Online course review: Pitch Your Novel: How to Attract Agents and Publishers

It the second Australian Writers Centre course I have completed this year. I signed up for Pitch your novel: how to attract agents and publishers as I thought it would be a good companion course to Inside Publishing which I reviewed in August, and I was right.

The online self-paced course was created by historical novel writer Natashia Lester and includes nine modules. As with Inside Publishing purchase of the course gives you twelve months access to it online, and allows you to download the resources. The course presents advice on strategy and practice tips to get yourself pitch ready.

Module one focuses on developing a writing CV which includes building an author platform, an overview of relevant writers societies, creating a pitch package and putting yourself out there to build a writing network.

In the second module Natashia provides advice on how to make your manuscript pitch ready including what professional services are available to provide assistance, and free sources you can tap into for help.

Module three focuses on literary agents – what value they add, why your should consider pitching to agents before publishers, how to identify agents to pitch to, developing a pitch and keeping track of your approaches to agents.

The fourth module focuses on the pitch itself. Natashia provides advice on developing three different types of synopsis and when to use them, including examples from her own work.

Module five covers preparing a pitch package. It explains what research you need to do to develop your pitch package, what to include in the package and in what order.

In modules six and seven you’ll find out about what to do when you get a response from an agent, other than get excited. These modules provide practical advice about how long the process might take and what to do if you receive feedback from an agent.

Module eight moves onto pitching directly to publishers including which publishers are out there, how to find them and decide whether you should pitch to them. Practical advice about submission guidelines, how to organise your material and decide in which order you should approach publishers.

Natashia explores other ways to get published in module nine, including entering competitions, how to find these opportunities, information about some of the main ones in Australia and things to consider when submitting to these programs and prizes.

The final module looks at what to do if you get an offer including some basic advice about contracts and when and how to get help (I recommend Inside Publishing for more detail on actual contracts), as well as dealing with rejection because we all know we’re going to get some of that.

After completing a couple of the Australian Writers Centre online course, I’m a convert. They are professionally constructed, practical and chock a block full of good advice and resources.

Main image: Everything You’ve Got, Epi Island, Vanuatu

On writing style: Patrick White and Peter Carey

I was captured by the style and writing rhythm of two audio books I listened recently, even more so than their stories. Both The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White published in 1979, and My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey published in 2003 explore identity. In each the authors distinctive styles paint rich pictures of their characters and they were beautiful to listen to.

The Twyborn Affair is written in three parts. One set in a villa on the French Riviera pre-world war one, the second on a sheep station near the Snowy Mountains in the inter-war period, and the third in London just before the second world war. The title of the novel, also the core characters name, provides a clue to the novels story – Twyborn meaning twice-born, and Affair eluding to the characters various love affairs. The story charts the transmigration of a soul throughout three different identities – Eudoxia, Eddie and Eadith – a man bookended by two women. It explores transvestism, split personality and the loss of identity through death and re-birth. It places the anxiety and uncertainty of the human condition under a microscope, expunged of the dichotomy of gender.

It was still impossible for the watcher to decide whether the hair, illuminated by sudden slicks of light, was that of a folle Anglaise or pédéraste romantique, but in whatever form, the swimmer was making for the open sea, thrashing from side to side with strong, sure, professional strokes. It must be a man, Monsieur Pelletier decided, and yet there was a certain poetry of movement, a softness of light surrounding the swimmer, that seduced him into concluding it could only be a woman.

White’s writing style is dense, vivid and beautifully poetic to read. He applies a rhythmic lyricism and elaborate imagery drawing on myth, symbolism and allegory to explore ambiguity, identity, isolation and the search for meaning.

Yet whatever form she took, or whatever the illusion temporarily possessing her, the reality of love, which is the core of reality itself, had eluded her and perhaps always would.”

My Life as a Fake is set in 1972. An editor of an English poetry magazine goes on a junket to Kuala Lumpur and comes across a white man in a bicycle repair shop with ulcers on his legs. He is reading Rilke. The editor discovers that at the end of world war two this man was responsible for a great Australian literary hoax.

