Category Archives: New books

Talking (new) fiction: Portland Jones’s Only Birds Above

Portland Jones is a beautiful writer—a favourite of mine on the strength of her brilliant debut novel, Seeing the Elephant, which was shortlisted for the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award. I came late to reading this, but I have been singing its praises ever since, and if you haven’t yet read it I urge you to (as Molly Meldrum used to say) do yourself a favour and seek out a copy.

Needless to say, I was excited to hear that Portland’s second novel was scheduled for 2022, and anxious to read it. I was not disappointed. Only Birds Above is sublime, and I think you’ll get a sense of that from reading her responses to my questions below.

Portland Jones is a writer, lecturer and horse trainer who lives and works in the Swan Valley, near Perth. She has a PhD in Literature, and in addition to her two novels she has co-authored a non-fiction book, Horses Hate Surprise Parties. She is currently working on a third novel and another work of non-fiction.

Arthur the blacksmith goes to war with the 10th Light Horse, to care for the horses of his fellow soldiers. When he returns, Arthur’s wife, Helen, and their children bear witness to a man forever damaged by what he has seen and suffered.

As a second war looms, Arthur insists on his son Tom going to work in Sumatra. Tom is taken prisoner by the Japanese, but is sustained by memories of life on the farm at home and a growing understanding of his father.

This big-hearted, beautiful novel captures the deep and mysterious connection between humans and horses—whose very presence lends a sweet, steady counterweight to human frailty, and whose nobility aligns with human courage.

The unfathomable

AC: Portland, I’m intrigued that your two novels, although very different, both tell stories of war—the Vietnam War in Seeing the Elephant (2016) and now World Wars I and II in Only Birds Above. What draws you, as a novelist, to these critical historical periods of the twentieth century?

PJ: I think there are two main reasons. The first is because history, or more specifically the history of conflict, has always felt very real to me. When I was growing up my Dutch grandmother would hold us in her lap and tell stories about fighting in the resistance during the war. She used to tell us about hiding my grandfather in their house between the floor of the second storey and the ceiling of the first. They would roll back the rug, prise up the floorboards and then, once he’d squeezed himself into that tight little space, she would nail the boards back down and replace the rug. She told me how German soldiers had come to the house and yelled at her, ‘Where’s your husband?’ And she had pretended she didn’t know, although he was hiding just above their heads.

And some stories become indelible because of their context. I admired my grandmother a great deal and it wasn’t until she had been gone for several years and I started a PhD on learned helplessness in war veterans that I realised that both she and my grandfather had suffered from PTSD. My grandparents belonged to a generation that didn’t speak about trauma. PTSD was only recognised as a disorder in 1980, so people like my grandparents just lived with their responses because they didn’t have the language back then to talk about them. That realisation reframed a lot of my childhood memories of my grandparents. I saw how their lives and the lives of their children had been irredeemably altered by their experiences and I suppose that made me want to understand more.

I was born at the height of the Vietnam War (or the American War, as the Vietnamese say). During my childhood I felt like it was a dark secret grown-ups wouldn’t talk about with children and I’ve always been suspicious of those sorts of secrets. Then the Welcome Home March was held in 1987 (the year I left school) and it all felt a bit underhanded. No-one that I asked could give me a coherent answer about the treatment of our Vietnam veterans, so I started to read as widely as I could. Back then, there wasn’t nearly as much material about the Australian soldier’s experience in Vietnam, it was mostly about the American experience. As an example of that, one of the most popular Australian songs about the war (Cold Chisel’s ‘Khe Sanh’) is about a battle that Australian ground troops didn’t even fight in. They could have written the same song about Long Tan without even changing the rhyme, but perhaps in the late 70s no-one knew anything about Long Tan because it was a specifically Australian battle.

I decided to do a PhD so I could untangle in my own mind this enormously complex, multi-dimensional part of Australian history. When I first started researching, we were on a family holiday to Exmouth and we stopped at the Overlander Roadhouse. I saw a man sitting in a car eating a burger and on his back window a sticker that said AATTV (Australian Army Training Team Vietnam). I knocked on his window and we had a chat about his service and a few weeks later, over a cup of tea, he told me about himself and the terrible price he’d paid for the years he spent in the army. History can be uncomfortably close when you hear it first hand—that was another story made indelible by its context.

