.

Nicholas Carr argues that the way we use the internet is changing how we process information, and even the way our brains work:

The mental functions that are losing the ‘survival of the busiest’  brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought — the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument…’

And what about memory? I feel like I don’t use mine much. I haven’t even bothered to remember my home phone number (after about 15 houses, I gave up) because I can store it on my mobile phone. I don’t need to look at a map, remember the address of where I’m heading, because I’ll just punch it into the GPS. But Carr argues that this kind of laziness means we are losing the capacity to create and store long-term memories:

The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement.

I don’t want to abandon social media, blogging, ebooks and internet research altogether. But after reading Carr’s book, I’m reluctant to continue using my computer the way I do. It’s a process of seduction. I let myself get distracted. But I feel used and abused later. I want to be focused.

While being able to research while not leaving your bedroom is pretty exciting (for an introvert like me), I’m now debating whether internet research really helps my writing process. Perhaps it’s better to head out to a library, to focus in on one thing at a time, to just sit and talk with people, to let ideas percolate. When I start researching on the internet, I always feel overwhelmed. Because I am interested in everything. I want to make connections everywhere. Traditional research seems to involve discovering the root of an idea and then branching out. Internet research seems to involve getting the whole tree and desperately pruning down. I need to set boundaries, as with all other aspects of my life.

When I’m older and grey, I won’t be reciting reams of poetry like my grandfather did. I wonder, as my short-term memory starts to fade, what will start to pour out?

The lure of introversion: QUIET by Susan Cain

Quiet_Power_of_introverts_Susan_CainI’m having a pyjama day today. I’ve had a couple lately. Every now and then the world gets too busy, I get run-down and I jump into bed (I try not to take my laptop – too often). The kids are at child care so I can luxuriate in nothingness. Sleep. Read. Try not to think too much. Recuperate. When I was a teenager I used to need pyjama days a lot. Each year in high school, I’d take one day, and it would turn into a week. I would lie on the couch and watch morning TV, then the soap operas, then vegetate. I’ve always loved my mum for understanding that I needed to do this. As a kid I put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn’t need parental expectations, I had enough of my own. I was a hard worker, a passionate student and wanted to excel. This downtime kept me going. There’s a reason people call them ‘mental health days’. But I wonder, does everyone need them?

I’ve recently read a book that has changed my perspective on the world, and given me real insight into the way I approach things. Susan Cain’s QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (she also does a great session on TED). It’s become my Bible that I want to carry around and refer to all the time. It’s certainly explained a lot of my behaviour for the past 41 years. Cain focuses on introversion not as a form of shyness, but how we respond to external stimulation. Most introverts prefer, and get off on, quiet environments. They prefer one-on-one conversations over group activities, usually D&Ms (deep & meaningfuls), not social chitchat. They enjoy time alone. They like working in spaces where they have their own office (and can shut the door), where they can focus right in, without distractions. All of this is so familiar to me.

But problems can arise because these days there is great pressure to be an extrovert (especially when you’re a writer, an often introverted profession), to be a great public speaker, to work the room at events. While I don’t think Australia is quite at the level of the US (where it’s almost seen as a stigma to be introverted), many grow up thinking that to be successful they need to be a ‘people person’. It makes me laugh thinking back to my first job interviews as a teenager, as I always said this about myself knowing it to be key, but even then I felt like it was a deceit.

Susan Cain talks about the power of introspection at TED

Susan Cain talks at TED

As I grew older, I put more pressure on myself to take on roles that involved a public life (information officer, marketing) but in the end it was exhausting. What I really wanted was to be an editor or writer, to work on projects, to be thorough and demanding and immersed. And as a freelancer working from home, I’ve created that space. The digital world has opened that up to me.

When I worked in the public service, offices were being removed, everyone was going open plan, all staff were being trained to be trainers, brainstorming was the ‘in’ thing, the constant noise was deafening, and no-one ever got any work done. Cain systematically goes through many of these ideas (open plan, brainstorming, group activities at school) and argues that often the end result is not the best outcome (either for introverts or extroverts).

