Book review: The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner

When I mentioned to a friend I had just read a great Helen Garner novella, they said they were conflicted because they love her writing, but couldn’t stand the person. Tongue in cheek, I said I didn’t know her personally so couldn’t comment on her character but thought her writing was beautiful. It was an interaction that sums Garner up quite well…both the woman and her work seem to attract controversy and elicit strong feelings.

‘Course I care. I always care. But there’s no point in making a song and dance about it, like that night he stayed here. Know something? There’s only one thing that’ll bring ’em back, and that’s indifference. The one thing you can’t fake.’
‘But you are faking it.’
‘At the moment I might be. But as soon as it stops being faked and starts being real, he’ll turn up. Rule number one of modern life.’

Beyond the personal satisfaction gained through the creative process of writing, we write with the hope that we will entertain, inspire, broaden horizons, challenge, or provoke, all outcomes which require the elicitation of emotions. It lends me to wonder then, whether Garner is not the personification of success if both the woman and her work can excite such polarised views.

The Children’s Bach (1984), Garners third published work, invites us into the 1980’s Melbourne suburban household of loving middle aged couple Athena and Dexter Fox who are united by their children, Billy who has autism and their a bright articulate son called Arthur. At its heart it is the story of a stable and caring couple’s life being interrupted by a the introduction of a disruptive influence. For Anthea (who is a bit suffocated by her own domesticity) and Dexter, it is the introduction into their orbit of Dexter’s old friend Elizabeth, her bohemian lover Philip and sister Vicki that fuel unrest.

‘She’s a frump,’ thought Elizabeth with relief; but Athena stepped forward and held out her hand, and Elizabeth saw the cleverly mended sleeve of her jumper and was suddenly not so sure.

Among the turmoil of relations between the adult characters, it is Billy who represents the manifestation of the parts of ourselves that are inaccessibility to others.

‘I used to be romantic about him,’ said Athena. ‘I used to think there was some kind of wild, good little creature trapped inside him, and I tried to communicate with that. But now I know there’s . . .’ (she knocked her forehead with her knuckles) ‘ . . .nobody home.’

Family, morals, ideals, and naivety are pitted against hedonism, freedom and independence. The Children’s Bach has been mooted as one of the best novels of the twentieth century and Garner is certainly a master of domestic drama, of female desire and the complexity of love and relationships. The point of view moves rapidly between the characters, and music, in which each of the actors finds a kind of solace, echoes through the book and lends a rhythm to Garners exquisite, precise, efficiently crafted, intimate and lyrical prose.

The novella was turned into an opera by Andrew Schultz as part of the Canberra International Music Festival in 2008. If we still have an arts sector post COVID-19 and the show is ever re-staged, I’ll definitely go and see it.

Lockdown life, the new world order

I adapted quickly to the new world order, and confess that other than missing my family and dearest friends, I have been quite content living the homebody arrangement the COVID crisis invited (though I would prefer the lifestyle without the crisis). The biggest challenge during lockdown has been that my writing time has been haphazard. When I physically go to work, the commute provides a perfect window of structured time for writing and instilling a new routine has presented some challenges around work commitments and life chores.

I have been working on my writing, if not my manuscript. You might call it legitimate procrastination activities. Everybody is online now, and there has been a plethora of offerings for writers. Here’s a few I’ve participated in to stay in touch with creativity during lockdown:

  • Sisters In Crime set up a YouTube channel and have been running a regular Murder Mondays discussion with crime writers as well as moving their other offerings online.
  • Yarra Valley Writers Festival is a new event local to me this year that didn’t let a little lockdown hold it back. They went online and presented some terrific session with a range of Australian writers.
  • I have continued to enjoy write club with crime writer extraordinaire Candice Fox on Facebook. While I haven’t taken part in her live Wednesday morning sessions due to work commitments, I have been replaying write club during my free time each week for some inspiration, to hear what she has to say, and do a bit of writing to the sound of Candice tapping away on her computer. I’ve always liked Candice’s writing – big bold characters and a unique Australian voice, and write club has been a lovely way to get to know the person a bit. I’m now quite taken with both the woman and her writing and she’s very generous with her time and knowledge. This week a comment that really resonated was: ‘Sometimes you don’t feel like it…just set yourself up to do it and try, and don’t give yourself a hard time if it doesn’t happen…’ (her advice worked, I wrote this post whilst watching a replay of her write club this week).
The Tempest, Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery
  • I’m a bit of a writing workshop junkie, and have been doing the Australian Writers Centre Crime and Thriller Writing with LA Larkin via Zoom for the last four weeks. AWC has a solid track record of producing excellent writers course and this one has not disappointed. Courses are a great way to keep your brain connected to your creative projects when you are struggling to actually write – particularly when they set homework as this course does.
  • Despite the global COVID tragedy, lockdown has resulted in some terrific creative opportunities for writers, including ones we may not have had access to otherwise. Newcastle Noir went on line this year and I also bought a ticket to Thriller Fest in New York City, which would not have been possible if they were not forced to go online.

As the world slowly reverts back to something more like it was before COVID, I hope that the online writing opportunities continue to some degree, particularly for those we might not get to otherwise.

Main image: Lockdown, Clunes, Victoria

Seminal moments

There are seminal moments in life – those experiences that leave indelible impressions on our psyche. They can be positive or negative but they impact us in ways that mobilise us emotionally, spiritually or physically, cause us to sit up and take notice, inject a sense of urgency, and they can reverberate throughout our lives. Such experiences can pop up unexpectedly and may provide inspiration for our writing practice. Recently I was reminded of a couple of such moments from many years ago. This time of isolation lends itself to a bit of reflection, so I thought I’d write them down…

When you’re eighteen, with all the attitude that the age embodies – you’ve just finished high school, the thing you love most is horses, you find people perplexing, you’re itchin’ to move out of home and someone you know calls you and offers the opportunity of a lifetime, you jump right? Right. So I did.

I packed up all my stuff and moved. Two hundred and thirty kilometres from Melbourne, the last five up a deserted dirt road into the foothills of the Avon Wilderness. Our electricity was generated by the sun, or an old diesel generator that often needed to be started by winding an oily crank handle until your shoulders ached. Warmth was throw from wood fires glowing with timber you chopped yourself. Cooking relied on a wood heated slow combustion oven that meant if you wanted a roast you had to put it on at two in the afternoon to be ready for dinner. When water ran out – it ran out.

Autumn Sunrise

At the time, the place was considered so isolated that when we kept having trouble with the phone line, the Telstra repair guy showed us how to fix the problem ourselves and left us spare parts so he didn’t have to come back again. When an intruder came in the night banging on windows we got the rifle out and fired into the night to frighten them off.

We were two teenage women with drive, a can do outlook, a protective guard dog, and an endless wilderness to play in. It was magical, spectacular, dangerous country that offered boundless adventures that we embraced it with the zest of youth. I learnt to wrangle cattle, fix fences, shoe horses, run a business, farm, fight fires and engage with people from all walks of life.

The property was my friends family farm, in one of the most beautiful places in the country, with mountains as far as you could see. We ran a business taking tourists trekking on horseback though the mountains. Our guests were all sorts – from over confident schools kids, to families, to an unusual wealthy men’s group who left their wives at home and came away with their sons and one lone woman in a caravan, who they referred to as the ‘company secretary’. Her secretarial duties seemed to be in demand at all times of day and night.

My girls own adventure gave me a love of the Australian bush and carried me into young adulthood. I fell in love with the place where I now live, and have done for twenty years because something about it reminded me of that farm. The location provided inspiration for my second manuscript, which I’m about 15,000 words into now. Here’s the logline:

In denial that her past is holding her back, a private investigator goes to a closed small-town community to investigate the death of an environmental activist in a logging coup. She uncovers more than she bargained for and is forced to confront her own long buried grief to uncover the truth about what really happened.

Curiously living in this remote place in eastern Victoria provided the launching pad for an early career as a horse trainer and after a couple of years in the bush I ended up on the other side of the world in Portugal as a student of one of the worlds greatest horse trainers in the art of classical dressage, but more on that another time…

Main image: Late night stroll

Book review: Gathering Dark by Candice Fox

Candice Fox’s latest novel Gathering Dark, in its second print run already, is a page turning romp of a thriller set in Los Angeles and spilling over with larger than life characters.

