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fiction

A year between pages

15 December 2017

It’s that time of year where writerly types reflect on their 2017 reading highlights, but I have one small problem. A few weeks ago I upgraded my phone and lost the note in which I have been carefully recording every book I’ve read for the past three years. I didn’t lose any other notes, just that one. Random fail.

So I certainly won’t be giving you comprehensive stats like Jane Rawson (seriously, check this out). Instead expect a hazily recollected and likely inaccurate (was that 2016, or 2017?) offering.

One thing I know for sure, this year I read a ton of novels set in other countries. As a travel addict I love to explore new countries on the page, even if it usually increases my wanderlust to explore them on foot. India was a particular focus, probably because it’s high on my bucket list. I started the year with Gregory David Roberts’ epic novel Shantaram and went on to read The Permanent Resident, a short story collection by Perth author Roanna Gonsalves. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness followed, Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited follow-up to The God of Small Things, which blew my mind when I read it as a creative writing student all those years ago. Perhaps because of that, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness didn’t quite measure up. I enjoyed it, and Roy skilfully breaks several key writing ‘rules’ which was interesting, but I didn’t fall madly in love with Ministry. My favourite Indian novel was The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. It’s told by a village boy called Balram Halwai and follows his struggle to transcend the ‘Darkness’ of his lowly caste. The novel delves into India’s underbelly and is full of dark humour and suspense. I found it utterly captivating.

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The other country to feature even more heavily in my reading was South Africa. With a trip there in September, I read both fiction and nonfiction before leaving, and I am still following that literary trail. I loved Daman Galgut’s brilliant The Imposter and discovered Sowetan author Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog. I pored over photographic books like Peter Magubane’s Soweto: Portrait of a City and Jodi Bieber’s Soweto. (Are you sensing a theme?) I read Doing Life with Mandela by Christo Brand after picking it up at the gift shop on Robben Island, the place Nelson Mandela was notoriously incarcerated for 18 of his 27 years, about the relationship that developed between a prison warden and his most famous prisoner. I won’t bore you with my full South African reading list — it was long, and it’s growing longer by the week — but I’ve had rich and thought-provoking travels of both body and mind through this complex and fascinating country.

I also read books set in Indonesia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, New Zealand, Nigeria, Kenya, America, England, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Greece, Norway, Antarctica, and probably a bunch of others that I am forgetting. However, the majority of my reading tends to be by Australian authors, predominantly female authors. Two standouts this year were The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose and Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar.

The Museum of Modern Love seems to have resonated with artists everywhere because it speaks to the challenges of the creative process, and the transformative ability of art. The book pivots around Marina Abramovic and her performance at New York’s MoMA, but really it is a meditation on art and life. I love this quote from the book: ‘Artists are stubborn. They have to be. Even when nothing is happening, the only way through is to work and work.’ And knowing that Rose wrestled this book into being over 11 long years makes this statement even more potent.

Incidentally The Museum of Modern Love won the Stella Prize which is my favourite Australian prize, of course because of what it stands for (‘to raise the profile of women writers and address their underrepresentation in the literary world’), but also because every winner has been among my favourite books of that year (with the exception of Clare Wright’s 2014-winning book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which I haven’t yet read).

Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek also won a bunch of awards and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most prestigious literary award. And rightly so. I came to it a bit late (it was published in 2015) but it’s a stunning debut that takes us into the unforgiving landscape of colonial Australia and the devastation of Indigenous displacement. It’s a beautiful and unflinching book that should be on every high school reading list. But fair warning: it’s a real heartbreaker.

Non-Aussie favourites this year included English (but, incidentally, Johannesburg-born) author Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Scottish author Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Interestingly, both these books inhabit the lives of quirky characters, and both have strong and distinctly unique voices. Highly recommended if you need a new read.

Well that’s my somewhat sketchy wrap for the year. Let’s hope technology doesn’t fail me again in 2018.

words and wanderlust

28 April 2017

I have a small problem. I am a travel junkie and a voracious reader. Combine the two and the result is an endless itch to jump on a plane.