Remember, this is the country of the duck-billed platypus. When you are cut off from the rest of the world, things are bound to develop in interesting ways.

Carey toys with mythology in this novel inspired by a true story – the Ern Malley Affair. It explores identity, authenticity and the cultural anxieties of colonial societies. The Ern Malley Affair was a literary hoax involving the publication of poems dashed off as a joke to show that meaningless balony could get taken seriously by the avant-garde. The poems were subsequently published to great acclaim in the Autumn 1944 issue of Angry Penguins. The publication resulted in the humiliation and prosecution of Max Harris, the editor and a champion of modernist poetry, for publishing ‘indecent matter’. Carey draws on original source material but swaps out identities and names of the protagonists and adds in some wholly fictional characters.

I went to bed with the disconcerting knowledge that almost everything I had assumed about my life was incorrect, that I had been baptised in blood and raised on secrets and misconstructions which had, obviously, made me who I was.

Carey plays with Malaysian English slang and the work overflows with literary references including Frankenstein, Milton and WH Auden amongst others. There is a truly distinct use of narrative voice in My Life as a Fake from the crisp upper-class intellectual prose of Sarah, to Slater’s British bluff and effrontery, Chubbs defensive punctuated mash up of Australian and Malay, an aggressive Chinese-Malaysian woman with fractured English, and the elaborate deference of Mulaha. In the written text, one characters dialogue blends into another and folds into the narrative without the benefit of quotation marks.

He is right, he said quietly. The hoax misfired. I wished to make a point, but only to a few. Who cares about poetry? Fifty people in Australia? Ten with minds you might respect. Once Weiss had declared my fake was a work of genius, I wished those ten people to know. That was it, Mem. I never wanted the tabloids. Who would expect the Melbourne Argus would ever be interested in poetry. This was not their business, but what a caning-lah, what a public lashing poor old Weiss was given. I could never have foreseen that.

Both White and Carey have distinctive voices, original styles, and make great use of vocabulary and literary techniques, authors worth studying for any writer.

Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

I’m a writer of fiction, I make stuff up and my work is almost all in the mystery/crime genre. It attempts to shine a light on some elements of the darker side of life, but in truth my imagination ain’t got nothing on reality.

Last week I listened to the audiobook of The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. If I was to use two words to describe this novel they would be harrowing and hopeful. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the story of Slovakian Jew Lale Sokolov. Lale was imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942 and became the Tätowierer – the man who tattooed identification numbers on the arms of incoming prisoners. Lale met a young woman called Gita Furman in the camp and the two fell in love. Both survived three years in the concentration camp, partly due to Lale using his privileged position to smuggle additional rations to other prisoners. After the war Lale and Gita moved to Melbourne, where Lale met Morris who was to write his story. When the two discussed the project and Morris confessed she wasn’t Jewish, Lale indicated he thought this was good – he didn’t want anyone else’s baggage to cloud his personal story.

The book received much acclaim and become a best seller, but also received its fare share of criticism. Despite the novel never claiming to be anything other than historical fiction based on Lale’s memories, historians have criticised some details of the work as containing errors, exaggerations and misrepresentations.

Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin. – Barbara Kingslover

Interestingly one of the things most criticised was that Gita’s tattooed number in the book is wrong. Lale was 87 when he and Morris began working together, and Gita had already died. Gita had the tattoo removed when she was in her sixties, so presumably if incorrect, the number was incorrectly remembered by Lale.

The controversy around the work raises some interesting reflections about memory and truth. The story is Lale’s, his memory, recollections of his life as reflected on his twighlight years, some seventy years after the events. Perhaps his mis-remembering the number simply reflected his reclamation of his and Gita’s identities as being much more than a tattooed number. Morris committed to tell his story as he tod it, it’s why he trusted her and chose her for the task. She honoured that trust by telling his story as he relayed it, using fiction to fill in the gaps. If Morris had disregarded some of Lale’s most pressing memories in favour of hard historical facts, the novel may have been a more accurate historical account, but would it have been dishonouring Lale’s memories and his story? Lale has passed away, so we cannot ask him how he might have felt about this.

