rusted old truck in long grass

A bit of noir

It’s murderously hot today. The thermometer is expected to reach 38 degrees celsius and strong north winds are blowing in from the sizzling centre of Australia. It’s the kind of day that conjures a mood of disorder and threat, like it’s cousin on the spectrum, the chilled isolation of excessive cold climates. Extremes are both thrilling and dangerous.

MoMA, New York City

Humans are so vulnerable to weather extremes yet we have been pitting ourselves against nature infinitum with a naive belief that we can prevail in a moral vacuum where the planet is concerned. My bet is on nature in the long run, if we don’t learn to live more harmoniously with the planet.

For some reason, when the elements are severe my mind wanders to noir at the extreme of crime fiction.  Climate change, like reading noir, summons an inescapable bleakness. Both contain themes where collective denial operates within a prism of political dysfunction and citizen hopelessness. Perhaps it is the existential angst, imbued in the idea that humanity could wipe itself out by failing to take action on climate change, that is nudged whenever the weather gets irritable that makes me draw parallels to noir.

MoMA, New York City

The world of noir is dark, chaotic and alienating, and full of the type of moral ambiguity and hypocrisy that points at human existence and calls it absurd and meaningless. In noir everyone one is imperfect and what is right and wrong are unclear. Noir is complex and messy and has a way of teasing out our interdependence as human beings in the global web of power and influence in which we live. It is much more like real life than cosy crime where the hero prevails unscathed, as if wearing teflon. Noir is saturated with the voices of angry protest against entrenched privilege and systems in which the average citizen feels powerless against inequality and corruption, yet it is often delivered with dark humour.

Wreck

There’s icy Nordic noir like Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg and Fargo by the Coen brothers if you want to cool down, or stories like the shorts in Sunshine Noir by Annamaria Alfieri and Michael Stanley to warm up with.

Historically, noir has been dominated by white men but I have noticed that modern noir is increasing in diversity as more women like Clare Blanchard, Nikki Dolson, Saira Viola and Jo Perry (published by Fahrenheit Press) pick up the crime pen.

South Australian Museum, Adelaide

I’m currently reading Mistress Murder by Mark Ramsden also published by Fahrenheit Press (I only recently discovered this small crime publisher with attitude and am looking forward to making my way through their collection). Mistress Murder is the story of Susie Goldy, a transgressive, hedonistic, drug addicted dominatrix trying to get on with her life of mayhem whilst being pursued by an unknown malevolent stalker who has taken umbrage with her and her lifestyle. I’m finding the voice of Ramsden hilarious and the black and satirical take on a subculture most of us would never encounter has me fascinated and cringing in equal measure. Just right for a sweltering afternoon.

What are your favourite noir reads?

Main image: Rusted Out, Yandoit, Victoria

The fruits of our labour

Pomegranate flower

Around this time last year I remember sitting on the chaise lounge whilst I wrote.  There was a cacophony out the window and I saw a flock of Rainbow Lorikeets exit the apple tree. Upon investigation it became apparent that they had decimated the entire crop.  I was determined not to lose our fruit to birds this year, so the day before last weeks writing retreat we put a bird net up over the front yard which I fondly refer to as the Warrandyte Food Store.

Quince

 When I returned from Anglesea I was delighted to find that the rain in Melbourne had boosted the growth of the laden fruit trees. The garden had been exhibiting serious signs of stress from the lack of rainfall this year but recent downpours have enabled the earth to sigh with relief for a moment.

Sage flower

Us gardeners notice changes in weather patterns and spend a lot of time mulling over the impact on our environment. As I write this, thousands of school kids are standing up for their future and demanding action on climate change from our pre-historic politicians who insist on turning a blind eye to the crisis. They seem to find it easier to deny a problem exists than take on such a wicked intractable issue. Unlike our Prime Minister, who appears to be afraid of children, I’m delighted that kids are becoming activists and believe the school yard is exactly where activism belongs. Not being old enough to vote doesn’t mean you’re not old enough to think, and dumbing kids down is not in our future interests.

Raspberries

I have not written anything this week due to feeling a bit of RSI develop from too much typing. Instead I turned my attention to my other passion and started work on the myriad of maintenance tasks and unfinished projects in the garden. By next week I hope to have completed a small area of paving that I have been putting of doing for longer than I care to admit, and to have made some progress on a new gabion rock wall around the vegetable patch. Of course not putting fingers to keyboard does not mean I’m not working on my novel. Some time away serves as an opportunity for ideas and problems to ferment. I need to zhuzh up my opening chapter and have been pondering how to approach it and think I have an idea now.

