Canberra Writers Festival 2019

25 August 2019

It’s festival season again and I chaired the first panel of the Canberra Writers Festival weekend. It sold out all 200 seats within two days of going on sale! How great is that?!

It was the largest panel that I’ve ever chaired, with six writers: Paul Daley, Marion Halligan, Tracey Hawkins, MP Andrew Leigh, Nicole Overall and Marg Wade. As chair, the challenge is always to ensure that everyone gets enough ‘air time’ and that the conversation flows seamlessly. With such a big panel that’s more of a challenge than ever, but the feedback from audience members was so overwhelmingly positive that I’m pretty sure we nailed it. And the panellists each brought such unique and interesting perspectives to the discussion.

Marg Wade, Andrew Leigh, Marion Halligan and me

We were there to talk about our much-derided capital, using a new anthology, Capital Culture, in which we all have stories, as the springboard. I think it’s fair to say that few countries show as much contempt for their capital as Australia. Canberra bashing is a national pastime and the fact that journalists use ‘Canberra’ as a shorthand for federal parliament doesn’t help. (Paul Daley and Marion Halligan both spoke about being on a mission to change this.) It is often conceded that Canberra is indeed a liveable city, but it is not lovable. According to its detractors, it is a city without a soul.

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I was once one of those detractors. While I was living in the UK my family moved from Melbourne to Canberra. I was outraged. ‘I will never live in Canberra!’ I declared. But by the time I had tired of England’s consistently moody weather, I missed my family too much not to join them. I enrolled in a creative writing degree at the University of Canberra. I told myself that I would stay only three years, get my family fix, and then head back to Melbourne. Twenty years later I’m still here. Four of my five brothers have moved back to Melbourne but I love it here. I don’t know if I’ll ever leave (though I’m now wary of grand definitive statements!).

Question time — not quite so greulling as parliament, though clearly we took it very seriously

The conversation on the panel was wide-ranging and fascinating. We spoke about what makes Canberra so great (yes, it is), including the wonderful writing community (which I am so grateful for) and the hills and bushland that surround us (which I am equally grateful for). We also talked about the more problematic aspects of our city, with Paul noting that Canberra’s poor are largely rendered invisible. I always find it difficult to provide a detailed account of an event that I’ve been part of, but Sue Terry from Whispering Gums has written up a most excellent summary.

 

I also managed to get to some other fascinating sessions. The highlight was a session with asylum seeker, journalist, author and filmmaker Behrouz Boochani, live from Port Moresby, where he was moved several days ago, and his translator Omid Tofighian who was present in the National Library theatre. Omid spoke about how Behrouz has changed his life and been ‘an enormous inspiration’. Indeed, Behrouz is clearly a dignified and intelligent man who has now been imprisoned for six years, simply for seeking asylum.

I was particularly struck by his comments around censorship and that the government’s greatest weapon is to refuse to acknowledge him, or any of the other refugees, by name. In this way the government denies them their identity and the ability to be human. But Behrouz’s work through literature and film has meant that many of us now are able to see the human cost of the government’s inhumane policies. If you haven’t read Behrouz’s book, No Friend but the Mountain, I’d recommend that you get your hands on a copy immediately. It has rightly won two major literary prizes.

There was so much love in the room for Behrouz, with the session concluding with a standing ovation. I feel privileged to have spent an hour with him, and we would be fortunate indeed to have him as an Australian citizen. Our government continues to disgust me.

The last panel of the festival was another highlight. David Marr, Sally Rugg and Sally Wheeler, brilliantly moderated by Nigel Featherstone, spoke about growing up queer. The conversation was both extremely funny and deeply moving. They each shared their coming out stories, which were for the most part ‘disappointing’ in that they weren’t met with any surprise.

A lot of time was spent discussing the postal survey on marriage equality and the emotional toll that it took. LGBTIQ activist Sally Rugg said: ‘It was utterly shameful and saw the worst in our parliamentary system, but also the best in people.’ David added that the government can never take away the fact that 61.9 per cent of people voted for marriage equality. The panellists all agreed that the legislation was a powerful symbol of equality.