The debate about the value of the work as a resource to understand the history of Auschwitz is interesting and perhaps the incredibly sensitive nature of the Holocaust lends itself to significant scrutiny. I have read some of the criticism including one stating ‘that the novel is “an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document”. It is a sentiment that I must disagree with. Having read the novel, and the criticism, I do not believe the details raised would have significantly changed my experience of the story. I listened to much of it whilst pottering around in the garden and it bought me both to tears and laughter at times. It also significantly increased my very limited knowledge of that period in history – the fictional I Am David by Anne Holm, Viktor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s List being the only other books I’ve read on the subject. It’s knowledge I probably would not have otherwise gained as I would not have been motivated to read an academic paper about it.

The novel may be a blend of an ageing man’s memories, fiction and facts, but it has never claimed to be more than that and should not be devalued on that basis. I found the The Tattooist of Auschwitz to be a moving and well written story and encourage you to read it if you have not already.

Book review: The Nancys

Tippy Chan’s mum goes on holidays and her Uncle Pike and his boyfriend come to Riverstone, the small town in New Zealand where she lives, to look after her. When Tippy’s friend has an accident and her school teacher is murdered, the three bond over a common love of Nancy Drew and set out to investigate. Uncle Pike’s boyfriend Devon is a clothes designer and runs out a series of prototype matching Nancys T-shirt’s for them to try. The novel has subplots on grief and fashion and is brimming with quirky characters.The Nancys is a light, fun, queer romp told through the eyes of an eleven year old.

Uncle Pike’s plane was late and, and my hair was a sweaty mess thanks to the crimson anti-kidnapping jacket and hateful Santa hat mum had made me wear.

The Nancys is RWR McDonald’s debut novel and it was highly commended for an Unpublished Manuscript in the 2017 Victorian Premier Literary Awards. It’s unusual to find adult fiction told from an adolescent point of view and McDonald does an excellent job creating the voice of Tippy who narrates the story in first person point of view.

To create a convincing young voice, writers need to describe life from a developmentally appropriate context and keep their adult knowledge and experience from intruding. The mind of a teenager moves quickly from one idea to another and leaves little room for reflection. Adolescents can make perceptive observations untainted by extended life knowledge and they experience the world with literal immediacy. Tippy’s adolescent understanding of adult concepts and informal diction makes the narrative jump around in the way young people do and ads to the authenticity of the character. Random observations and snippets of thought to give the narrative a slightly jolty feel and insight into the randomness of Tippy’s inner life. There’s also a good dose of youthful humour and fun subplots.

The next morning Uncle Pike gave me a choice, I didn’t have to go to school if I didn’t want to. It was a no-brainer. Finally I was living the Nancy Drew life-with a mystery to solve and no annoying classes to get in my way. After breakfast Devon made us go to the driveway for a runway show. He modelled a new tight Nancys T-shirt. ‘Tada!’

The novel doesn’t roll at your traditionally fast crime fiction pace – it starts quite slowly and picks up pace as the story unfolds driving you to race through the final chapters. It’s small town expose, family saga and detective story wrapped up in a blend of teen and gay laugh out loud, slightly bawdy humour and is filled with the genuine warmth the characters have for one another.

The author was also interviewed on The First Time Podcast last week if you are interested to hear him talk about his book.

Podcast review: Snowball

I’m not sure what the equivalent term is for a page turner when it’s a podcast. Ear grabber, binge listen or hearing hair-raiser perhaps. The latest offering from Unravel is called Snowball and it’s one of the best and most bizarre true crime offerings I’ve ever listened to…and nobody died for it.

Naive New Zealand man Greg Wards fell in love and married charismatic American con artist, Lezlie Manukian from California after meeting her on a backpacking trip to the UK. Lezlie moved to New Zealand with him and ripped off his whole family. Right before Lezlie got on a plane to go back to the US to visit her family she had a parting message for Greg.

“The snowball is about to hit you.”