This afternoon I will make this spring salad and take it to friends for dinner tonight. It’s one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s mouthwatering offerings.

Peach

Spring Salad (serves 4-6)

Ingredients

  • 300g asparagus, trimmed and sliced on a sharp angle into 3-4 thin spears
  • 200g french beans, topped
  • 300g broad beans (fresh or frozen)
  • 50g baby spinach leaves
  • 1 shallot, peeled and very thinly sliced
  • 1 red chilli, finely diced
  • ½ tsp sesame oil
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1 tsp nigella seeds
  • Salt

Method

Bring a large pot of water to boil and blanch the asparagus for about two minutes (until just cooked). Transfer to a bowl of iced water to refresh. Do the same with the beans for about five minutes and refresh in iced water. Repeat the process with the broadens for two minutes. When cooled gently discard the broadband skins.Lay all the ingredients on clean tea towels to dry.

Cherries

Place all the greens in a large bowl and add the remaining ingredients and half a teaspoon of salt and combine.

Make it to enjoy with good friends and stimulating conversation…

Main image: Warrandyte Food Store

Misty morning, Coogoorah wetlands, Anglesea

The dreaded synopsis

Apologies if this blog seems a bit rushed. I almost forgot to write it this week due to being ensconced in the bubble of a writing retreat at Anglesea for the week with another writer friend and two hounds. We’ve had the usual all seasons that the southern coast is famous for. On Sunday it was thirty degrees, today it’s fifteen and raining and the wood fire is burning. As I write I can hear the sounds of tapping keyboards, the crackle of the fire and the sweet sound of dogs snoring in satisfaction after their morning run on the beach.

Writers dog

At almost 65,000 words into the current draft of my work in progress (WIP) I have spent much of this week knee deep in writing a dreaded synopsis. Most writers hate this exercise – and I am no exception, but do think it’s a good activity that can improve your story. I have done it several times throughout writing my WIP and will continue to revisit it as work progresses.

I find crafting log lines, a premise and synopsis of varying lengths are a terrific mechanism to focus my writing and test the dramatic arc of the story. What is written might change a little each time I do these exercises, or the process itself may cause my story to shift and change when I notice issues or logical gaps emerge.

Do you work on your synopsis as you progress your WIP?

Following is an outline of the process I use. I start by summarizing the turning points of my WIP. These are the main beats where the story turns in a new direction as a result of some dilemma faced by the protagonist. It helps to focus on the key elements of the plot and/or character arc that I will build into the synopsis. I write the summaries in the following format:

At the start of each Turning Point, the character has xxxx problem, are feeling yyyy and they are trying to achieve zzzz goal, however when aaaa complication happens, they feel bbbb and now want ccccc. (cccc is the payoff for what has happened and it raises the desire for the next turning point).

Looking for the plot

This is a useful formula for summarising turning points, chapters and scenes as well. Here’s an example:

When Jane meets the local eccentric she is afraid (feeling) and tries to get away from him (problem) and find out whether he is dangerous (desire). However when he keeps turning up at her house (complication) and she befriends him (motivation shift) and then finds him dead on the beach, she realizes he has been murdered and wants to find out what happened (new desire – to solve the murder mystery).

The second task is to write a log line. A log line is a tight, approximately twenty-five-word summary framed as a ‘what if?’ that captures the protagonist’s predicament and conflict and aims to hook the reader. I might write many of these, then select the one I think fits best. The most recent version of the log line for my WIP is:

What if a private investigator uncovered a political scandal linked to a closed murder investigation, became infatuated with a witness, then suspected her lover could be the killer?

Going deep

Next I write a short premise (also around twenty-five words) that helps clarify the dramatic logic of the story. The premises is the promise of the story which, if borne out is proven by the narrative. Then I can say the story achieved what it set out to do. An example is: By abandoning her personal and professional rules a woman learns the importance of living according to her authentic self.

My next step is to write four varying length synopsis – in one sentence, one paragraph, one page and then an expanded 3-5-page version. The one liner identifies the central character, the story problem, the overall theme and the central driving force for the main character. I might brainstorm a number of these and select the one I most like. For example:

After a private investigator is convinced to revisit a closed murder investigation she finds herself having to break the law to save herself and ensure justice is served.

