Author Archives: amandacurtin

About amandacurtin

Author of novels ELEMENTAL and THE SINKINGS and short fiction collection INHERITED. looking up/looking down is an occasional blog about writing, reading and watching the world...

Susan Midalia talks about The Art of Persuasion

UnknownSusan Midalia
The Art of Persuasion
(Fremantle Press)
NOVEL

Susan Midalia writes exquisite prose, and is looked up to by many as one of Australia’s leading exponents of the short story genre. She is equally well known as a teacher, editor and mentor, and I am only one of many writers who have benefited from her knowledge and generosity. She is also a friend, and a delightful human being, and I’m thrilled to feature her new book today.

The Art of Persuasion is Susan’s first novel, a work with many of the characteristics of a Susan Midalia story—compassion, wit, warmth of spirit, attentiveness to language, characters with a distinctive voice. And there are some surprises, too—a modern love story with the feel of a comedy of manners from another time, a story arc involving a political campaign in an urban Australian setting.

Here’s a little more about Susan…

Susan Midalia is the author of three short story collections, all of them shortlisted for major literary awards: A History of the Beanbag, An Unknown Sky and Feet to the Stars. She has been the judge of literary awards such as the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition. She has also been an assessor for the Literature Board of the Australia Council. She is currently a board member of writingWA and Margaret River Press, and takes great pleasure in working as a teacher for A Maze of Story, a volunteer organisation that encourages creative writing by socially disadvantaged children. Susan has lived in Perth for most of her adult life, and is blessed with a husband who works to pay the bills so she can enjoy the luxury of writing. She has two adult sons, of whom she is inordinately proud.

And here is the blurb for The Art of Persuasion

Twenty-five-year-old Hazel is reading the classics, starting with ‘A’. It’s one way to pass the time when you’ve quit your job and lost your way. But then she has a chance encounter with an irresistible older man. When Hazel is partnered with him on a political campaign, her attraction is deepened by the strength of his convictions. Adam seems to be attracted to her too—but why is he resisting? And what does Jane Austen have to teach a young woman about life, love and literature in the 21st century?

The wonderful Michelle de Kretser has described the novel as ‘a witty and tender comedy of manners that also has political bite’. And Ryan O’Neill, winner of last year’s Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, says it’s ‘a perfect modern romance’. 

Over to Susan…

9781925591033_RGB

2 things that inspired my book

I was impelled to write my novel after seeing the memorial to the SIEV X, on the shores of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. SIEV stands for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel, a term which describes, in dehumanising militaristic terms, a boat carrying more than 400 asylum seekers that was heading for Australia in 2001. When the boat capsized, 353 people drowned; four subsequent inquiries undertaken by both major political parties absolved the federal government of any responsibility for what was described, in chilling Orwellian Newspeak, as ‘A Certain Maritime Incident’. I won’t go into details here, except to say that the credibility of those inquiries has been widely disputed. The memorial to the largely forgotten SIEV X, completed in 2007 in the face of strenuous opposition from the conservative government, was the work of the Uniting Church, the writer Stephen Biddulph and hundreds of children from across Australia. It comprises 353 white poles stretching out on an incline like a wave, and many of the poles are inscribed with the name of the identified dead. Others are anonymous. On each pole there are also paintings by children of the many joyful experiences, including rainbows, flowers, kites and birds, which have been lost to the asylum seekers. It takes a long time to observe each pole; to reflect and try to take in the enormity of the experience. Seeing the memorial four years ago reduced me to tears, and has stayed with me ever since.

sievx-memorial-poles

A second and very different impulse for writing was my love of Jane Austen’s novels, and the pleasure of teaching them. In particular, I wanted to explore what Austen’s moral concept of love—falling in love with a person whose values and conduct one admires—might mean to a young woman living in a highly sexualised contemporary culture in which what matters is surface appeal. I also wanted to model my mode of social and moral criticism on Austen’s, using wit to mock vice and folly, to entertain instead of lecturing the reader. The genre of comedy also enacts an optimistic vision of the world; and while there’s every reason these days to despair of corruption, self-interest and bigotry, it’s crucial to retain a belief in progress and the fundamental decency of people. It was a challenge to write an optimistic novel without lapsing into sentimentality or smugness; to affirm the value of kindness without being self-righteous or naïve.

2 places connected to my book

The physical setting is Perth, in 2014, and it’s primarily a political space. Based on my own experience in political door-knocking campaigns in the western suburbs, I’ve used ‘place’ to reveal the complacency, indifference, cynicism and just plain ignorance of many people I encountered. And that was in the more educated suburbs of Perth! My city also has a ‘laidback’ atmosphere and ethos; as one of the characters in my novel remarks, our low crime rate, lovely beaches and clean air make it a great place to bring up children. The ‘downside’ of this middle-class idyll is a hedonistic insularity and blindness to the suffering of others. (I’ll always remember the former Prime Minister John Howard describing his vision for Australia as ‘relaxed and comfortable’, as if Australia was a giant Ugg Boot instead of a nation committed to social justice and equality.) The Perth setting of my novel is also an attempt to contest the Sydney- and Melbourne-centric view that prevails in Australian literary culture. It’s difficult for many West Australian writers to gain traction over east: to be invited to writers’ festivals, have your work reviewed, get reasonable sales figures. Setting my novel in Perth was thus a way of insisting that West Australian writers have something of value to contribute to the national literary culture.