Sally Wheeler compared the Australian process to the English one, which she experienced firsthand, noting that in England the legislation was passed painlessly and without fuss. It left me thinking again about Behrouz Boochani’s assessment of the Australian government, and the means by which it attempts to control its citizens. Behrouz urged us not to be complacent — to be mindful of the ways in which the government is eroding our freedom and liberty.

A good festival should challenge us and get us thinking about the world and our place in it. CWF 2019 certainly did that for me.

Update: The stats from the CWF team are in and it was lovely to hear that the panel I chaired was the second most popular session, behind only Simon Winchester and Richard Fidler. For deatils on the different stats, Whispering Gums has an excellent post that breaks it all down.

Taking licks: On writing rejection and success

26 June 2019

Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil — but there is no way around them. Isaac Asimov

It’s an inescapable fact that the writing life is bound up with rejection. Successful authors are those able to survive the lacerations. So in this second post in a series, I asked three successful authors — Anna Spargo-Ryan, Sheryl Gwyther and Ben Hobson — to share their experiences of both rejection and success. They have all been so generous in offering up these honest and wise words, and if you’re a writer you might want to paste Ben’s pep talk next to wherever you write.

Anna Spargo-Ryan
I think the worst rejections are always the ones that mirror some insecurity you have about your writing. For me, that’s being wordy and obtuse. When my first novel, The Paper House, was published I remember waiting for reviews that would reflect what I ‘knew’ about the book and myself: that I had used six words when one would do; that the writing was florid and tiresome; and OH GOD the metaphors, why were there so many?

I felt it was only a matter of time before someone uncovered these truths, and so it was. A review in a major newspaper described the book as being poetic, but, you know, maybe not in a good way. Musical like a little kid learning the violin. Magical in the sense that I must have cast a spell on someone to get it published.

Realising someone else sees your flaws is devastating. I hoped — but didn’t believe — that I’d managed to cover them up. I thought I had dialogued over the top of my wailing symbolism. I had tried so hard to craft a plot to hide the layers of semiotics. But this reviewer had seen them anyway, and pointed right at them.

I responded by writing a whole other book with almost no metaphors in it. Eighty thousand words to prove that I could do it and the reviewer was wrong. Reader, that is too many hours to invest in someone you should probably just never think about again. Drink a Milo instead.

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On the other hand, being seen can be extremely affirming. When my second novel came out I did an interview with the legendary literary journalist Jane Sullivan. We went to my local café on a cold day and I think she had a tea and I had nothing because I was so nervous. The Age was going to publish a double-page spread about me. Terrifying. Glorious, as well, but it made me want to die a bit.

I tried to be articulate. I talked about family violence and toxic masculinity in ways that I hoped reflected my intentions. I didn’t know what I was saying. Jane wrote in shorthand, which meant I couldn’t peer over and try to better articulate myself. I sped up. I blurted. I accidentally talked about my divorce, my own experiences of violence, my mental health. I wished I hadn’t. I remember thinking I had wanted to be professional, and that talking about myself as a depressed, anxious, no-good hack was not a particularly good way to do it. I might have even cried afterwards, although I cry at so often that it could have been unrelated.

A few weeks later, the interview was published. I was absolutely shitting myself, obviously. I think I made my partner read it first and promise to white-out any dreadful things I’d said (all of them, I was sure). I was so afraid I had revealed too many pieces of myself.

I peeked. It was a beautiful spread, with a full-colour portrait and an enormous headline. The stuff of dreams. And I took a deep breath and read the first line:

‘Anna Spargo-Ryan doesn’t seem at all like a miserable person.’

I was so shocked and so grateful I felt my heart was on fire. It’s my Twitter header image to this day. I carry a print-out around in my handbag. Jane had listened to me talk about the black clouds of melancholy and realised that wasn’t all there was. It was like having my portrait painted.

Anna Spargo-Ryan is the author of The Gulf and The Paper House, and was the inaugural winner of The Horne Prize. Her work has appeared in The Big Issue, the Guardian, Good Weekend and many other places. She lives in Melbourne with her family and more pets than is strictly appropriate.