There is also a great deal of pressure on parents to have social children who fit in easily and make lots of friends. Even at kinder level, my son is doing talks to the group. Many parents enrol their kids in whirlwinds of extra activities after school like dancing, soccer and music. But what about the child who would rather stay at home and lie on the couch, reading? In the school holidays I used to take a stack of books, wherever I was, and find a comfy corner. We’re going to the beach! Swimming! The sun’s shining outside! It was very hard to drag me out…But I was passionate about words. And I was completely, blissfully, happy exploring those worlds. And still am.

Now, somehow my introverted husband and I have managed to raise two extroverted kids (there’s another story in itself – it really helps at parties when your son know all the kids’ and parent’s names) but the important main point of QUIET is that introverts should be left alone (in many senses), not forced to change, and can even teach others in their own ways. Without introverts, we’d be missing out on many writers, artists, researchers and scientists who step back and look at the world from a different angle.

Social media is an interesting space because it is an easy way for introverts to become extroverts. It’s much easier to approach others, to comment, to be part of the conversation, to self-promote. But it can be too easy too. When I opened my Twitter yesterday I saw a tweet that I don’t remember sending. I thought I had been hacked! Kirsten Krauth read a book by Kirsten Krauth. It had gone out to everyone! It really brings solipsism to a whole new level, doesn’t it? But what had happened was that I had marked my own novel  in Goodreads (ie I had ‘read’ it) and Goodreads sent that tweet off via Twitter without me realising. The ludicrous nature of that tweet really brought it home. As Cain points out, there is a point when I need to stop talking. And I’ll be ironic and use my blog to say that.

It’s time to get back down under the doona and start on the pile of novels I’ve got beside the bed.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU AN EXTROVERT OR INTROVERT? DO YOU NEED DOWNTIME? HOW DO YOU MANAGE IT ALL?

OK, my book is out, now what?

Thrilled at the book's safe arrival!

It’s arrived! just_a_girl released 1 June…

When I posted that question recently on Facebook, a good mate said: ‘Sell it.’ Increasingly, with the advent of social media, and with book buyers receding, there is pressure on writers to market and sell their own books. I sometimes wish we could revert to the olden days before writer festivals, book tours and launches, when after your book was written, someone else would take it off your hands and you could let it gently fly away (I recently heard someone refer to releasing your book as watching your baby crawl across an eight-lane freeway.)

But who am I kidding?  I realise the irony of this, as I sit here writing a blog about my new book. I recently enjoyed seeing the literary critic James Wood speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I love his reviews, and they focus as much on the writer as the writing. The audience is hungry to know where the essence of the fiction comes from, what ‘truth’ gives the novel its flavour. I admire the guts of Italian writer Elena Ferrante, who Wood quotes:

Ferrante sent her publisher a letter that, like her fiction, is pleasingly rigorous and sharply forthright. It lays out principles she has not deviated from since. She will do nothing for [her book] “Troubling Love,” she tells her publisher, because she has already done enough: she wrote it. She won’t take part in conferences or discussions, and won’t go to accept prizes, if any are awarded. “I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum”:

[Ferrante says] I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. . . . I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child. . . . True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known. . . . Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.

Oh, to have the gall! I wonder if she has read Wood’s article…

It is daunting letting your first book out into the world. You want it to be reviewed but to be treated kindly. You want discussion that looks at the real issues, that delves beneath the surface. You want your characters to be respected (but not necessarily liked). You want the fact that you’re a beginner (in terms of novels) taken into account.

Margaret Atwood, in a recent interview with Jennifer Byrne (currently available on ABC iView), mentioned that there were four kinds of books: good books that make money; bad books that make money; good books that make no money; and bad books that make no money. She said that three of these four is OK! I love her cheeky style.

And so here we go…the spruik (I promise I will only do this once).

just_a_girl was released into bookstores on 1 June

It’s been very exciting to finally see the manuscript in book form. When I opened the package from the publishers my hands were shaking and I did the equivalent of the touchdown dance they do in footy (or whatever it’s called).