Losing the plot

When you expand the synopsis to a paragraph it brings in other central characters and explains what binds the central characters together, what drives the protagonist forward, and also reveals the climax and the lessons learned in the story.

 The long synopsis (3-5 pages) draws out the central story line and characters and includes all the detail that may be obvious to you, but not someone unfamiliar with your novel. It reveals the narrative arc and is an explanation of the problem/plot and characters, their actions and motivations. The long synopsis summarizes what happens, how the characters feel about it and how they change through the story. It reveals pace, motivations…and the ending. It is written in third person active voice and has elements that show your unique point of view.

Recovering from the plot

After I have written a draft I let it rest for a day or so then edit it. The edit involves going through to check that I haven’t included too many characters or events or plot details. I aim to have just enough to intrigue the reader and show my writing voice. Every word has to count so I try to strip out unnecessary detail, descriptions and explanations.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? It’s not and it can be a painful process, but well worth the effort. When I’ve finished I take the dog for another walk to clear my head.

How do you develop your synopsis?

Main image: Anglesea River, Coogoorah wetlands

Setting in fiction

I have contemplated how setting interacts with plot and character development this week. The community where I live is in a high fire risk area, a fact that spurs a flurry of activity at this time of year for some residents. I am fascinated by weather and climate and the effect they can have one one’s psyche.

We have forums on bushfire preparation and some residents spend many hours getting their properties ready for the summer months. I imagine the attitude of those who prefer to bury their heads in the sand is not dissimilar to climate change denial. Apathy results in inaction or the problem appears too big for their brains and emotions to bare, so they deny the risk and turn away. Like a game of Russian roulette they take the chance that they will only ever face an empty cartridge – whether it’s their home or the planet – despite what the science says.

Smoking stumps

I nearly didn’t go to the community forum last night. Bushfire insurance isn’t exactly an inspired topic to spend two hours listening to, but a friend nudged me, so I dutifully went along.  And I am glad I did. It was a fascinating character study and the town revealed some interesting stories.

One woman explained the difficulties she’d had navigating an insurance claim. Some months ago her house exploded after a single lightning strike! It was a sad story but an extraordinary image. Another tale involved one resident in a neighbouring community who had taken out insurance over the phone in 2009 as they watched the flames racing toward their house on Black Saturday. They were then successful in getting the claim paid. That instance prompted insurance agencies to introduce wait periods before new insurance would activate, and people caught in the fires at Lorne in 2015 who tried the same strategy did not have the same luck.

When I read Jane Harper’s book The Lost Man I was struck by how effectively she used setting to drive plot and character development. The oppressive isolation and heat of outback Queensland enabled a sense of lawlessness to loiter throughout the novel, and locating the events in the lead up to Christmas, when family relations are often under the microscope anyway, facilitated how the story unfolded.

Setting has both a physical and chronological aspect in any tale. It contributes to mood and tone and can enhance the plot. It produces the sounds, smells, sights, touch and taste for a story. A character has feelings about a place and it creates possibilities that they must respond to. The time element can influence what options are available to a character and the choices they make.

Smoke swing

C.S. Lewis used setting as its own character in the Chronicles of Narnia. Two different worlds existed on either side of the wardrobe where time, seasons and the way people and animals behaved were different purely because of the setting. Harry Potter would not exist as he did without the wizarding world filled with magic. The settings in these novels came to life through the characters interaction with them and the emotions elicited.

What’s all this got to do with a bushfire insurance forum you may well ask? Well, I found myself sitting there among my neighbours and friends and it was a stark reminder of how setting and time interact with characters.

Before 2009 there had not been a significant fire threat near my town in over forty years. When I attended forums like this back then, there would only be a handful of people. Fire was not something most were concerned about. Residents were comfortable, complacent and protective of their stunning and peaceful setting.

After the 2009 fires thousands of people turned up at forums demanding to know who would save them if a fire came. They had suddenly realised their beautiful setting was a sleeping tiger. When it became clear fire trucks would not roll up to their doors, some went home and learnt about fire preparation and behavior. Others demanded the felling of trees and the slashing of fragile grasslands. What had yesterday been peaceful and beautiful was now hostile. As characters in our own stories, our emotional reactions were varied and intense in response to our setting.

The whole town, and those who pass through it have been disrupted every day this year whilst VicRoads widen a bridge over the river to create an extra lane and install a set of traffic lights intended to improve traffic flow and cut evacuation times if there is a bushfire. The project has been controversial because the community guards its small-town charm like a boxer at the annual heavyweight championships, and modernization is anathema to that.

