In this singular year when many people have said they had more time for reading than ever before, I haven’t. But oh, how I have enjoyed the books I have read—books that have taken me places I’ve never been (in a year when no-one is going anywhere), opened my eyes to the wrongs of both past and present, made me think, made me cry.
Excluding books read entirely for research—and there have been many of those—I’ve read 24 books. Of those, 22 were by Australian writers, 17 by women writers and 7 by Indigenous writers. Only three of those unrelated to research were non-fiction, and there was one verse novel among the many novels.
Favourites? Well, it’s been a stellar bunch this year, and I find myself resisting any hierarchical ordering, but I’ll just mention a few.
Tara June Winch’s Miles Franklin–winning The Yield has made many readers’ favourites lists this year, and with good reason. This beautiful novel is equally a work of history, and I hope it will become mandatory reading for all young people. I also loved Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain, which won the inaugural ARA Historical Prize, and Ally Cobby Eckerman’s verse novel Ruby Moonlight hit me in the heart. And my most recent read, Jamaican writer Alecia McKenzie’s new novel, A Million Aunties, was one of the year’s stand-outs: deeply moving, engrossing and a joy to read.
During the year I also featured the following new works in the ‘2, 2 and 2’ series, in which authors talk about (among other things) their inspirations and the connections of their work to place:
David Whish-Wilson, Shore Leave(Fremantle Press), novel (crime)
Thank you to all these authors for sharing their thoughts and insights.
And so to 2021. I’m going to be spending most of my time in my backyard studio, surrounded by photos and maps and boxes of research, hard at work on my new novel. But I’ll come up for air from time to time. I have a new interview series coming on looking up/looking down and look forward to introducing some exciting new works of literary fiction.
Until then, thank you for all the messages and comments during the year, and I wish you a happy, more peaceful, perhaps less eventful New Year.
David Whish-Wilson Shore Leave (Fremantle Press) Crime fiction
David Whish-Wilson somehow manages to juggle a demanding day job (as creative writing teacher at Curtin University) with a prolific writing career—excelling at both. He has published six crime fiction novels, the brilliant historical novel The Coves (which he talks about here), and three creative non-fiction titles, including the (recently updated) Perth, a lyrical and idiosyncratic portrait of the capital city of the state we both live in.
David has travelled widely, and I love his author blurb, which tells us he has worked in Europe, Africa and Asia as a barman, actor, street seller, petty criminal, labourer, exterminator, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and drug trial guinea pig. It strikes me that you couldn’t orchestrate a better CV for a crime writer!
Three of David’s crime fiction novels have been published in Germany, and he has been shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards and twice for the Ned Kelly Awards—most recently for his last title, True West.
I’m delighted that he’s agreed to talk about his newly released novel, Shore Leave.
Here is the blurb:
It is Fremantle in 1989 and Frank Swann is at home, suffering from an undiagnosed and debilitating illness. When Frank is called in to investigate an incident at a local brothel, it soon appears there is a link between the death of two women and the arrival of the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the port city. Shore Leave is the fourth book in the Frank Swann series and also features Lee Southern, the main character from True West.
Over to David…
2 things that inspired the novel
Shore Leave is the fourth novel in my Frank Swann crime series, although like the other novels it can be read as a standalone. The novel also has a cameo from the protagonist of my most recent novel, Lee Southern of True West (2019), who Frank Swann is training up in the craft of citizen investigations. The novel is set largely in Fremantle during the visit of the USS aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to port, part of the American fleet out patrolling the Indian Ocean at the behest of Presidents Reagan and Bush Snr. It was inspired by a couple of stories I’d heard over the years.