Sheryl Gwyther
Like every other writer I’ve had rejections galore … over 20 years they’ve become the wallpapering in the room of my determination to never give up.

I’ve repapered over the most disappointing rejections, but I remember a review in Magpies magazine of my first children’s novel, Secrets of Eromanga. It was a positive review, except for one line about the villains being one-dimensional baddies. The reviewer may have been right or not but, mortified that school librarians and my contemporaries would read it, it’s all I took in. Mind you, it did make me work harder on every single villain I’ve written ever since.

I also remember the day I met with HarperCollins publisher, Lisa Berryman, to chat about my latest manuscript, Sweet Adversity. This is it, methinks! She wants my story. But of course, it wasn’t. She listed several things that needed sorting out — one of which would require a major rewrite of the book’s last quarter. My hopes of a contract were dashed.

Despondent with failure, I returned home to my logical-scientist bloke. He rolled his eyes at my tragic recount of the meeting. ‘Sounds to me like Lisa wants your story,’ Ross said. ‘You just have to fix up a few things.’

He was right, of course. Two weeks later, I send the manuscript back with eight extra chapters plus a much stronger ending. Lisa rang me. ‘You’ve nailed it, Sheryl,’ she said, ‘I’m taking it to acquisitions next week.’ Sweet Adversity was on its way. Truly a lesson in being proactive rather than reactive. And more important, the ability to listen to an experienced publisher … no matter how much extra work it means.

Writing for kids prepares you for total honesty — they don’t bother with sugar-coating. I love it. I remember a review of Secrets of Eromanga by a Year 8 student from New Zealand. He ‘didn’t want to read this novel’ and, just like he expected, ‘it was a dumb story’. Poor guy — being forced to read something he didn’t want to!

But then you get brilliant feedback too. Recently, at the Darling Downs Readers’ Cup Quiz where Sweet Adversity was on the reading list, I signed a copy for an 11-year-old boy. ‘I wouldn’t normally read this sort of book,’ he said. ‘Harry Potter has been my favourite book,’ he added, ‘but now it’s Sweet Adversity.’

I laughed … thinking how sweet he was to be so kind. But his teammates, all girls, said, ‘He’s telling the truth! He did love Harry, but now all he talks about is Adversity.’ Ahhh, the joy of writing for children!

Award-winning Queensland author Sheryl Gwyther writes novels, chapter books, short stories and plays for children and adults. Her recent historical adventure Sweet Adversity (10+ readers) is set in the Great Depression with Addie, a brave, vulnerable hero, a Shakespeare-quoting cockatiel, a tribe of lost children and enough dastardly villains to chill the bones.

Ben Hobson
Rejection is important. It’s training. It’s you running a 100-metre sprint every day practicing for the Olympics. If you want to run that race in front of that crowd then you have to practice. You have to take your licks. Trip over your shoelaces, faceplant into the gravel. Rejection moulds the writer. It is your training ground and every writer must endure it, because those made of weaker stuff are the ones that fall away. It is the refining fire of authordom.

The rejection that stung the worst for me also turned out to be the thing that kept me going. I entered To Become a Whale into the Vogel award, and it was really my last gasp. It was the last sprint I had in me. I pinned all my hopes on that thing so when it was rejected, my dreams felt like they were crumbling through my fingers.

The thing is though, that rejection also contained these words; this is a moving tale of father and son relationships, masculinity, blood, all in a unique setting. And then a ‘but…’ So while I was down — and I mean, I was — I eventually managed to pick myself back up again, read those words, and knew that I’d done something. It felt like I’d almost made it through. Those words spurned me on to rewrite once more (one more sprint, damn it) and send it on to an agent. Who sent me a very excited email.

There’s an old biblical adage: suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character, hope. This is rejection for the writer. It’ll either make you turn away, or buckle the hell down and grit your teeth that bit harder. And in that perseverance your character will be made. Character that allows you to be charitable to other authors who are suffering. Character that fights with bared teeth for what you believe in. And lastly, hope is produced. Because when you are a published author and you are engaged with everybody who is still suffering you are a beacon of what might be.