Time heals many wounds and almost ten years since the 2009 fires the relationship of the characters in my town to their setting has evolved once again. We are about 8,000 residents in total and attendance at bushfire forums has dwindled again, with only about 150 attendees this week.

The bridge saga illuminates the role of collective memory and how people respond to their environment over time. The construction came about because of community outcry about emergency evacuation risks after the 2009 bushfires, but the project has been plagued by complaints about the inconvenience caused by the works and the twice daily traffic jams from one end of town to the other.

The logjam gets so bad that for the last year I have organised my days around not leaving home between certain hours unless it’s on foot or a bicycle. Judging from the community Facebook page which is full of comments, cartoons and criticisms about the project a lot of people have forgotten why it was initiated in the first place. Construction workers are subject to so much abuse by frustrated drivers, they dread coming to work here. Let’s hope that bridge delivers its promise if we ever need it.

What do you notice about how people interact with their settings over time in life? How do the characters in your current project feel about their setting? How does setting interact with the plot and character development?

Main image: A bridge too far

Review: The Lost Man by Jane Harper

One of three brothers is found dead from exposure under the scorching sun of outback Queensland. There’s a hole dug by hand in the red earth next to his body which is found by the isolated grave of a dead stockman whose own demise many years before is the subject of myths and legends.  The circumstances of his death are odd. The dead guy is an experienced stockman and knew how easy was to perish in the open. His fully stocked vehicle is found in perfect working order ten kilometers away with the keys resting on the driver seat . The question is whether he committed suicide or was killed.The Lost Man Jane Harper

The remaining family gather at the station house of the dead man in the lead up to his funeral and Christmas.  Their shared history and personal secrets come nipping at their heels like a hungry dingo.

A sense of lawlessness lingers through the story and the intensity is amplified by the relentless isolation and heat of the outback that sizzles throughout the setting of the novel. It makes a perfect backdrop for exploring the psychology of intergenerational trauma and violence that The Lost Man puts under the microscope. Harper shows what can happen when access to services, friends and neighbours are limited and problems are dealt with in private.

The book is a disturbing page turner and Harper has once again bought ordinary characters to life by exposing the complex layers of their personalities. Family members face the ugliness of their own shortcomings and expose the underlying noxious histories between them that led to one of their own lying dead alone next to a deserted grave.

Main image: Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Inset image: The Lost Man cover (from the web)

The nostalgia of mysteries: horses and politics

This week I’ve been thinking about the mystery novels I read and loved years ago.  I hoovered up Dick Francis books as a teenager because I was obsessed with horses. I suspect that was also when my fascination for mysteries was born. As a consequence Francis holds a nostalgic place in my reading memory despite eventually coming to believe that horse racing should be banned. His novels were fast-paced easy reads full of muddy race tracks, crooked bookies, cheating jockeys and brutal owners.IMG_1172

Francis had himself been a jockey and horse trainer and all his novels revolved around the English race tracks. He wrote most, if not all, in collaboration with his wife, a former school teacher and expert researcher. Some people viewed him as the horse worlds Agatha Christie, but Francis was way more brutal than Agatha ever was in the way he physically and mentally tortured his protagonists.

One of my first jobs out of high school in the mid-eighties was as a track rider for a race horse trainer. The job reminded me of Francis’s tough masculine characters every day I went to work. I have one vivid memory of giving a young jockey a lift home and staring in horror when he leaned out of the car window, whip in hand, and cut a female cyclist across buttocks as we passed. When I threatened to turf him out of the car he just laughed. It could have been a scene from one of Francis’s novels.

When Dick Francis said he always tried to think of a dirty deed, and build a plot around it he captured the heart of the mystery.  They open with some kind of disruption to the social order that creates a puzzle our hero must solve. Along the way they uncover secrets, are diverted by red herrings, meet unexpected surprises and have their physical and psychological limits tested. They always prevail and set the world to rights again IMG_1135 (1)enabling the reader to experience the tension vicariously and discover the hero within.

By the late nineties I had started to move on from horse riding as a profession and got what my parents called ‘a real job’ in a more politically leaning pursuit.

One of Dick Francis’s last novels, 10lb Penalty (1997), blended racing and politics and was the last of his books I read. Some time after that I discovered Shane Maloney who introduced me to the use of mysteries as a form of literary protest. Who wouldn’t be excited to find politicised crime fiction novels set in their own town?