Recently released from jail, Blair Harbour was a well respected paediatric surgeon leading a privileged life and about to become a mother, then she shot and killed her next door neighbour, went to jail and had her child taken from her. Now she works the graveyard shift at a cartel owned gas station while she tries to get her life back together. When she is held up one night by the daughter of the woman she’d shared a cell with, and her cell mate, Sneak, turns up looking for help to track down her daughter who has disappeared, Blair agrees.

Screaming would have been a terrible idea. If I startled her, that slippery finger was going to jerk on the trigger and blow my brains all over the cigarette cabinet behind me. I didn’t want to be wasted in my stupid uniform, my hat emblazoned with a big pink kangaroo and the badge on my chest that truthfully read ‘Blair’ but lied ‘I love to serve!’

Gathering Dark

Jessica Sanchez is a detective who doesn’t quite fit the force and is being ostracised by her colleagues because an old man left his fortune to her after she solved the murder case of his daughter. The mansion he bequeathed her is next door to the house where the son of Blair, who Sanchez put away for murder, now lives.

But then she saw the blood on his hands, all over his face, her neck. Jessica thought of vampires and zombies, of magical, impossible things, and had to steady herself against a pool table. Her mind split as the full force of terror hit, half of it wailing and screaming at her to flee, the other half assessing what this was: a vicious assault in progress. Assailant likely under the influence of drugs. Bath salts–they’d been hitting the streets hard in the past few weeks, making kids do crazy things: gouge their own eyes out, kill animals, ride their bikes off cliffs. She was watching a man eat a woman alive.

Gathering Dark

What unfolds is a complex web of lies, crime and deception, packaged in a tight plot, with well crafted dialogue, rolling prose and a good dose of black humour. I loved the tough female characters, the bad ass baddies, oh, and the gopher, got to love the gopher.

Candice Fox has been running a regular Wednesday Facebook Live write club of late. You can logon and write with her for an hour, then take part in a half hour Q&A where she answers all your writing questions. She’s an incredibly generous, funny and talented writer. I have enjoyed her writing since picking up her first novel Hades, but am now a lifetime fan, so if you are a crime reader and haven’t yet devoured any of her work – get onto it.

Online writing course reviews

I love a good writing workshop, and there are quite a few online options around at the moment. Soon after the COVID lock down began I panic bought a load of writing courses to keep me amused in my spare time. Here’s a wrap up of them so far.

Writers Victoria

Writers Victoria have traditionally run face to face workshops, but have been moving their offerings online in order to continue their programs by pivoting their one day workshops into webinars. I have done two of these now: Showing and Telling with Emily Bitto, and The Art of the Redraft with Penni Russon. The format for both these workshops mirrored their live options as closely as possible. There were two eighty minute learning videos, and a one hour live Q&A session with the presenters so you could get all your questions answered. Both courses included handouts and exercises, and the big bonus for me was the personalised feedback on a 500 word piece of your own writing. The presenters are all accomplished writers or writing professionals in their own right. The courses cost $155 dollars, and and you can watch the webinars again at your leasure via a link again later.

Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings have a neat online learning tool for their suit of self paced courses. I completed their Writing A Thriller course with J.P. Pomare, author of Call Me Evie recently. It took about six hours total to complete, including exercises. The course is a nice mix of reading, audio and video lessons, and practical exercises, and the $149 purchase gives you lifetime access to the course materials.

Australian Writers Centre

I’ve done and reviewed the Australian Writers Centre’s online courses before in some detail (here and here). My most recent sojourn included Fiction Essentials – Grammar and Punctuation; Fiction Essentials – Dialogue; and Fiction Essentials – Characters. These three self paced courses took about 2.5 hours each to complete. The first included some online exercises to test your knowledge as you go, the other two have handouts. All three were a mix of video slides and/or audio lessons. They cost $137 each (usually $195), so a little on the pricey side compared to the others, but the course content is good.

Writing courses are a fun way to spend some of your free time, and a good use of the funds you’re saving if you are working from home and not going out. Writing courses help keep me motivated for my own writing, and I get some valuable tips to improve my writing practice. I also feel like I am supporting the creative writing industry to get through these lean times. I for one want to see the creative industries survive through the current global malaise so will keep doing what I can to help keep them afloat. Now to choose what to do next…

What online writing or reading experiences have you had of late?