It’s awful. Every time one of the stories you’ve laboured over gets rejected feels so hard. I don’t mean to minimise it at all. In fact, I want to emphasise this. I want to acknowledge it. It is damn hard. You spend years working on a novel. You make all the right moves. Get pre-readers, hire a manuscript assessor, take it through a program. And at the end you send it off with your heart attached to it with paperclips and you hold your hands together and sit by the mailbox like a dog waiting for its owner to return. And then you get the form letter.

It sucks. But I’m saying to you: you can persevere. You’re a writer, damn it. Get off the floor and clench your fists and edit and send it out once more. You can endure. You are being refined. Collect rejections like UFC fighters collect scars; each one of those things is a mark that has created this warrior you’re becoming. Be proud. And send it out again.

Ben Hobson lives in Brisbane and is entirely keen on his wife, Lena, and their two boys, Charlie and Henry. He currently teaches English and Music at a Queensland High School. To Become a Whale, his first novel, was published in 2017, and was longlisted for the ABIA debut book award, and shortlisted in the Courier Mail People’s Choice Award at the Queensland Literary Awards in 2018. His second novel, Snake Island, will be released 5 August this year.

This month you can win FOUR books by these incredible authors: Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The Paper House and The Gulf, Sheryl Gwyther’s Sweet Adversity, and hot off the press Ben Hobson’s Snake Island. Simply sign up to my monthly newsletter (sign-up box on this page) before  5 pm on Monday 15 July to go in the draw.

Read the first post in this series with Eleanor Limprecht, Annabel Smith and Natasha Lester.

Four launches and a festival…

7 May 2019

…is much more fun than four weddings and a funeral.

The festival was the annual Flash Fiction Weekend, aimed at writers wanting to develop and hone their craft, held in the beautiful East Hotel. I had the pleasure of convening a panel on the writing process with superstars Graeme Simsion, Karen Viggers, Jack Heath and Susanne Gervay. I wish I could give you a sense of what we discussed but when I’m on a panel it’s always a bit of a blur afterwards, even when I’m the one asking the questions! So instead I give you writer Amanda McLeod via Twitter: ‘This panel was the business. I have many, many notes.’

With fellow panellists Graeme Simsion, Susanne Gervay and Jack Heath

I also ran my workshop on editing flash fiction and was thrilled when one participant told the marvellous organiser, Suzanne Kiraly, that my workshop was worth the price of the festival ticket alone. That kind of feedback is always happy-making. (Thanks John!)

There were lots of short keynotes and I enjoyed them all. Graeme Simsion of Rosie Project fame was up first. He spoke about how writers need to devote as much time to learning their craft as a neurosurgeon would to learning theirs. What’s more ‘there are more jobs for neurosurgeons than there are for writers’, he noted. Graeme is a keen plotter and encourages all emerging writers to carefully outline their plot before beginning to write.

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Susanne Gervay, on the other hand, is a devoted pantser, writing by ‘the seat of her pants’. ‘I can’t do it any other way,’ she said. In her keynote she spoke from the heart about her writing journey and her goal to ‘empower the disempowered’. This goal drives all her books for children. Susanne is one of those rare speakers who reguarly makes me laugh and cry. No easy feat. I couldn’t agree more with her final advice: ‘You must write something of value.’

Despite functioning on next to no sleep courtesy of his two-week-old baby, Jack Heath was as engaging as ever, discussing his Hangman series, featuring a cannibal detective. Ten years ago Hangman was rejected by publishers who advised him to rewrite the story without the cannibal detective. As Jack pointed out, that would have made it the same as a bunch of other crime books. He hung onto his vision and eventually found a publisher willing to take a risk on it. And it’s a risk that’s paid off as it’s become an international bestseller. His take-away message — stick with what is unique.

 

Craig Cormick delivered some hard truths in his keynote. Here are a few:

  • Neilsen Bookscan reports that only two per cent of books sell more than 5000 copies.
  • Only one per cent of books (that includes self-published titles) make it onto a bookshop shelf.
  • Quality matters less than you’d hope and luck matters more than you’d like.
  • The book you want to write isn’t always the book someone else wants to read.