Maloney set his novels in 1990’s Melbourne and bought our political and social fabric to life on the page. His public servant protagonist Murray Whelan shone a light on the absurdity of the political landscape that emerged in the Jeff Kennett era. He satirised Australian politics well before The Hollowmen and Utopia came to our screens. Though the latter have demonstrated that the world of politics continues to be ludicrous in a very frightening way.

Maloney’s books edge into the world of the subgenre ‘apparatchik lit’, some say he invented it.  The term lends itself from the word used for bureaucrats in the Russian Communist Party and explores the intimate workings of politics, the machinery of government and lobby groups and how they impact the social fabric of the society they are set in. I love the way Maloney used suspicion, humour and play as a cover for more sinister events in his novels.

While some of the stories that emerge in this type of fiction (or tv series) appear beyond absurd, you’d be surprised how close to real life they can be. A friend who works in a government department once told me that the day after one episode of Utopia their Minister called the office demanding to know who had leaked information about an IMG_1162-1issue that had appeared on the program…

It’s fair to say that the arrogance of our politicians, their moral hypocrisy and power games continue to be ripe for the picking. You only have to turn to our own national political landscape for endless examples at the moment.

The novel I am currently working on is placed in Melbourne but draws on material from recent (mostly) national politics in an attempt to shine a light on some contemporary political absurdities.

If you have any suggestions for more Shane Maloney type novels, particularly if set in Australia – let me know.

 

Main image: Horses at Warnambool

Inset images in order: Horses at Warnambool; Parliament Drive, Canberra; Parliament House, Canberra.

Writing about ‘the other’

How we come to identify and know characters for novels varies greatly. Some writers lend from their own personalities and experiences; friends and acquaintances can inspire IMG_4523them; or random strangers we meet (or have never met) might be bought to life between our pages. In fantasy characters are sometimes concocted from mixed up blends of real creatures or from visions from in sleeping life.

In the mystery novel I am writing, one of the characters was inspired by a real colleague at my workplace. I did actually ask him if he minded me lending parts of him for this purpose and gave him the first few chapters to read. Luckily he was happy enough to even agree to let me use his real first name for the character.
Another of the characters in my novel has a job that is somewhat outside of the realms of my own experience, and not the kind of job that is easy to get an intimate insight into from Google. I could have written the profession as I imagine it might be, but was concerned that I would end up with a character who was a little two dimensional, or worse miss the essence of the characters work life all together.

Lamen Bay - Lamen Island, EpiIt mattered to me that I try to present this profession in a light that someone working in it would want it to be. So, I tracked down a workplace that employs people in the profession and sent an email to ask if any of the staff would be prepared to chat to me about the industry and what they do. I was lucky to get some interest and caught up with a woman who was happy to share her experiences and insights with me. It also gave me a chance to ask about what stereotypes they thought I should avoid and what they would like to see reflected in a character working in the profession. I undertook that I would send my manuscript for them to critique when I am done.

These experiences have made me ponder the debate about ‘write what you know’ which had been running hot in recent times. What does it mean exactly? And where are the limits? After all, if we took the advice literally surely there would be no fantasy novels with dragons right? The advice risks paralysing us into white-washing our words and delivering an oversupply of boring books about people just like us doing everyday things like we do. In my case it would involve a lot of dog walking and gardening.

When we interrogate what is actually meant by ‘write what you know’ perhaps it is more about emotions, desires and feelings and our ability to be sensitive to, and empathise IMG_4283with, the plight of ‘the other’ than it is about events and things. I would add that it obliges us to learn about our subjects and make every attempt to represent ‘the other’ authentically and where possible give the people you are representing an opportunity to critique your version of them before your manuscript sees the light of the publishing world.

We are after all writing fiction, which is about exploring the world in all its technicolor, not simply editorialising our own lives.

 

Main image: Hairdresser at WOMAD

Inset images in order: Resting woman, New York City; Paddling woman, Vanuatu; Pride March, New York City

Is writing fiction a political act?

“…our stories influence what we see and what we believe is possible or impossible in the world.” – Ethan Miller

My post last week was a response to events in Australian politics that I found exasperating. The political circus continued to get my goat so much I wrote a letter to The Age. unspecifiedMy week of political writing got me thinking about the role of fiction in relation to politics.

