Browsing Tag

reading

Public reading: more please!

7 November 2018

Since phones have taken over it seems to me that people are reading less in public spaces. My children and I flout this at every opportunity. On a trip to the shops all three of them can often be seen trailing behind me, book in hand. (No one has met with calamity yet.) If I know I’ll be wasting time in queues, I’ll stuff my current novel into my bag before I leave home. But then as I stand in a line of people bent over their phones, I often feel almost mournful. Perhaps those either side of me are reading ebooks, but their scrolling fingers suggest otherwise. And I wonder, are we losing the art of reading? Are people reading less? Are we so spending so much time on social media that we are no longer taking time for deep reading?

A 2016 Nielsen report puts average media consumption (social media, TV, radio and all electronic devices) at 10 hours a day. How is there time for anything else? And in 2016, a National Endowment for the Arts survey found that only 43 per cent of American adults had read ‘a work of literature’ for pleasure in the previous year. That stat depresses the hell out of me. More than half the country hadn’t read even one book in a whole year. That’s 163 million people who didn’t pick up a book for pleasure.

Anecdotally, the word from my children about their classmates’ lack of interest in recreational reading doesn’t paint a rosier picture. Last week Miss 15 reported that her English class complained volubly about a Roald Dahl short story they were asked to read. It was too long, they all said. Miss 15 rolled her eyes as she recounted this. It was 10 pages. Continue Reading…

An airport ottoman made for reading.

It worries me, this state of affairs. Not just because I’m a writer and editor, but because we need to be growing imaginative thinkers. Reading gives us space and time for reflection. Books are places where ideas germinate, where empathy is built, where questions are asked, and popular narratives are interrogated. In other words, with all the challenges our world is facing right now, we need books more than ever.

So won’t you join me in bringing books into the public arena at every opportunity? Read wherever you find yourself, be it in a queue or on a bus or waiting for a plane. Let’s stop scrolling and instead cram books into every corner of our lives. I’ll wager we’ll all be the better for it.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll encourage someone else in that queue/bus/airport lounge to put down their phone, and pick up a book.

Reading recs

18 April 2018

Every month in my newsletter* I highlight a book that has stood out for me, and it’s been interesting reflecting on which stories have stuck with me. I thought I’d start a quarterly post collecting them here, but I’m adding a bonus book which I have recently finished and need to rave about! Interestingly, all four of these books made me cry. I’m not commonly moved to tears when reading, so this is surely a sign that these characters worked their way into my very marrow. All four books also have titles beginning with ‘The’, though what that might mean I have no idea!

January: Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth is an extraordinary achievement. It’s the story of a young boy named William whose father dies in a farming accident. With his mother, he comes to live on an enormous and crumbling property with his elderly uncle. Set against the political landscape of the Mabo judgement and land rights, The White Earth explores the nature of ownership and connection, and the ways in which the past is inextricably bound up with the present. It’s beautifully written and structured, and not surprisingly won the Miles Franklin Award in 2004.

February: The Midnight Zoo is a fable-like story that centres on two Rom boys and their baby sister whose extended family has been wiped out in a massacre. Amidst the devastation they stumble upon a forgotten zoo where the animals speak. I have always loathed zoos, and I would defy anyone to visit one after reading this poignant novel. Sonya Hartnett knows how to craft a beautiful sentence, and I often found myself pausing and rereading the prose in this short novel. One for both adults and younger readers. It is startling, magical, brilliant.

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March: This biography of Sandra Pankhurst is not for those after a light read. In addition to her work as a trauma cleaner, Sandra’s personal life is a catalogue of traumas. It is remarkable how much she has endured; I found the details of her childhood particularly heartbreaking. Her life would make a compelling story told any which way, but it is Krasnostein’s elegant prose and genuine love for Pankhurst that make The Trauma Cleaner sing. Not surprisingly it is being shortlisted everywhere, and recently won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.

Bonus: I fell hard for Sofie Laguna’s last novel for adults, The Eye of the Sheep (2014), which I recommended to everyone that year. So I approached The Choke with some trepidation. Both are told in first person through the eyes of a child. Could Laguna pull it off a second time? Could I love another Laguna book as much as The Eye of the Sheep? Well, she did, and I did. We follow Justine, who is neglected by the adults around her, and is forced to navigate the dangerous and perplexing world that she finds herself in. It’s an absolute heart-stealer of a book.

So now it’s your turn. Tell me your latest reading rec. What book have you fallen hard for?

* If you’d like to subscribe to my newsletter, which is full of bookishly awesome stuff, there’s a sign up box on this page.

Guest post: HARDCOPY pearls

6 March 2018

In order to make a living most writers take on a range of different work, and Nigel Featherstone may have one of the best jobs in the biz. Managing the HARDCOPY program, he works with emerging writers and industry professionals — agents, publishers, editors — from around the country. Having been involved in a very minor way (speaking on a panel of authors one year, assessing applications another), I’ve seen firsthand what a unique and transformative program HARDCOPY is. So I asked Nigel to share the top ten things he’s learned from spending time with so many industry greats.

