Monthly Archives: March 2015

2, 2 and 2: Dianne Touchell talks about A Small Madness

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Dianne Touchell is fearless when it comes to what she writes and how she writes it, although I’m sure she would tell you that she’s just responding to what inspires and interests her as a writer of young adult fiction. What I particularly admire about her work is the respect she accords her adolescent fictional characters and, by extension, the young people who are her readers. The result: fiction that feels authentic, that is unquestionably compassionate.

I had the pleasure of working with Dianne as editor of her debut novel, Creepy & Maud (Fremantle Press, 2012), which was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award in 2013, in the Older Readers category. It also became embroiled in a censorship incident, re-igniting the ‘gatekeeper’ debate that is frequently raised in relation to YA fiction; you can read a well-balanced account of that here.

Dianne was born and raised in Fremantle, Western Australia, and reportedly has worked as a fry cook, a nightclub singer, a housekeeper, a bookseller and an office manager. She enjoys cold weather—something we have in common—and Mexican food. She lives with animals (I’m not sure how many of them are human).

I’m thrilled to be featuring Dianne’s second novel, A Small Madness (Allen & Unwin, 2015), which I believe sets her career on a stellar trajectory. Here is the book’s blurb:

Rose didn’t tell anyone about it. She wondered if it showed. She looked at herself in the mirror and turned this way and then that way. She stood as close to the mirror as she could, leaning over the bathroom basin, looking into her own eyes until they disappeared behind the fog of her breath. Looking for something. Some evidence that she was different. How could all of these feelings not show? She was a woman now, but it didn’t show and she couldn’t tell anyone.

An intimate, beautiful, important novel that challenged my beliefs and broke my heart.—Vikki Wakefield, author of Friday Brown

Over now to Dianne…

ASM Cover

2 things that inspired my book

1. This story was inspired by actual events that took place while I was living in the US more than ten years ago. A high-achieving teen couple became pregnant and hid that pregnancy. When the baby was born in a motel room, the teen father killed the infant and disposed of it in a dumpster. I was horrified by the story, but also felt there was more than one victim here. There was no compassion extended to the kids who had chosen this path; they were referred to as monsters.

I believe we have created a culture that hobbles young adults with strident expectations predominantly imposed to satisfy external appearances and alleviate parental anxiety, while simultaneously allowing these same young people to suffer in acute isolation with no outlet for their truest selves and fears. I became angry, because this sort of thing doesn’t happen in isolation. There had to be lots of broken things and broken people around them in order for them to feel they had no one to go to for help. Such an extreme choice had to be the product of some extreme familial and environmental malfunction. I wanted to write a story about the bigger picture.

2. I’ve always been very interested in the different ways sexually active girls and sexually active boys are viewed and judged. We are still slut-shaming girls while the boys enjoying these sluts are neither mentioned nor censured. A good girl apparently becomes a bad girl when she has sex, especially if she enjoys sex. So if there is a consequence to having sex, such as pregnancy or disease, a good girl who has been taught by society that her virginity is her crown is far less likely to seek help. Expectation becomes the shame-flame. And a good girl is aware that that shame will infect her entire family. In many ways we haven’t moved that far forward since Lydia Bennett fucked off with Wickham. There are cultures and religions operating right now where a girl can be excommunicated and banished for having sex, and/or blamed for leading a boy into having sex himself. This enrages me. I am inspired by my rage.

2 places connected with the book

1. The parental headspace: anxiety-filled, adamant, structured, time-poor, practicality-driven, peace-craving, obsessed with externals and appearances, a sense of isolation. Busy parents lose their peripheral vision and too often gain their only positive reinforcement from the eyes of other parents gazing enviously on to their apparently happy home. But no one looks into the apparently happy home. That might shatter the mutual delusion between grown-ups using their children for validation.