When we consider politics and writing we generally think of journalists. If a journalist fabricates content it is a betrayal of public trust, but making stuff up is the very purpose of creative fiction so does it have a role in politics? Is there such a thing as fiction that is not political? Is writing fiction a political act?

Many say they are not political (or not interested in politics), but the sociopolitical environment in which we reside shapes our entire lives. Politics determines the haves and have-nots.  It tells us who’s experience is legitimate. For example governments determine whether IMG_4092medical facilities exist to ensure we survive childbirth, dictates if we get the opportunity to learn to write at all, the price of milk, who we can and cannot love, and the type of death we can have. Our very existence is enmeshed in, and shaped by the political environment(s) we live in and are exposed to.

Work of the creative imagination, be it fiction, poetry, art or drama, is shaped by our own experience and our views of the world – in other words our own sociopolitical lens. The world shapes us, and then as writers we try to shape the world. We question or bend reality, invent new worlds and invite readers to consider a new perspective. To understand the other. We pick out themes and create personalities that we sew together into a plot to show, magnify or transform how a particular set of circumstances can impact on the world now, or in the future.

What reader would not be able to name a book that had a significant influence on their lives? Writers, story tellers and poets have been holding a mirror up to reality for centuries. They often say what would otherwise be considered unsay-able in public.

The threat writers pose is evident when we study the history of censured, banned or IMG_4359burned books. Examples of fiction works that have been subject to some kind of censorship or ban at one time or another include Dr Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Catch-22, The Da Vinci Code, Doctor Zhivago, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Satanic Verses, Sophie’s Choice, The Well of Loneliness and Ulysses. The more restrictive a political regime, the more likely it is to see text as a threat. Over 25,000 books were burnt in Munich four months into Hitler’s regime for being ‘unGerman’.

A lesser known but poignant example of how literature can threaten and intersect with politics was a book called New Portuguese Letters (Novas Cartas Portuguesas) by Muria Isabel Barreno, Muria Teresa Horta and Maria Vento da Costa. The book, published in 1972, was a post-modern collage of fiction, personal letters, poetry, and erotica inspired by the original letters of a Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado to her lover, the Chevalier de Chailly, at the time of Portugal’s struggle for independence against Spain. When New Portuguese Letters was written the Portuguese had been living under a dictatorship for almost fifty years and the book exposed the tyrannical relations that existed between the sexes.

The authorities banned New Portuguese Letters soon after its release – though not before a copy was smuggled to French feminists in Paris who arranged for its translation. The three Marias were arrested and allegedly tortured by the regimes secret police. They were charged with ‘abuse of the freedom of the press’ and ‘outrage to public decency’ by a censorship committee. The three women were criticized because they wrote like men. They were sexually explicit, frank about their desires, fantasies, sexuality and bodies.  They critiqued patriarchal structures, family violence and political repression.

The trial dragged on for two years, made worldwide headlines and gave rise to protests IMG_1892outside Portuguese embassies in Europe, the United States and Brazil. On 25 April 1974 a bloodless coup overthrew the regime. It was called the Carnation Revolution because red carnations were put in the ends of soldiers’ gun barrels. Soon after the coup the case against the three Marias was dismissed, the women freed and the book became a literary symbol of women’s liberation, erotic art, and the Portuguese revolution.

At its essence politics is about power and the rules we impose on society as a way of maintaining order. Do all authors strive to effect change in the world through their writing? If we don’t, why do we hope to be published and read?

What about genre fiction? Is romance gender politics at work? The genre is often dismissed as unworthy. Is that not itself political? Is to disregard romance a dismissal of women (the main consumers of romance), their views on relationships and their sexuality?

Is mystery fiction social justice at work? It often explores and gives voice to the fringes of society – drugs, prostitution, the dispossessed, or the underdog taking on the powerful elite. The very essence of a mystery is about who holds power, who abuses power and how the imbalance can be redressed. That is political. Mystery authors often use their writing to bring to light the concerns of minority groups and to provide commentary on a societies moral issues – Val McDermid’s lesbian protagonist, Lindsay Gordon; Emma Viskic’s deaf character, Caleb; Barry Maitland’s Aboriginal protagonist in the Belltree trilogy.

Reading a novel uncouples us from our ordinary lives and transports us to a self-created world through our interaction with a work of fiction. We read fiction to get ‘lost in a book’ or to ‘escape from our own existence’. Reading is an opportunity for some kind of small transformation.

DSC02842Writing is a way to contribute to the development of a liberal and democratic society. We implant meaning and messages in our plots that we hope will influence how our readers think, not only entertain them.

