Seagulls, stories and sunflowers…

Every year on 10 March, descendants of C.Y. O’Connor, along with friends and sundry stragglers like me, gather at the beach named after him to honour the memory of Western Australia’s Engineer-in-Chief, whose visionary schemes helped to transform the colony.

On this day in 1902, The Chief—overworked and exhausted, harassed and reviled by the press, trapped in a volatile political environment—rode his horse along this beach one last time.

But today’s early-morning gathering is no sombre affair. There are conversations and stories. Laughter. Lolloping dogs. Children and irreverent seagulls. Buckets of flower petals to be strewn on the waves and carried out by swimmers to the bronze memorial statue, by sculptor Tony Jones, a hundred metres offshore.

I have brought sunflowers, for Kate—large as dinner-plates and the brilliant cadmium yellow she loved—and as I fly one like a frisbee into the Indian Ocean I hope it will travel far…

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2, 2 and 2: Alice Nelson talks about The Children’s House

Alice Nelson
The Children’s House
(Penguin Random House)
LITERARY FICTION

ALICE NELSON PHOTO

It’s such a pleasure to introduce Perth author Alice Nelson talking about her second novel and one of my favourite reads of 2018. The Children’s House, released last October, was longlisted for the 2019 Indie Awards and has been described by Better Reading as ‘spellbinding storytelling at its best and purest’ .

Alice’s first novel, The Last Sky—another favourite of mine (I featured it in this post)—was shortlisted for The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and was shortlisted for the Australian Society of Authors’ Barbara Jefferis Award, and Alice was named Best Young Australian Novelist of 2009 in the Sydney Morning Herald’s national awards program. Her short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Sydney Review of Books, The Asia Literary Review, Southerly, the West Australian Newspaper and the Australian Book Review.

The blurb for The Children’s House reads:

The Children’s House explores the traumas that divide families and the love and hope that creates them.

Marina Hirsch is a young professor teaching at Columbia, made famous by a book on the Romani people. In her small academic circle, she is known as ‘the Gypsy scholar’, a chronicler of hermetic communities.

Recently moved into a Harlem brownstone with her psychoanalyst husband, one hot summer day she witnesses a Rwandan refugee woman—Constance—leave her tiny son in the middle of the sidewalk. Scooping the boy up, Marina hurries to his mother and hands him back. The year is 1997, three years after the Rwandan genocide.

As the summer progresses, the two women form a tentative relationship, but soon Marina’s fierce attachment to the young boy and the dark opacity of Constance’s past threaten to test the boundaries of love, motherhood and power.

If you haven’t already read The Children’s House, I feel sure you will want to after reading this beautiful guest post by Alice…

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2 things that inspired The Children’s House

There’s a line in a novel by Anne Michaels that seemed to me to so beautifully summarise the complex terrain that I wanted to explore in The Children’s House. Michaels writes:

‘There is nothing a man will not do to another. But there’s also nothing a man will not do for another.’

My novel ventures into some difficult territory and while it is about some of the terrible things humans are capable of, I also wanted to explore acts of grace and empathy; the profound echoes that compassion and generosity can have. I wanted to write about consolation and restoration as well as loss and exile, and Michaels’ beautiful lines were a reminder for me of the ways that kindness and goodwill can be incredibly potent forces in an individual life and in a community, and acted as an encouragement for me to write a novel that was about the co-existence of acts of horror and acts of compassion.

Another literary gift that inspired me to continue writing this often unwieldy and difficult novel over many years was listening to the Irish writer Anne Enright talk about the way that the work of writing a novel is also a process of educating the heart, and that we have to become equal to the books we wish to write. I write very slowly and painstakingly and this particular novel took several years to write, so hearing Enright’s words of encouragement gave me faith that the work I was doing was a way for me to spend a sustained period of time dwelling with some of the questions and preoccupations that haunt me; questions about memory, loss, inheritance and the possibilities of restoration and solace.

2 places that inspired The Children’s House

One of the interesting things about the writing of The Children’s House was the way that particular houses exerted such a profound influence on the story, even to the point of altering the narrative arc. There is the brownstone in Harlem where the novel is set, which is actually the house that I lived in during my years in New York. I never consciously planned that the characters in the novel would live in that brownstone, but it was a place that I was enormously attached to for a long time and as the novel took shape, it seemed to be the natural home for my characters. Towards the end of the writing process, I actually went back and stayed in the New York brownstone for three months. It was a somewhat surreal experience because I felt like I had been transplanted into the world of my novel and I kept expecting that I might glimpse one of my characters disappearing around a corner ahead of me, but it was also incredibly useful in making sure that the texture of Harlem was authentic, that I had got it right.