The other important space in my novel is psychological: what happens in the space of the mind. I’m a writer of character and consciousness who enjoys imagining what it might be like to be someone who is very different from me. I’m a woman in my sixties pretending to be 25-year-old Hazel West: a millennial who’s unemployed, aimless, mildly depressed and looking for love. (We do, however, share a sense of humour and a deeply irritating tendency to self-pity.) The Art of Persuasion is a third-person limited narration, so it was a challenge, as well as fun, to ventriloquise Hazel’s voice and evoke her state of mind and cultural milieu. I sent the unpublished manuscript to my younger son, who was twenty-seven at the time, for feedback, and he told me I had the voice and the cultural references of his generation just right. Using Hazel’s perspective was also a way of contesting the stereotype of young people as narcissistic, lazy and irresponsible. I know from my experience as a parent and teacher that there are many admirable young people who are committed to social justice and the viability of the planet, and who wish to make a useful contribution to society.

2 favourite things from my novel

Hazel is my favourite character because of her complexity: she’s both feisty and self-doubting, acerbic and tender, a young feminist pining for love, and with the capacity to learn from experience. But I’m also fond of the novel’s romantic hero, Adam. His literary antecedents come from Jane Austen: he has the moral solidity of Captain Wentworth (Persuasion), the hidden past of Mr Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), and, like Mr Knightley from Emma, he’s considerably older than the heroine, acting as her guide or mentor. I’m interested in what makes for a ‘good’ man in the early twenty-first century; ‘good’ both in his personal life and in the wider community. Adam is also sexually attractive, but in an understated way, and I’ve used this to make fun of the hypersexualised romantic heroes in pulp fiction. I wanted to remind readers, as Austen’s novels do, that subtlety is far more erotic than blatant displays of masculine sexual prowess. Unlike Austen’s heroes, however, Adam is a widower with a five-year-old son, and it’s partly this complication that acts as an obstacle to the consummation of his relationship with Hazel. Romantic comedies rely on an obstacle to the union and the erotics of deferral: I wanted the reader to keep asking how long it would take until Adam and Hazel finally ended up together in bed!

In a favourite passage from my novel, Hazel’s lifelong friend and flat-mate Beth is ranting about women who succumb to the very ideas that reduce them to decorative objects. She and Hazel—who’s trying hard to keep up with her garrulous friend—are also slightly drunk (that was part of the fun of writing it).

Beth started waving her glass about because she’d just seen something truly disturbing, she said, an ad in the local paper, set out in huge pink font: WHAT’S THE DESIGNER VAGINA? She’d nearly toppled over when she read it, she said, all the stuff about tightening this and rejuvenating that, collagen and creams, making women feel even more ashamed of their bodies than they already did … almost spilling her wine now, denouncing all the women, thousands there were, having surgery on their bums because they wanted a perky one like Pippa Middleton’s. That kind of thing drove her nuts, she said, and who the hell was Pippa Middleton anyway? Hazel tried to explain but Beth said she already knew and that’s not why she was angry. She was angry because Pippa Middleton was only famous for having a sister who was only famous because she’d married a prince who seemed like a nice enough guy, cheering up disabled kids and all that, but that wasn’t the point, was it, about the monarchy? An accident of birth, unearned wealth and privilege and the next girl who told her they adored Kate Middleton because she was so pretty and wore such stylish clothes and had such a cute baby was in serious danger of being punched. Hazel was confused for a moment because she thought Beth wanted to punch the baby, and then she wondered aloud what they could have for dinner.

Please join Susan in celebrating the novel’s entry into the world:
Tuesday 10 April, 6.30pm
Centre for Stories, 100 Aberdeen Street, Northbridge

The Art of Persuasion will be in bookshops on 1 April 2018
More at Fremantle Press
Follow Susan on her website

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2, 2 and 2: Maureen Eppen talks about Every Family Is Different

Maureen Eppen 1Maureen Eppen
Every Family is Different (Serenity Press)
illustrated by Veronica Rooke
CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK

I met the lovely Maureen Eppen some years ago when she invited me to Secret Harbour to talk to the First Edition Book Club, a group of passionate readers who have been meeting now for 14 years. They were erudite, engaged and insightful, and it was a pleasure to discuss Elemental with them.

Since then, Maureen’s path and mine have crossed many times and in different contexts, but it was only last year that I discovered that she was also hard at work on her own creative projects. Every Family is Different is the first to be published, and I’m delighted to feature it here.

