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Karen Viggers

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

21 June 2018

This month I thought I’d bring you a newsy post about my latest literary adventures. First up, I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with two brilliant writers, Kate Mildenhall and Katherine Collette, for their new podcast, The First Time, which is launching in August. Katherine has recently signed her novel, The Helpline, and the podcast is part reality show, following Katherine’s journey through the publication process, and part masterclass as the pair interview writers about their experiences of publishing a book for the first time. It’s such a brilliant idea and I had way too much fun recording the podcast. The first ep comes out in August but in the meantime you can follow the podcast on Twitter and Insta.

Later that night we met up again for an event hosted by the ACT Writers Centre in the Canberra Contemporary Art Space (CCAS). It was rainy and stupidly cold (please hurry up, spring) but CCAS was deliciously warm and there was a lovely audience waiting for us. With Jack Heath and Karen Viggers, we chatted about writing and publishing. Jack revealed that with his first advance (as a teenager!) he bought a pair of outrageous boots that he wore to school visits. Sadly, my first advance was swallowed by dull things, like bills. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re all grown up and sensible, but I’ve resolved to buy something indulgently wonderful with my next advance.

Following us were Rosanna Stevens who read a brilliant new essay that had us laughing and wincing, and Jacqueline de-Rose Ahern who spoke about the overwhelming experience of having her first picture book published. There was also a panel of visual artists talking about their processes which I found fascinating. I particularly loved Jodie Cunningham’s ‘Talking to the Tax Man About Poetry’ series which converts eight artists’ lives from stats into sculptures, examining the balance of time for creating art versus doing work that pays the bills. I’m sure all the writers in the room could relate to the struggle to reconcile the two.

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Our panel continued chatting afterwards over dinner, and can I just say how much I appreciate having such intelligent, thoughtful and just generally lovely writers around me? Well there, I have.

Kate Mildenhall, Jack Heath, Karen Viggers, me, Katherine Collette

The following day I threw a bag into my little car, fuelled up on coffee, and headed down the Monaro to Merimbula to present a workshop on writing picture books for the Writers of the Far South Coast.

The drive there is stunning — yellow baked plains, violet hills, huge blue skies. I listened to podcasts and snacked on chocolate and generally enjoyed not having to entertain three children. I arrived a little early so I ate lunch on the beach, digging bare feet into sand. The one thing that I miss about living in Canberra is the beach, and on this day the ocean was dead flat, completely at peace.

There was an enthusiastic crowd at the workshop and I had a great time chatting all things picture books. I wish I’d taken a piccie of the lovely writers who came  but we were so busy that I completely forgot. Instead here’s me in a quiet moment before everyone arrived, looking longingly out towards the ocean. I mean, if Canberra had a beach it’d be perfect.

After two days of writerly goodness I was smashed, so that evening I crashed in my cute little Airbnb place and ate a takeaway pad thai and drank prosecco and watched bad TV and caught up on emails. Ah, the glamorous life of a writer! In the morning I spent one blissful hour walking an empty beach before heading back home.

I want to now step back in time, by a few weeks, to  mention a particularly special launch of the Sorry Day picture book by Coral Vass and Dub Leffler. It’s always a lovely moment when a book that you’ve edited is released, but the Sorry Day launch was a particularly moving experience. Anita Heiss did the official duties and there were several speeches that left me feeling quite teary. This is such an important book and it was a privilege to be involved as editor. Sorry Day allows us to open up conversations with our young people about a terrible part of our history in an age-appropriate way. I hope it makes its way into every school and home around this country.

Well that’s it for now, but there are more literary adventures ahead. Onward!

Take four

15 May 2017

‘I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.’ Audre Lorde

This is what we writers do, in our private corners of solitude. We put words on the page that go out into the world and speak to readers. But a writer’s job also involves getting on a stage and speaking directly to those readers, trying to articulate the thinking behind the messy and elusive process of creating a work of fiction. It can be nerve-racking and exciting and stimulating. In the lead-up to an event I always feel anticipatory nerves, but once I’m on the stage I enjoy myself, and often come away feeling buoyant.