He concluded that the most you can really hope for as a writer is a life in which to write. You may not achieve fame, fortune, awards or bestseller status but the writing life is reward enough.

In a similar vein to Craig, Marion Halligan reflected that ‘it is perhaps a strange thing that so many people want to become writers. It’s hard work, poorly paid and fickle in its rewards.’ She recounted a review of her debut novel, Self Possession, which was reviewed with a batch of other debuts. The reviewer remarked that the other writers were sure to have a literary future, ‘but not Halligan’. Marion said, ‘I take a certain glee in being up to my twenty-first book.’ She reflected on the changes she has seen during her 30 years in the industry. ‘I sometimes think the writer is less valued than ever…most people in the industry seem to have forgotten that without the writer there is no book,’ she concluded.

Overall the festival offered a lovely mix of encouraging advice tempered with hard truths for the many emerging writers in attendance. It finished with the launch of Impact, an anthology of flash fiction that emerged from last year’s festival, edited by yours truly. Marion Halligan did the official honours and rightly observed, ‘Don’t think that flash is easy. Brevity is hard. And time-consuming…You have to make every word count.’

Editing this anthology — comprised of 21 stories by both established writers and fresh new voices — was such a pleasure. It reveals the breadth and strength of Australian flash fiction and is a perfect introduction for anyone not familiar with the form. Marion concluded: ‘I should offer a word of warning. A book like this is a marvellous rich box of chocolates. You want to have just one more, just one more, just one more. And then you’re finished.’

Let’s head back in time now for the launch of This is Home by my dear friends Tania McCartney and Jackie French. Jackie has curated a collection of poetry for children of all ages, with stunning illustrations by Tania. It’s a gorgeous book and my seven-year-old son was spellbound through the very long launch (all those seated in the image below were speakers). Afterwards he said to me, ‘I found all the writers really inspiring but Jackie French almost made me cry.’ At which point he did. So we went to talk to Jackie — catching her just before she sat down and signed books for the very long queue — and she said all the right and beautiful things about poetry and my son’s feelings while he wept into my skirt. Later when I asked him what it was that Jackie said that moved him so much he said, ‘I could just really feel what she was saying.’ Ah, the power of words, poetry, books.

The third launch was more kids’ poetry, namely Moonfish by Harry Laing, who had his audience crying with laughter. This time I was the one doing the honours of launching the book into the world, which is always a privilege. I love the tagline for this book: ‘Poems to make you laugh and think.’ Kids are instinctively drawn to the musicality of rhythm and rhyme in poetry, and the way Harry plays with language and ideas immediately draws them in. As an added bonus the book features illustrations from an incredible line-up of Australia’s best illustrators — everyone from superstar Shaun Tan to former Australian Children’s Laureate Leigh Hobbs of Mr Chicken fame. A winning combination, that’s for sure.

A fourth long-awaited launch by another dear friend, Nigel Featherstone, is on 16 May. I have followed this novel’s development — with all the pain and joy that writing and publishing entails — and can’t wait to get my hands on it next week. Readings describes his Bodies of Men as a ‘beautifully written, tender love story — the perfect book to curl up with as autumn sets in’. If you’d like to win yourself a signed copy simply subscribe to my monthly newsletter full of writing and publishing news, tips and advice, to go in the draw. Sign-up box is in the right-hand sidebar, or down the bottom in mobile view.

Till next time, folks! Happy reading x

Literary adventures abroad

26 March 2019

Irma working with rescued elephants in Thailand

As my novel set in Thailand is currently out with publishers, I wait. It is, in short, excruciating. In the meantime I am working on a new novel, which is the best antidote, and of course continuing with my usual editing work on other writers’ books. But still I can’t help my thoughts returning to my debut novel, taking fledgling steps out into the world, hoping that it finds a good home. There are many joys and challenges in writing a novel set overseas, and so I asked three fellow writers — Angela Meyer, Angela Savage and Leah Kaminsky — to share their experiences. I could relate to so many aspects of each of their stories. I hope you enjoy them too.

