Monthly Archives: July 2015

Review of Australian Fiction special WA volume: issue 2

Issue 2 of the special volume of Review of Australian Fiction featuring writers from Western Australia is out now, with wonderful new stories from established writer Susan Midalia (who also talks about her new story collection, Feet to the Stars, here) and emerging writer Josephine Clarke.

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Susan’s story, ‘Imagine’, begins:

Everyone’s checking out their phones, as usual, eyes down, scrolling or texting, or eyes closed listening to their iPods. I reach into my I Survived Heart of Darkness calico bag and take out my book, feeling out of place, out of time. But then again, since no one’s actually looking at me, maybe I don’t really exist.

Josephine’s story, ‘A woman who went to town’, opens:

All that remained of him was the smell of coffee and his empty bowl in the sink. It was Sale day, and he had already driven off in his ute. Lena couldn’t help herself; she left the dishes and went outside to her garden. She’d been waiting all week for a chance to look over the roses. Her shoes darkened with the wet dew. It was delicious, the freedom.

RAF publishes two stories every two weeks, delivered in mobi (for Kindle) or ePub (for iPhone/iPad, Kobo, Nook, Readmill) format. Individual issues of RAF are $2.99. A subscription for six issues is $12.99.

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Susan Midalia talks about Feet to the Stars

UnknownRecently, during a major decluttering exercise involving thirty or forty archive boxes, I came across a collection of my undergraduate literature assignments (do I need to mention I’m a hoarder?). As I sorted through them, I was reminded that long before Susan Midalia and I became friends, and writing and editing colleagues, she had been my lecturer and tutor in a unit on Australian Literature and Film—a unit I had loved, not least because Susan is the most inspiring of teachers. I think she has been teaching me, in one way or another, ever since.

Susan retired from an academic career in 2006 to write fiction full-time, and her new book follows A History of the Beanbag (2007), shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, and An Unknown Sky (2012), shortlisted for the Steele Rudd Award. She is, or has been, a judge of several literary awards, including the WA Premier’s Book Awards, the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, the Todhunter Literary Award and the Margaret River Short Story Competition. She is a board member of writingWA, Margaret River Press, and A Maze of Story, a volunteer organisation that encourages creativity in socially and economically disadvantaged children. She is also a regular facilitator of short story writing workshops.

I’m delighted she has agreed to answer some 2, 2 and 2 questions about her new book, the intriguingly titled Feet to the Stars.

Here is the back-cover blurb:

Susan Midalia’s third collection of stories, Feet to the Stars, offers keenly observed details about everyday life, expressed with pathos, tenderness and bracing wit. Subtly rendered and emotionally engaging, these stories speak of the transformative capacities of the human mind and heart, and of the ways we affect each other, sometimes unwittingly and often profoundly. They offer us the pleasure of listening to different voices, and the satisfaction of careful crafting and evocative prose.

Over now to Susan…

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Two things that inspired me to write the book

There are two areas of experience that keep returning to me, not always consciously or deliberately. The first is children. This might be partly autobiographical; having helped to raise two adult sons who I love fiercely, I remain fascinated by that complex combination in children, particularly adolescents, of wisdom and naiveté, kindness and self-absorption; by their capacity to enrich and sometimes to burden the life of a parent; by their idealism and freedom from hypocrisy, which reinforces for me, and I hope for all of us, the value of hope in a cynical adult world.

A second preoccupation in my new collection is the need for political engagement as a means of questioning structures of power. I was inspired to write stories such as ‘The hook’, ‘Oranges’ and ‘Exploring’—all of which in their different ways deal with issues of injustice and political self-interest—partly because I’ve been increasingly concerned by what’s happening to, and in, Australia. Like many Australians, I’ve become dismayed, saddened and indeed afraid of the lack of compassion and basic human decency that I believe is beginning to characterise this country. Not that I want to preach to my readers, because good writing doesn’t pontificate or tell the reader what to think. Rather, I try to encourage reflection on the way we treat one another, both in our daily lives and in the wider society, for in the end, that’s what matters most to me.