I’ve been part of four very varied events on writing and/or editing in recent weeks and I thought I’d share a little about the experience of each of them.

‘Animal Rights Writing’: Nigel Featherstone, Sam Vincent, Karen Viggers and Irma Gold

Most recently I was on an ‘Animal Rights Writing’ panel with Karen Viggers and Sam Vincent. I’ve never seen a panel programmed on this subject before. (Hit me up in the comments if you have, because it’s a topic I’d love to see discussed more.) This session was chaired by Nigel Featherstone who managed to expertly guide the discussion through our respective areas of interest. Our books deal with kangaroo culling (Karen, The Grass Castle), international whaling (Sam, Blood and Guts) and the exploitation of elephants for tourism (me, a children’s book, Seree’s Story, due out with Walker Books, and a work-in-progress novel, Rescuing Chang). Our conversation covered much ground, but, for me at least, the key idea that emerged was that conservation issues tend to be distilled into polarised positions which don’t necessarily reflect the complexities involved. Life is full of grey, and solutions are rarely of the black-and-white kind. Fortunately, writing can explore the grey. While this event delved into the darker side of humans’ impact on the world, it was a thoroughly stimulating and thought-provoking discussion. And as the icing on the cake, I returned home to an email from an audience member who felt moved to get in touch after hearing me speak about the devastating situation facing Asian elephants. With both my books yet to be released, I’m looking forward to many more conversations like this one.

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Noted: Ashley Thomson, Irma Gold, Alan Vaarwerk, Sian Campbell

As part of Noted Festival, I was on a panel with Alan Vaarwerk (Kill Your Darlings) and Sian Campbell (Scum Magazine), ‘Literally the Worst: Bad Writing and Badder Editing’, with Homer Editor Ashley Thomson chairing. I wasn’t keen on the title’s negative angle, but I guess a feisty premise draws the crowds, and the event was certainly packed. Fortunately the focus of discussion was productive, emphasising ways for writers to improve their craft. We also spoke about the hallmarks of good editing and when to identify ‘bad’ editing. In particular, I spoke about the need for editors to work with the author’s voice, not impose their own. Our own idiom is always what sounds ‘right’, so good editors learn to recognise their own preferences and then set them aside. They essentially become chameleons, taking on the colours of the manuscript in order to help the author make their work the very best it can be. (As you can see, Shauna O’Meara choose to illustrate this part of our conversation; my first time immortalised as a cartoon!) We spoke about a whole lot else besides and the event was podcasted here if you’d like to have a listen.

For the next two events I was the one in the interviewer’s hot seat. It’s such a responsibility being the interviewer. Over the years I’ve seen the way poor interviewers give authors no place to go and leave everyone feeling flat, and conversely the way brilliant interviewers draw the very best out of their subjects, gleaning new insights. Part of the skill is developing a rapport with the interviewees before hitting the stage, which is of course easier if you already know them. It’s also important to be super prepared but then be able to go with the flow on the day, so that the conversation evolves, rather than rigidly following a pre-existing set of questions.

It’s such a privilege chatting with other writers, and the in-conversation event with Marion Halligan and John Stokes about their lives together was one of the loveliest events I’ve been a part of. Marion and John are perhaps best described as Canberra literary royalty. They are a warm, generous and supportive presence in the local community, and our discussion reflected that. There was much laughter, but also tears. Both have written so movingly about grief and loss, and John’s reading of his prose poem about the death of Marion’s daughter, ‘Funeral Address for a Stepdaughter’, had the audience reaching for the tissues. Marion once wrote, ‘Grief does not dissipate, it is something that exists, and must be valued, even treasured.’ Wise words indeed. It was a rich and wonderful hour spent with two marvellous writers.

And finally, I interviewed Robyn Cadwallader about her stunning debut novel, The Anchoress, as part of Festival Muse. I wrote about some of our discussion here, so I won’t rehash it, but Robyn was a delight to interview—thoughtful, insightful and intelligent. Our discussion lingered in my mind long after the event was over.