I recently read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and was overtaken once again with the desire to visit India that first gripped me after reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Not because I want to join the violent Mumbai underworld that Roberts explores of course, but because the writing so vividly evoked the place and its people. It brought alive the sounds and smells and vibrancy and colour of a country. It made me want to explore it for myself.

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For me, fiction does this better than any other form. On the Road by Jack Kerouac is perhaps the most well-known travel novel, but I have also been to Nigeria with Teju Cole (Every Day is for the Thief), to Indonesia with Madelaine Dickie (Troppo), to Spain with Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), to Cambodia with Laura Jean Mckay (Holiday in Cambodia), and to Columbia with Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). The list is long, and I could go on and on, but you see what I mean. Books can be grand adventures.

Later this year I’m headed to South Africa, and not just through the pages of a book. As the birthplace of my father, it has long held a fascination. I explored Tanzania and Kenya in my early twenties, but it has taken me more than two decades to finally make it to South Africa. Let’s just say anticipation levels are pretty high. I’m hoping that I will find the spark of a novel there, but at the very least I know I’ll find a short story or two.

For me, travel is always entwined with reading and writing. In 2015, an artsACT grant sent me to Thailand as research for a children’s picture book. I returned not just with a finished manuscript, Seree’s Story (forthcoming from Walker Books), but also the seed of an adult novel. In early 2016, this time thanks to a CAPO grant, I returned to Thailand to undertake the research for that book. While in Kanchanaburi I read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, based on the Thai–Burma death railway, perhaps standing on the very spot where characters in his novel died, where real men died. Needless to say, it was a profound experience. After my return to Australia, I spent the rest of last year writing the first draft of my novel. Hopefully it will soon be ready to go on its own adventure out into the world.

But back to South Africa, my next stop on this planet. I first fell in love with the country through fiction, as a teenager. I started with The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, which has since sold over eight million copies. To my adult sensibility it is an idealistic, romanticised and overly sentimental representation of the struggles of apartheid, but at the time I fell in love with the hero, Peekay, and felt righteous indignation about the situation still facing Africans at that time. It led me to read my way through nonfiction about Mandela and Biko and Sobukwe. To fiction by Doris Lessing and J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer.

Last year I finally read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country which had been on my To Read list for far too long. The novel subtly explores the tensions and issues that gave rise to apartheid. It reveals deep truths and creates empathy for multiple perspectives. This is what fiction has over nonfiction. We can walk around in characters’ shoes and see what they see, feel what they feel.

Now I intend to explore the fiction of South Africa in greater depth. I picked up the Granta Book of the African Short Story as a starting point and have discovered a new generation of writers whose novels I am rounding up. I’m travelling into the complexities of the place, while curled up in bed with a cup of tea. But come September I’ll be avoiding tourist trails and attempting to go beneath the surface, hoping to connect with the heart of the place and its people.

Like pretty much every writer except J.K. Rowling, I am not flush with cash. This means I must ration my travel. But while my feet remain firmly in Australia, there are novels to transport me. Even if they make me want to scratch that itch harder.

This post first appeared on Noted Festival’s blog here.

THE GOOD STUFF

6 December 2015

Working in publishing is full of ups and downs, and it can be easy to dwell on the ‘downs’, allowing them to taint, or even eclipse, the ‘ups’. So in the spirit of celebrating all the good stuff, I thought I’d put together a newsy post about the ups of the last couple of months.

First up, the big news. I recently signed a contract for my next picture book, Seree’s Story, with Walker Books (publisher of Megumi and the Bear). Getting the call from your editor to give you the thumbs up is The Best. Let’s just say there was much dancing around the house and celebratory mid-afternoon champagne.

As a self-confessed elephant nerd, this book is very close to my heart. The manuscript has emerged from the culmination of many experiences, beginning with a trip to the circus at age seven. I started writing the book at 3.30 one morning when, seemingly out of nowhere, the opening line popped into my head. By 5.30 I had a first draft. Then came an artsACT-funded trip to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, which saw a complete rewrite, and now a book contract. I’ll save the full story behind the book for another time since it won’t be out for two years, but the story itself is about a captured baby elephant, forced to work in the circus, who is eventually rescued and brought to a sanctuary.