Soon after his family discover that Lezlie had defrauded over a million dollars from them. Greg’s brother Ollie Wards, a journalist, decided to investigate Lezlie in an attempt to understand what happened and help his family put the experience behind them. Ollie’s podcast paints a picture of a genuine, warm, compassionate and close knit kiwi family and the trail of destruction left across the globe by Lezlie.

It was a fascinating study into the art of the con artist, one of the worlds oldest professions. Grifters, scammers, hustlers, swindlers, fleecers. They make a living out of violating trust. It’s all about brains, not brawn. They play to emotions and hone in on vulnerability.

Greg was a perfect target. A naive New Zealander on a big exciting adventure. A Yankophile in the United Kingdom who heard the confident American at a crowded party and was immediately enchanted. She would have charmed him, a master actor and a good listener who excelled at fabricating common ground to break down her targets defences. She didn’t grow a pinocchio nose when she lied, and what man would expect a beautiful charismatic woman fascinated by their greatest desires to rip the rug right out from under them? As one of her victims said, he’d come home to a beer and a blow job…emotion trumps reason.

I felt a great deal of warmth toward the Wards and was gobsmacked by what happened to them. I was also flabbergasted by the chutzpah of Manukian. You have to wonder why people like her don’t just go into acting – I’d have thought it would be much more rewarding in the long run. An extraordinary tale that had me gasping ‘no way’ at every turn.

Book Review: Godsgrave by Jay Christoff

If Vengeance has a mother, her name is Patience.

I picked up Kristoff’s epic fantasy novel after hearing him interviewed on The Garrett podcast. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but he seemed like an interesting guy. Godsgrave is the second in a chronicle and it’s fare to say after reading it I wish I’d started with book one.

Our scars are just gifts from our enemies…reminding us they weren’t good enough to kill us.

Mia Corvere wants revenge for the murder of her familia, and she’s ruthless. She orchestrates herself to be sold off as a slave to a gladiatorial collegium. But it’s a tough and bloody road to revenge in Nevernight. Mia encounters allies, rivals and lovers all the way egged on by her mysterious magical shadows. Kristoff puts Mia under more and more pressure as the story unfolds and forces her to choose between pursuing revenge or friendships.

The old man hooked his thumbs into his waistcoat. ‘Problem with being a librarian is there’s some lessons you just can’t learn from books. And the problem with being an assassin is there’s some mysteries you just can’t solve by stabbing the fuck out of them.

The book is a long, dark, blood soaked, sexy, action packed page turner with plenty of twists to keep you on your toes. The world building is grand, the action spectacular, the narrator playful and amusing (if you read the footnotes), and the writing style poetically gruesome. And it ends on a cliffhanger.

Because the voices in your head that say otherwise are just fear talking. Never listen to fear.

To genre or not to genre

What happened when you saw the main image on this post? Did you automatically think palm trees and cows?

Humans love to organise, categorise and classify. Slapping a label on things helps us make sense of the world, and prevents us from becoming overwhelmed by it. The publishing industry is no different. There is a preference to categorise authors – mystery, romance, literary, science fiction, speculative fiction. Apparently they like authors to ‘stick to their genre.’ Failing to do so might confuse readers, not to mention the marketing team.

I can’t blame you for trying to categorize me. It’s a human instinct. It’s why scientists are, to this day, completely flabbergasted by the duck-billed platypus: it’s furry like a mammal, but lays eggs like a bird. It defies conventional classification.

Jeff Garvin, Symptoms of Being Human
Categories can be hot air,
Instrument Museum, Prague

It’s an interesting perspective given one of the other key pieces of advice for writers is to read widely across genres. Reading improves vocabulary, teaches us how to build narrative structure and tension, create interesting characters, and construct dialogue. Reading broadly also provides inspiration. If our creativity is enhanced from reading across genres, the result presumably includes some leakage from what we absorb to what we produce. Novel ideas emerge and the genre lines start to blur.

I just finished reading Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. It’s an absorbing read as well as a great title. A saga about postwar Britain told from the perspective of a single family over four generations. I was captivated by Atkinson’s use of language. Her writing is elegant, poetic and humorous. The story is an expertly plotted, time skipping narrative with rich three dimensional characters. It is rare that a novel will bring me to tears, but some of main character Teddy Todd’s reflections on life did just that.