Apparently, the book is available in Australian bookstores (a friend saw it in Readings in Melbourne but, being a rural Victorian, I haven’t seen it in a bookstore yet – if you do send pics!). If you live in Castlemaine, Stoneman’s will have it.

You can also buy either a paperback or e-book version from UWA Publishing here. If you live in the States or elsewhere overseas (I know a number of readers do), it’s available for pre-order on Amazon.

Invite: Sydney launch of just_a_girl, 18 June, Gleebooks, 6.30pm

Invite: Sydney launch of just_a_girl, 18 June, Gleebooks, 6.30pm

The official launches

The Sydney launch is coming up fast. TUESDAY 18 JUNE, 6.30pm, at Gleebooks, to be launched by the wonderful novelist Emily Maguire. If you’d like to come along, you can RSVP directly to Gleebooks via their website. Children are welcome. Would love to celebrate and meet you there.

The Castlemaine launch will be SATURDAY 13 JULY at Lot 19 in Castlemaine, from 5pm, to be launched by Angela Meyer of LiteraryMinded fame. The band Itchy Scabs will be playing and kids are welcome there too. If you’re in Melbourne, come up for the weekend. It’s a gorgeous spot to explore. Invites are being prepared as we speak…

Order it at your library

If you don’t have the funds to buy books (and many don’t), please ask for it at your library. I love libraries and the more libraries who order it, and the more requests at those libraries, the happier I will be.

Review it on Goodreads and Amazon

The worst thing that can happen for a writer is resounding silence, after ten years of focus on a work… If you like the book (or if you hate it), please talk about it. I’ve set up an author page and the book is now up for discussion at Goodreads. Get in contact with me on the blog, do a review. I’m so keen to hear your thoughts. Also, if you’re not on Goodreads, it is absolute heaven for book lovers. You can create shelves with books you have read, books you’re currently reading, do reviews, rate books, recommend books to others, and get close and personal with writers.

Suggest it for your Book Club — or start your own

Book Clubs are a fantastic way of talking about writers, especially debut novelists! If you’re a member of a Book Club, just_a_girl has some terrific book club notes exploring the following issues:

• Sexuality and identity; Teenage friendships and relationships; The dangers of social media and technology; Mother-daughter relationships; Faith and healing; Searching for connection in a disconnected world

Interviews and articles

The most wonderful thing about social media is how bloggers and tweeters help each other out. I will be posting interviews and articles/reviews regularly at Wild Colonial Girl, but first off the rank is the lovely Allison Tait who invited me in for a cup of tea and a chat at her blog Life in a Pink Fibro — about the teenage voice (in an adult novel) and choosing a publisher.

If you’d like to interview me, would like a guest blog post, or a review copy, just click on the Contact tab and send me a message.

Read a sample chapter or two

Sometimes, with all the choice on offer, I like to see a writer’s style of writing before I purchase a book, especially if it’s the first time. Here’s a sample (introductory chapters) of just_a _girl and I hope you enjoy it…

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

HAVE YOU HAD A BOOK PUBLISHED?

WHAT WAS IT LIKE LETTING IT OUT INTO THE WORLD?

AND HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT PROMOTING IT — AND DID YOU WANT TO?

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 …

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

Writing Mothers: Wendy James

Author Wendy James

Author Wendy James

One of the great things about writing a blog is the comments you get from readers, introducing you to new writers working in similar areas. Wendy James is a writer who, somehow, had flown under the radar for me. Short stories. Novels. She’s produced an impressive amount of work including Out of the Silence, which won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel. But I’d never heard of her. When I started immersing myself in her books, I realised it may have been a cover issue. I judge books by their covers. If a book looks too saccharine or girlie, I tend to shy away. If it looks like a family saga, I get nervous.

Wendy (as she explains later) has been punished by the publishers when it comes to covers. Her covers and titles are misleading. Rich, energetic and punchy, her text is intricate and soars off the page; the covers don’t reflect this. Reading her books has taught me about my own prejudices when it comes to reading and genre. Read more…

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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