We judge and unpack what we read and ascribe a value to books. That is political – just read any book review or go to a book club meeting and listen to the debate about a novel to see how a single story can take on different contours and unique significance for individual readers.

How do you hope to influence your readers?

Main image: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague;

Inset images in order: Letter to The Age; Street Art, San Francisco; Guggenheim museum, New York City; Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane; Threat and Sanctuary, Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Whose freedom is it?

It would be fair to say that reading the news and public commentary this week following leaks about the Religious Freedom Review has made me both sad and angry, so this blog is a bit of a rant.IMG_0159

I have more interest in watching weeds grow than I do in the institution of marriage, but when the equal marriage debate descended into an opportunity to express general bigotry toward LGBTI+ folk, I took notice. I watched with horror as the ‘no’ campaign honed in on young people, the most vulnerable segment of the queer population, and attacked them.

My horror transmogrified into perverse fascination when some segments of the faith community turned themselves into victims, claiming they would be discriminated against if queers were allowed to marry. I say ‘some segments’ intentionally here, as I have had the pleasure of coming to know many (heterosexual) religious people who voted yes and support the evolution of their faiths.

Why any self-respecting queer would want to be married by an establishment that rejects them aside, the territoriality of the institution of marriage by religions is bizarre. The concept of marriage was not invented by god or the churches. Wedding traditions date back to about the third century B.C. in China and at least 30,000 years in Australian DSC00301Aboriginal culture, well before they encountered Christianity.

I suspect a large number of people of faith are damn glad that marriage as a religious institution has evolved. Let’s face it in the Old Testament polygamy was sanctioned, becoming a wife meant becoming the property of your husband, and a woman who was raped could be forced to marry her attacker. Changes isn’t that bad.

I did attend Sunday school, but my interest in religion ended there. Each to their own. It never made sense to me to allow your life to be dictated to by an external deity and a text written around the 4th century. Somehow claiming ‘god says’ felt like abnegating responsibility for your own behavior. I strive to live my life through an ethical lens, which invests in me similar principles to many religions, but my lens is a secular one.

I was mortified when I read the media about the leaks from the Religious Freedoms Review. Religious groups already have exemptions from anti-discrimination laws that allow them to discriminate against queers – including refusing to hire gay teachers or enroll transgender children. The hype read as if the review recommended an increase inIMG_0709 sanctioned bullying and discrimination against LGBTI+ kids. This is deeply disturbing given the vulnerability of same-sex attracted (or questioning) youth who are five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual young people. I feared that ‘religious freedom’ was being used as a smokescreen to justify extending discrimination and bigotry against minorities.

I went to the source this week and read some of the Religious Freedoms Review submissions available on the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet website. It became apparent to me that allowing queers to marry remains a sore spot for those who were vehemently opposed to it. Most of the submissions that demanded additional protection of religious freedoms were actually bemoaning the fact that the ‘yes’ vote won in the postal survey. IMG_0305 (1)They grasp for an opportunity to be exempt from compliance with the new laws.

The Christian ‘problem’ with queers seems to stem primarily from Leviticus 18:22 that states “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” But I can’t help noticing the selective way in which some choose to quote the bible. Leviticus also states we may possess slaves (25:44); people who work on the sabbath should be put to death (35:2); and that we should get the whole town together and stone to death anyone guilty of blasphemy (24:10-16). Why are faith groups not demanding all god’s laws be adhered to with the same vigor they apply to their objection to gays? And where have the ethics of religion gone in this debate? What happened to compassion, humility and treating others as you would like to be treated? Life and religion have to evolve.

It strikes me as an extraordinary example of moral hypocrisy to cry for more religious freedoms on the grounds of fear of discrimination, then demand that those very freedoms enshrine a right to discriminate against another group. Its particularly IMG_4025disturbing that the loudest voices should choose children as the target of their hostility.

Article 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, states that all institutions should act with the best interests of the child as a primary consideration.  Media reports suggest the Religious Freedom Review supports this convention.  Yet rejecting a child for who they are cannot be considered to be in their best interests, nor their classmates.  Such behavior would only teach the un-Christian traits of intolerance and hate.

In the shadow of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse it saddens me greatly that some of those institutions may have learnt very little. Abuse comes in many forms. All children deserve to be included, and treated with respect and dignity, including LGBTI+ kids.