Next up, I’m heading to Holy Trinity Primary School in my role as Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge. School visits are always heaps of fun, so I can’t wait to meet all those new little readers.

Blizzards, baths and the bush: Where writers write (part 2)

10 July 2015

My recent post on ‘Where writers write revealed all sorts of weird and wonderful places writers have found themselves putting pen to paper. And interestingly, as Sue Terry of Whispering Gums pointed out, when inspiration strikes most writers still seem to favour the pen over any kind of digital device, even in places where paper is a hindrance. In the bath, for example. In response to my post, Jen Squire tweeted, ‘I was just given 5 packets of AquaNotes for my birthday because I’m always writing in the shower and the swimming pool’ (evidence pictured). Jen is not the only one partial to writing in baths, as you’ll find in this second installment. Enjoy!

Tracey Hawkins: Many years ago my late father was in a High Dependancy Unit for coronary care, waiting for a heart bypass operation. I sat on the floor beside Dad’s bed, carefully placed between IV lines and electrical leads to heart machines and monitors, and tried hard to engage him in my creative work to keep him alive and interested in life (he did survive his operation). I was writing a murder/mystery at the time; he had been a police officer for 25 years and knew his stuff. Albeit, perhaps not appropriate to write about death in a room full of very sick men on the very edge of dying. I tried to keep it low key and even though I whispered thoughts/plots and motive to my Dad, the other men often heard what I was talking about. They soon became intrigued in the mystery and before I knew it, they looked forward to my visits and were very keen for updates on the work. At one point I even had the Sister doing the drug/medication round offering suggestions for a powerful poison (I was needing a good poison to use as the murder weapon).

During the weeks I was there, I finished the mystery. The time spent creating was two-fold — the men looked forward to my visits, and I, too, felt I offered them something outside the square that took their minds off the severity of their health issues, if only for a short time.

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Karen Viggers: I find that my best ideas come to me in wild landscapes far from comfort and people. One of my special spiritual places is in the snow, and several times I have braved blizzards and freezing fingers while cross-country skiing in the Snowies to jot down the perfect line. Solitude and harsh places stimulate my muse and allow me to tap into my deepest creativity. Writers write everywhere … I never leave home without a notebook.

Nicole Hayes: When my second child was born, the only break from my demanding toddler often came during the midnight/early morning feeds. I remember sitting by my infant daughter’s crib, one hand cupping her head while she breastfed, the other scribbling barely legible words on a notebook propped on the arm of my chair. I wrote an entire novel in the first year of her life, about half of it in that very position.

Kirsten Krauth: I don’t choose to write in strange places, but my writing chooses them, usually in moments when I don’t have access to paper, pen, screen. When I’m driving on the freeway from Castlemaine to Bendigo and can’t pull over is common. Or while I’m lying in the bath. I’ve got the kids in bed. It’s freezing. My head submerges in the warm water. Time to relax. Then my brain powers up and all the connections that I’ve struggled for during the day come together and I fight them, hoping I’ll remember in an hour’s time, because writing them down now means having to get out of the bath.

Jack getting a haircut on deadline

Rebecca Lim: On a laptop balanced on a pack of toilet rolls in the car in the school car park. A nine-pack will work but a 20-pack is better!

Jess Knight: In bed 59 of the kidney ward at Royal Melbourne Hospital. With a needle in one arm and a flirty old man in the bed next to mine.

Jack Heath: I write six books per year, and the tough deadlines aren’t always conducive to consistent grooming. But I can’t show up to an event looking like Chewbacca, so my wife has been known to cut my hair while I type.