Two places connected with my book

First, and speaking geographically, most of the stories in this collection are set in Australia. Sometimes the physical settings are integral to the meaning of the story; in ‘Exploring’, for example, a road trip across the Nullarbor and the setting of Cottesloe Beach are used as a means of questioning cultural myths of identity. For the most part, however, the stories are urban/suburban, and here I’m not so much interested in physical space but how ‘Australian-ness’ is manifest in the way my characters speak, think and behave.

I’m very aware that I’m not given to creating literal settings, mainly because it’s not one of my strengths as a writer. I greatly admire writers who make settings seem real, immediate, atmospheric, who offer us either the pleasures of recognition—places we know—and the pleasures of geographical difference. But I’ve decided to leave that to those wonderful writers, and console myself with the fact that this absence in my stories puts me in the brilliant company of Jane Austen, whose novels very rarely create physical settings. Like Austen, I’m drawn instead to inner spaces—to our thoughts and feelings, motives, fears, desires—the whole glorious mess of human consciousness. This is the second element that’s prompted me to write this book: I’m interested in the things people think but don’t always say, as well as in what they manage to say in those moments of confusion, clarity, humility, disillusionment, affirmation, despair, consolation, that constitute our lives. One of my main goals in this collection was the creation of a range of different inner spaces and voices: males as well as females, adolescents and adults, working-class and middle-class. Trying to imagine what it might be like to be someone who’s very different from me is both immensely pleasurable—a bit like being an actor, I guess—and an ethical imperative, an act of the empathetic imagination which for me lies at the heart of writing, reading and being.

Two favourite passages from Feet to the Stars

The first is from a story called ‘Because’. Narrated retrospectively by a woman called Violet, it’s a story centred on her ‘search’ for her mother, Beth, who went missing when Violet was two years old. Here is Violet, recalling the objects once owned by her mother:

What else did my father give me? What scraps and shards, what rags of passing time, through which I might recall my mother? Were there other evidential texts of more, or less, veracity? More, or less, haunting? He gave me objects: a bronze letter-opener; a box of unwritten postcards; a silver hairbrush with an embroidered backing, stitched in crimson and green. All of which I saw, and continued to see, as unexceptional. But I am fond of my mother’s tiny, grey pincushion in the shape of a mouse, which holds for me the pathos of the miniature; and a marcasite brooch in the shape of a bow, fashionable during her time, and fashionable once more. But whenever I look at these objects, touch them, I cannot feel my mother. Perhaps a bracelet or a necklace, something she had worn against her skin, might have made a difference. Or perhaps it is merely the paradox of any object from the past, its presence confirming absence. Like a photograph of the dead: you are here; you are gone.

And here’s an extract from the titular story, ‘Feet to the Stars’. It’s narrated from the perspective of Paul, a middle-aged teacher in a private girls’ school, who has been visiting—at her request—one of his students, hospitalised with anorexia:

At school the girls had made a card for Nell and asked him to sign it. One of those jumbo-sized cards, meant for celebrations and silly occasions, and at the top of the page, a quotation in bright red letters: Clownlike, happiest on your hands, feet to the stars. Sylvia Plath. Bella said it had taken ages to find words that everyone agreed on: some girls just wanted a simple message like get well soon or we miss you, and the school sacristan preferred something from the Bible.

‘We talked about the poem, remember?’ said Laurie. ‘About being a kid, about being happiest, and how we only think we’re happy cos we party and drink and stuff. And how that’s not really being happy, it’s just pretending to be a grown-up.’

‘Nell forgot to put her feet to the stars,’ said Imogen. ‘Or maybe she doesn’t know how.’

And so Paul signed his name, added it to the names of his students, who didn’t always have the language but who certainly understood.

‘We’re giving it to her tomorrow,’ said Imogen. ‘Me and Helena.’

He didn’t say, Helena and I.

‘And Nell thinks the other girls can start visiting her now.’

He told them that their friendship would mean a great deal to her. That it might even help more than all the doctors could. And then, because he couldn’t help himself, because he’d been lecturing students for years, would be lecturing until the day he died, he told them about Carl Jung.

‘He was a famous psychoanalyst,’ he said. ‘He spoke to many troubled, unhappy people, gave them the benefit of his complex theories and many years of training. But in the end he believed he did nothing that a good friend couldn’t have done. Listen. And show they care.’

