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Thailand

Literary adventures abroad

26 March 2019

Irma working with rescued elephants in Thailand

As my novel set in Thailand is currently out with publishers, I wait. It is, in short, excruciating. In the meantime I am working on a new novel, which is the best antidote, and of course continuing with my usual editing work on other writers’ books. But still I can’t help my thoughts returning to my debut novel, taking fledgling steps out into the world, hoping that it finds a good home. There are many joys and challenges in writing a novel set overseas, and so I asked three fellow writers — Angela Meyer, Angela Savage and Leah Kaminsky — to share their experiences. I could relate to so many aspects of each of their stories. I hope you enjoy them too.

Angela Meyer
I don’t have any personal connection to Scotland. My ancestors are Dutch and Norwegian. But when I first stepped off the train in Edinburgh I fell in love. I’ve been to Scotland four times now, and for extended periods of time. I’ve been all over the Highlands and islands. And when I am there something just feels right — I feel at home, while also feeling the excitement and stimulation of difference. After all, it is the exact opposite environment of the temperate beach town I grew up in. When I am not there, I do long for the place, the way you might long for a person. I don’t have any explanation for it. I also love Scottish people. My partner is half-Scottish. My ex-boyfriend was half-Scottish. This just seems to happen! My partner’s grandmother told me that she can tell, from my temperament, how I would fit in well in Scotland.

Angela Meyer on top of Beinn Eighe, Torridon Hills (Wester Ross), Scotland

When I first realised I wanted to set a book there I was of course nervous about getting everything wrong. And I questioned my desire to do so, when there are so many great Scottish writers writing about Scotland. But the desire would not go away, and I knew that the lens I was applying would be Australian — my character, Jeff. Once I knew I was going to at least have a go of it I did a ton of research — both in Scotland and via books and online. After I’d drafted the manuscript I went back to Scotland and put myself in the same conditions as my characters (isolated, no electricity, in nature) so I could even get the feel of it right. I was in correspondence with the museum in the area my character Leonora is from, and I bothered them often, as well as going back over all the photos I took in the museum.

One of the hardest decisions was whether or not to have Scots dialect. When I am in Scotland, I do not have any trouble understanding the accent. I can easily think in a Scottish accent, and so when I was writing the draft, I let some of the dialogue come out how I heard it. I also used a Scots dictionary online to add some words in dialect (particularly for the nineteenth-century dialogue). Recently I have been going over this with my UK publisher, who is Scottish, and I have been greatly relieved that I haven’t made any major stuff ups. The fact a Scottish publisher wants to publish it in fact has been a dream come true. I can’t wait to go back!

Angela Meyer’s writing has been widely published, including in Best Australian Stories, Island, The Big Issue, The Australian, The Lifted Brow and Killings. She has worked in bookstores, as a reviewer, in a whisky bar, and for the past few years has published a range of Australian authors for Echo Publishing. A Superior Spectre is her debut novel. literaryminded.com.au/

Angela Savage
My relationship with Asia started more than 30 years ago when, after working in France for a year as an au pair, I flew home to Melbourne via Bangkok. I thought I’d reached peak awe after Europe, but Bangkok blew me away. By the time I left France, I could pass for a local; however, that was never going to be the case in Thailand. Then as now, I was intrigued by the question of how to get by in a place where blending in isn’t an option.

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I ended up living in South-East Asia for most of the 1990s. When I returned to Australia, intent on becoming a published author, I turned to Asia for creative inspiration. Writing fiction set in Thailand provided both a means to process my experiences and an outlet for the travel stories nobody would listen to.

Angela Savage in Krabi, Thailand, suffering for her art

Ironically, an early rejection of what later became my first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, suggested there weren’t enough ‘sights, smells and sounds of Thailand’ in the manuscript. I realised I was too close to the experience, writing so soon after returning to Australia. I had to take a step back and reconnect with the sense of curiosity and wonder I first had — and still have — on visiting Thailand. To remember the details that make the place unique.

One of the great joys of setting novels outside Australia is doing fieldwork in order to gather those details. As part of the research for my forthcoming novel Mother of Pearl, I visited Thailand in December 2015 in search of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and texture that give a setting what James Bradley calls, ‘the imaginative thickness it needs’. Some examples that found their way into the novel include the flayed frogs, legs still kicking, in metal dishes at the morning market in Sisaket; the blast of cold air at the entrances to Bangkok’s plazas; and the smell of brine and barbeque at Bang Saen Beach. The landscape seemed to offer up ways of ‘showing, not telling’ — signs on Bangkok’s Skytrain asking passengers to Please offer this seat to monks, for example — while physically moving through the settings that I imagined my characters to inhabit also helped bring them to life.

The greatest challenge in setting novels outside Australia, and specifically in Asia, is to avoid Orientalism and stereotyping. As a non-Asian Australian writer, I am acutely aware that Western writing about Thailand still trades largely in erotic and exotic stereotypes — and when I look at ‘bestsellers’ set in Thailand, I wonder if that’s what readers want.

I also wonder if there’s a market for books set in Asia written by non-Asian Australians, or if readers prefer Own Voices writing — in this case, stories set in Asia by writers with an Asian background. For my own part, I enjoy perspectives that both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ bring to fiction.

Being transported by reading is one of life’s great pleasures for me. I hope that my own writing brings readers some of this same pleasure.