First, a little more about Maureen:

Maureen Eppen has been a freelance journalist for more than 30 years and now works in corporate communications and marketing. She writes book reviews and author interviews, hosts the Shelf Aware blog series, and is a grammar nerd who frequently questions her own spelling and punctuation. When she’s not procrastinating over working on her first novel, Maureen practises yoga, and she has completed two half-marathons and countless fun runs—at a glacial pace.

And here is the book’s blurb:

Who’s in your family?

Some children live with their mum and dad, others live with their grandparents or foster parents. Some live in a big house, others live in a tiny apartment.

With captivating illustrations, Every Family is Different celebrates what it means to be part of a family, and reminds us that there’s something that’s always the same in every family…

 

Over to Maureen…

Every Family is Different_cover

2 things that inspired my book

My mum, Maureen O’Donnell, is a compassionate, generous and loving woman, and this book would never have been written without her unwavering belief in me. Mum left her family and friends in England to support my dad in his desire to relocate to Australia in the 1960s, only to find herself bringing up my sisters and me single-handedly just a few years later, with no relatives to support her. As a result, family is incredibly important to all of us. This sentiment is also embraced by my daughters and their cousins, and we are now welcoming the next generation to our extended family.

Mum, my sisters and me

While I was lucky to grow up in a positive, welcoming neighbourhood, I’ve heard of situations in which children being brought up by single parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents or same-sex parents have felt ostracised or somehow ‘less’ than others. I wanted my book to highlight that there’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ family these days. Families come in a variety of shapes, sizes and configurations—but love is a common element to them all.

2 places connected to my book

Home—literally and figuratively. I wrote the earliest drafts for this picture book, and others, in my home office, where I worked as a freelance journalist while my daughters were growing up. I also feel a sense of ‘home’ whenever I spend time with my family and closest friends, and they have been incredibly supportive of my journey towards becoming a published author.

There is also a strong connection to my childhood home, in the suburb of Calista, south of Perth, where I grew up in the 1970s. A child’s life in those days was carefree and physically active—with parks and bushland to explore, school within walking or cycling distance, and playtime inspired by imagination rather than spent in front of a screen. Friends lived ‘just around the corner’, and we were free to spend happy days outdoors, as long as we were home when the street lights came on.

2 favourite images

The image of two dads and their baby was illustrator Veronica Rooke’s initial concept of a ‘non-traditional’ family. When Monique Mulligan from publisher Serenity Press showed it to me for the first time, I burst into tears of joy. All of Veronica’s illustrations perfectly reflect what I wanted my words to convey, and I love the way Serenity Press has combined my words and Veronica’s artwork in this beautiful book.

Every Family is Different_original concept

Every page of the book resonates with me, because the families I describe exist within my extended family and among friends and neighbours. Having said that, I have enjoyed the reactions from readers when they see the penultimate pages, which describe families that include ‘one person and a pet…or lots and lots of pets’. The pictures accompanying these words always delight.

Every Family is Different will be in bookshops soon
or can be pre-ordered from Serenity Press
You can contact Maureen via her website
or follow her on Facebook or Twitter

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3, 3 and 3: Patrick Corcoran, mixed-media artist

Patrick CorcoranIt’s been a very long while since I’ve posted in the 3, 3 and 3 series, which turns the spotlight on creative people I know, but I’m pleased to break the drought now by introducing Patrick Corcoran.

Patrick is a mixed-media artist from Limerick, Ireland, whose practice includes sculpture,​ installation, photography, print, drawing, film and the written word. He has exhibited work throughout Ireland, and also in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Hungary, China and Brazil.

We met at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan, where we were both residents, and became friends over many cups of tea, far too many scones, and a mutual interest in film and photography. Patrick’s wide knowledge of both artforms cast mine well and truly in the shade, but I can assure you that I held my own with the scones!

Since then, I’ve seen his interests range widely in many directions—the art to be found in ordinary objects, the traces of themselves that people leave behind in lost and discarded items, haunted places…You’ll catch a hint of this in his answers below.

Patrick’s current exhibition, Phobos & Deimos, runs until 24 March at the Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar. The following two images are from the exhibition:

T.O.D

Psychophobia-full & cropped

 

Over to Patrick…

3 things I love about what I do

1 My work allows me to delve into and explore topics which I normally would not.

2 It gives me the choice (and excuse) to work in on a variety of projects simultaneously.

3 My art allows me to experiment with different media to get the desired results and to learn new techniques, software packages and equipment.

3 places I’d like to visit

1 Gobekli Tepe, south-western Turkey
First discovered in 1995, it has been dated to 9,600 BC. I love researching archaeological sites of any age, especially ones like this. More than 11,000 years ago, people were choosing particular rocks to cut and what sculptural reliefs to carve and how to assemble them into structures and places of worship.