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The section of the book that is set in Cape Cod came about because I spent a winter there writing in a little cottage above the dunes in Truro. It was a very cold, bitter winter and all of the nearby houses had been shut up for the season. The insufficient midwinter light, the windswept beach and the isolation made a deep impression on me and it was during that time that I wrote the sections about my central character Marina travelling to Cape Cod to try and uncover the mystery of her mother’s disappearance many years earlier. That winter house above the dunes became Marina’s mother’s house, and the section of the book set there turned out to be very important to the narrative trajectory.

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2 influences that helped me to solve particular problems in the novel

The Children’s House is a complex novel and my challenge in writing it was to find a way in which echoes, patterns and symmetries could be brought together to form a coherent whole. It’s also a novel that slips in and out of the consciousness of different characters and contains several voices. I play the piano and I was working through Bach’s Preludes and Fugues when I was writing the novel, and at one point I realised that what I was trying to create was almost a literary version of a fugue, where there is a main theme and then several voices in contrapuntal motion. The form can be quite intricate and very complicated technically, with three or four voices interweaving, but Bach is masterful in creating the most harmonious wholes, these glorious polyphonic pieces. So conceiving of the structural problems I was having in these musical metaphors was very helpful and gave me a new way to look at what was happening on the page.

Another influence on the novel was my extensive reading of psychoanalytic literature, and in particular, a paper called ‘Ghosts in the Nursery: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant–Mother Relationships’. The Children’s House is very much concerned with the ways that we inherit the unresolved lives of our parents, and the different ways that our psyches are shadowed by history—both personal and collective—so my deepening understandings of psychoanalytic theory were immensely helpful.

The Children’s House is available now in Australia,
and is forthcoming in other territories this year
Find out more at Penguin Random House
Contact Alice via her website

 

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Our Imagined Selves…

Most people who know me also know that I don’t get on with summer. Which is why I spent most of January somewhere a bit cooler…

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Ah, take me back…

But there’s one thing I do love about Perth summer—Perth Festival Writers Week! If you’re here next week, culminating in the weekend of 23–24 February, you’re in for a treat.

Curator William Yeoman, in his second festival—‘Our Imagined Selves’—has put together a fabulous program, with visiting guests Ben Okri, Anna Funder, Monica McInerney, David Malouf, Markus Zusak, Trent Dalton, Esi Edugyan, Fiona Wright, Jane Caro, Benjamin Law, Chloe Hooper, Hugh Mackay, Kristina Olsson, Carly Findlay, Angela Meyer and many others. Local writers are out in force, too, including Alice Nelson, S.A. Jones, Dervla McTiernan, Susan Midalia, David Whish-Wilson, Meg McKinlay, Steve Hawke, A.J. Betts and Carrie Cox.

I’m thrilled to be chairing a session with award-winning UK author Amy Sackville, who will be talking about her wonderful new novel, Painter to the King. And my fellow panellist in the ‘(Re)Writing History’ session is UK historical novelist Andrew Miller, whose latest, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, I didn’t want to put down.

I’m also going to be trying very hard not to fangirl Gail Jones at the Sunday morning breakfast, ‘Ars Longa Vita Brevis’, during which she, Amy Sackville and I will be talking about our most recent works, all of them about art and artists.

My Saturday afternoon workshop ‘Writing Fiction: Getting Started’ is designed for those just starting out—or thinking about it—and covers basics like inspiration and creativity, and an introduction to the craft aspects of writing fiction.

Every year I warn myself not to go crazy in the bookshop, but I already have two four must-haves on my list, and I suspect that’s just the beginning!

Please come and say hello if you see me around, and I hope you have a wonderful festival.

 

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2, 2 and 2: Marcella Polain talks about Driving into the Sun

It’s a late start to 2019 on looking up/looking down, but as I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege of travelling throughout January, my working year has only just begun.

And what a wonderful way to begin the year’s blogging, with a guest post from one of Western Australia’s most accomplished writers…

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Marcella Polain
Driving into the Sun
(Fremantle Press)
LITERARY FICTION

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I worked with Marcella for several years at Edith Cowan University, where she played a prominent role in developing the Writing program and has taught and mentored hundreds of emerging writers. Marcella is one of those enormously talented writers who can turn her creative mind to almost any genre: she is well known throughout Australia as an award-winning poet (winner of the Anne Elder Prize and shortlisted for many major awards), has a background in theatre and screen writing, and has published widely as an essayist (longlisted for the Calibre Prize). Her debut novel, The Edge of the World, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Marcella was born in Singapore and arrived in Perth as an immigrant, at the age of two, with her Armenian mother and Irish father.

Having eagerly awaited Marcella’s second novel for many years, I am thrilled to be able to feature it here.

The blurb reads:

For Orla, living in the suburbs in 1968 on the cusp of adolescence, her father is a great shining light, whose warm and powerful presence fills her world.