Helena gave him a puzzled look. ‘So that’s how you pronounce it,’ she said. ‘Jung. I thought it rhymed with dung.’ She beamed at her classmates. ‘I’m reading his work on the collective unconscious. It’s very deep.’

 

Feet to the Stars will be in bookshops on 1 August 2015
You can find out more at UWA Publishing

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2, 2 and 2: Felicity Young talks about The Insanity of Murder

Attachment-1Western Australia is home to several world-class crime writers, and one of them is Felicity Young.

Felicity was born in Germany, attended boarding school in the UK, and emigrated to Western Australia with her parents in 1976. She, her husband and their three children moved to a small farm 40 kilometres north of Perth in 1990, and now, when she is not writing, she works on their Suffolk sheep stud and rears orphaned kangaroos.

It’s no secret that I have loved Felicity’s Dody McCleland series since the first book was published in 2012. Set in Edwardian London, it features Britain’s first female autopsy surgeon, and I was interested to read on Felicity’s website that the background of this character is drawn from the life of Felicity’s grandmother, who was at that time one of only a handful of female graduates of Trinity College, Dublin. Crime plus historical fiction is an exciting mix, and Felicity always weaves in social issues of the times, along with family, class and gender dynamics.

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I am looking forward to reading the latest (fourth) in the series, The Insanity of Murder.

Here is the book’s blurb:

To Doctor Dody McCleland, the gruesome job of dealing with the results of an explosion at the Necropolis Railway Station is testing enough. But when her suffragette sister Florence is implicated in the crime, matters worsen and Dody finds her loyalty cruelly divided. Can she choose between love for her sister and her secret love for Chief Inspector Matthew Pike, the investigating officer on the case?

Dody and Pike’s investigations lead them to a women’s rest home where patients are not encouraged to read or think and where clandestine treatments and operations are conducted in an unethical and inhumane manner. Together Dody and Pike must uncover such foul play before their secret liaisons become public knowledge—and before Florence becomes the rest home’s next victim.

And now, over to Felicity…

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2 things that inspired the book

1. One of the constant topics running through my Dody McCleland series is society’s attitude to women in the Edwardian period. I’ve dealt with hunger striking suffragettes, criminal abortions and the abuse of the weak by the powerful. None, however, can be more horrific to me than the treatment of the mentally ill.

My concern and interest in the topic began when I was a student nurse seconded briefly to Graylands psychiatric hospital. I’ll never forget witnessing a woman being subjected to ECT therapy: the tying down, the lack of control and the awful convulsions. I am in no position to give an opinion on the efficacy of the treatment, other than to say that to an almost layperson it seemed horribly brutal, a remnant from another time.

If I had not seen this with my own eyes, I don’t think the treatment of female insanity in the Edwardian period would have resonated so strongly with me.

2. Leading on from this, the second inspiration would have been my visit to the science museum in London, where I came across this charming contraption. It’s a D’Arsonval cage, believed to cure all sorts of medical and psychological problems. With a small amount of poetic licence, I modified this machine and turned it into something much more lethal.

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2 places connected with the book

1. The Elysium rest home for women is my old school boarding house, from the croquet pitch at the front and down the hill to the lake where we would smoke and meet boys. I was never a smoker, but enjoyed the danger of hanging out with the rebels. As for meeting boys, well, maybe one or two.

2. The coal cellar in one of the final chapters belonged to my grandmother. It was a spooky place with big lacquered doors through which, once a month, the coalman would tip his delivery of coal and coke.

2 favourite things about the book

1. The themes of my books are often quite intense and I lighten the tone every now and then with humour. I particularly enjoy writing the character of Florence, my protagonist’s sister. She is everything Dody is not—impulsive, flippant, reckless and irreverent—but also vulnerable, especially in this book. The extract below follows a scene in which Florence has taken some pills in order to appear insane to a ‘nerve doctor’.

Dody turned on her sister as soon as Doctor Lamb had left the house. ‘Florence, how could you!’ Florence calmly ignored Dody’s outburst and reached for the sherry decanter.

Dody slapped her hand away. ‘Don’t you dare! Not on top of those pills you’ve taken.’

‘Pills, what pills?’ Florence asked innocently.