The first was when I was in my late teens, living in Mombasa, Kenya. At that time many of my friends were working prostitutes, whose main clients were the merchant sailors of different nations who berthed there. It was always interesting listening to the women break down the national traits of men from places like Bulgaria, Korea and Australia based upon their behaviour when drunk and in the privacy of the short-time rooms of the hotels that dotted the port. Some of these stories were funny, and others were disturbing, but most disturbing of all was the trepidation many felt when the American navy were due in port. It was a trepidation mixed with excitement, because apart from the Japanese, Americans were considered the most generous of clients. The rumours were strong, however, that on previous occasions when the Americans were in port there had been serious assaults, and alleged murders that were never investigated because of the inference that the money spent was important to the local economy, and because the Americans left as quickly as they’d come. I was present when one such visit occurred, and I remember the fear among my friends that they might be targeted, even though they were used to danger. I remember thinking then that for a certain type of man, being part of a navy that went from port to port, and was defensive about its reputation, would in fact be the perfect cover for a sex offender or even murderer.
A few years later I was working as a bartender in Tokyo, where much of the custom was US sailors and marines. I got to know some of them quite well, and one of them very well when we worked together in a different bar. He told me stories of life on board an aircraft carrier, both the racial politics and the black-market scams, and I took some of the things he told me, together with the atmosphere of fear and anxiety (contrary to my experiences of the navy being in Fremantle when I was younger) I’d witnessed in Mombasa, and worked these aspects into the plot of Shore Leave.
2 places connected with the novel
The two places connected to the novel are the port of Fremantle, and what might be termed, for the purposes of the law, the US territory aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. At the commencement of Shore Leave, Frank Swann is still suffering the ill-effects of his mistreatment and injury incurred toward the conclusion of Old Scores. As a result, he’s trying to live a quiet life, and tends to stick pretty close to his South Fremantle home. He’s put aside his usual source of income, retrieving money for those ripped off in stock-market scams. When the USS Carl Vinson arrives, however, he agrees to do a favour for an old friend, the US navy shore patrol officer whose responsibility it is to find AWOL sailors. A sailor was last seen upstairs at the Seaview Hotel (now the Local Hotel) and across the street at the Ada Rose brothel (which is still in operation.) Looking for this AWOL sailor means Swann spends a fair bit of time around Fremantle, then in the throes of the beginning of the restoration boom sparked by the America’s Cup and its status as a centre of Sannyasin life in WA.
The other place that defines Shore Leave is the sovereign territory aboard the aircraft carrier itself. Like all of my previous Frank Swann novels, Shore Leave proceeds by way of three separate narrative strands that become more and more intertwined as the story develops. One of these three characters is a US Navy midshipman with right-wing sympathies, who has a sideline smuggling black-market weapons ashore. Part of the novel involves exploring his life aboard the ship, which was quite entertaining to write.
2 soundtracks for the novel
If this novel had a soundtrack, it’d be ‘Shore Leave’ by Tom Waits. The song doesn’t relate directly to the narrative, but it does capture some of the strangeness and loneliness of being in a new place, all alone, that I remember from my early travels. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lh7JZUpaVPg
The other song I found myself thinking about when writing Shore Leave was Nina Simone’s version of Kurt Weill’s ‘Pirate Jenny’. It’s a song I’ve always loved, but its darkness and power were what I thought about while writing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7awW5nrDHk
In this year-like-no-other, we’ve been forced to face many previously unimaginable things, but I never want to imagine a world without bookshops.
Our local booksellers have been working hard throughout these difficult times, finding ways to keep us connected with books and ideas—sending newsletters, presenting Zoom events, offering special deliveries. I have often felt concerned on their behalf, knowing that they already exist in a space threatened by faceless global merchants.
Tomorrow it’s national Love Your Bookshop Day, an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate bookshops as one of things that make our lives worthwhile. I want to send out a big thank-you to all of the bookshops who have nurtured me as a reader and supported me as a writer—and to the special people who work behind their counters.
If you’re able to get out and about tomorrow (and commiserations to those who can’t), do drop into your favourite bookshop, say hello and tell them what they mean to you. And buy a few books while you’re there, of course!
Monique Mulligan Wherever You Go (Pilyara Press) Contemporary fiction
I first met Perth writer Monique Mulligan through her role as presenter (and founder) of the successful Stories on Stage program, a series of author conversations that has run for some years at the Koorliny Arts Centre in Kwinana, Western Australia. Since then, she has become involved in the local writing community in many other ways, not least as an author.