But in the aftermath of his sudden death, Orla, her mother and her sister are left in a no-man’s-land, a place where the rights and protections of the nuclear family suddenly and mysteriously no longer apply, and where the path between girl and woman must be navigated alone.

And here is Marcella…

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2 things that inspired Driving into the Sun

I can’t read Nabokov’s Lolita. I know you’re probably thinking that I should try harder [I would never presume to do that, Marcella!], that many writers are of the view it’s one of the best novels ever written. Well, I’ve tried several times and I just can’t. To me, reading about Humbert is unbearable. Children and women are taken in by people like him, have to shape their lives around them—living contingently, and sometimes not living at all. When I try to read it, I just keep thinking, ‘But what about the girl? What about her story?’

A fleeting conversation at a café on the Swan River (around the turn of the last century, when I was beginning my first novel, The Edge of the World). Some women writers, a little older than me, were saying how safe Perth was when they were teenagers. I was taken aback because that’s not my memory of it at all. The Perth of my youth had an underbelly, clearly visible to me. I could tell that class had something to do with this difference of view (and Australians don’t like talking about class), but it really got me thinking that there must be a lot of people like me, for whom the past is not a safer, happier place in which they could move about freely. And I thought: well, those stories—the underbelly stories—are just as legitimate as any other. I’m also not entirely convinced that wealthier suburbs were much safer and happier in the 60s. They still had men returned from war who drank too much, and women whose lives were curtailed. They had serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke, as well.

2 places that inspired Driving into the Sun

Is monstrosity a place? It’s a state of being, culturally prescribed, and, in that way, a place occupied by some. I’m interested in the way culture creates its monsters—not just by mistreating people and so shaping their behaviour into the aberrant, but also by prescribing ideas of what monsters are—how they look, where they reside, how they behave. We believe these cultural delusions, and so we run from those who fit the stereotype (maybe unkempt and dishevelled) into the arms of the well-groomed one who can appear safe but isn’t.

Childhood is a place powerfully remembered and embodied; we all carry it with us and within us. And grief is a place—we talk a lot about grief as a journey, so it can certainly be considered terrain we traverse. Think about the impact of each of these places on their own and then consider their intersection. Childhood and grief make a very special place, indeed. It’s an elite world. Only some are chosen. All go unwillingly. And it’s largely invisible. Those who live in it might look just like the rest of us but they’re not.

2 of my favourite things about Driving into the Sun

Driving into the Sun began as a story in which horses were a major focus. I love everything about horses—their smell, their sounds, their breath, their nervousness, twitchiness, drowsiness, disinterest, their power, eyelashes, warmth, their muzzles, hooves, necks, the way their hides ripple when flies land on them, the texture of the hair of their manes, their muscularity, the way they turn their ears to track sound or lay them flat when annoyed. As I write this, I wonder (again) why—of all the creatures in the world—I feel closest to horses. When I look at the list above, I think perhaps I’m a bit like a horse. Or maybe it’s just that I fell in love with Fury when I was five. (Does anyone else remember Fury?) The opening shot is still vivid in me: Fury (of the title) suddenly appearing on a rise, rearing, pawing, whinnying. Even very young, I recognised that power and agitation—that life-force. I thought it the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I wanted to write about all this, about horses and what they mean—and I think that is still in Orla as she longs for a horse—but writing also has its own life-force, and the story became about other things, as well.

Fury was wild and the other wildness I love is the Indian Ocean, a gift largely taken for granted where I live. It draws me in the same way it draws many. My first ever home was surrounded by jungle, built right alongside the curve of sand in a protected cove. I don’t remember but I’ve seen photos. I grew up in Perth and loved visits to the beach. In Driving into the Sun, Orla wonders why her family doesn’t seem to know that before the sea breeze arrives is the best time to be at the beach, which is something I did wonder as a kid. Perhaps we have to grow up in a place to embody that kind of weather knowledge. Or perhaps it’s just that it’s hard to get three kids organised quickly enough! Or perhaps it has to matter. Writing any scenes with real or imagined ocean is always infused with the extra pleasure of re-creating a little wildness.

 

Driving into the Sun is a February 2019 release
Find out more at Fremantle Press
Marcella Polain will be talking about her new novel at Perth Writers Week

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looking back/looking forward…

A big thank-you to everyone who has contributed to, or read,
looking up/looking down in 2018.

May the New Year bring you
good health,
good books
and good company!

Amanda x

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Year’s end…

As 2018 draws to a close, I am feeling… well, a few things, really.

First of all, a bit exhausted. It’s been a busy year in which, among other things, I’ve seen a manuscript through to publication (such a neat, glib statement that belies the enormity of the process!), given many talks, conducted a gallery walk (a first for me), taken part in panels, readings and conversations, given four launch speeches, visited book clubs, recorded podcasts, interviewed writers, been interviewed myself, presented workshops, judged a young writers’ competition, mentored a writer, and been nominated for a national award.