A God in Ruins is a historical fiction novel written by an author previously best know known by her mystery writing about protagonist detective Jackson Brodie, and her earliest works were family sagas. Atkinson has definitely not stuck to her knitting. She is an author who is unbound by genre conventions, rules and categories. She even makes reference to the genre box in A God in Ruins when Viola, Teddy’s writer daughter is on her way to a literary festival in Singapore.

…she was also down for a couple of panel events as well. The role of the writer in the contemporary world, popular versus literary, a false divide. Something like that.

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins
Image: Jacqui Stockdale, Mann of Quinn from the series The Boho – 2015, Adelaide Biennial of Art, 2016. Art Gallery of South Australia.

Atkinson is not alone in the endeavour of writing in different genres. She keeps the company of well known names such as Stephen King (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and suspense); Margaret Atwood (children’s books, literary novels, speculative and historical fiction); and JK Rowling (children’s and adult mystery)

I love that Atkinson has written what takes her creative interest, rather than what might be expected, regardless of genre, and she done it always using her own name.

Would you be brave enough to defy a genre category?

Palm Trees and Cows, Epi Island, Vanuatu

Online course review: Inside Publishing by the Australian Writers Centre

I recently completed, the Australian Writers Centre’s online course Inside Publishing – What You Need to Know to Get Published, which delivers a comprehensive overview of the global publishing landscape. This is a must do course for anyone thinking about publishing a book and not already familiar with how the publishing industry works. The course is self paced and contains five modules, each consisting of videos, handouts and links to relevant resources, all of which you can download for future reference. AWC does a great job of breaking down complex legal and technical concepts and explaining them in accessible language. It offers a terrific overview of how the publishing world its together, as well as providing handy tips for writers about to launch themselves into it.

The first module is about copyright – boring right? Surprisingly I found it fascinating. It explains in plain language how copyright works and the curious way it is carved up across geography, languages, film, television and books. It delves into what you own, what is yours to sell and the role of agents in getting you the best deal. Learn about the structure of the global publishing industry, the professional roles of various people who work in publishing houses, and how they make decisions. There are also tips on what to look for and what to avoid in the industry.

Module two focusses on the broad array of book formats – hardcopy sizes, audio, ebooks, why different book formats are produced and what it means for the author. This module then goes onto to explain how different formats relate to book marketing, buying, distribution, audiences, how sales are measured and how this guides publishing decisions about printing, as well as what happens to books that aren’t sold. The module also touches on the differences between the traditional publishing route and indie publishing and things to think about when considering which way to go.

The third module goes in deep on author editor relationships from the time they pitch to the final proofread. It explains all the different types of edits, the difference between editing and proofreading and the value of a good edit. Of course first you have to submit a manuscript and this module covers the pros and cons of submitting to agents versus direct to publishers and what you need to think about with both of these approaches. The resources include sample pitches and submissions, dealing with rejection, how to use rejections to improve your work and what happens after your receive an offer from a publisher.

Module four gets down to the nitty gritty of offers and what you need to think about, including how advances work, marketing, royalties, public lending rights (libraries), and educational lending rights, and an introduction to some of the things to look for in contracts.

Contracts is the focus of module five, which sensibly comes with a disclaimer that it’s not a substitute for legal advice. Make sure you’ve had your morning coffee as this is the serious end of the business and requires some concentration. This lesson talks about negotiating contract terms and goes into quite a bit of detail about the various clauses in standard publishing contracts. It ends with a little reminder that publishing is a business, so you have to approach your author journey professionally and do your best to educate yourself about how the industry and the publishing process work.

I got a lot out of this course and one of the best things about it is that when you enrol, you get access to the online materials for twelve months. I’m confident I’ll go through it a couple more times before that time is up and will learn a bit more with each viewing.