Angela Meyer
I don’t have any personal connection to Scotland. My ancestors are Dutch and Norwegian. But when I first stepped off the train in Edinburgh I fell in love. I’ve been to Scotland four times now, and for extended periods of time. I’ve been all over the Highlands and islands. And when I am there something just feels right — I feel at home, while also feeling the excitement and stimulation of difference. After all, it is the exact opposite environment of the temperate beach town I grew up in. When I am not there, I do long for the place, the way you might long for a person. I don’t have any explanation for it. I also love Scottish people. My partner is half-Scottish. My ex-boyfriend was half-Scottish. This just seems to happen! My partner’s grandmother told me that she can tell, from my temperament, how I would fit in well in Scotland.

Angela Meyer on top of Beinn Eighe, Torridon Hills (Wester Ross), Scotland

When I first realised I wanted to set a book there I was of course nervous about getting everything wrong. And I questioned my desire to do so, when there are so many great Scottish writers writing about Scotland. But the desire would not go away, and I knew that the lens I was applying would be Australian — my character, Jeff. Once I knew I was going to at least have a go of it I did a ton of research — both in Scotland and via books and online. After I’d drafted the manuscript I went back to Scotland and put myself in the same conditions as my characters (isolated, no electricity, in nature) so I could even get the feel of it right. I was in correspondence with the museum in the area my character Leonora is from, and I bothered them often, as well as going back over all the photos I took in the museum.

One of the hardest decisions was whether or not to have Scots dialect. When I am in Scotland, I do not have any trouble understanding the accent. I can easily think in a Scottish accent, and so when I was writing the draft, I let some of the dialogue come out how I heard it. I also used a Scots dictionary online to add some words in dialect (particularly for the nineteenth-century dialogue). Recently I have been going over this with my UK publisher, who is Scottish, and I have been greatly relieved that I haven’t made any major stuff ups. The fact a Scottish publisher wants to publish it in fact has been a dream come true. I can’t wait to go back!

Angela Meyer’s writing has been widely published, including in Best Australian Stories, Island, The Big Issue, The Australian, The Lifted Brow and Killings. She has worked in bookstores, as a reviewer, in a whisky bar, and for the past few years has published a range of Australian authors for Echo Publishing. A Superior Spectre is her debut novel. literaryminded.com.au/

Angela Savage
My relationship with Asia started more than 30 years ago when, after working in France for a year as an au pair, I flew home to Melbourne via Bangkok. I thought I’d reached peak awe after Europe, but Bangkok blew me away. By the time I left France, I could pass for a local; however, that was never going to be the case in Thailand. Then as now, I was intrigued by the question of how to get by in a place where blending in isn’t an option.

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I ended up living in South-East Asia for most of the 1990s. When I returned to Australia, intent on becoming a published author, I turned to Asia for creative inspiration. Writing fiction set in Thailand provided both a means to process my experiences and an outlet for the travel stories nobody would listen to.

Angela Savage in Krabi, Thailand, suffering for her art

Ironically, an early rejection of what later became my first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, suggested there weren’t enough ‘sights, smells and sounds of Thailand’ in the manuscript. I realised I was too close to the experience, writing so soon after returning to Australia. I had to take a step back and reconnect with the sense of curiosity and wonder I first had — and still have — on visiting Thailand. To remember the details that make the place unique.

One of the great joys of setting novels outside Australia is doing fieldwork in order to gather those details. As part of the research for my forthcoming novel Mother of Pearl, I visited Thailand in December 2015 in search of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and texture that give a setting what James Bradley calls, ‘the imaginative thickness it needs’. Some examples that found their way into the novel include the flayed frogs, legs still kicking, in metal dishes at the morning market in Sisaket; the blast of cold air at the entrances to Bangkok’s plazas; and the smell of brine and barbeque at Bang Saen Beach. The landscape seemed to offer up ways of ‘showing, not telling’ — signs on Bangkok’s Skytrain asking passengers to Please offer this seat to monks, for example — while physically moving through the settings that I imagined my characters to inhabit also helped bring them to life.

