The dance between character and place in fiction

11 March 2020

Place is so important in fiction writing. It is more than just setting, more than just a space that characters inhabit. The way each of us views a place is different, filtered through our subjective experiences. And the way characters interact with the space around them can reveal so much about their interior lives. So, for me at least, place is intrinsic to story.

Usually the characters and their setting arrive in my imagination in tandem. They are already entwined. But occasionally the characters arrive in search of a home. Before I travelled to South Africa, I had a trio of characters playing in my head who I knew were destined for a short story. And on a trip to Boulders Beach, near Cape Point, I found the perfect space for them — a place that offered echoes for the things my characters were wrestling with.

My brother and I took the train from Cape Town to Simon’s Town. It was the most glorious ride and the footage below gives you a glimpse of why.

 

From Simon’s Town we walked to Boulders Beach, which was swarming with tourists and penguins. I’m not a fan of tourist traps but it was worth battling through selfie sticks to see these cute little guys. African penguins look very similar to Magellanic penguins from South America, who feature in my next kids book, Where the Heart Is (June 2021), so it was extra special to see them sunning and squawking and swimming. We also smelt them, oh how we smelt them.

Continue Reading…

But back to the short story, which is called ‘Pole pole’. The way each of my characters experiences this particular place in South Africa is specific to them, with all their worries and joys and frailties. It is not my experience, or my brother’s, or anyone else’s for that matter. It belongs only to Dexter and Adelaide and Lix. The title is a Swahili saying (pronounced ‘polay polay’) which means ‘slowly slowly’. You’ll have to read the story to find out the significance of this saying, and how the characters and the setting (with its tuxedoed inhabitants) interact. It’s in issue 7 of StylusLit and you can find the full story online. I do hope you enjoy it.

And if you’re interested in reading more about how place informs writers’ work, Angela Meyer, Angela Savage and Leah Kaminsky wrote some wonderful words about their literary travels previously for this blog.

Bushfires and the mess of novel writing

17 February 2020

What a start to the year it’s been. Summer is my favourite season, but this year we have just survived it. In Canberra we suffered months of smoke from the South Coast and Braidwood fires, which meant my three kids — like all of Canberra’s kids — were confined indoors and didn’t get a proper holiday. After a brief but glorious break at Jervis Bay over the long weekend we returned to fires threatening Canberra’s south, where we live. Our suburb was on notice to potentially evacuate — we could see the fire from our home, and it was terrifying. So we packed up our most precious belongings and temporarily moved to my parents’ place.

 

On the fire went, chewing through over 80,000 hectares. We returned to our home and grew used to living with a fire that was permanently in our field of vision. I constantly switched between the ESA website and Fires Near Me app. Eventually cooler weather came, and then rain. Thanks to the phenomenal efforts of the firies and their support team, no homes were damaged during the worst conditions of 42-degree days and ferocious winds. The fire is still burning but its perimeters have been contained and the anxiety that we were living with is gone. But we lost our whole summer holiday to the effects of climate change. And this is only the beginning.

 

Amidst all this I was working on the edits for my debut novel, due out in March 2021. This was a lovely distraction. I love the editing process, which is probably not surprising given that I am an editor myself. I’ve turned in the first round to my publisher and am looking forward to the next.

In the meantime I have also been working on a new novel. Whereas my debut just flowed out of me, this one has been more challenging. My freelance editing work overwhelmed me at the end of last year and I didn’t work on the manuscript after August. In truth, I was also stuck. I had 50,000 words but it felt like one big hot mess and I wasn’t sure how to progress it. Then this month I received an email to say that my manuscript had been longlisted for a British manuscript award based on the first 5000 words. Suddenly I had nine days in which to submit the finished manuscript. That I didn’t have.

Continue Reading…

I knew when I submitted to the competition that I would have to deliver the full manuscript in February and I had planned to use the deadline as a driving force. But I didn’t bank on getting stuck, and in any case I never really believed that I would be longlisted for an international manuscript award. It didn’t seem like something that would happen.

I remember Inga Simpson talking about being in a similar position with the manuscript that became her debut novel, Mr Wigg. She had submitted the first 50 pages to a competition and then received a phone call to say that she had 36 hours to submit the full manuscript. It was 5000 words short of the minimum word count. She joked that the only reason  she named her main protagonist Mr Wigg was because it was two words, instead of one. She made the deadline and has since published another three novels. So it can be done.

But could I do it? I had nine days and at least 20,000 words to write. But it wasn’t just a case of just adding words, the whole draft needed careful shaping. I’m a slow writer, and a dear author friend cautioned me against cobbling something together. There is a danger that once the words are on the page it can be harder to remove them, or undo a narrative path that doesn’t work. And in any case a substandard draft won’t make the shortlist.

Nevertheless, I opened the manuscript, which had been untouched for five months, just to see what was there. I was pleasantly surprised. I haven’t written this book in a linear way, as I did with my debut, so there were gaping holes in the narrative and sections that weren’t working, but it wasn’t as much of a mess as I had thought it was. I concluded that back in August it was really a mess in my mind. In the intervening months, although I hadn’t been writing, I had been thinking, trying to figure out where the heart of the book lay. And now it seemed so much clearer to me. So I started cutting, reworking and writing new sections. Better yet, I rediscovered the energy that had made me start writing the book in the first place.

There are now just a few days until the deadline. Will I meet it? I’m almost certain that I won’t. I’m annoyed at myself that I’ve missed the opportunity to get my work in front of the prestigious line-up of judges, but I couldn’t have done the process differently. Back in August I wasn’t ready to finish the first draft. Now I am. And I’m grateful for the boost of confidence that the award has given me.

During the early stages of a writing a novel it’s just you and the page and it’s so easy to be overtaken by doubt. One of my favourite quotes is from Zadie Smith who once said, ‘It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. And the main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself. This is hard to do alone.’ It’s the truth. So the longlisting has helped me get my mind back in the right place, and it’s also helped reignite the kind of energy that drives a book, for me at least.

The word count is rising again, and in April I’m heading to the Iceland Writers Retreat to work on the novel. I’m particularly looking forward to a workshop with Nigerian writer Elnathan John on ‘Fiction in a world of fiction: writing that matters’. Wish me luck, or at least the continuing ability to trick myself into confidence.

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.

Continue Reading…

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.

Continue Reading…

 

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.

Continue Reading…

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.