2 Puma Punku, Bolivia
The stone carving at this site is some of the most impressive I have come across. It  almost looks like it was machine made, or came off an industrial assembly line, especially the interlocking ‘H’ shaped blocks. The stone workers were so talented to have created and carved these blocks. Thousands of years later, we can still admire their skill and design. I would love to visit this site and do work based on it, and I plan to apply for a travel award in the near future.

3 Baalbek, Beqaa Valley, Lebanon
This ancient site comprises the two-thousand-year-old Roman temple to Jupiter. In the base of these ruins lie three hewn stones known together as the ‘trilithon’, each estimated to weigh more than 750 tons. In a nearby a quarry lies one of the largest stones ever carved, the Stone of the Pregnant Woman, weighing an estimated 1,200 tons. Again, I am amazed at the level of skill and ingenuity these ancient builders and masons had.

3 favourite artists

1 Max Ernst
I have a huge interest in dreams, dream diaries and the unconscious. I didn’t really discover Ernst until after I left college, and over the years I have grown to greatly admire his variety of styles, techniques and materials.

2 Ansflem Kiefer
I did my fine art degree in sculpture, and Kiefer’s paintings and use of materials for his sculptural and installation pieces had a strong influence on my own work.  I find his work very earthy, and I keep an eye on his art and exhibitions. I would like to return to my roots, as it were, at some stage in the future and get back into making 3-D and sculptural work.

3 David Lynch
I am currently watching the new Twin Peaks series and am thoroughly enjoying it. I watched the first two seasons when I was in secondary school and have been a huge fan of Lynch’s work since then, whether it be his films, art or music.

 

Contact Patrick via his website

Other links:
Publications: The roads have got deadly; Nocturnes; Phobos & Deimos
Short film: 4DTI

Dsiplay c.u

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2, 2 and 2: Laurie Steed talks about You Belong Here

Laurie Steed 2Laurie Steed
You Belong Here (Margaret River Press)
NOVEL, LITERARY FICTION

Laurie Steed is a Western Australian writer I have long admired for his excellent short fiction, so it was exciting to hear that a book was on its way—and surprising to hear that it was a novel. I had the pleasure of listening to him read at his first session at Perth Festival Writers Week last weekend, and it was a huge success. The novel sold out before I could buy a copy, but I will be getting myself to a bookshop this week!

Here’s a little about Laurie:

Laurie Steed’s fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and has appeared in Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Age, Meanjin, Westerly, Island and elsewhere. He is a recipient of fellowships from the University of Iowa, the Baltic Writing Residency, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, the Katharine Susannah Prichard Foundation and the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA). He lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his wife and two young sons.

And the blurb for You Belong Here:

Jen and Steven meet at sixteen and marry at eighteen. Soon they’re the parents of three young children.

Initially, the kids keep them together until love turns to lies and the family implodes. As they become adults, each child faces love and loss in the shadow of their family legacy.

You Belong Here is a book about trust and connection. About what keeps us going in spite of ourselves.

About a place where we belong.

And here’s Laurie to tell us more…

YouBelongHere_front+Small

Two things that inspired my book

1 The Doppler effect

In 2009, I began a short story called ‘The Doppler Effect’, about a boy and his Mum in a park, an astronaut in space, and an overworked NASA employee called Jason. As the story progresses, we discover that (of course) the boy from the park is the astronaut and that Jason is the boy’s father. That the boy travelled continents to reunite with his father, and that, more poignantly, the last voice he’ll hear, while in space, will be his father’s.

I became obsessed with the astronaut—how the boy would both want closeness with his parents, and yet simultaneously need such distance. The idea of the Doppler effect then kicked in, but extrapolated to emotions, as opposed to the distortion one finds in, say, an ambulance siren as it comes near one’s vicinity.

While the story never fully clicked, the idea was immovable: how some families crave intimacy but instead create distance; how one can love and hurt at the same time; and particularly, how, in the face of trauma, intimacy breeds intensity, and so a person might seek numbness over closeness, fear over love.

2 A life of stories

My family is born of stories, tales and anecdotes.

It started when, as children, we made audio plays such as the inimitable Night of the Carnivore and Maniacal Murder, a radio adaptation of an earlier crime chapbook written by my brother James, at age seven. James had, in fact, already written five of these, known loosely as the Victor Drago books.

James Steed -The Victor Drago Books

At the same time, my other brother, Shane, would send me to sleep with stories of Granny and Rangi, two everyday superheroes who fought bullies and righted the wrongs of an unjust society. My mother and sister, meanwhile, were busy acting in the local production of Annie. Even my father, Dr Duncan Steed, had gifted us his father’s cabinet of medical slides for microscopic narratives, a virus, clot or abnormality given stories, songs, in which to grow and develop.

Soon after we moved to Perth, my mother joined Playback, a theatre group where audience members told their stories, and then had actors play it back to them. I acted too, mostly in high school, and indeed my rendition of Carrickfergus from Louis Nowra’s Summer of the Aliens has been known to make dogs cry.

