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travel

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).

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.

South Africa feels

15 October 2017

I am just back from South Africa, a place I have dreamed about travelling to for almost three decades. It is a complex country, full of contradictions, and I experienced all the feels. I thought I’d share a little of my grand adventure with you through a handful of the thousands of photos that I took. I travelled with my youngest brother and we started in Johannesburg, where our dad grew up, then went on to Soweto, Kruger, Blyde and Cape Town. We rode planes, trains and automobiles, and had a bloody fantastic time. So here’s a nonsequential version of how it went…

We met wild endangered penguins who looked super cute but were super smelly.

We drank excellent five-dollar mojitos as the sun set over stunning Camps Bay.

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Our hearts were broken, and then uplifted, on Robben Island where Mandela and his fellow anti-apartheid activists were jailed.

We took a train along the Western Cape that rattled through the dunes and travelled so close to the ocean that we felt the spray on our faces.

In Kruger National Park we saw everything we could have hoped for. We stopped for elephants more times than I can count…

and lions…

and rhino…

and a real zebra crossing.

We were fortunate to spend time with the elusive cheetah. There are only 400 in Kruger, which is the same size as Wales, and these two gave us every pose in the book.

I could fill this whole post with animal pix, but let’s move on.

In Soweto we made new friends wherever we went. I have never been so warmly welcomed in any place around the world, or given so many high fives to strangers on the street. Don’t believe the hype about Soweto. It was one of the most brilliant experiences of my travelling life.

It was also one of the most heartbreaking. In Kliptown, one of Soweto’s oldest suburbs, there is no infrastructure, including electricity, sewerage and garbage removal, and only a few communal taps to serve the whole area. The rivulet you see here is sewerage.

We took the overnight train from Joburg to Cape Town. It was exhilarating and beautiful and hilarious. We often felt like we’d fallen into a slapstick comedy.

We climbed the sheer cliff face of Lion’s Head Rock, and took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain where we almost froze gulping up the gorgeous views.

We drooled over bubblegum-coloured houses in Bo-kaap.

And we hiked around and down into Blyde River Canyon where we saw barely a soul. It is the third largest canyon in the world but in a beauty contest it would beat the Grand Canyon hands down. No photograph can do it justice.

So there you have it. That’s one photo story; I could tell many others.

And now I’m going to take the words that I recorded in this pretty notebook and use it as the springboard for fiction. I don’t know what it will be about yet, or what form it will take, but I am going to start somewhere.

Off adventuring

18 September 2017

If there’s one thing that I love as much as writing and editing, it’s travelling. When my kids are all grown and off doing their own thing, my version of heaven would be to spend three months of every year living in another country. But, if that is even a vague possibility, it’s certainly not on the cards for a very long time. In the meantime my kids are old enough that I can steal a few weeks to go adventuring when funds permit. And that is exactly what I’m about to do.

South Africa has been on my travel radar ever since I was fifteen. My dad grew up in Johannesburg and I have long been fascinated with the country. As a teenager I read obsessively about the place, through fiction and nonfiction. At the time I was warned off travelling to South Africa. It was too dangerous, everyone said. I made it to neighbouring Tanzania and Kenya in my early twenties, but never further south. I’m still being warned off travelling to South Africa, but I will no longer be deterred.

So, I’m setting off. I’m excited about exploring the country, and I’m also excited about the stories that might grow from the place. Because for me travelling and writing are entwined.

Wish me well!

If you would like to follow my travels through pretty pictures, join me on Instagram.

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.