Behind the story

5 December 2019

Meanjin has just published a memoir piece that I wrote about my son, and it is the rawest and most personal piece of writing that I have ever published. ‘Untethered’ tells the story of how my 10 year old was discovered, by accident, to have an extremely rare and fatal asymptomatic congenital heart condition. So far as we know, he is the first person in Australia to be found alive with this condition. Usually children die, from the age of 10 onwards, while playing sport, having never known anything was wrong with their heart.

I’m not going to retell the story here; the Meanjin piece does that. Instead I want to talk about the writing process. As with all memoir, this is only one slice of the story. One year captured in 6000 words. My first draft was 10,000 words but I knew no one would publish it. So I pared it right back, and the piece is better for it.

I took it to my writers group. One writer said it was the best thing I’d ever written. Another made the astute observation that this was really the story of my heart, as I faced my son’s mortality and dealt with the grief of potentially losing him. He was right, though I hadn’t realised it. If my son were to write his own story — and perhaps one day he will — it would be different.

Readers often assume that writing about traumatic experiences is cathartic. This wasn’t. I wrote much of it while we were actually going through it. Reliving each scene on the page was painful. As I wrote, shaping every sentence, I often cried.

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I am what is known in writing circles as a ‘pantser’. This means that I usually write without knowing exactly where I am heading, without knowing the ending, and I allow my characters to lead me there. But not knowing how this ‘story’ would end was a constant grief. I desperately wanted a happy ending; I didn’t know if we would get it.

Our cat was the best post-surgery companion

In the end, we did. And you would think that would make the perfect ending on the page. But I wrote and rewrote the ending, never quite striking the right note. Did I leave the reader with the surgery’s success? Or did I take them into the aftermath, when my son had frightening reactions to the anaesthetic and all the opioids, finally ending up on only Panadol for heart surgery. ‘It sounds like the title of an indie song,’ my friend Francis Jaye said. It had more than enough angst for one too.

But neither of those endings was right. I waited, hoping something would click. Months passed. And then life delivered the perfect ending. An event that brought the story full circle. But I’m not going to give it away here; that would only spoil things.

It was my friend Donna Ward who first suggested that I tell this story. It hadn’t occurred to me; fiction is what I write. And although it wasn’t cathartic, it did help in a strange kind of way. It was about bearing witness.

You can read ‘Untethered’ in the summer issue of Meanjin, which can be purchased online or in good bookstores. If you already have a Meanjin subscription you can read my piece online. The issue is only freshly out and mine has yet to hit my mailbox, so it was lovely to receive this feedback on Twitter from one of the earliest readers. I hope you enjoy it too.

And to celebrate publication I have TWO book packs to give away, each containing the sping and summer issues of Meanjin. Meanjin is one of Australia’s most prestigious literary journals and every issue is packed full of incredible fiction, poetry, essays and memoir. To go in the draw simply sign up to my monthly newsletter full of bookish goodness before 19 December. You’ll find the sign-up block on this page. Winners should receive their parcel just before Christmas. Perfect for curling up with on Christmas day, beverage of choice in hand.

Literary adventures — around Canberra and on to Iceland

20 November 2019

Is anyone else hanging for the end of the year? I’m so madly busy right now and the pace isn’t going to let up until Christmas Day. It helps that I’m editing some incredible books which I’m so excited to see in print, but I’m also hanging out for the Christmas break when I can drink prosecco and eat mince pies and do very little other than laze about and read. Okay, so with three children that is probably going to remain an illusive fantasy, but a girl can dream.

Let’s stick with November for now which has offered up a few highlights of its own. First up was the annual celebration for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge for which I am an ambassador.

Accepting a thank you gift from one of the Reading Challenge participants

It’s such a joy to be a part of this initiative which aims to transform kids into book addicts for life. The challenge asks them to read a minimum of 15 books but there is no set list — they can read whatever sparks their imagination. This is so important because with so many forms of entertainment competing for kids’ attention, we need to help them find the books that sing for them, the books whose worlds they won’t want to leave.

So it’s wonderful to hear about the Reading Challenge’s success stories. This year one of the standouts was a student from Holy Spirit Primary School who set himself the goal to read 1000 books over the six months of the challenge. He wasn’t previously a particularly avid reader but he smashed that 1000! I must say I’m a tad jealous. I manage about 100 novels a year — if only I could somehow claw back those luxury after-school hours of primary school again! I would only need a live-in chef, housekeeper, gardener and taxi driver to achieve this. Ah, there I go into fantasy land again.