Image: The Met, New York City

Book Review: The Storytellers Muse by Traci Harding

Peter stifled his ambitions to become a writer and studied nursing in order to meet his parents expectations. Penelope Whitman was a famous author, but now she’s a crabby old woman nearing the end of her life in the nursing home where Peter works. Her eyes are fading and her arthritic hands can’t hold a pen, so she passes the time absorbed in her imagination. There’s one problem, a story in her head that persists in wanting to be told to the world. When Peter discovers who Penelope is, he sets out to befriend her and eventually becomes her protege when she asks him to transcribe her story.

As the telling and transcribing progress it becomes apparent there are other forces lurking. Em Jewel for one. Em is a creative, temperamental and supernatural force with the capacity to both inspire and destroy.

Part way through the telling of Penelope’s story, tragedy strikes and Peter has to find a way to finish the tale without her. What unfolds is a bit Agatha Christie for psychics – part supernatural mystery, part love story, part adventure and part historical intrigue spanning several generations. It’s a story within a story within a story.

The Story Tellers Muse is the first Traci Harding book I’ve read. Most of the works of this Australian author are science/fantasy series. I picked it up because it was in the mystery genre but might dip into some of her other work now I’ve had a taste of her writing. As an artist developing her craft, I particularly enjoyed the theme in the book that explored the relationship between creative artists and their muses. The Story Tellers Muse was also a fun and easy read that had me turning the pages – or rather pressing the play key as I ‘read’ the audio book, rather than the paper version.

Rare crime

Each winter Melbourne hosts Rare Book Week which delivers a program of free talks and events across the city to celebrate the importance of books, literacy and literature. Twice this week I fought my way through the dark, windy and desolate streets of Docklands to Library at the Dock, which is a fabulous library and community hub if you are ever in the area.

The events I attended were The Knife is Feminine about Australian mystery writer Charlotte Jay, and Portraits of Molly Dean in conversation with author Katherine Kovacic on her true crime book about the murder of Molly Dean in St Kilda in 1930. This blog is about those two events.

The Knife is Feminine

A dagger…it had a curious hilt shaped like a woman’s torso, with wings, only she had no face, just a visor like a knight.

The knife is feminine, Charlotte Jay

I’d never heard of Charlotte Jay, but as it turns out she was one of Australia’s best crime and thriller writers and I will certainly seek out some of her work to read now. Panel members for this event were Carmel Shute (one of the founders and national convener of Sisters in Crime), author Katherine Kovacic (The Portrait of Molly Dean and Painting in the Shadows), Abbe Holmes (actor) and Chris Browne (convener of Rare Book week, former academic and a book collector with 12,000 books and counting).

Charlotte was born Geraldine Mary Jay in Adelaide in December 1919, she chose the author name Charlotte because she thought it sounded literary. She married Albert Halls, an Oriental specialist who worked for UNESCO, and she spent much of her adult life traveling the world with him. Initially she worked as a stenographer for twelve “terrible years,” according to an interview Carmel Shute did with her in 1992. When she realised she had a talent for frightening people and telling a good story so became an author. Carmel observed that in life Jay had a liking for gin and tonic and a habit of snorting when she found others ideas ludicrous.

The author wrote seven crime novels as Charlotte Jay between 1951 and 1964, one as Geraldine Mary Jay in 1956, and seven as Geraldine Halls between 1967 and 1995. The stories in her novels included exotic settings like Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Japan, Thailand, England, Lebanon, India, the Trobriand Islands, as well as Australia.

One of her books, A Hank of Hair was so risqué that Harper Collins refused to publisher it. The book was later picked up by Pan Publishing and released in 1964. Another novel, The Fugitive Eye written in 1953 was filmed for television and stared Charlton Heston. Her first novel, The Knife Is Feminine is out of print and there are only a handful of copies still in existence worldwide. We were lucky enough to get a couple of readings from one of those copies.

She wrote in the Gothic tradition and hearing her work, Charlotte Jay had a talent for the weird . She used slow, creepy build ups and detailed observations to tell cracker stories. She was the first winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Writers of America Award for Beat Not the Bones set in Papua New Guinea, which has some fascinating commentary on racism and colonial power in the 1950s. The following year Raymond Chandler won the award with The Last Goodbye.

The writer eventually returned to Adelaide and her last book was published in 1995, she died in October 1996. I for one shall look forward to reading some of her works, which are listed below.