Picture books take a long time to come together (painfully long for the author who can do nothing but wait). One thing most readers aren’t aware of is that the publisher, not the author, chooses the illustrator. At this stage an illustrator for Seree’s Story has not yet been finalised, but Walker has such an incredible stable of talented illustrators to draw upon that I am awaiting the decision with great anticipation.

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Another call came at the end of last month from CAPO (Capital Arts Patrons Organisation) with exciting news of a different kind. The organisation has awarded me a travel grant to research a new full-length work. It’s a fledgling thing at the moment and a grant like this means everything in allowing me to develop it. I don’t want to say much more about it at this stage, except that I’m grateful to CAPO for believing in its potential.

On to more tangible things, and the publication of a couple of new short stories in Westerly and Contrappasso literary journals. Westerly is one of Australia’s oldest and most respected literary journals, and is always chock full of good stories and poetry. So I’m stoked to see my story, ‘Rescuing Chang’, in its pages. It’s set in Chiang Mai and features tuktuks, elephants, ladyboys and a magnetic attraction. It was pretty much the most fun I’ve had writing a story in recent times. ‘Hose’, on the other hand, which appears in Contrappasso is a much darker tale. It features alongside a Nobel Prize winner, no less. In fact, the line-up in this issue is crazy, with writing from China, Malaysia, Iraq, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Russia, Ireland, England, Argentina, the US, New Zealand and, of course, Australia.

I must also give a shout-out to Duncan Felton and the Grapple Annual which has just picked up a MUBA. This award is close to my heart as Two Steps Forward was shortlisted for its inaugural award, but Grapple Publishing has gone one better and actually won the thing. It’s great news for publishing in Canberra, and I’m so pleased to have a short story included in what is now a multi-award-winning publication. Look out for the next annual which is due out before the end of the year.

Still on short fiction, the ACT Writers’ Centre invited me to run a six-week short story critique group which turned out to be even more enjoyable than expected, largely because I had such a lovely group of emerging writers to work with. I’m told feedback was entirely positive (a rarity, apparently — so how nice is that?) and I’ve been asked to run another next year. So if you’re a writer with some stories in your back pocket keep an eye out.

As always I’ve been working on all of the above around editing books for various publishers. November has been editing madness with two novels, two picture books, one non-fiction book, and five novellas all at various stages. There’s lots to be excited about but I’ll mention just two. The first is a stunning picture book by Coral Vass called Sorry Day (out with National Library of Australia Publishing 2017). This is a heartfelt and beautifully-written story about the Stolen Generation that moves so cleverly between past and present. I can’t wait for kids to get their hands on this book, and I’m sure it’s going to become a staple of schools around the country. The second is really five, that is five novellas by Nick Earls (out with Inkerman & Blunt 2016). There’s a lightness to these stories that is so enjoyable, but then they sneak up on you to reveal deep truths about families that are struggling in different ways. Working with Nick on these novellas has been such a pleasure, and I really hope they do well; they certainly deserve to. So look out for the Wisdom Tree series, launching early next year.

As we head into December I’m looking forward to getting back to my own writing (I have barely put down a word during this madly busy November). I still have another three books to finish editing before Christmas but then come January I’m jetting overseas on a writing adventure! And my littlest is off to preschool in February, which means two-point-five days to write and edit and read! I know I’m imagining that I can pack in way more than I actually can (the literary version of eyes being bigger than the stomach) but nevertheless it’ll be the first time in 13 years that I won’t have to fit in everything around full-time mothering. And that, my friends, is thrilling.