2. The young adult headspace: anxiety-filled, chaotic, unstructured, time-poor, sensually driven, acceptance-craving, obsessed with externals and appearances, a sense of isolation. The desperate need to be validated, which is so often misinterpreted as being bolshie. Young adults lose their peripheral vision and too often gain their only positive reinforcement by internalising and acting upon the expectations of grown-ups. No good choices can thrive within that kind of disconnection from self.

My geographical place is where these two intersect.

2 favourite things about A Small Madness

1. This description of Michael’s experience of the denied pregnancy:

He wondered if that nascent snow-caver ever sent tendrils of sadness into Rose’s dreams. It lived in his. It pulsed and rolled and nudged like a manatee in his spinal fluid, and it wasn’t even growing in him.

2. The relationship between Liv and her mother:

‘Oh fuck, oh fuck…’

‘Hello?’

‘…oh fuck, oh fuck…Mum?’

‘Livvie? Is that you?’

‘Please come. Please come to Rose’s. Oh fuck, Mum.’

‘Jesus, baby. I’m still in bed. What’s going on?’

‘Please come to Rose’s, Mum. She…she…’

‘Tell me what’s wrong—now!’

‘I just need you.’

‘On my way.’

 

A Small Madness is in bookshops now.
Find out more at:
Allen & Unwin
Dianne’s website

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Snapshot: The Wonders

This snapshot features Paddy O’Reilly’s impressive third novel, The Wonders (Affirm, 2014), in which a flamboyant entrepreneur turns three human curiosities into global celebrities. Leon is the recipient of a visible metal heart (after undergoing multiple failed transplants). Kathryn is covered in curly black wool (the result of gene therapy to cure Huntingdon’s disease). And Christos is a performance artist who has brackets transplanted into his shoulder blades to hold enormous metal wings (the only one of the three whose aberration is a choice). Together, they perform in an entertainment spectacular called The Wonders.

One of the reasons I found this novel deeply interesting is the questions it raises about how we as a society deal with human otherness and difference—a preoccupation of mine since writing my first novel, The Sinkings. When O’Reilly spoke at the Perth Writers Festival about being inspired by exquisite old anatomical drawings, I remembered my own research, trawling through nineteenth-century medical journals and visiting the anatomy museum at Glasgow University, with its monstrous specimens in glass jars

I’ve chosen the following passage as a brief taste of The Wonders:

AP_wonders_ln-20140808155214183677-300x0Leon had come to think of the stare as admiration. Maybe Kathryn was right. A child uses the stare as a tool of curiosity and wonder. The grotesque is wonderful. The malformed is wonderful, the unexpected is wonderful and so is the beautiful. There is far less judgement in the unguarded stare of a child than the hush-ups of their adult companions.

He told Kathryn how, at a private dinner, a child who was waiting in the corridor for her waitress mother to finish work had asked him if he was a robot. That made him laugh. ‘Is your brain made of metal too?’ she asked. She was five, the age when the questions pour out of a child like milk out of a jug. ‘Do you eat nails? Why did they put it in that way? Do you have feelings?’

‘Oh yes,’ Leon answered her. ‘I have so many feelings that sometimes I think I’ll burst.’

‘Me too,’ she replied gravely. She touched his hand, and looked up at his face with serious eyes. Eyes that didn’t waver. Eyes that never flickered once to the hole in his chest.

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Book review: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

The scenario is claustrophic: in medieval England, Sarah, a seventeen-year-old virgin, relinquishes worldly life—family, human touch, comfort, light, fresh air—and is locked into a tiny stone cell attached to the village church. It is voluntary. And it is permanent. The door to the cell, or anchorhold, is nailed shut. Sarah conceives of this as ‘the nailing of my hands and feet to the cross with Christ’ but an equally fitting comparison would be the nailing of a coffin, because the anchorhold is to be Sarah’s home and also her grave: lest there be any doubt, she is told that the bones of a previous anchoress, Sister Agnes, are interred beneath her. Her life’s work is to devote herself to prayer—for the edification of the village and the soul of the wealthy landowner who is her patron.