Given such a pedigree, it was not so much a matter of if I’d tell my stories but when, and how. My family had forever been weaving tales; once the dust settled, with horror metal, blues, poetry and graffiti all conquered by the family Steed, I took my turn at the helm with words. They are, to be blunt, the only things that have ever made sense to me.

Two places connected with my book

1 Hamer Park

I’ve nominated Hamer Park (it appears in both ‘The Family Mixtape’ and ‘The First Test’ chapters of the book). But it’s worth noting that Inglewood Oval is next door, and it’s the edge of Inglewood Oval that Alex tumbles down in ‘The Family Mixtape’ and revisits towards the end of ‘The Knife’.

So much happened there in my childhood and adolescence, little of which is captured in You Belong Here. Amy Stark dropped the ball in year seven pass ball (it could have happened to anyone); a boy stormed across the middle of Hamer to take on his little brother’s bully, and promptly had his arse handed to him; and, in one particularly memorable exchange, a guy we called ‘Blue Glasses’ (he wore blue glasses) mused that if our principal were to confront him, and tell him to stop smoking, he’d simply blow smoke back in his face and say, ‘Hi, Mr Torr.’

Not exactly Oscar Wilde, but then Blue Glasses was always his own man.

In the book, as in life, Hamer Park is not good or bad, but a place to make memories, both home and not, all at once.

Hamer Park

2 The Gap

The Gap is a rock formation fifteen-minutes-drive out of Albany, on the southern tip of Western Australia. It’s known for its sedimentary strata, part of which form a natural bridge, and for a stunning twenty-five metre drop from its highest point down to the frothing, foaming ocean. It’s a popular tourist destination for many, and yet to me, it’s also a full-on space, with cold, whip-like winds, and the exhilarating/terrifying experience of looking down into enraged, tumultuous water.

In relation to You Belong Here, it seemed a fine place for Alex to escape; it’s cold, isolated, and away from mobile reception. And yet, even in such surroundings, and despite his hurt, he’s inclined to reach out. It’s here he meets Dex (short for Dexter), a surly teen with his own reasons for revisiting the rocks, as he does every year.

Dex matters to the narrative fabric like The Gap matters, as both are wake-up calls; reminders of choice and of consequence. The Gap is a tourist spot, but not one you’re likely to revisit by choice. It’s a place you go, to feel the weight and then leave. Or, as Dex puts it, there’s ‘only so many times you can come’.

Two favourite aspects of the book

1 What do you mean by that?

One of my favourite aspects of You Belong Here, and one that only really took flight once I started the editing process with Kate O’Donnell, was a willingness to call bullshit on ignorance, gender or cultural bias within the characters. Towards the end of ‘Half-life’, Jay and Emily originally talked mostly about him. Emily was insignificant. Rather than making it about her insignificance, though, we chose to call it out, and it reads better for it:

‘You enjoying the course?’ said Jay.

‘I love it,’ said Emily. ‘A bit lonely, but.’

‘All guys?’

‘Talk shit,’ said Emily.

‘Well I don’t know,’ said Jay.

‘There are lots of girls,’ said Emily. ‘It’s not the girls or the boys. It’s just lonely.’

There’s another exchange in ‘Give or Take’ that I’m particularly fond of but won’t get into here. I guess I’m enamoured by this aspect of the book because we never really say what we think, or we do, but it’s embedded, and so there’s joy in teasing that out, in casting a light, and showing blind spots, if and when they occur.

2 Sincerity, nostalgia, and a willingness to be tragically unhip

In characters like Jay, I found the chance to embrace my inner dork, who’s unaware of how incredibly cool the world would become. How trends would signify not popularity but a dogged desire to be both individual and incredibly predictable at the same time.

Of his literary landscape at the time, David Foster Wallace wrote: ‘Postmodern irony and cynicism have become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.’

I’m with Dave, I think, in that irony has a point—to ridicule absurd traditions or preconceived notions, and to debunk society’s illusions—but what then must we do? Be insightful but sad? Be willing to mock beliefs but never have the courage to believe?

For me, beliefs, and particularly beliefs based on love, compassion and adoration, are joyous things. Some would argue that much traditional religion does this, but to me, one’s beliefs are compromised once too strongly governed by outside influence.

It’s probably naïve and perhaps a bit dorky to say so, but I think love as a concept is incredibly liberating. That it’s exquisite to shout clearly and confidently, ‘I love this.’ That there’s freedom in holding the entirety of the past, good, bad, trivial and significant in your hand, and saying, ‘This matters to me, and maybe this matters to you too.’

 

You Belong Here is in bookshops now
Follow Laurie via his website
More at Margaret River Press

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Perth Writers Week

 

Writers_screenDEFAULT

Perth Writers Week (19–25 February) is coming up soon, and I am looking forward to some fabulous sessions.

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to talk to Chris Womersley about his fascinating novel of 17th-century France, City of Crows, on Sunday 25 February, 11am. 