Image: Jerome, Arizona

Book review: Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar

There was something about listening to the audiobook of Wolfe Island whilst I worked in my own bubble in my vegetable garden – weeding, harvesting, fertilising, mulching, planting – the attention to detail those tasks demand slows time. The activity threw me deeper into a novel that I’m sure I would have been enthralled by anyway, and submerged me into the melancholic world of Kitty Hawke.

Kitty is a resilient and resourceful woman of fortitude, and the last human inhabitant of Wolfe Island, which is being devoured by the rising sea. She lives a solitary, creative existence with her wolfdog, Girl, and makes art from found objects that she sells to the mainland. Kitty and Girl both come across as half wild and half domesticated, each lends the other a strength that is fortified by the Waterman giant talisman statues Kitty constructed from found objects to protect the island.

It was exhausting being around people and noticing them, thinking about them. I felt roughened and coarse now, as if I was rubbing against the grain of Wolfe Island. It used to be that I could forget myself and be, spend hours in the marshes watching the tides and the grasses, birds walking over my feet. I’d been still so long, listening to the unintelligible wind, I was part of it then, and insignificant. I missed that. The writing helped a little.

Wolfe Island

Kitty is drawn to reconnect with the outside world when her granddaughter arrives with some friends who are in danger because of their status as climate refugees. On the mainland climate refugees are ‘runners’ and vigilante ‘hunters’ chase them down and kill them. Gradually the young people let her into their troubles and she connects with them, eventually their cause becoming hers. When the island ceases to be a refuge for the runners, the group set off seeking safety in the north.

The islands were worlds and you didn’t move lightly from one to the other, and people’s way of speaking wasn’t quite the same from one island to the next. If we ran into each other on the main – a no-man’s-land to us – we saw our resemblance to each other, and heard our own foreignness in each other’s voices and prickled up and felt the eyes of people on us, assessing us for threat in the same way that we did them, resenting them for it and feeling their resentment toward us.

Wolfe Island

Lucy Treloar’s first novel Salt Creek won the Matt Richell Award for a New Writer, the Dobbie Literary Award and the Indies Award for Debut Fiction. It was also shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2016. Wolfe Island is deserving of its own accolades and I’ll watch with interest to see how it goes.

I say, ‘Girl, Girl,’ and she comes to me like a myth, her coat sleeked smooth, her tail back out. She is in a line, a ripple through the long grass, and butterflies and hoppers rise in her wake, lifting like spume and catching the light. She passes me by with a rush of wind and her sweet wolf scent, leading the way to anything.

Wolfe Island

Wolfe Island is a slow, lyrical lament on the state of the world in the grip of climate change, and the subtlety with which Treloar brings you to realise you are in a very near dystopian future is a little alarming. The novel is written in three parts – the island, the journey and return home, each revealing a different lense on a climate impacted world and Kitty’s relationship with her family, her place in the world and herself. Oh, not to forget her wolfdog, Girl, I’m a sucker for a novel with a dog as girls best friend…now I must go and turn that pumpkin I picked into soup.

Spoken word: Feet of clay

I have written a couple of blogs about spoken word. My first spoken word event was for a local festival in the town I live in a little over a year ago – Poetry and Prose at the Pub. I decided to do it to challenge myself – it was an introverts nightmare. Nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, I read up on tips for delivery and practiced for hours, the dog listening patiently in the background. I delivered my piece, script in shaking hand, to a local audience of about thirty people, and to my releif it went down well.

My second spoken word outing was at the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival in Tasmania, last year. This time I delivered my piece freestyle, having learnt it off by heart. My best tip for remembering a script is to record yourself reading your work and play it back over and over, and practicing delivery until you nail it. At Noir at the Bar in Cygnet there were about seventy people in the audience.

The Artistic Director of Terror Australis tracked me down a couple of weeks ago and asked me to record my spoken word piece Feet of Clay for a Facebook live event she’d started hosting called BookLove Tuesdays. Feet of Clay combines my dual interests of poetry and crime fiction and tells a story of ambition, love and jealousy in the pottery world. It’s a bit creepy, but I hope you enjoy it.