Following on from a career incorporating journalism, editing and publishing, she now combines part-time work at the arts centre with writing. Several of her short stories have been published, and her third children’s picture book, Alexandra Rose and her Icy-Cold Toes, was released in May.
Monique is an amazing cook—I’ve sampled some of her baked treats at Koorliny—and so it’s no surprise to me to hear that her debut contemporary novel, Wherever You Go, features food and explores the connection between emotional states and the art of cooking.
She’s also a talented photographer, as you’ll see below.
Here is the blurb for Wherever You Go:
A life-shattering tragedy threatens to tear apart chef Amy Bennet’s marriage. Desperate to save it, she moves with her husband Matt to Blackwood, a country town where no-one knows who they are.
Forced to deal with her crumbling marriage and the crippling grief that follows her wherever she goes, Amy turns to what she knows best: cooking. She opens a cafe showcasing regional seasonal produce, and forms the Around the World Supper Club, serving mouth-watering feasts to new friends. As her passion for food returns, she finds a place for herself in Blackwood. But when a Pandora’s Box of shame and blame is unlocked, Matt gives Amy an ultimatum that takes their marriage to the edge.
Rich with unexpected characters and extraordinary insight, Wherever You Go is a powerful and ultimately uplifting tale of heartbreaking loss, recovery and redemption.
Over now to Monique…
2 things that inspired the book
The first time I heard the quote ‘Wherever you go, there you are’ by Jon Kabat-Zinn, it resonated strongly on a personal level. The instinctual desire to run away from one’s self saddened, fascinated, frustrated, even infuriated me, because it perfectly summarised the behaviour of someone I cared about.
When I decided to write a novel, I knew I wanted this quote to be part of it, directly as in the title, but also thematically in my characters’ inner and outer worlds. I wanted to explore how people try to get away from themselves, how they try to outrun guilt and grief and pain and shame. To explore the truth that who you are follows you wherever you go. I asked: What happens when you deny this part of you? How long can you do it before the cracks show? How long can you watch someone hide behind a mask, when you know what lies beneath?
Late in the novel, there’s a scene between Amy and her elderly neighbour Irene that directly explores this quote. Interestingly, this was one of the easiest scenes to write, perhaps because it reflected what I wanted to say all those years ago. Perhaps it was a form of catharsis.
The second inspiration was a newspaper article about an Australian family whose children were killed in a tragic accident overseas. At the time our four children were still living at home, and the tragedy shocked and saddened me. I remember my husband and I discussing it, wanting to hold our teenage children tighter than ever. What if something like that happened to us? What would that do to our marriage? Later, when it came to starting Wherever You Go, I was compelled to unpack that second question, to examine the complex nature of grief and the consequences of incomplete grief.
2 places connected with the book
Most of Wherever You Go is set in Blackwood, a fictional town in Western Australia inspired by Bridgetown, about three hours south of Perth. I’ve taken elements of the real town—the soupy winter fog that rises from the valleys, the steep up-and-down hills, the old fibro homes, the locals’ friendly curiosity (and sometimes suspicion) towards newcomers, the region’s wonderful fresh produce and food; I’ve reimagined the town’s bakery as an artisanal bakery and I’ve added Amy’s cafe, Brewed to Taste, which is an amalgamation of many cafes I’ve visited but is bigger than any of the cafes in the real-life town. Early in the writing process, I visited Bridgetown in different seasons, and walked around the streets, taking photos of houses, streetscapes, and birds, flowers and plants. For months, a mood board sat on my desk and I’d refer to my photos whenever I needed to work on creating a sense of place.
A small but significant part of the book is set in Germany. I haven’t actually been to Germany, so my focus here was less on place and more on conflicted relationships and resolution. I chose Germany because that’s where my family (on both sides) comes from and, until the Covid-19 pandemic exploded, it’s where I planned to travel to next year.