If you’re keen to see recent 2, 2 and 2 guests Louise Allan and Michelle Johnston, they will be in conversation in a free session, ‘Doctors’ Writing Club’, on Saturday, 12.30pm. Michelle will also be talking about Dustfall on Sunday, 4.30pm; and Louise’s session on The Sisters’ Song is on Saturday, 9.30am.

I have booked a ticket for the ‘How to Read a Dress’ High Tea and Fashion Show on Saturday afternoon. Some years ago, I attended a talk on what vintage fashion can tell us about history, and I’m hoping to learn more from Lydia Edwards, author of How to Read a Dress: A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 20th Century, in conversation with Natasha Lester.

I’ve also booked the following sessions:

And I’m hoping to catch some of the free sessions:

Other festival authors include Josephine Wilson, Heather Rose, Sofie Laguna, Rose Michael, Cory Doctorow, Tim Winton, Robert Drewe, Richard Fidler, Alan Carter, Deb Fitzpatrick…It’s very hard to make choices from such a wonderful program of offerings! Congratulations to Guest Curator Will Yeoman.

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2, 2 and 2: Michelle Johnston talks about Dustfall

MJ HeadshotMichelle Johnston
Dustfall (UWA Publishing)
FICTION

I’m finding it hard to stop thinking about Michelle Johnston’s debut novel, Dustfall—compelling, disturbing and strangely lyrical, given the harshness of its environment and the emotional and ethical territory it traverses. It will be my privilege and great pleasure to launch the novel in a couple of weeks, and I think it’s going to find a wide and enthusiastic audience.

Michelle is one of those rare and impressive people who manage to write as well as excel in a demanding professional field. I’ll let the poetry of her author blurb speak for itself:

Dr Michelle Johnston is a consultant Emergency Physician who works at an inner-city hospital. Mostly her days consist of trauma and mess. She believes there is a beating heart of humanity, art and beauty within the sometimes brutal reality of the Emergency Department, and has dedicated her career to finding that sweet spot between creativity and critical care medicine. Books are her other oxygen, and writing her sustenance.

And here is the blurb for Dustfall:

Dr Raymond Filigree, running away from a disastrous medical career, mistakes an unknown name on a map for the perfect refuge. He travels to the isolated town of Wittenoom and takes charge of its small hospital, a place where no previous doctor has managed to stay longer than an eye blink. Instead of settling into a quiet, solitary life, he discovers an asbestos mining corporation with no regard for the safety of its workers and no care for the truth.

Thirty years later, Dr Lou Fitzgerald stumbles across the abandoned Wittenoom Hospital. She, too, is a fugitive from a medical career toppled by a single error. Here she discovers faded letters and barely used medical equipment, and, slowly the story of the hospital’s tragic past comes to her.

Dustfall is the tale of the crashing consequences of medical error, the suffering caused by asbestos mining and the power of storytelling.

Over to Michelle…

Dustfall cover

 

2 things that inspired Dustfall

1 A ghost of a hospital

In 1991, without any planning, forethought or sense, I stumbled across the ruin of Wittenoom Hospital. It was the strangest place I had ever seen. As though it had been abandoned only the day before, there were scraps of gauze rolling across the crumbling concrete floor, stacks of broken shelving with old, waterlogged journals on them, and a mysterious gleaming metal machine in one of the corners. Many of the walls had collapsed or were simply gaping holes, and all the windows were broken. Outside, in the cancerous, dying town of Wittenoom, no-one knew much about the old building. Those citizens who still clung to that doomed, decaying place were of a different breed, and they had other matters on their mind rather than recording a history which was fading in the light. But the vivid memory of the building stuck in my head (as memories made during difficult times of one’s life often do), and 20 years later, it needed to have a story of my own set there. A year after I visited, the hospital was gone altogether. Razed. And most of the other buildings followed. I’ve been up to Wittenoom a number of times since, and on each occasion there is less and less man-made. Nature is consuming it all.

The research into the heinous episode in Western Australia’s mining history followed significantly later, well after I had written the early drafts of Dustfall. And the more I discovered, the more I needed to recraft the manuscript, so as to stay true to both the fictional narrative, and the truth about asbestos mining.

Raymond Wittenoom

2 Mistakes

All medical errors are devastating in one way or another. Not only for the people affected but also for those responsible; they open a floodgate of self-recrimination and doubt. We doctors are an unforgiving breed. Mostly for good reason. Society expects the standards and safeguards in medicine to be beyond reproach. Mistakes will, however, occur, and when they do, most doctors will react to them uniquely, and oftentimes in exaggerated and destructive ways. We tend to be tortured by Fates only we can see. Dustfall has at the heart of its story a medical error. But further fascinating is the juxtaposition of an individual’s response to their own mistake with the way a corporate error is dealt with. The asbestos mining saga offered plenty of material to work with here.