Dody felt like strangling her. ‘Fast acting, short lasting. I left them on the dressing table—more fool me—never expecting that you would help yourself to them. I can see your demeanour improving before my very eyes.’

‘That reminds me; I must look a fright. May I borrow your comb please, dear?’

2. I wouldn’t be writing this series if I did not revel in the research. While I research the major topics I often come across interesting little tid-bits that just have to be found a place in the manuscript. I came across one little known fact, a dietary guideline called ‘Fletcherizing’, while I was researching the topic of anorexia in Edwardian women. Doctor Fletcher was known as the ‘Great Masticator’.

This is taken from a scene featuring Dody’s rather ‘straight’ lover, Chief Inspector Matthew Pike, and his daughter, Violet.

‘Would you like an ice cream, or a packet of biscuits to take home? They bake them on the premises. I’m told you cannot find fresher biscuits in the whole of London.’

Pike nodded to a pile of artfully arranged biscuits displayed under a glass dome on the tearoom’s expansive counter. Next to it stood an extravagant iced wedding cake all Doric columns and bell towers. It looked very pricey. How much did it cost to get married these days? he wondered absently.

‘No, thank you, Father,’ Violet answered. ‘Doctor Fletcher says ices and biscuits are incredibly bad for one.’

Pike’s eyes flicked back to his daughter. ‘And who’s Doctor Fletcher when he’s at home?’

‘A diet doctor from America. Among other things, Doctor Fletcher says one must chew each mouthful thirty two times: “Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate.”’ She paused and regarded him with a frown. ‘I’m not teasing this time, it’s not funny, Father. Many famous and intelligent people are followers of his teachings.’

‘I’m sure they are,’ Pike said, trying to maintain a straight face.

 

The Insanity of Murder will be available on 1 August.
You can find out more at HarperCollins Publishers Australia
You can also visit Felicity’s website

 

 

 

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Three pearls, a squirrel and a couple of jam biscuits

If you’re looking at the heading of this post and wondering what the heck, these things have a place in a new story of mine that has just been published in Review of Australian Fiction.

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RAF is a fabulous online publication dedicated to short works of fiction. It publishes two stories every two weeks, delivered in mobi (for Kindle) or ePub (for iPhone/iPad, Kobo, Nook, Readmill) format, and each issue pairs an established writer with an emerging writer.

The six-issue volume that has just begun is a special one featuring Western Australian writers—an innovative and generous gesture of support by the editors following the announcement a few months ago that funding for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards would, in effect, be halved. Commissioning editor for the volume is Laurie Steed, whose own stories have been widely published in literary journals and anthologies; his is one of the first names that would come to mind if I were asked to name notable contemporary Australian short story writers.

The Western Australian lineup is a stellar list and I’m proud to be part of it: Kim Scott, Brenda Walker, David Whish-Wilson, Susan Midalia, Natasha Lester, Nicole Sinclair, Josephine Clarke, Maria Papas, Liz Hayden, Yvette Walker and Sam Carmody.

The first issue, just out, features my story alongside Nicole Sinclair’s ‘All That’s Gone Before’, set in Papua New Guinea and vibrant with ‘brightly torn strips of fabric’, the juice of betelnut and the sound of voices in Pidgin, as young Australian teacher Beth takes up her new job at Saint Mary’s Catholic School.

I’m delighted to be sharing the issue with Nicole, an emerging writer based in Western Australia’s South West whose unpublished novel was recently shortlisted for the 2015 T.A.G. Hungerford Award. I first met Nicole when she interviewed me at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival in 2012, but I knew of her writing before then through having judged the Down South Writers Competition the year before and awarding her outstanding story first prize.

And so back to my story in RAF… It’s called ‘Pearls’ and its cast of characters includes a little girl called Ursula, a 1970s wannabe-rock-star called Bean, and a nightmare grandmother who is the antithesis of Elemental’s Grunnie Meggie. Here is Granny’s opening line:

We belong together, you know, she says, here in this house. Your mother, me you—all knotted onto the same silken thread. Three pearls.

Individual issues of RAF are $2.99. A subscription for six issues is $12.99—per issue, less than half the cost of a cup of Perth coffee. In other words, it’s pretty good value!

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A July photo-reminder…

to look up in your own backyard…

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