9781460702987I was sent a copy of Robyn Cadwallader’s debut novel in preparation for a session I was chairing at the Perth Writers Festival. As someone who has trouble with confined spaces, and has nightmares about being buried alive, I felt a little uneasy when I held the book in my hand, knowing the situation of its protagonist. The stunning cover illustration,  a swallow soaring upwards, should have been a clue, should have reassured me. Because this novel soars, too.

Sarah’s isolation from the world is not as complete as I had originally feared it would be. She has two female servants who attend to her (extremely meagre) needs of food and clothing and cleanliness (such as cleanliness was in medieval times) through one window. Another window allows her to receive female villagers seeking her counsel. A confessor from the nearby priory comes once a month to hear her sins, and to interpret her written Rule. Charmingly, a cat visits through the servants’ window whether Sarah likes it or not, occupying the best place by the fire. And she can partially see, through a narrow slit in the stone wall called a ‘squint’, into the church.

Cadwallader, also a medieval scholar, convincingly creates a world outside the anchorhold that is patriarchal, class-based, punitive, predatory (for women) and austere. Sarah escapes that physical world but not, of course, these defining elements; they continue to shape her existence in every way. While I found her occasional displays of self-loathing disturbing to read (particularly those involving physical mortification—self-flagellation and the wearing of a hairshirt), I could understand them in the context of her time and circumstance.

For a work whose central premise is the act of ‘enclosure’, a determined, purposeful isolation of the self from the world, The Anchoress is a remarkably sensual novel. But perhaps this is not so surprising, because the act of isolation requires a constant repudiation of bodily desires of all kinds. Sexual desire is the obvious one (Bishop Michael tells her, ‘Enclosure is the only means by which your virginity may be assured’ and warns her that ‘Lust prowls, it prowls’), but Sarah and her confessor also speak of ‘keeping the flesh in need’—meaning in need of food, warmth, soft bedding, external stimulation. The narrative dwells in the intimacies and minutiae of deprivation and what passes as compensation. For example, with limited visual stimulation, Sarah’s other senses are heightened.

 The stewed meat smelt rich; the fragrance wound around my head and sank into my clothes.

 

His voice made me think of the river where it runs deepest, the silken sound of its slow eddies…

 

The squeak of metal close by, the sound of wood on wood as the church door shut. The smell of dirt floated in to me as it always did when someone entered the church. Muffled footsteps, a few soft thumps and then quietness. The cough of a sick man, dry and rasping, the sound of breath dragged in and out.

I had been intrigued, at the outset, to see how Cadwallader would create drama and pace in the story of this voluntarily entombed character, but it soon became apparent that there was rich potential for both. First, Sarah has a history, a back story, a reason for the extreme choice she has made. In the interests of avoiding spoilers, I don’t intend to say more about that. Second, although much of the narrative takes place in a cell, that cell is attached to a church, and the church is located in a village, and the village is connected intimately with two sources of significant power—the Catholic Church, in the form of the priory, and the land-owning class, in the form of Sarah’s patron; they, in turn, are intimately connected with each other. There is a strong character arc in the novel in relation to Sarah that could be described as a unique coming-of-age story. And there is are narrative arcs involving the wider world—Sarah’s family, her servants, the villagers, her confessor, her patron, the prior and brothers, the previous anchoresses—to which Sarah is central. The Anchoress unspools its threads at a pace that feels entirely consonant with the world it inhabits, but it never falters, is never less than compelling.

Good historical fiction tells us something about our own world as it narrates a story of the past. While reading The Anchoress, I was struck time and again by the operation of power along gender and class lines. While these play out in the most extreme ways in the novel, I could not help but think of the residues of powerlessness that still exist today, and of the ways in which people resist, fight back, reclaim, endure, create. Or fail to. I think it is one of the greatest gifts of fiction that it increases our empathy for the other, our understanding that the other is ourselves.

The Anchoress is a novel that I know I will continue to think about for a long time—and that’s my kind of fiction.