The greatest challenge in setting novels outside Australia, and specifically in Asia, is to avoid Orientalism and stereotyping. As a non-Asian Australian writer, I am acutely aware that Western writing about Thailand still trades largely in erotic and exotic stereotypes — and when I look at ‘bestsellers’ set in Thailand, I wonder if that’s what readers want.

I also wonder if there’s a market for books set in Asia written by non-Asian Australians, or if readers prefer Own Voices writing — in this case, stories set in Asia by writers with an Asian background. For my own part, I enjoy perspectives that both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ bring to fiction.

Being transported by reading is one of life’s great pleasures for me. I hope that my own writing brings readers some of this same pleasure.

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing and currently works as Director of Writers Victoria. angelasavage.wordpress.com/ @angsavage

Leah Kaminsky
‘To travel far, there is no better ship than a book.’ Emily Dickinson

In my debut novel, The Waiting Room, the coastal town of Haifa plays the role of character. More than just a particular place, it is evocative of an era in time where a palpable sense of dread accompanies the protagonist, Dina, as she walks through the market or drops her child at school. Set in 2001, during a turbulent spate of terror attacks in the Middle East, the setting explores the dichotomy of living in a war-torn country which is a vibrant and pulsing locale populated with a colourful community of people as they go about their ordinary, daily lives. I worked as a doctor in this region during that time, so the images, smells and sounds of street life were embedded in memory, waiting in the wings for me to conjure them up on the page.

Landscapes shape people. A strong sense of place in a novel can demand a huge amount of research so that every detail resonates with the reader. In my second novel, The Hollow Bones, I pinned the narrative around true but distant events. My protagonist, Ernst Schäfer, was born in 1910 and grew up in a small village in Germany, spending afternoons playing in the forests of Thuringia. By 1930 he had become a zoologist and adventurer, travelling to Philadelphia to partake in a joint American–German team on two expeditions to China and Tibet. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler ordered his return to Germany, to lead a group of German scientists into the foothills of the Himalayas, on a hare-brained mission in search of the ‘true’ origins of the Aryan race. Questions of landscape moved to the forefront of my novel as my characters negotiated the changing mood on the streets of 1930s Berlin. Later, Schäfer treks through the ‘mystical’ terrain of Tibet. The demands of the narrative insisted the need to capture these places as they changed over time, framed against the backdrop of turbulent world events.

Setting can be the bedrock of atmosphere in a novel. When I first came across the story of Ernst Schäfer and the German Tibet Expedition of 1938 I tried to find a way to fund a huge research trip, but finances and time were against me. At that stage I almost gave up on writing the book, but then the words of my wonderful friend and mentor, the late painter Yosl Bergner, came back to haunt me. ‘I never want to visit any place that I have painted through my imagination. It ruins the magic for me.’ I suddenly realised that the settings I had started writing about no longer existed — they were impossible to travel to physically. Berlin and Lhasa of the 1930s had completely vanished.

This was strangely liberating, and I started reading widely. I did visit the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia while I was on book tour in the US for my previous novel. There, in the archives, I came across a wealth of information for my research — field diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, photos and film footage from the expedition — including a taxidermied panda encased in a diorama that Schäfer had brought back from Tibet in 1931. Eventually, the museum ended up becoming an unusual part of the setting the book as well.

Books are the fastest and cheapest way of travelling; imagination has always been the terrain of a writer, and as a novelist I feel I act as a trusty tour guide for my readers, sharing magical and reinvented geographies.

Leah Kaminsky is a physician and award-winning writer. Her debut novel, The Waiting Room, won the prestigious Voss Literary Prize. She conceived and edited Writer MD, a collection of prominent physician–writers, which starred on Booklist and is co-author of Cracking the Code, with the Damiani family. She holds an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. leahkaminsky.com

To go in the draw to win a book pack of A Superior Spectre, The Dying Beach (signed) and The Hollow Bones (signed) simply subscribe to Irma’s newsletter before 5 pm, Monday 22 April. Sign-up box is on the right-hand side of this page (or down the bottom in mobile view).

Soweto love

19 February 2019

I have recently returned from an incredible trip to South Africa with my brother. We spent most of our time in Soweto, in particular in the informal settlement of Kliptown, where we met so many incredible people.