2 favourites from the book
It’s no secret that I love good food and wine, and I often daydream of sharing a long-table feast with loved ones as the sun sets over golden hills. In this fantasy, we’re in Tuscany, or maybe the south of France. There are candles in jars and fairy lights strung up in trees, white tablecloths, potted herbs; there is an abundance of simple but good food and wine, laughter and conversation. This is the kind of atmosphere Amy tries to re-create with her Around the World Supper Club feasts—the setting is different, but the spirit of food and human connection is the same. In Wherever You Go, the characters travel vicariously to Italy, France, Morocco, Vietnam and Greece courtesy of Amy’s feasts—and many of the meals they share were tried and tested on my family.
One of my favourite characters is Henry, who has a small part overall but plays a pivotal role in helping to mend a friendship. Henry is ‘naughty’, unexpected, and of all the characters, most strongly drawn from a real-life experience. I can’t say more without a spoiler.
Ok, I’m a day late—Indigenous Literacy Day was yesterday—but I want to highlight a few of the novels by Indigenous writers that I have been enjoying recently.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to find time for reviewing—something I like doing but won’t unless I can devote the time that all books deserve—so I’m including here links to reviews by Lisa at ANZ LitLoversLitBlogand Sue at Whispering Gums
The Yield by Tara June Winch, winner of this year’s Miles Franklin Award Review by Lisa
The Wounded Sinnerby Gus Henderson, shortlisted in last year’s WA Premier’s Book Awards (Emerging Writer categoy) Review by Lisa
It’s been nearly three days. You’d think I would have managed to post the news before now. But it took me by surprise, and it’s taken a while to come down to earth.
Last Friday, at the announcement of the WA Premier’s Book Awards,* I was awarded this year’s Western Australian Writer’s Fellowship. My fellow shortlistees were Lucy Dougan, Caitlin Maling, Rafeif Ismail and Carl Merrison, and it was a privilege to be in the company of these wonderful writers.
Unlike an award given for a published book, a fellowship is not a prize; it’s a contract. It comes with expectations and responsibilities, and I’m so excited about the work ahead. The fellowship will enable me to make substantial progress on the new novel I’m working on, set in Perth and Coolgardie during the 1890s—a story of emigration and racism and extraordinary social change.
My thanks to the WA Government, the State Library of WA and the judging panel for this unparalleled opportunity.
I was delighted when Will Yeoman, from The West Australian, invited me to talk about Scotland in this episode of ‘The Pod Well Travelled’. It was hard to choose one place among the many in Scotland I love, but in the end it had to be Shetland, where part 2 of Elemental is set. You can also listen to discussions about Finland and Arles in this episode.
And for the good news…
In a year that has been, and continues to be, so difficult and unnerving, it is a singular pleasure to be shortlisted for the WA Writer’s Fellowship, part of the WA Premier’s Book Awards.
The full shortlists are here. Congratulations and good luck to everyone!
My piece starts around the 16-minute mark, but before that you can get some great tips about places to visit in New Zealand as The West’s travel editor, Stephen Scourfield, talks to Nicole Ricksman from Flight Centre.
What a joy it has been, this 30-day project of looking back, looking elsewhere. As well as being an escape from lockdown, it has reminded me anew of so many things: among them, the role of memory in any person’s life, and what memory, and watching the elsewhere of the world, has brought to my work as a writer.
I have never thought of myself as a particularly visual person, but taking, and studying, photographs has helped to sharpen my vision. I have photographs pinned up all over my studio—black-and-whites from historical sources, as well as my own—and they have found their way into my work in different ways, not always literal.
This one, for me, is an image of ambiguity: the coexistence of the beauty of these northern seagulls and their reputation as disease-carrying scavengers; their freedom of flight and their dependence on the human; my rapture in photographing them and my dismay when I realised, seconds later, that they had left their mark (streaky, green, copious!) on my travel bag.
In the novel I am working on, I am struggling to understand more serious ambiguities than the vagaries of seagulls, but photographs continue to play a role in prompting rumination and imagination.
Author of KATHLEEN O’CONNOR OF PARIS (narrative non-fiction), ELEMENTAL and THE SINKINGS (novels) and INHERITED (short story collection). looking up/looking down is an occasional blog about writing, reading and watching the world...