I would love to write an entire novel using this rhythmic style one day – although I think it would be hard to keep this type of cadence up for an entire manuscript – a challenge for another time perhaps!

What are some of the things you have done to challenge yourself or your writing?

Main image: Tanna, Vanuatu

Strange times indeed

Where to begin when you sit down to write for the first time in three weeks and the world is a completely different place to what it was last time you faced a blank page? And how does one reclaim a creative space embattled by a mountain of work priorities driven by a virus taking an extraordinary toll on humanity?

In the grand scheme of things I am incredibly fortunate in these uncertain times – I have a stable job and I can now work from home, I am holed up in a comfortable house surrounded by hilltops, forests and the constant chatter of bird life, I have a garden to potter in and grow a lot of my own food, and a person and a dog who I am happy to be locked up with. I am also a natural introvert, so am not overly distressed by the idea of staying home for six months, after all I voluntarily did exactly that for 12 months only a little over a year ago when I took time off to write.

So what is it that leaves me a little discombobulated? There is of course the great sadness experienced when reading the news about the toll the virus is taking on the world, the shock at how this situation exposes the fragility of our globally interconnected economic and social systems, the fear that this even event will not be enough for us to find a different way to live in relation to nature, and for the well-being of people I care about. It is perfectly normal to feel a little shell shocked in the early period of a crisis of this scale, regardless of how well protected from it you might feel individually.

A situation such as this requires a significant mental shift as well as a physical reorganisation, and a willingness to embrace a new normal. The last three weeks have been a work whirlwind – we had 100 people we needed to try to reorganise to be able to work from home. This took a mammoth effort from myself and colleagues. We also have thousands of stakeholders we needed to provide urgent information to – to help them understand the changes to our workplace, and to connect them with information to help them weather the storm.

Prioritising taking care of the work team has been important, and I have been happy to do so, but at the same time I lament the intrusion into my personal space, particularly my creative space, and how the separation between this and work demands have become blurred. I need to trust that on the other side of this shift I will find my creative, resilient brain waiting for me. It made me realise how much routine plays a part in making time for ourselves – I used to use the time commuting to and from work as my creative writing time, with that gone, I need to create a new routine that allows time for writing.

It is clear the current situation is going to last for a long time, at least until a vaccine is found – conservative estimates suggest at least six months, if not years,. The situation demands finding a new routine that allows for as much of the fullness of our lives as can be managed within the restrictions we must live with out of compassion and care for our fellow human beings, as well as our own. My frustration of recent weeks led me to think about what a new structure might look like…here are some of my thoughts.

On the intrusion of work

The voice of work can be loud voice and demanding. We need to take the time to set up a comfortable workspace and make it as private as circumstances allow. Find new ways using technology to stay connected to staff and colleagues now you can’t lob up at their desk. Build in regular welfare checks to make sure they are ok. Carve out time blocks for different categories of your work – do the easy things when stress levels are high and the more challenging jobs when your concentration is at its best. Don’t expect your productivity to be what it was – at least not immediately.

Take regular breaks – make a cuppa, drink water, pat the dog/cat, talk to the houseplant, walk around the garden or gaze out the window. Even better open all the windows and blast out the house with fresh air.

Keep time sheets to help yourself contain your day job to reasonable hours the loss of a commute removes the natural boundary of home time.

Personal Wellness

Create a routine. Keep getting up and going to bed at a reasonable time. Move your body in a way that makes you energised at the start of the day. My go to exercise is running or walking with the hound, yoga by YouTube or a bike ride. I will also make time for the solace of gardening. Last weekend I spent time in the veggie patch, weeding and planting seeds – my own version of hoarding whilst others were madly buying toilet paper and cleaning products.

Do some of those jobs you’ve been putting off forever because you were too busy – tidy those cupboards, paint a room, finish the landscape project, organise your bookshelf – control the things you can it can ground us when things are a little chaotic.

Eat well – if you weren’t a cook before, maybe now is a good time to learn the skill, and to appreciate the comfort in it – a couple of the my favourite places to go for tasty recipes are Arthur Street Kitchen and Ottolenghi. Identify things you can do to you bring you peace or joy – take a bath, sort your holiday photos, paint or journal, find a place you can retreat to. What things would you put in your self care toolkit? Keep them close and turn to when needed.