TREES, TRAINS & HOSPITAL TROLLEYS: WHERE WRITERS WRITE (PART 1)

7 July 2015

Writers write in weird places.*

I do all the standard things: scrawl notes in the middle of the night, while I’m out walking, when driving in the car (I pull over, of course, often bunny-hopping to my destination). I’m forever using the back of receipts or whatever I can lay my hands on (I’ve always been disorganised with notebooks, even though I’m always buying them).

editing in cafesCafes are hands down my favourite place to write but I’m not fussy. I’ll write any time, any place. This has included in the back of a tuk tuk in Chiang Mai as it veered all over the road, in a tent in Tanzania with the sound of hyenas scuffling outside, and in a hospital while I miscarried. It’s possible that only writers will understand that last one.

But perhaps the most bizarre experience was going into labour with my third child while writing a grant application for The Invisible Thread anthology I was editing. The deadline was just around the corner and I knew that if I didn’t finish it right then and there it wouldn’t happen. So I kept going, pausing every ten minutes to breathe through the contractions. I managed to finish the application and submitted it (cursing the absence of a special consideration category for completed-while-birthing-a-small-human). I shut down the computer, called my husband, went into hospital, and 90 minutes later had my little boy in my arms. Oh, and we got the grant.

946868After posting this more benign tweet, fellow writer Kaaron Warren suggested I collate a post of the strangest places writers have written. So I put the word out to my writer friends and their stories came flooding in, so many in fact that I’m going to split them into two posts. So here goes number one (you’ll see that hospitals emerge as a bit of a theme).

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Brooke Davis: As a kid, I wrote sitting in a favourite pine tree, and in a paddock full of long grass, and while watching the tennis at the Australian Open. As a teenager I wrote on long car trips around Australia with my family. I had to hold my notebook above my head and almost write upside down because that was the only way I wouldn’t get car sick. As a uni student I once tried to write at Oktoberfest in Canberra. It was the kind of experiment you do in your 20s: What level of genius will I come up with when drunk? You probably know the answer: No level of genius in any way whatsoever. These days, I’m writing on lots of things that move. Ferries, buses, trains, cars, bikes, my own feet, planes, trams. I like how the movement gives me the feeling (i.e., tricks me into thinking) that my writing is moving. But to be honest, the older I get the more boring I am about it. These days, I crave places where I can hole up in a corner somewhere and think I’m invisible while I look at all the weird and wonderful people, like a creepy ghost with a laptop. This mostly happens in cafes and pubs and parks. Maybe I should go back to climbing pine trees?

Rosanna Stevens: I am currently writing in the only place that has Internet for five kilometres: I’m sitting in a garden, in the dark, listening to the shouts of women performing a fire ceremony at a shamanic women’s mysteries retreat in Las Chullpas — an hour from Cusco in Peru. I am also surrounded by puppies. Come at me, deadlines.

Susanne Gervay: Post operative after major surgery with drips and drains, I couldn’t move with pain and I kept thinking, I have to finish my novel in case I die. That’s what I did. Write my novel, not die.

Tania McCartney: Probably the ‘weirdest’ place I’ve ever written is super ordinary — my bed. Sometimes, if I wake in the depths of night with some urgent prose, I’ll fumble for my phone, set it to video, hide under the covers and whisper the text into the phone for transcribing the next day. My husband sleeps right through!

Craig Cormick: That was probably on a trolley about to go into the operating theatre for day surgery, telling the anesthetist guy, ‘Just a moment, just one more moment, I have to write this down before I forget it.’ Second weirdest would probably be in Antarctica, sitting down to write some notes by the edge of a penguin colony (where you are not allowed to get closer than a few metres to a penguin), and looking up and finding all these penguins waddling up to check out what I was doing (clearly the exclusion distance rules that applied to us did not apply to them).

Lee Kofman: The most bizarre place I’ve ever written in was in my living room, this week, when I sat on the couch with both my laptop and my toddler on my pregnant lap, while my boy’s nanny sat close by my side trying to cajole him away. She wasn’t successful though. My child wrapped his arms around my neck, teary, while I kept typing away an essay I had to send to an editor within an hour. The nanny kept talking to my boy, he kept sobbing, and I kept writing, feeling trapped, guilty and loved. I really don’t know more bizarre place for me to write from than this metaphorical, yet very tangibly claustrophobic, space of motherhood.