Although I am lucky enough to spend the majority of each week writing, and primarily writing literary fiction, I am also lucky enough to spend a day each week at the ACT Writers Centre delivering HARDCOPY, a national emerging writers program funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Having been involved in every element of the program — behind the scenes and as well as facilitating some of the sessions — I have had the opportunity to meet many key figures in the Australian publishing industry and authors, as well as get to know almost 120 new Australian writers, some of which have work that has hit the bookshelves or are about to. Needless to say, I have learned a huge amount, and in a moment I’ll share with you the ten key things I have learned from coordinating HARDCOPY.

But first, what exactly is HARDCOPY?

Established in 2014, HARDCOPY is a six-months-long national professional development program that helps build the capacities, aptitudes and resources emerging Australian writers need to reach their potential. The program is the flagship initiative of the ACT Writers Centre.

By creating an environment that is educative, vigorous and nurturing, HARDCOPY helps writers develop their manuscripts; increases industry knowledge; facilitates relationships between writers and publishing professionals; and breaks down the barriers of location and geography. HARDCOPY aims to develop writers who will have longevity as Australian writers, and the program is underpinned by the principle of pragmatic optimism: being aware of the challenges, but also being positive about the future.

There are three key stages to the program: a three-day manuscript development intensive with Nadine Davidoff, in May; a three-day series of industry presentations and panels, in September; and one-on-one feedback sessions with prominent Australian agents and publishers, in November. Each year, thirty emerging writers are selected to participate in the first two stages, with ten of the thirty then being selected for the agents/publishers feedback sessions.

So what have I learned about writing from coordinating HARDCOPY?

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1. Write about what makes you scared — it’s important that you don’t try to predict publishing trends or write ‘to market’. Write what makes your blood boil, write about what makes you think that people reckon you’re crazy. As Nadine Davidoff says, ‘Write about what makes you blush.’

2. Binge on your work — set a goal (e.g. write the first draft by year’s end) and then work hard to meet that goal. By ‘writing hard’ I mean write on a regular basis. Put into your work all the blood, sweat, and tears you can muster. At some point you’ll discover the story feels finished. Brilliant; celebrate that moment. Put the manuscript aside, then do some more work on it, but it’s okay to reach the stage where you draw a line under it and move onto a fresh project. Sure, some stories take a long time — years — to write, but there’s wisdom in saying, ‘I’ve done enough on this. I’m going to start something new.’

3. The world treats writing as a vacuum — resist distraction. As per the above, set aside time to write on a regular basis and guard that time fiercely. Everyone and everything will want to encroach on that time — the kids, the dog, the bills piling up on the fridge — but learn to boldly say, ‘This is my time to write. It’s critical to me. Leave me alone.’

4. Agents and publishers are invariably good people — they are passionate about words and stories and writers and books and readers. They live and breathe this stuff, and they work incredibly hard, often seven days a week. Treat them well, and by ‘well’ I mean politely and with respect. Sometimes they will take a while to get back to you; sometimes they will take a VERY long while to get back to you. That’s okay, it’s only because they are busy. By all means, gently and succinctly chase them up, but don’t be annoying and certainly don’t be rude. Agents and publishers have very long memories and you never know where they might end up.

5. As writers, we’re not trying to produce books; we’re trying to write stories that will move readers. Often in HARDCOPY — and more generally — I hear conversations that make writing sound like a game that folk are trying to win. To my mind, it’s a vocation. We write because we love words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters, plot, structure, ideas, themes. We write because we would go a little mad without it. In terms of publication, what will be, will be — it’s more or less out of our control.

6. You don’t have to do this alone — there is a wide range of writing programs out there, such as HARDCOPY, as well as other opportunities like residencies and funding programs. By all means focus on your writing and keep the world at bay, but sometimes it’s productive to seek help and connect with other writers. Take note of the opportunities presented by your local writers centre and the various funding bodies (state/territory and national). Also, attend literary events and meet other writers and authors.

7. Be wary of social media — one of the things that is discussed a lot at HARDCOPY is social media: is it worthwhile or evil? The consensus seems to be that it’s probably a bit of both. It can be a good way to get information and feel connected to a broader and diverse writing community and share news, but it can also be a time-trap. For emerging writers there is no doubt wisdom in putting some rules around social-media use: what are you trying to achieve with your online engagement and how much time (or how little time) do you need to invest in it to get the result you want.