It is important to stay up to date with what’s happening in your world, but it’s also easy to be sucked into obsessing about it. Place limits on your engagement with news and social media about the COVID conversation and remember the media is often sensationalist, so acquire your information from trusted reliable sources. Don’t lose sight of what is good in the world.
Look for things to laugh at each day – your pet being amusing, silly memes online, and when it all seems too much – reach out for assistance.

Creativity

Carve out time for creativity and make sure you use that time for something connected to your creative interests. Now is the time to start that long term project you’ve been thinking about on and off. My plan is to set aside a block of time each day to write, perhaps I will finish my second book sooner than I thought. On the days I don’t actually write I will use my creative time for a connected activity like reading or online learning on writing. The Australian Writers Centre delivers some great online courses for writers and Writers Victoria are moving a lot of their workshops online, one of which I am doing tomorrow.

Your creative thing might be painting, knitting, sewing, or learning an instrument. Don’t limit yourself to things you already know how to do – get online and find someone who’s moved their teaching practice online – you could learn a new craft and support another creative at the same time.

Social connectivity

The political narrative about needing to keep our distance from people to contain the spread of COVID-19 uses the term social distancing. For many, the term spells isolation and loneliness. I wish the policy-makers had considered this and referred to physical distancing instead, as at times of stress, social connection is even more important than usual. It provides ballast and helps to keep people mentally well. Find ways to connect with friends and loved ones that keeps everyone safe, whether its Snapchat, video catch ups or long phone conversations. The time for hanging out in coffee shops and hugs will return eventually. We tried our first digital dinner party last week, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it can work. Some tips:

  • Keep up communication as you cook so you can time your dial in to get everyone eating together
  • Set your laptop up at least arms length from where you sit (a bit further away than where you lay the table) so everyone can be seen in the picture together
  • Sit the laptop up on some books – it works better if the camera is slightly above your eye level
  • Bring your best self to these occasions, people are dealing with the changed world in different ways, and we need to bring compassion for those we care about – it can bring out both the best and worst in people.
    If you want to hang out online because that’s the only option while you are in isolation there are loads of apps for that – Zoom, Skype, House party, Google hangouts.

This weekend we’re going to try one where everyone taking part cooks the same meal.

Community

Continue to greet neighbours from a respectable distance when you pass them in the street, when you can – support local businesses that are staying open to service your needs or donate to your favourite creative organisation. When businesses set up rules to help keep customers safe and trade fairly in response to some individuals being overtaken by individual greed – follow them without griping – it’s a time to loosen our grip on control and individualism and think more collectively. In Australia there is still plenty to go around – toilet paper, food and cleaning products included.Hoarding is really not necessary and probably tells us more about our mental health than it does about supply and demand – so if you are doing it perhaps consider spending the money on a therapist instead.

This new world order is going to be a marathon, not a sprint so railing against it will not help, now is the time for radical acceptance and innovating to make your life as full as it can be within the circumstances in which we find ourselves, with much lower expectations than you may have had previously. Chunk your days into bite sized manageable segments to avoid the existential dread of the unknown taking over and when you notice the current situation enabling injustices that make your blood boil – channel that energy into writing to your local MP, or the newspaper to call them out so the annoyance doesn’t fester.

If you wear yourself out at the beginning you may not make the distance in one piece, so take the time to find a way to be that offers you the best change of wellness, serenity and productivity for the long haul. And for those of us who take solace from creative pursuits, we must make room for them.

Stay well.

Adelaide Writers Week 2020

Adelaide Writers Week (#AdlWW) remains one of the best writers festivals I’ve attended. Year after year it doesn’t disappoint, and attendance is free. This year showcased a lot more non-fiction than fiction and it was an intellectual feast.

My plane landed at 3pm last Sunday and I got to #AdlWW in time for the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. If you want to get your reading groove on with some award winners keep an eye out for these:

Children’s Literature Award and Premiers AwardNevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (Hachette Australia) – An enchanting series by debut Australian author Jessica Townsend, about a cursed girl who escapes death and finds herself in a magical world, but is then tested beyond her wildest imagination.