SJ Finn: One of the more obscure places I’ve found myself writing is on a support boat for an outrigger competing in a marathon race, 72-kilometres long, in the Whitsundays. While the outrigger was a slender boat — full of women going hell-for-leather with a fat-ended paddle — the support boat (a tag-team arranged on its deck) was a large wooden affair, more like a fishing boat than one for leisure but without the fishy smell, or the equipment of nets and pulleys on its deck. As a support boat was paired to every rigger it made for a busy flotilla of twin vessels on a choppy sea. I can, however, be pretty sure there was only one writer. Head down in the beautiful wooden cabin for the entire 8 hours, I wrote as my partner coordinated the ‘changes’ (baton-relay-like) for the paddlers to get spells from the gruelling effort to get to the finish line. Head down amongst the yells and cheers and instructions (when paddlers saw their number held up they had to jump from the rigger and swim to the support boat, another teammate already swimming to replace them) I blocked all this frenetic activity out and became a little famous — at least among a bunch of very excited outrigger competitors — for doing so.

Paul’s view in Arnhem land

Paul DaleyWhen I was a full time journalist, I, like most, found myself writing in some unusual places. The great thing about journalism is that it conditions you to write anywhere, no matter the degree of discomfort and regardless of noise. There’s really no such thing as writers’ block when you’re punching out words to a deadline. So I found myself writing: in the backs of cars; in burnt out hotels; on helicopters; in too many bars; in frozen fields; from police stations and court foyers; while sitting in gutters and on roofs.

With my creative fiction I’ve been more choosy. I started my last novel with a few scrawls in a notebook on a sun lounge on a remote Greek Island and while most of it was written at my desk in Canberra, it developed in cafes, the National Library of Australia and in my dreams (that’s why, like so many writers, I keep a notebook by my bed). My last published short story I wrote in one take in an airline lounge. I began writing the current novel I’m working on while staying in a small bungalow in North East Arnhem Land (the view from my writing desk is pictured here) and I wrote some of it on a boat. I’m heading back to Arnhem Land soon to write some more. Sometimes I write at the kitchen bench between cooking the spag bol, feeding the dogs and overseeing homework. I don’t need aromatherapy and dolphin recordings or solitude. But I do have a lot of false starts and a rewrite a lot in my head, especially while I’m out in the bush with my dogs.

Part 2 of ‘Where Writers Write’ will feature Karen Viggers, Jack Heath, Nicole Hayes, Kirsten Krauth, Melinda Smith and a bunch of others. Stay tuned!

* Not all of us! For some writers routine is everything. Alec Patric, for instance, wrote to me to say, ‘When it comes to writing I’m pretty boring. Can’t really write anywhere else other than at my desk, same place every day. The habit, or ritual, is the only way it happens for me.’

Bits and pieces

15 April 2015

Irma Gold signing books at Avid ReaderI haven’t blogged for some time but there’s been lots happening so I thought I’d post a quick newsy update about literary travels, events, a new editorial role, and the publication of a couple of new short stories.

Megumi and the Bear is still getting out and about, with two events in Brisbane earlier this year, including my first chance to visit Avid Reader Bookshop which has the best vibe and the loveliest staff. My reading was in the gorgeous outdoor area with perfectly balmy weather. The kids ate bear cupcakes and drank babycinos from the café, and then sat on a rug for the reading. I just loved watching their little mouths slowly falling open as they listened so intently. It was all just too cute.

Then came a reading at Harry Hartogs, a new independent bookshop in Woden. Canberra has recently seen the closure of two bookshops, Electric Shadows and Smith’s Alternative, leaving us with just two independents. It’s a sad sign of the times because Canberrans are serious literature lovers. I do hope our community can support more than just two independents. I’d love to see a bookshop pop up in New Acton, my favourite place in Canberra because it’s full of so much artistic goodness. One can only hope.