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Another standout was two students with vision impairment who completed the challenge, one in braille and one in large print. Neither of them were big readers before. In fact, the student who read in braille (from Caroline Chisholm Primary) had previously avoided reading at all costs. But the challenge saw her reading at both recess and lunch! Hearing these stories makes my heart swell a little. Okay, a lot. Hats off to all the students who completed the challenge this year, and I look forward to going on more reading adventures with the challenge next year.

Picture book workshop participants dreaming up stories

 

This month I also helped a bunch of writers create their own fantasy lands of sorts when I taught a full-day picture book workshop. It was lovely to hear that it was the ACT Writers Centre’s most popular workshop of the year! This meant that it was elbow room only as we got cosy in the glorious upstairs space of Harry Hartog’s bookshop at the ANU. Could there be anything more wonderful than talking about how books work when you are surrounded by them? (No, is the correct answer.) They were a gorgeous and engaged group and I look forward to seeing some of their names on future picture book covers.

November also marks the end of an era for me. Since 2008, I have spent almost a decade teaching editing at the University of Canberra (yes, I realise those numbers don’t add up but I had a brief break in there). It’s been wonderful getting to know the students and seeing them go on to do all sorts of fabulous things in the world, and I’ve learned so much about myself along the way. A massive shout out to all the brilliant postgrad students who made it such a pleasure.

I’m going to briefly dip into October now because I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing literary superstar Charlotte Wood, who also happens to be one of my all-time favourite authors. As I discovered, she is also a generous and generally delightful human. We spoke about her new novel The Weekend, which is a brilliant book that examines old age and friendship. I devoured it, appropriately, over one weekend, and I’d strongly encourage you to do the same.

Harry Hartog events manager extraordinaire, Katarina, pronounced our conversation her favourite event of 2019. It was for me too! It doesn’t get better than chatting with a writer whose work you have admired for years.

Finally, my most exciting November news — drumroll please! I was thrilled to receive a phone call from artsACT a few days ago to say that my grant application was successful. This means I’m travelling to the Iceland Writers Retreat next April where I’ll be working on my second novel. It is one of the world’s most lauded retreats, with a phenomenal line-up of internationally successful authors running masterclasses. Needless to say I am dying of happiness!

Beautiful Iceland — where I’ll be come April!

Well, that’s it from me for now. Excuse me while I go back to dreaming of mince pies and endless (primary-school style) hours in which to read. And maybe an Icelandic adventure or two.

Contracts, contracts, contracts!

18 October 2019

Okay, there are actually only two new contracts but the rule of threes works better and, besides, excitement levels require it. Rejection is part of a writer’s staple diet, so when you have two big wins in the space of a week it’s time to splash champagne around like a rock star and happy dance everywhere.

Note: If you have children they will be embarrassed by said happy dance and will likely roll their eyes at you. What’s more, after picking my three kids up from school and telling them about book contract 1 their response was: ‘That’s cool, Mum. What’s for afternoon tea?’ Did not miss a beat.

Book contract 1!
So I’m thrilled to share with you, dear reader (who does not require me to provide afternoon tea), that I have been made an offer for my debut novel! I can’t give you a title yet as my working title will likely change. I care about this novel so deeply and I’m so glad that I’ll be able to share it with you soon. Well, not that soon. Publishing moves at a glacial pace, so it’ll be out August 2021. But when I finally have that book baby in my hands I can assure you that I will be drinking all the champagne (again — any excuse). And I will not be making afternoon tea.

Book contract 2!
Just a few days after the excitement of book contract 1, I received word that my fifth picture book, Where the Heart Is, had made it through acquisitions. It’s based on a true story that is so extraordinary that I began writing a first draft immediately after hearing it. The illustrator, Susannah Crispe, has her own personal experiences that link so incredibly to this story — there couldn’t be a more perfect person to partner with. More on all that closer to release because, again, it will be June 2021 before it’s sitting on bookshop shelves.

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My kids received said news with similar levels of enthusiasm to book contract 1. Luckily the bloke made up for it.

Book contract 3!
But before both those books, my fourth picture book, Seree’s Story, will be out with Walker Books in September next year. And yes, I signed this contract forever ago but I wanted to mention it here because I have been watching the uber-talented Wayne Harris’ illustrations develop with something like awe. Okay, exactly like awe. In short, I am madly in love with them — they have such heart and are so utterly beautiful and moving. I’m itching to share them with you, but you’ll have to wait.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here enjoying another glass of bubbles.

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.