Young Adult Fiction Award Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein (Walker Books Australia). Tash Carmody has been traumatised since childhood when she witnessed her gruesome imaginary friend Sparrow lure young Mallory Fisher away from a carnival.

Fiction AwardThe Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones (The Text Publishing Company) The art historian Noah Glass, having just returned from a trip to Sicily, is discovered floating face down in the swimming pool at his Sydney apartment block. But a sculpture has gone missing from a museum in Palermo, and Noah is a suspect. The police are investigating.

Natalie Harkin

John Bray Poetry AwardArchival-Poetics by Natalie Harkin (Vagabond Press) an embodied reckoning with the State’s colonial archive and those traumatic, contested and buried episodes of history that inevitably return to haunt.

Non Fiction AwardThe Bible in Australia: A cultural history by Meredith Lake (NewSouth Publishing) explores how in the hands of Bible-bashers, immigrants, suffragists, evangelists, unionists, writers, artists and Indigenous Australians, the Bible has played a contested but defining role in Australia.

After four and a half days of listening to many fabulous writers, here are some snippets from the ones that most captured my attention:

Fiction

Fiction writers I really enjoyed listening to included Charlotte Wood (The Weekend); Tash Aw (We, the Survivors); Alice Robinson (The Glad Shout); Lucy Treloar (Wolfe Island); Felicity McLean (The Van Appel Girls are Gone); and Michael Robotham (Good Girl, Bad Girl).

The imagination is so private, fiction writers worry about what people think about what’s coming out of our heads… you don’t want to be Andrew Bolt but you don’t want to self sensor before you put words on the page…if you have some talent you are obliged to use it.

Charlotte Wood

Non fiction

Meredith Lake, author of The Bible in Australia had a discussion with Christos Tsiolkas, fiction author of Damascus and Tim Costello author of memoir A Lot with a Little (Christianity’s Crossroads) on ethics and the culture of Christianity at a time when faith is in decline and church institutions have been in crisis. The three interpret the words in the bible in a way that is a world away from the likes of Israel Falou and the cherry picked words that spill from the venomous mouths of the more conservative religious leaders. Their interpretations speak of tolerance and justice and equality and attempt to grapple with the contradictions of faith, including the weaponisation of the bible and the churches as custodians of as much evil as good in Australia’s history. The discussion was far reaching across subjects such as Indigenous and LGBTI rights, child sexual abuse, refugees, science and climate change and was one of the most thought provoking discussions I have heard in some time, which is saying something for a secular non-believer.

Meredith Lake, Christos Tsiolkas and Tim Costello

I want the best of faith to defeat the worst of religion

Tim Costello

Ross Garnaut author of Superpower: Australia’s Low Carbon Opportunity had a conversation with Tim Flannery author of Life Selected Writings on climate change. Garnaut pointed out there was a brief optimistic moment in 2007-08 when all Australian governments were behind a positive climate policy move. This ended when Abbott wrested power from Turnbull then got rid of the climate council and carbon pricing and set about discrediting the science.

In 2016 a cyclonic weather event had a significant impact on South Australia’s power supply after destroying some pylons that were in the main supply line. The Commonwealth Government blamed the weather event on renewable energy. In another world the reality of a cyclonic event occurring in a non cyclonic region would have been seen as an example of the problem of climate change. As the speakers noted, governments have a loud megaphone, and when they lie, they get traction. A situation we see playing out more and more with politicians peddling fake news. The risk is they open themselves up to being vulnerable themselves to being tossed out by the next, better liar.

The shining light in the climate debate is that the state parliaments are in pretty good shape and delivering positive results in the climate change space. The federal parliament is pretty weak and bleak, aside from outlier, Zali Stephen. The price of successive government failures and our failure to change policy earlier is that we now need to cut emissions by 7% per year, every year from now on. It seems there are twenty five people in the Federal parliament holding twenty five million Australians to ransom. The electorate needs to force politicians to act.

The Cut Out Girl, a biography by Bart Van Es. The story was drawn from Barts family in the Netherlands during WWII. His grandparents were one of many families who hid Jewish children from the Nazis during the war. Bart tells the story of Lien, who was hidden for some time by his grandparents.