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing and currently works as Director of Writers Victoria. angelasavage.wordpress.com/ @angsavage

Leah Kaminsky
‘To travel far, there is no better ship than a book.’ Emily Dickinson

In my debut novel, The Waiting Room, the coastal town of Haifa plays the role of character. More than just a particular place, it is evocative of an era in time where a palpable sense of dread accompanies the protagonist, Dina, as she walks through the market or drops her child at school. Set in 2001, during a turbulent spate of terror attacks in the Middle East, the setting explores the dichotomy of living in a war-torn country which is a vibrant and pulsing locale populated with a colourful community of people as they go about their ordinary, daily lives. I worked as a doctor in this region during that time, so the images, smells and sounds of street life were embedded in memory, waiting in the wings for me to conjure them up on the page.

Landscapes shape people. A strong sense of place in a novel can demand a huge amount of research so that every detail resonates with the reader. In my second novel, The Hollow Bones, I pinned the narrative around true but distant events. My protagonist, Ernst Schäfer, was born in 1910 and grew up in a small village in Germany, spending afternoons playing in the forests of Thuringia. By 1930 he had become a zoologist and adventurer, travelling to Philadelphia to partake in a joint American–German team on two expeditions to China and Tibet. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler ordered his return to Germany, to lead a group of German scientists into the foothills of the Himalayas, on a hare-brained mission in search of the ‘true’ origins of the Aryan race. Questions of landscape moved to the forefront of my novel as my characters negotiated the changing mood on the streets of 1930s Berlin. Later, Schäfer treks through the ‘mystical’ terrain of Tibet. The demands of the narrative insisted the need to capture these places as they changed over time, framed against the backdrop of turbulent world events.

Setting can be the bedrock of atmosphere in a novel. When I first came across the story of Ernst Schäfer and the German Tibet Expedition of 1938 I tried to find a way to fund a huge research trip, but finances and time were against me. At that stage I almost gave up on writing the book, but then the words of my wonderful friend and mentor, the late painter Yosl Bergner, came back to haunt me. ‘I never want to visit any place that I have painted through my imagination. It ruins the magic for me.’ I suddenly realised that the settings I had started writing about no longer existed — they were impossible to travel to physically. Berlin and Lhasa of the 1930s had completely vanished.

This was strangely liberating, and I started reading widely. I did visit the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia while I was on book tour in the US for my previous novel. There, in the archives, I came across a wealth of information for my research — field diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, photos and film footage from the expedition — including a taxidermied panda encased in a diorama that Schäfer had brought back from Tibet in 1931. Eventually, the museum ended up becoming an unusual part of the setting the book as well.

Books are the fastest and cheapest way of travelling; imagination has always been the terrain of a writer, and as a novelist I feel I act as a trusty tour guide for my readers, sharing magical and reinvented geographies.

Leah Kaminsky is a physician and award-winning writer. Her debut novel, The Waiting Room, won the prestigious Voss Literary Prize. She conceived and edited Writer MD, a collection of prominent physician–writers, which starred on Booklist and is co-author of Cracking the Code, with the Damiani family. She holds an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. leahkaminsky.com

To go in the draw to win a book pack of A Superior Spectre, The Dying Beach (signed) and The Hollow Bones (signed) simply subscribe to Irma’s newsletter before 5 pm, Monday 22 April. Sign-up box is on the right-hand side of this page (or down the bottom in mobile view).

Evolution of a story

7 September 2017

In 2016, at the end of a solo three-week trip through Thailand, I was sitting on this bench at Kanchanaburi station when I began scrawling down a story in my notebook. Writers are always asked where their ideas come from and it’s the most difficult question to answer because, for me at least, they have complex and elusive origins. In this particular moment the motif of the train line struck me, but that’s as much as I can explain. Where the characters and their story came from I don’t know. But as Paul Murray says, ‘When the right idea comes along, it’s like falling in love.’ That’s how I felt with this story, even though my characters are falling out of love.

As my short stories often do, this one emerged in fits and starts. I wrote a bunch of words during the noisy thrumming train ride to Krung Thep (or Bangkok), pausing to think, and watch banana palms and rice fields blur by. I wrote a bunch more words in Bangkok airport, sitting on a plastic chair drinking bad coffee. And then on the flight home, leaning on my wobbly tray table. Back in Australia the last of it came.

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I tightened and edited the piece, by now called ‘The Line’, and gave it to my short story group who made helpful comments like ‘hope you didn’t have an affair as research’. (They may also have given some more useful feedback.) I rewrote the ending more times than I can count before I felt I’d struck just the right note. And then I sent the thing off to the City of Rockingham Short Fiction Awards. I rarely enter literary competitions these days, but the brilliant short story writer Laurie Steed was judging and there was a decent cash prize on offer. Needless to say I was thrilled when ‘The Line’ won.

With the award win I was eligible to enter the highly regarded annual anthology, Award Winning Australian Writing. I’ve never quite managed to coordinate myself to submit to the anthology before, but this year I did and was delighted to receive notification that they’d selected ‘The Line’ for their tenth anniversary edition. It launched in Melbourne recently and has just landed in my mailbox; I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it.

So there you have it, the evolution of a short story from a Kanchanaburi bench to Award Winning Australian Writing 2017.

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.