Main Image: Rainbow Flag, San Francisco

Inset images in order: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague; John Frum Movement, Vanuatu; Blue Mosque, Istanbul; church statue, Vienna; Street Art, San Francisco

Back to basics: Food and bathrooms in fiction

If you’ve been following my blog you may have noticed my obsession with food. I grow it, cook it and love to eat good food. I’ve been thinking about the basics this week because I have noticed that I do notice when characters in fiction don’t appear to eat, wash or go to the toilet. Ever. And these very basic of human functions can portray so much in a story.

Eating is such a fundamental part of being human and necessary for survival. How and what we eat, and who we eat with, are an important part of life. Eating can be a ritual to bring people together in kinship (think Babette’s Feast or The Kids are Alright); it can expose the absence of significant others such as in Great Expectations; or used to enhance the disintegration of friendships like when the dinner burns in The Party by Sally Potter.

Who we eat with can define us as part of a social or cultural group, as it did in The IMG_0602Hundred Foot Journey and at Bilbo Baggins birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring. What we eat and where we eat can represent class distinctions. Remember Jay Gatsby’s parties in The Great Gatsby or in Oliver Twist when Oliver tentatively says, “Please sir, I want some more.”

We can portray things about a character’s motivations, attitudes and personality through their relationship to food. We make judgements about people based on their table manners. Who could forget the mammoth Mr Creosote vomiting all over the restaurant from over eating in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, or the role of food as a vehicle to portray character transformation in The Poisonwood Bible?

Food often symbolizes sensuality in fiction. It’s a great instrument for romance, passion and desire such as in Like Water for Chocolate; Chocolat; The Lunch Box; and the masturbation with a peach scene in Call Me By Your Name.

IMG_0547Then there’s food to symbolize things that seem wrong, like the madcap chaos of the tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where all the rules of etiquette are broken but they teach Alice about the world around her. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the White Witch spawns magical evil when she tempts Edmond with Turkish delight and he becomes so intoxicated by it he turns on his siblings.

We can use food to illustrate how a character compensates for emotional, physical or social problems like the painfully thin, gothic, antisocial Lisbeth Slander who compulsively smokes, drinks coffee and eats Billys Pan Pizzas in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Bathroom scenes are less common than those with food, but can also serve as a vehicle for storytelling. The bathroom is contemplative, intimate and exposing. We drop our guard when we drop out pants and we become vulnerable.

Shower scenes can be character defining, meaningful, sensual, funny or frightening. In Carrie, the main character with eyes closed and neck exposed washes herself seductively then discovers with shock (because she hasn’t been told about it) what menstruation means.  Her cries for help to her friends are met with mockery and shouts of “Plug it up!” In Arthur, the main characters wealthy man-child persona is highlighted in a scene when he takes a bubble bath, cocktail in hand and wearing a top hat and asks the butler to keep him company. The butler perches on the edge of the bath and tells him like a parental figure that bathing is a lonely business.  American Beauty opens with Kevin Spacey masturbating in the shower to symbolize the woeful treadmill of his suburban life. And who could forget the iconic shower-murder scene in Psycho – my that scream!

We all read in the toilet (don’t we?) but how much toilet is there in fiction? Alfred IMG_2646Hitchcock was the first who dared to be risqué in 1960 when he shocked audiences by showing a toilet being flushed (Psycho again). Pulp Fiction makes good use of the lavatory for scene setting, usually as a juxtaposition to frame extreme situations like murder.

Humor on the porcelain throne is most common in kids’ books (Pirate Pete’s Potty) and with blokes (like in Dumb and Dumber and Crocodile Dundee) and the use of poop to make a comment about character can be memorable. We knew something wasn’t right with Kevin when we’re told his mother still had to change his nappies when he was six and that he used his shit as a weapon against her in We Must Talk about Kevin. It’s harder to find examples of women on the loo. One of the most well-known is when Nicole Kidman pees in the opening scene of Eyes Wide Shut as a mechanism to demonstrate to the audience the ease and longevity of her relationship with the character played by Tom Cruise.

We all eat, wash (at least some times), shit and piss, so it’s curious there isn’t more of it in fiction – I’m sure Freud would have something to say about that.

What are some of your most memorable scenes in fiction involving eating or bathrooms?

Do you incorporate eating or bathrooms in your writing?

Main image: After the party

Inset images in order: Turkish tea at smoko, Istanbul; Turkish delight, Istanbul;

Outdoor dunny, Australia