The degree to which we dehumanise others reflects how disconnected we are from our own humanity…mainstream acts of intolerance in the middle enable extreme acts at the fringe…compassion has to be married to healthy boundaries and consequences…

Tony McAleer

Other non-fiction writers I really enjoyed listening to included Long Litt Woon (Mushrooming and Mourning); Jamie Susskind (Future politics); Sophie Cunningham (City of Trees); Chike Frankie Edozien (Lives of Great Men); Dennis Altman (Unrequited Love); Tony McAleer (The Cure for Hate); Yanis Varoufakis (And the Weak Suffer What They Must?); Margaret Simons (Penny Wong Biography); Angela Woolacott (Don Dunstan biography); and the delightful, thoughtful and funny Vicki Laveau-Hardie who’s debut memoir The Erratics was published when she was in her seventies and won the Stella Prize.

Write, edit, submit…

Writing is a team sport

Really the title of this blog post should be write, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, submit. In my #AuthorsForFireys blog I mentioned that I had sent my manuscript off to an assessor. About ten days ago, editor Dan Hanks sent me his feedback and report on my manuscript. I was chuffed to read this comment in his email: The long and short of it is that this was a tremendously fun story.

Dan’s report is a considered breakdown of everything he thought worked or needed polishing. He also included a brain dump of notes scattered through the manuscript, pointing out his thoughts as he went which was really helpful. I have quoted some of his comments in this blog.

The story unfolds at pace, the structure is all present and correct, and the characters are so well written in their shades of grey that you’re never quite sure who is going to end up being good or bad or somewhere in between. Which means the tension is kept cranked up to 11 for most of the book and the reader can’t help but keep turning the page to find out how it’s all going to end. Great stuff!

manuscript assessment comment

I have heard varied opinions about the value of manuscript assessments, so I did enter into this exercise with a degree of skepticism. It was with welcome relief that found it to be very valuable. There is also the added bonus of an injection of confidence when someone you don’t know, and who’s job it is to be critical, reviews your work.

The writing style is crisp and clean and punchy, as you would hope from a book of this genre, but there is certainly scope to vary the rhythm in places and build on the beautiful flourishes of prose that crop up from time to time – which I believe will lift the book to the next level.

manuscript assessment comment

Here are the things I found most helpful from Dan’s feedback…

On story, plot and structure:

  • identified some gaps and areas he felt needed to be fleshed out – particularly to give context to make it work more effectively for an international market
  • inject a little more scene setting
  • identified a loose end I hadn’t accounted for that needed tying up

There is a big theme here about having the freedom to be yourself. Theme is a big way to turn a perfectly fine and well plotted story into something that the reader can’t stop thinking about after they’ve put the book down. And what you’ve done with these characters – set against a backdrop of a campaign arguing for the right to be able to be yourself – is quite special.

manuscript assessment comment

On characters:

  • a couple of minor characters he felt needed a bit more distinction between them

On writing style (description/dialogue):

  • identified a few areas to tidy up to improve clarity and flow
  • a couple of spots to improve logic or continuity for the reader
  • some advice on grouping dialogue snippets appropriately so it’s easy for the reader to understand who is saying what
The forest for the trees

Last week I worked through all Dan’s feedback and made most of the changes he suggested. The other interesting thing for me about this exercise was that between the beta readers and the manuscript assessment I set the work aside for about a month without looking at, or thinking about it at all. I had one of those ‘aha’ moments when I went back to the work, about why people say you should let your manuscript ‘breathe’. Looking at it with fresh eyes gave me a new perspective, and I made some more new changes I identified myself, because of the distance.

All in all this is a really entertaining read, with a surprising amount of heart for a thriller, and some great characters to follow as they try to solve this mystery (and hopefully more in the future??).

manuscript assessment comment

I still have some minor tidying up to do, but did send a synopsis and a sample of the work I have completed revising to query a couple of agents last week, so I feel I have now started the next part of this journey. As I enter the querying phase, I am following the approach I learnt from completing the online Pitch Your Novel course I wrote an earlier blog about and look forward to seeing how that goes, though no doubt the waiting will be a challenge!

How is your writing journey going?