 

The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader (Fourth Estate, 2015)

ISBN 978 0 7322 9221 7

 

aww-badge-2015-200x300This review counts towards my total for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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A March photo-reminder…

to look up, where the rainbows are…

 

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One celebration and two king hits

During the last two weeks, there have been highs and lows for readers and writers in Western Australia and beyond. We delighted in the offerings of the Perth Writers Festival, reported by many (including The West Australian) as one of the most successful in recent years. But we have been dismayed by two major blows—one by the government sector and one by the corporate.

The Western Australian State Government announced that the WA Premier’s Book Awards, open to books published nationally in the previous year, will now be held biennially instead of annually, with the next awards to be announced in  2016 for books published in 2014 and 2015. As a shortlisted author in 2014 for my novel Elemental (Fiction and People’s Choice categories), I can attest to the enormous value of such recognition, not only in publicity and sales but in validation and encouragement. Stretching the awards over a period of two years will dilute the impact of a shortlisting, especially for those titles published in a ‘between’ year, as timeliness is an issue in an industry where books often have a scandalously short shelf life.

Much has been said, and rightly so, about the effective halving of the financial recognition of writers through making the awards biennial—presumably for budgetary reasons (a saving of $65,000), although the Premier has declined to comment on this. But equally alarming is the halving of the number of books—across many genres—that will be recognised and promoted through shortlistings, let alone awards, over that time. And overarching all these considerations is the negative message that the decision sends about the value of the literary arts to the vibrancy of life in our community.

Here are a few of the many comments from those in the industry who have spoken up in the print media recently:

While this will hurt writers, publishers, booksellers and readers, the saving is a pittance in the scheme of things.—Kim Scott, writer, The Australian

WA is still an affluent state. Reducing these awards by half is cruel to the writers who spend years completing books that should last for decades.—Terri-ann White, publisher, The Australian

The financial cost to the state of running the awards is minimal, more so in the context of their importance to local writers, booksellers, librarians and readers. Frankly, this is embarrassing.—David Whish-Wilson, writer, The Australian

It’s a tremendously disappointing decision. I would have thought the magnificent effect of The Giants on the community was enough to convince any government that spending money on the arts isn’t wasted. In this so-called backwards Wild West, we are among the greatest readers and love to buy books.—Diana Warnock, arts patron, The West Australian

It was a surprise decision and we have a lot of concerns.—Sharon Flindell, CEO, writingWA, The West Australian

[The decision] has major ramifications across the industry and reflects very poorly on the government’s support for the writing sector.—Delys Bird, UWA academic, 2014 awards judge, Western Suburbs Weekly

These awards have long drawn a spotlight on WA’s talent and have inspired new and established writers.—Jane Fraser, publisher, Western Suburbs Weekly

The impact of a prize-winning book and the profile it brings is much greater than a football match, I would say.—Michael Campbell, 2014 awards judge, Sydney Morning Herald

This kind of recognition is so important to an individual writer’s career.—Amanda Curtin, The West Australian

Perth writer and bookseller Emily Paull has initiated a petition calling on Premier Colin Barnett to stop cuts to the awards. If you feel strongly about the issue, please consider signing.

The second recent blow to writers and readers—this one from the corporate sector—has slipped by almost unnoticed; however, its potential effect is just as damaging to writers, publishers, booksellers and readers. A paragraph in the current writingWA e-newsletter states:

writingWA was dismayed to learn earlier this week that a decision has been taken to reduce the space available for books coverage in Tuesday’s edition of The West Australian by 50%. The reliable—and highly valued—double page spread will now be limited to a single page and occasional sporadic coverage on other days.

Over the past few years, the coverage of literature in the pages of The West Australian has gone from strength to strength under the enthusiastic and visionary direction of Books Editor William Yeoman. The sudden contraction of the newspaper’s commitment is devastating news. If you are concerned, please consider contacting The West Australian directly to express your views.

*Here are two more posts on the changes to the WA Premier’s Book Awards: one from Louise Allan and one from Emily Paull.

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