I’m grateful to everyone who, in ways large and small, has been part of the wonderful tapestry of 2018—too many to name here, but I know, and see, and appreciate, every one of those threads. Thank you!

On the whole, 2018 has been good to me. But I’m aware that hasn’t been the case for everyone. If you’re one of those people, I hope the coming year is gentler. And whatever it is that has helped you through this one—courage, stubbornness, friends, books, chocolate—may there continue to be an abundance of that.

I am looking forward to meeting 2019. There are exciting book-related events coming up. And a journey to the top of the world. A novel to finish. A reunion with friends. A road trip around a wild coast. And a couple of momentous family events. Who knows what else?

For now, I’m signing off for 2018. Thank you for reading looking up/looking down, for your comments, for your kind messages throughout the year, and…

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2, 2 and 2: Tineke Van der Eecken talks about Traverse

Tineke Van der Eecken
Traverse
(Wild Weeds Press)
MEMOIR

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I first met Tineke Van der Eecken in 2010, when she asked me to take a preliminary look at the fledgling manuscript that would eventually become Traverse. And last month, it gave me great pleasure to launch the book, and to celebrate Tineke’s long creative journey of hard work and perseverance that would, along the way, see the unpublished manuscript shortlisted for the 2016 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award. What I felt were the strengths of the manuscript in its earliest form shine through clearly still: an unusual subject matter, a strong evocation of place, and the warmth and honesty of the narrative voice.

Traverse is not Tineke’s first book; she has also published Cafe d’Afrique, a memoir about her experiences in running a coffee shop in Zambia. And her poetry and non-fiction have been widely published in Australia, Europe and the United Kingdom. Belgian-born, she now lives near Fremantle, Western Australia, and works in conflict resolution. She also makes jewellery inspired by her travels.

Here is the book’s blurb:

Tineke, her husband Dirk and their two children have moved many times to support his career as a geologist. As the family struggle to settle into their new home in England, Dirk is away for months, conducting surveys in Madagascar; while at home, he is mentally absent. When Tineke discovers his infidelity, her life can never be the same.

Determined to save her twelve-year marriage, she decides to accompany Dirk on his next geological expedition: a 350 kilometre trek through the unrelenting terrain of Madagascar.

Traverse is both a travel memoir that charts Tineke’s difficult and dangerous trek, and a forensic examination of the denouement of a fractured marriage. The landscape of Madagascar—in particular, the powerful Bemarivo River—brings her face-to-face with her own limitations and with demons from her past. By pushing through a physical feat of endurance and examining the emotional truth of her situation, Tineke is finally able to resolve her own and her husband’s future.

 

Over to Tineke…

Traverse Book Cover

2 things that inspired my book

1 Working through painful life experiences is at the centre of my story. It’s nothing new; it’s the tragedy of life. The trick was to turn this negative into a positive, something beautiful and worth sharing. My first book, Cafe d’Afrique, tells the story of a failed business venture in Africa but it’s also about friendship with Zambian people and with Zambia as a country. Traverse is the story of a marriage breakdown, on one hand, and about daring to be vulnerable, on the other.

2 The immediate inspiration for Traverse was the trip itself: trekking 350 kilometres on foot through four climate zones in a remote part of Northern Madagascar, one of the most beautiful and diverse countries in the world—both ecologically and culturally. During the trek, I would meet the woman my husband had fallen in love with and try to decide if our marriage could be rescued.

2 places connected with my book

1 Northern Madagascar—in particular, the area east of Tsinzarano—following the Bemarivo River towards its source in the mountains, and ending in Ambilobe. In this part of the world, you go from one place to another by walking.

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2 Cotgrave, a small village in the Eastern Midlands in England. It is perched in an undulating landscape and connected to the other villages by ancient footpaths.

2 favourite Madagascan phrases

1 The question ‘Bis lanana?’—‘Where is the path?’—was commonly heard during the expedition. When you trek through an open landscape, you can see the path winding its way across the hills to the next village, ten or twenty kilometres away. It can take all day to reach that destination. There is something marvellous in arriving on foot in a village or town. You can never be anonymous. You know the others on the path, and they know you. The school you pass will have children chanting in French instead of their local language.

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2 Expressed as a statement, ‘Bis lanana’ meant there was always a path, even if it had to be hacked through the forest. I see it as a metaphor for a modern marriage. There is always a path, a way to make things work or to make the best out of what is not working. But paths, like rivers, merge and separate. Our path followed the course of the river all the way to the source. There were many tributaries, unexpectedly creating white water, danger. Our focus, more and more, was on how to manoeuvre these crossings.

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Traverse is available online here and on Amazon, and at select WA bookshops
More about Tineke on her website
Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @tinekecreations

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