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Marion Halligan

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

Flashers (of the literary kind) unite

2 May 2018

The inaugural Flash Fiction Festival, dedicated to the shortest of literary forms, kicked off in Canberra recently. One of the nicest things about festivals is hanging out with other writers, and there was plenty of that. But there was also ‘work’ to be done. I ran an editing workshop, and spoke on what was possibly the biggest literary panel ever, with five of us talking about our writing processes.

Me with Sheryl Gwyther, Marion Halligan and Carmel Bird

In the spirit of flash fiction, there were a series of short keynotes addresses. Jackie French spoke about how writers have just seven seconds to hook an editor or a reader. ‘You can tell within seven seconds whether it’s good, or you can put it aside … And if it’s good you’ll get another seven seconds, and another and another.’ She also spoke about the importance of being edited and taking on tough feedback. ‘If you are a professional you are going to love it. A good strong editorship is wonderful. You get to work with a professional team on all the ideas from your brain to make them better.’ Not surprisingly, I heartily agree. She finished by reading a passage from Hitler’s Daughter, possibly my favourite book of hers (if you haven’t read it yet, you must) and told us to: ‘Write what matters. Use your words as spears.’

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Jackie French giving her keynote address

In her keynote, Carmel Bird was witty and erudite and just plain delightful. She read the funniest story I’ve heard/read in a long time about a cockroach on the brink of death (‘The Affair at the Ritz’). And I loved her concluding thought: ‘All fiction engages at the most mysterious level.’ That it does.

With Carmel Bird

Marion Halligan arrived with notes on the back of an envelope but was her usual eloquent self, musing on writing, publishing and punctuation. Craig Cormick had us all laughing as he delivered an anthropological analysis of the strange creature known as ‘writer’. Sheryl Gwyther spoke about setting up the 52-week Flash Fiction Challenge, now in its fifth year, and how it forced her to produce a work a week: ‘You can’t fail in front of everybody else if you set it up.’ Some of her pieces have provided the impetus for longer works. In a similar vein, Susan McCreery spoke about how her decision to write a flash a day evolved into a book.

 

There was heaps more on offer, including a range of workshops with Jack Heath, Susanne Gervay and Josh Donellan, among others. Oh, and I did my first ever bathroom book signing! (Thanks for accosting me, Susie.) At least it wasn’t pushed under the toilet door. (This has happened to at least one person I know.)

It was a wonderful event to be a part of, and congratulations must go to Suzanne Kiraly and the team. I’m keen to see how it evolves next year after getting off to such a cracking start. In the meantime there is an anthology of flash in the works, to be edited by yours truly. Stay tuned!

Thanks to Craig Cormick, Susanne Gervay, Sheryl Gwyther and Suzanne Kiraly for the pix.

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.

To agent or not to agent?

4 August 2013
Marion Halligan, Jackie French and Mary Cunnane

Marion Halligan, Jackie French and Mary Cunnane

I’ve been meaning to write about agents after recording a podcast for Kill Your Darlings journal some weeks ago, but with the release of Megumi and the Bear I haven’t managed to find the time. I promised myself that I wouldn’t upload the podcast until I could write about everything I left out for the sake of brevity but, frankly, that might never happen. So instead let me offer a few thoughts and say that if you’re a writer thinking about getting an agent, this is the podcast for you.

I had the pleasure of interviewing one of Australia’s most experienced agents, Mary Cunnane, and respected authors Jackie French and Marion Halligan, who have opposing views on the value of agents. Jackie only had an agent for two months early in her career and the experience was a negative one. After advice from fellow authors, she decided to represent her own interests. Marion Halligan, on the other hand, has had the same agent for her entire career and swears by her.

One of the issues we discussed was the perils of an agent securing a large advance. All three of my interviewees had some fascinating experiences to share, with Jackie and Marion agreeing about the dangers inherent in accepting a large sum. However, I also want to refer you to this article by Chip MacGregor that Mary Cunnane directed me to. It eloquently makes Mary’s point that an unearned advance doesn’t necessarily equal a loss for the publisher. It’s a clear and compelling argument, though it doesn’t necessarily alter the perception of a book that hasn’t earned out its advance, and the way that might impact an author’s career.