Charlotte Jay novels

• The Knife Is Feminine (1951)
• Beat Not the Bones (1952)
• The Fugitive Eye (1953)
• The Yellow Turban (1955)
• The Man Who Walked Away (US Title: The Stepfather) (1958)
• Arms for Adonis (1960)
• A Hank of Hair (1964)

Geraldine Mary Jay novels

• The Feast of the Dead (US Title: The Brink of Silence) (1956)

Geraldine Halls novels

• The Cats of Benares (1967)
• Cobra Kite (1971)
• The Voice of the Crab (1974)
• The Last Summer of the Men Shortage (1977)
• The Felling of Thawle : a novel (1979)
• Talking to strangers : a novel (1982)
• This is My Friend’s Chair (1995)

Portraits of Molly Dean

Mary (Molly) Winifred Dean (1905–1930) was brutally murdered in Elwood on 21 November 1930 near her home after walking home late one night. Author of The Portrait of Molly Dean, Katherine Kovacic first came across Molly when studying the art of painter and sculptor Colin Colahan and became fascinated by her life which seemed to have been reduced to a single sentence in a Colahan’s biography. Molly had been Colahan’s lover and one of his models.

The historical mystery fiction, The Portrait of Molly Dean, was written to shine a light on Molly’s life, which along with her death feature in a number of other works. She was the subject of non-fiction A Scandal in Bohemia: The Life and Death of Mollie Dean by Gideon Haigh, and appeared in fiction works My brother Jack by George Johnston, and The Eye of the Beholder by Betty Roland, as well as the play Solitude in Blue, written and directed by Melita Rowston.

Molly Dean trained as a primary teacher and showed great promise for the profession but aspired for journalism and writing. She had had one long blank-verse poem titled Merlin published in a Melbourne publication called Verse.

Young Molly had a strained relationship with her widowed mother, Ethel Dean, who didn’t approve of Molly’s involvement with the Bohemians – the Meldrumites (followers of painter Max Meldrum) who Molly met when she became intimately involved with Colin Colahan, a well-known sculptor and painter of nudes.

On 20 November 1930 Molly went to the theatre to see Pygmalion with friends. She arrived at StKilda station on the way home, but missed the last tram, apparently due to stopping to make two phone calls to Colin from a phone box, so walked the two kilometers to Elwood along the tram route to the corner of Mitford and Dickens Streets. There were a number of sightings of her as she walked, but no witnesses to her attack. She was discovered early on Friday 21 November severely injured in a laneway less than two hundred meters from her home. She was rushed to hospital but she died of her injuries.

The police believed that due to the nature of the crime, Molly probably knew her attacker and the motive was most likely jealousy. An intense and exhaustive police investigation followed her death. A family friend, who was suspected of having an affair with Ethel Dean was investigated then dismissed. A man called Arnold Karl Sodeman, who confessed to four other killings, was also considered. His involvement was dismissed primarily due to his other attacks having very different profiles, and that he swore he wasn’t Molly’s killer. Sodeman was executed in Pentridge Prison in 1936 for the crimes he admitted.

The Crown Prosecutor did not proceed with the case and conspiracy theories abounded about Molly’s unsolved murder over the years. One theory suggested it wasn’t solved because she’d crossed paths with very powerful people in Melbourne, and they had shut down the investigation.

Artist Colin Colahan

Katherine Kovacic’s fictionalised account of Molly’s story is a fascinating tale of art, intrigue and murder, and Melbourne’s history. Her melding of fact and fiction patches together a coherent and sensitive narrative to re-tell a victim’s story and shine a light on her young life. It’s told from the perspective of a fictional art dealer called Alex who buys a painting in 1999 believed to be the last portrait of Molly Dean. Kovacic has released a second book Painting in the Shadows that also revolves around Alex, and a third is due out next year.

For the section of this blog on Molly Dean I have drawn on Kovacic’s talk at Rare Books Week and a piece published on the Public Records Office website by Dr Eric J Frazer about her murder.

Main image: Charlotte Jay and The Knife is Feminine