2 geographical spaces connected with the novel

1 The Pilbara

The head-messing vastness of the Pilbara is like nowhere else on earth. It is at once a barren, desolate moonscape coexisting with pockets of lush vegetation and plains of glittering minerals. It is staggering in its extremes. There is soil that is red beyond description and it has skies so blue they ought not be real. This is a magnificent place to try out one’s writerly palette. Plus it is peopled by characters of steel, the cut of whom has made it into the weave of Dustfall.

2 Royal Perth Hospital

I love this place. I have worked amongst her higgledy-piggledy corridors and wards for 27 years. I have cried and laughed and knelt by the side of the newly bereaved and held still-beating hearts in my hand. I have travelled to and from her in the coal of the night, and have spent days frustrated and scared and triumphant and stretched to my very limit. She was always going to feature in my first book, even though she hasn’t been named (and so much has been fictionalised, she is barely recognisable).

2 historical characters who play important roles in Dustfall

The problem here is that there are three. Descartes, Keats and Pliny the Elder. But in no way would I want to rock Amanda’s extraordinary boat, so I have played rock paper scissors with them, and Pliny the Elder (despite his admirable contribution to the story’s denouement) has been cut from this list. [Amanda feels suitably guilty about the summary dismissal of Poor Pliny from the blog. You’ll have to read the novel to give him his voice.]

1 René Descartes

The polymathic father of modern philosophy, a champion of doubt, and a man whose ideas came from fervid dreams when shut indoors with a smoking stove. His doctrines were legion and cut across many disciplines, but the one that leant itself to Raymond’s (the main character in Dustfall) own rather outlandish personal theories about Medicine were the theories on mind–body dualism—that the senses cannot be trusted. Raymond is a man out of time—a misguided poet and a dreamer. He carries with him several books, one of which is Descartes’s Meditation on First Philosophy.

2 John Keats

(Or, more accurately, his poem ‘The Eve of St Agnes’—although Keats’s premature death from tuberculosis gets a guernsey.) Keats wrote ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ in 1819. It was certainly considered one of his best, and tells the tale, in Spenserian stanzas, of the romantic tradition in the Middle Ages that if, on St Agnes’s Eve (January 20), a maiden performed certain rites before bed, she would dream of her future husband, thus sealing her life’s matrimonial fate. The rest of the poem is mainly confusion and mild erotica and mixed messages and trouble. It’s gorgeous, and the themes are woven gently through the book. I shan’t give away just how, but the first lines are quoted at the beginning, the eve of the book, where in the poem it is chilly and wintry, and we are about to explode into suffocating heat in the novel.

 

I’m grateful to Amanda for inviting me to introduce Dustfall to you this way, and to sit in the company of such brilliant other writers in the 2, 2 and 2 series. And thank you, for reading.

Dustfall will be in bookstores on 1 February 2018
Find out more at UWA Publishing
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2, 2 and 2: Louise Allan talks about The Sisters’ Song

Author ShotsLouise Allan
The Sisters’ Song (Allen & Unwin)
FICTION

I’m delighted to introduce Louise Allan as my first 2, 2 and 2 guest for 2018. Louise’s debut novel, The Sisters’ Song, has only been out for a few weeks but it seems to be appearing everywhere—a wonderful, and well-deserved, start to its life.

Louise is well known in the Perth writing community for her engaging, warm-hearted approach to everything she does, and will be familiar to many readers through her popular blogs. But here’s a brief introduction:

Louise grew up in Tasmania, but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her first career was as a doctor, but in 2010 she ceased practising medicine and took up writing.

The manuscript of The Sisters’ Song was shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle–T.A.G. Hungerford Award, and was awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship. Louise has also had short stories, essays and articles published in literary anthologies and medical journals.

Apart from writing, Louise enjoys music, photography, walking and nature.

And here’s the blurb for The Sisters’ Song:

Set in rural Tasmania from the 1920s to the 1990s, The Sisters’ Song traces the lives of two very different sisters. One for whom giving and loving are her most natural qualities and the other who cannot forgive and forget.

As children, Ida loves looking after her younger sister, Nora, but when their beloved father dies in 1926, everything changes. The two girls move in with their grandmother, who is particularly encouraging of Nora’s musical talent. Nora eventually follows her dream of a brilliant musical career, while Ida takes a job as a nanny and their lives become quite separate.

The two sisters are reunited as Nora’s life takes an unwelcome direction and she finds herself, embittered and resentful, isolated in the Tasmanian bush with a husband and children.

Ida longs passionately for a family and when she marries Len, a reliable and good man, she hopes to soon become a mother. Over time, it becomes clear that this is never likely to happen. In Ida’s eyes, it seems that Nora possesses everything in life that could possibly matter yet she values none of it.

Over a span of seventy years, the strengths and flaws of motherhood are revealed through the mercurial relationship of these two very different sisters. The Sisters’ Song speaks of dreams, children and family, all entwined with a musical thread that binds them together.