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The reality, however, is that very few authors are in the position of worrying about whether their advance is too large. In the podcast we discuss a range of other matters, including what an agent does, how to secure an agent, how to distinguish the good from the bad, the pros and cons of having an agent, and the ins and outs of contracts.

Authors often share their agent ‘horror stories’ but as Marion says, the thing is to get a good one. Easier said than done, of course. It’s common knowledge that these days it’s harder to get an agent than it is to get a publisher.

Given her extensive experience Mary Cunnane is undoubtedly one of the ‘good ones’. Having interviewed Mary and had the pleasure of listening to her speak at a Canberra Small Press Network gathering, it is evident that she loves what she does and is a strong advocate for her authors. So it seems appropriate to finish with her response to my question about what she most enjoys about her job: ‘It’s endlessly surprising … You just never know what’s going to come up. It’s fascinating. It’s exciting … It’s a great intellectual journey and its fun and a challenge … And books can change things. I really still think that.’

On that encouraging note, you can listen to the podcast below. It was first published on Kill Your Darlings’ website here.

The Invisible Thread series: Marion Halligan

7 December 2012

Somehow Marion Halligan’s home is exactly as I imagine a writer’s should be. Books everywhere, the right kind of clutter, a garden full of gorgeous sprawl. I first visited her there a couple of years ago. My then four year old bought with him a copy of Toy Story, an appallingly written transcript (this happened then this happened then this…) that I always tried to avoid reading. Not the kind of book to bring to Marion Halligan’s house, I thought, but said nothing. As it turned out it was this book that resulted in Marion’s young granddaughter, Bianca, taking an instant liking to Marius. So there we were, two writers whose respective charges had bonded over a trashy book version of a movie.

But this time when I visit it’s just me and cameraman Dylan Jones and a (not at all trashy, I can assure you) copy of The Invisible Thread. In the hallway, reminding me of that earlier visit, is a painting of Bianca, arms outstretched with the kind of unrestrained joy only children allow themselves.

We follow Marion up a flight of stairs to her writing space. ‘As you can see I’m a messy writer,’ she says. ‘I like a lot of junk around. I like to have things that I can look at.’ But it’s not junk. It’s books and art and papers and the kinds of things writers need.

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Her partner and fellow Invisible Thread author, poet John Stokes, makes us strong coffee in cobalt patterned cups while Dylan sets up the cameras. The windows are full of trees and that particular Canberra light that Marion has recently written about. I can just see her, pen in hand, gazing out of the window, searching for exactly the right word.

The cameras roll and we talk about Marion’s writing life. At the age of 15 she earned the substantial sum of one guinea for a poem (‘It’s what you paid a specialist doctor,’ Marion points out), and yet nobody encouraged her to write for a living. It wasn’t until her fortieth birthday that she decided to stop thinking about being a writer ‘one day, and do it now’. Lucky for us she did. Marion is now one of Australia’s finest writers, though she regrets not having started earlier at a ‘Tim Winton-ish sort of age’.

As I said at the launch, I found reading and re-reading her essay, ‘Luminous Moments’, which concludes The Invisible Thread, a profound experience. As good literature can, it has changed me. For the anthology we were sifting through 100 years of work to find luminous moments in literature, so it’s an apt note to finish on, but for me it’s about more than that. Marion speaks about it eloquently in this interview saying, ‘It’s important for our lives to think of past moments as still existing.’ If you watch the interview you’ll understand why.

Marion also speaks about The Invisible Thread selection process and being part of the Advisory Committee; reflects on what she sees when she looks back on her career to date; and speaks candidly about the now legendary Seven Writers group, saying, ‘I was very reluctant to join in the first place. I thought, No, I don’t need this.’ But the competitive yet nurturing nature of the group proved to be ‘hugely motivating’ and all of them went on to find success.

Marion always has so many interesting things to say and I could have sat chatting all afternoon. You can join our conversation via YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_xkgzur7nk