Katie Taylor: Last year I went on a trip to New Zealand. I didn’t take my laptop, but I did take a notepad. One night I went to a rather nice pub in Christchurch, which was called Strange Co. It was a Saturday night so the place was very busy and noisy — we’re talking wall-to-wall drinkers, plus pounding music. Even so, I sat down by the bar and scribbled away over a pint of White Rabbit. Finally a tipsy patron came over and asked me what I was doing. My deadpan reply was, ‘I’m writing a story about a guy who can turn into a phoenix exploring an ice cave full of sentient polar bears.’ Every single word of that is true, I swear. It’s just too bad I never finished the story; it had potential.

Susan Johnson: Well, the difference between writers and aspiring writers — or wannabe writers to use a possibly less flattering term — is that writers write. Writers write when they have no money or are shot full of fear or when they are on holiday or when they can only write between the cracks of doing another job. I’ve written when my head was exploding with terror about running out of money, or full of pain from a broken marriage, or when my eyes could barely remain open because I was so tired when I was a new mother. I had a new baby, and a temporary colostomy, when I was writing my memoir, A Better Woman. Writers write to get the book written, often at the cost of marriages and friendships. Ideally, I write best alone in a room — any room, with or without a view, but preferably in France or Greece or by the beach in Australia — but I’ve also written at kitchen tables in small, dimly lit flats, at desks in the corners of bedrooms. It’s my love, my curse, my job.

Belinda Murrell: I have a beautiful office at home, full of books, with a fireplace and a view over the garden so ideally I prefer to do most of my work there, with a cup of tea at my elbow and my dog, Rosie, at my feet. But then with three children life is a constant juggle — so I’ve been known to work cross-legged on the floor in the corridor outside the orthodontist’s office, in the car waiting for sport pickups, at the kitchen bench while also making dinner, and poolside during kids’ swimming lessons. Far more inspiring, were the many beautiful and wild places I wrote while I was away travelling with my family for two years — in the Kimberley in far north Western Australia, in the Scottish highlands, on the verandah of a friend’s cattle farm, on remote outback stations, in a beach shack at Margaret River, in an 18th-century Parisian apartment …

Melinda SmithI keep a notebook with me all the time and write wherever I can, whenever I have the headspace. When my kids were younger this meant writing in the parent’s waiting chair outside therapy appointments for my eldest son, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. I have also started more than one poem at the parents’ tables at Kid City in Mitchell.

Of course before kids I wrote in all sorts of exotic places, including in a deckchair at the Orchard Tea rooms at Grantchester near Cambridge (former haunt of Rupert Brooke and some of the Bloomsbury set, including Virginia Woolf), and on a beach on Ko Lanta Yai in southern Thailand (many years pre-tsunami).

These days the headspace and time often coincide more often when I am ‘on the road’ going to a writers’ festival or an interstate launch or reading event. This means I have written in Murray’s Buses, on trains from Sydney to Newcastle and Blackheath, and in any cafe anywhere I can scrape together the cost of a soy latte. I have started many drafts in the Arthur McElhone reserve just down the hill from Elizabeth Bay House (because it is the closest park to the CWA in Potts Point, where I like to stay when I am Sydney. Goodness knows how I will manage when they cease operations at the end of this financial year!). I have polished drafts at Tamarama beach and in the cafe at Bondi Icebergs and at Gertrude and Alice bookshop. One poem I recently finished was begun in the fourth-floor cafe at the Museum of Contemporary Art (pictured), and polished up many months later at Strathnairn Gallery in the utter west of Belconnen. I do tend to find that for me first drafts and polishing work better if they are done in different locations. A great deal of my book First… Then… was written in Harvest cafe in Civic (first drafts) and just up the hill in the Library of the ANU School of Art (polishing).

One place I find it quite difficult to write is at home, although I do a lot of my ‘admin’ from there. I am such an inveterate procrastinator I need to put myself in a position where there is literally nothing else I can be doing. Home, with its clothes-drifts and dirty-crockery-formations, definitely does not qualify.

For part 1, ‘Trees, trains & hospital trolleys: where writers write’, featuring Brooke Davis, Rosanna Stevens, Susanne Gervay, Tania McCartney, Craig Cormick, Lee Kofman, SJ Finn, Paul Daley and Alec Patric, click here.