Over to Louise…

Unknown

2 things that inspired my book      

1 My grandmother’s history

As a child, I heard about my paternal grandmother’s three stillbirths. After the third one, the doctor told my grandmother that if she ever wanted to birth a live baby, she would need a caesarean.

I’d accepted this story then without thinking too deeply about it. As I grew older, particularly once I became a mother, it struck me how heartbreaking it must have been for my grandmother to nurture a baby in her womb for nine months, only for it to die during delivery. Three times.

One day in 2012, I searched the Launceston cemetery records and found the record of the interment of one of these uncles:

Version 2

On 22 March 1937, the stillborn baby of Mrs L.D. Allan (she wasn’t even given her own initials but those of my grandfather) was buried in Section D558 of Carr Villa cemetery. Seeing it recorded was bittersweet—I’m glad there’s a record that he existed, but it was also strikingly sad.

On a visit to the cemetery in Launceston, I tried to find his grave, but it’s unmarked.

I incorporated my grandmother’s story into Ida’s story in my novel.

2 Old family photos

I also drew inspiration from photos taken by my paternal grandfather’s family. My grandfather was born in 1906, one of eighteen children from a working-class family. Despite the lack of money, and the relative expense of cameras, film and developing photos in those days, they managed to leave a substantial photographic record of their lives.

I wrote quite a few scenes using the photos as prompts. The opening paragraph comes from this photo. I changed a few details to suit my story, but the essence comes from this photo, including the mention of the cloche hat!

f Group photo - I think Grandpop Allan is centre front

The photo below is how I imagined Ida, Nora and the kids would look. It’s a photo of my paternal grandmother (L), with her sister-in-law and her children.

zzz Nan Allan and unknown people - possibly Michael McIntee on Left

2 places connected with my book

1 Ben Craeg

Ben Craeg is the name of the mountain I describe in my book. Tasmania has a few mountains called ‘Ben’: Ben Lomond, the highest peak of the Eastern Tiers, and Ben Nevis, where my grandfather once had a sawmill.

When writing the first ever draft of this story, I made up the name Ben Craeg. That version was mainly about Grace, so it’s an anagram of her name, and I thought it sounded very Scottish!

There are mountains wherever you look in Tasmania—it’s not flat and brown like many parts of Australia. Because mountains are referred to as ‘she’, and because they always seem to be quietly watching over the valleys below, to me they have a maternal quality, so I bestowed these qualities on Ben Craeg, in keeping with the themes in my book.

As an aside, I was tickled to see someone had googled ‘Ben Craeg Tasmania’ and ended up on my website. My apologies to that reader for confusing them!

2 Ida’s house

Ida lives in Launceston, Tasmania, and I put her house in the street in which I grew up, although I’ve given the street a different name. The suburb we lived in was built on reclaimed swamp, and whenever a heavy vehicle like a truck or bus drove down our street, the houses shuddered and the glassware in the cabinet clinked. Just as those who live near airports tune out the noise of planes, we were used to the shaking of the floor beneath us and the rattling of the crockery. It unsettled our visitors, though, and I remember explaining to friends that it wasn’t an earthquake, just a truck passing by.

Ida’s house is modelled on my grandparents’ home. It had a front verandah, and I added iron lace and geraniums in boxes. My grandmother cooked with a wood stove, and I remember the copper in their bathroom.

2 interesting parallels

1 ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I read this short story when my daughter studied it in late high school. I’d already written an early draft of my novel, and this story resonated, as it seemed to reflect the themes I was trying to bring out in my novel.

It’s about a young woman’s descent into madness after the birth of her child, and is based on Gilman’s personal experience of post-natal depression, when her husband, a physician, forbade her from working or writing, believing that devoting herself to domestic duties was the key to happiness. Although it was first published in 1892, unfortunately it still resonates today.

Here’s a link to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.

2 Dame Nellie Melba

It could be argued that Dame Nellie Melba is still Australia’s most successful expatriate ever. She sang in the opera houses of Europe and America, and was feted the world over.

Melba is mentioned a couple of times in my novel: Ida’s grandmother had been to one of her concerts, and Ida listens to her records on a gramophone when she lives with the Godfrey-Smiths.

I wrote these sections and then researched Melba’s life. I discovered that Melba’s father was against her singing, expecting that she’d marry and have a family. She did marry and have a son, but later divorced, and, at one point, lost custody of her son for ten years.

I saw the parallels between Melba and Nora, the character in my novel: both wanted to dedicate their lives to music rather than family. Imagine if Melba had stayed in Australia and lived a life of domesticity; the world would never have heard her voice. Imagine, too, how many other Melbas have lived and whose voices have never been heard.

I loved this quote about Melba from one of the websites I researched: But hers was not a life dedicated to love; it was a life dedicated to opera.

For more information on Dame Nellie Melba’s life, see here.

The Sisters’ Song is in stores now
More at Allen & Unwin
You can follow Louise via social media: website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

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