8. Rejection is part of what we do — most writers and writing programs say this because it’s true. There are many more writers in Australia than there are publishing opportunities, and every writer worth her or his salt has copped a set-back, or quite a few set-backs. Whatever negative event comes your way in your writing life, reflect on it, learn from it, and then just keep going. As former publisher, agent and HARDCOPY advisor Mary Cunanne says, ‘Persistence pays.’ I’d add to that: ‘Patience goes a long way.’

9. Read, read, read — by reading you’ll become a better writer. It’s as simple as that. But it’s worth noting that agents and publishers, not to mention authors, love it when you read. If you can, spend money on the publishing industry, i.e. buy books, and buy books by Australian authors and Australian publishers. Also read as widely as you can, including works by authors with very different life experiences to your own.

10. It’s okay to ignore all the writing advice you’ve ever heard and go your own way.

Applications to HARDCOPY 2018 close on Friday 16 March. For more information visit www.actwriters.org.au

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of contemporary fiction. He is the author of 50 short stories that have been published in Australian literary journals such as Meanjin, Overland, and the Review of Australian Fiction. Nigel’s critically acclaimed first novel, Remnants, was published in 2005 by Pandanus Books. His award-winning series of three novellas was published by Blemish Books between 2011 and 2014. Nigel has been shortlisted for the ACT Book of the Year award, and has also received two Canberra Critics Circle Awards. He has held residencies at Bundanon and Varuna. In 2013, he was a Creative Fellow at UNSW Canberra / Australian Defence Force Academy, during which he explored different expressions of masculinity under military pressure; his war novel, Bodies of Men, is forthcoming from Hachette Australia in 2019. In 2014, Nigel was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretto for a new Australian song cycle, with the music composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music; this work has been developed by the Street Theatre in Canberra and had its world premiere in early March 2018. Nigel was the founding editor of Verity La. He is represented by the Naher Agency in Sydney, and lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. For more information about Nigel, please visit www.opentopublic.com.au

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.

Oh the places you’ll go!

4 December 2017

2017 is the thirteenth year of the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge, but it’s been anything but unlucky. This year saw more students than ever before take part, with 34,000 kids from 91 schools reading their 15 books. Twenty-six schools finished with a 100 per cent completion rate across the school — bravo! And 49 schools with the highest percentage of students completing the Challenge were invited to attend the awards ceremony.

The ceremony is always a wonderful celebration, and this year I was honoured to speak on behalf of the Ambassadors. Our job is to promote reading (could their be a more perfect role?) and visit schools. I was asked to talk about how I became an author, and so I shared how I began writing and making my own books when I was just a wee thing. I remember hours spent on my bedroom floor, writing fairy stories and researching books on hard-hitting topics like the royal family. But I never imagined that I could actually become an author.

I spent my childhood in England and I assumed that authors must be terribly posh people who wore tweed suits and spectacles, and lived in mansions where they wrote in cavernous personal libraries that required a ladder to reach the books at the very top. They definitely weren’t people like me who lived in the suburbs in a noisy, chaotic house with five annoying younger brothers and a dog who liked to eat socks.

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Unbeknownst to me I was living just ten minutes down the road from a real author, one of the world’s most famous writers and one of my personal favourites, Roald Dahl. His writing studio was nothing like my glamorous fantasy. He wrote in a tiny, cluttered hut in his garden where he rested his feet on a battered suitcase filled with logs, and wore a sleeping bag to keep warm. The hut often had goat droppings in the corners, and there were always plenty of spiders to keep Roald company (which he apparently loved). If I could only have stood on tiptoe and looked in on this scene I might have realised sooner that authors are just ordinary people who love books.

But as it was it took me a long time to figure this out. I wasn’t much helped by my high school careers counsellor who declared that journalism was the only profession for a person like me, but I’d already been turned off that vocation by a school visit from a terribly grumpy newspaper columnist who clearly hated her job. These days I tell students that there is an endless list of possibilities for people who love books, everything from editing and illustrating to design and publicity.

I finished my speech by setting the students a challenge to read as widely as they possibly can — to explore characters who are completely different to them, who are experiencing different problems. I am a big believer that books are powerful agents of change. They have the potential to connect our diverse global community and create empathy for those who come from different countries, races, religions, cultures and ways of living. They allow us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand what the world looks like from their perspective, and that is sorely needed in our current climate. So I would encourage you to take up the challenge too, no matter your age!

The Ambassadors being presented with gorgeous bouquets, with Acting Chief Minister Yvette Berry on the left

It’s so heartening that through the Challenge the ACT Government supports and encourages children to explore the pleasures of books. Readers are clever, creative and compassionate thinkers, but the act of reading itself is a pure kind of joy. At least it is for me, and this is what I hope to share with the students as I go into their schools.

The minister quoted some of my favourite Dr Seuss lines in her speech and it seems an apt note to finish on:

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

The Ambassador crew: Tania McCartney, Jack Heath, Harry Laing, Tracey Hawkins, me, Virginia Haussegger