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Launching the Lakeside Literary Lounge with Nigel FeatherstoneBut in good news for local literature I launched the new Lakeside Literary Lounge series at Tuggeranong Arts Centre this month. I’ve lived in this part of town for 17 years now and it’s been a rarity to have a literary event in my own backyard, so to speak. What a novelty it was to jump in my car and drive just five minutes to launch this new Meet the Author series. First up was one of our local literary lights, the wonderful Nigel Featherstone, talking about his cracking third novella, The Beach Volcano. The newly refurbished space was cosy, quirky and intimate. There’s a bar (very important!) and the space encouraged intelligent and thoughtful conversation between the audience and author. It was all bloody marvellous and I can’t wait for the next in the series. There’ll be one event for each season, so if you’re in Canberra do make sure you catch the winter outing on 4 June. I hear Kaaron Warren will be plunging us into places dark and brutal.

IMG_1789 copySpeaking of brutal, last month an artsACT grant took me to Elephant Nature Park (ENP), an elephant sanctuary in Thailand for rescued elephants, to do research for my next picture book. The trip wasn’t brutal, in fact it was hands down one of the most incredible experiences of my life. But before the elephants arrive at the sanctuary they have experienced a lifetime of brutality. If you want to know more, this article provides a very good summary of why we should never ride an elephant, buy an elephant painting or watch an elephant show. I’m now hard at work on my manuscript and so excited about the potential of getting into schools and talking to kids. I took a gazillion photos of those beautiful elephants (you can see a few over at my Facebook page). This is one of me with the six-year-old elephant Faa Mai and Lek, founder of ENP and one of the most remarkable people I’ve had the good fortunate to meet.

no storyFrom works in progress to the publication of finished works, a new short story of mine, called ‘Bus 864F’, is out in the April issue of Mascara Literary Review (have a read here). And I’ve got another new story in Review of Australian Fiction (RAF), called ‘No Story’ (you can read that one here). It’s worth mentioning a bit more about RAF because they’ve developed a brilliant model. They publish two stories every two weeks from wonderful writers like Christos Tsiolkas, Paddy O’Reilly, Frank Moorhouse, Marion Halligan, Alex Miller, James Bradley and the aforementioned Nigel Featherstone, among many others, so I’m honoured to be in their company. One of things I love about RAF is that they have no word limit. Most journals favour stories that sit around the 3000-word mark, but being commissioned to write a story of any length was freeing, and I’m really pleased with what emerged. The other thing I love is that RAF pairs an established writer with an emerging writer. And the former gets to pick the latter. So it was a real pleasure to be able to select Matthia Dempsey as my RAF partner in crime. I’ve known Matthia since I emigrated to Australia at age nine. Back then we climbed blossom trees together and dreamed of being Anne of Green Gables. We had no idea that we’d both end up as writers and editors. And as you’ll see from her story, ‘Saudade’, Matthia is an extremely fine writer. You can read both our stories for less than the price of a cup of coffee here, or, better yet, since ours is the first in a new volume it’s the perfect time to subscribe.

And finally, to editing. Although I tend to focus on my writing on this site, I’ve just taken on a new role as Editor at Inkerman & Blunt. It’s a new publisher, led by powerhouse Donna Ward, that is producing very handsome and intelligent books. I’m working on lots of exciting projects, so stay tuned.

tea-and-sugar-christmasAnd I also want to mention Tea and Sugar Christmasby Jane Jolly and Robert Ingpen, published by the National Library of Australia, which has just been shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA). This picture book was such a pleasure to edit, and I’m particularly delighted at the recognition it’s receiving because it is the story of a young Indigenous girl, two categories that make sales and marketing teams nervous. ‘Girls’ because, as we are always told, boys don’t want to read female protagonists. And ‘Indigenous’ because, as you may have noticed, picture books have predominantly Anglo-Saxon characters. We need more publishers willing to take the ‘risk’ of publishing culturally diverse characters, so kudos to the National Library for doing just that. And I’m thrilled that it has paid off, with Tea and Sugar Christmas selling strongly and now receiving an ABIA nod. Fingers crossed it comes out the winner!

Well that’s it from me for now! Keep in touch over at Facebook and Twitter.