Photos by the wonderful Ilan Ossendryver

We were fortunate to work with Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY), founded by Bob Nameng, which aims to address some of the community’s challenges.

Meeting Bob Nameng, Founder of SKY, for the first time at his home in Kliptown

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Kliptown is what is called an ‘informal settlement’, where shacks have been erected from a patchwork of materials. There is no sewerage system (portaloos service the community and are emptied twice a week) or electricity (illegal electricity, with all its many dangers, has been rigged up). Communal taps are used for washing, cooking and cleaning.

Top: The generator which services this part of Kliptown, with illegal cables patched into it. Bottom: Electricity cables lying on the ground. Right: Ducking under cables (with exposed wire) at head height.

Kliptown also has 73 per cent unemployment. So educating the next generation is key to helping them escape poverty. On our first day we happened to meet these three young men who have come through SKY. They are now respectively studying engineering, social work and architecture. Poster boys, indeed, for the success of SKY’s programs. They even shared their breakfast with me, a sweet, pink porridge called morvitte.

A highlight of the trip was delivering a suitcase full of new books to the SKY kids. Before I left I asked a few of my author friends if they’d like to donate books to the SKY library. The response was so overwhelming that I received over 100 books, and had to turn down offers of more as my luggage was pretty much books and a toothbrush! Thankfully Qantas came on board to sponsor extra luggage.

Left: Before I left with the donated tower of books. Right: In SKY’s library with some of the donated books held by two of my favourite SKY kids and the librarian and teacher extraordinaire, Amokelani Khosa.

Watching the kids’ excitement as they opened the suitcase was wonderful (below left), but what happened next was even more wonderful. They all quickly found a spot and settled in to read. The bliss of new books!

My thanks again to all the authors who so generously sent me books. (What a delight it was to receive parcel after parcel in the mail every day in the lead up to my departure.) And to James Redden at Harry Hartog for donating much-needed dictionaries.

Another highlight was taking the SKY kids to the swimming pool (not hard to spot my brother in the pic below). They only get an outing like this one or twice a year, so it was wonderful to be able to give them this experience. Some of them didn’t leave the water for five hours! Much joy and excitement and fun was had.

I was also invited to run a writing workshop and it was nothing like any other workshop I have given. The pencils had been stolen the previous day, so it started with us walking arm in arm to the shops with a bunch of kids to buy new pencils. They thought this was great fun (which indeed it was).

As you can see from the photo below, there was no electricity so we were in the dark. It actually got darker than this when a storm rolled in, and the kids were writing with their faces right up against the paper. It got to a point where I couldn’t even read what they were sharing with me and pulled out my phone to use the torch. And yet, it was amazing. The kids wrote in whatever language they felt most comfortable, though some of them chose to write in English. Fortunately we had the wonderful librarian, sister Amo, on hand to translate so that I was able to understand all the stories. They came up with amazing stuff.

Left: The SKY kids singing to farewell us on our last day. Right: Workshopping in the dark.

On our last day in Kliptown it blew my mind to discover that the place where we’d been staying once had an underground hideout used by Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu and many other freedom fighters. My introduction to South Africa was as a 15 year old, reading about Biko, and then obsessively reading books on Mandela, Sobukwe and so on. So for me this was real goosebumps stuff.

Sitting on the spot where the underground hideout once was, with SKY’s Amo

We also spent six days in Joburg where we ate and drank a lot (which felt almost obscene after Soweto), and I did some research at Wits University for a novel that I’m working on (feel free to take a moment to laugh at microscope me). While we were there we had the pleasure of joining an African book club for one night only, run by the wonderful Lungile. We had such an invigorating discussion about books, and the issues they raised, and I subsequently bought a bunch of books as a result of various recommendations. Wish I could teleport myself over there every month!

I learned so much during our time in Soweto and made so many wonderful friends that it was very difficult to leave. Soweto is an incredible place that I would encourage you to visit if you get the chance. Forget any media beat-up you’ve heard about the place being dangerous etcetera. It’s one of my favourite places in the world.

Some of the people we’ll miss. Particularly the incomparable Z (above).