The second reason that I write about war is because it frightens me. I have three children, two of them boys, and I can never forget that we’ve had conscription during my lifetime. Once you’re a parent, history happens to sons and daughters. So I write about war as a way to try and understand that.

Custodians of the horse

AC: Arthur is a blacksmith who has grown up and worked with horses all his life, and he carries an intimate knowledge of and love for them into war as an infantryman in the 10th Light Horse. The scenes where Arthur is interacting with his horse are among the most beautiful and moving of the novel, and they clearly come from your own experience and knowledge as a horse trainer. Could you please tell us about this aspect of the novel, and the research you conducted into Australia’s war horses?

PJ: During WWI the horses were usually tethered in a row on long picket lines. At the end of the war, when it was decided that the horses would not be coming home, they shaved their manes and tails, pulled off their shoes and a veterinary officer walked down the line and shot them where they stood. The horses were so habituated to gunfire at that point that they didn’t even try to run away.

I tell that story to my university class and every time I pretend to be objective, though it’s an image that will always haunt me. Not just because of the loss of the horses but also because of what it must have done to the men that had fought alongside them. Nearly 136,000 horses left Australia between 1914 and 1918 and only one returned.

To me, horses are the most beautiful of all our domestic animals. The joy of watching them gallop and play never wears off, even after all these years. When you’re a horse trainer, their lives are tightly woven into yours. There’s this moment, every evening, just before I go inside for the night. The afternoon light is coming sideways through the trees and horses are quietly eating. I know then that I’m just one small link of a chain that stretches back for over five thousand years, all of us custodians of the horse. I’m grateful every single day that I can do what I do. It’s a job but it’s also a privilege. In writing Only Birds Above I really wanted to convey that sense and, in my own small way, to honour the thousands of horses that died during the war.

I really enjoy novel research and I like to think of myself as a method researcher—I want to live and breathe my subject. Luckily there are lots of people who are interested in the history of the Light Horse and I’ve been able to speak to many who are passionate about preserving that history. And people are so kind. When you tell them that you’re interested in their passion, they are incredibly generous with their time. I have been lucky enough to have been shown original equipment, ridden in a replica of a universal pattern saddle (the saddle that was used during WWI) and had many, many long conversations about the tiniest details of gear and equipment with people who have dedicated years of their lives to learning as much as they can about the Light Horses. A friend even gave me an old universal pattern saddle which had been hanging in the rafters of a shed for decades—it’s now been restored and is sitting in my living room. To me these things connect us to our past.

In the presence of death

AC:

Joining up was the right thing to do and like everyone says—it’s a chance to see the world.

When Arthur meets Helen, he is already in training at the Blackboy Hill Camp and there is an aching poignancy in his words to her. Is their hasty marriage, emblematic of many of that time, an act of naivety? Desperation? Hope?

PJ: I think the threat of death strips everything bare. All the layers of artifice that we paste between ourselves and the world get ripped away. I have a very dear friend fighting a serious illness and I’m often struck by how the threat of this loss has altered the way we communicate. It’s as though your skin has been rubbed raw—some moments have an almost painful vividness and clarity. It’s sad but it’s also beautiful.

You’re never more alive than when you’re in the presence of death. That’s why risk is so important, it makes you cherish your life. After my father died I sat down to try and write about it and the first thing I wrote was: ‘Why is everything so beautiful since you’ve gone?’ For weeks I’d have to stop and stare at the way the light fell through the leaves or the way the sunset coloured the dust. The sight of a mother lifting her baby from a car seat or a flock of parrots in a marri tree would take my breath.

When I was writing the novel I felt sure that Arthur and Helen’s marriage would have been informed by that same sense. There would have been an urgency to it, a need to hold onto what is real and important in the presence of so much uncertainty. In an era without videos, social media and all those other windows into other people’s experiences, falling in love must have been like exploring new territories. Amazing and yet also terrifying. Our ability to love is the most miraculous and beautiful aspect of life, isn’t it? [A million times yes!]

On the homefront

AC: For all that the novel takes us into theatres of war and the world of men and horses, it also brings us stories of the homefront, of women and children left alone during the war, and then inexplicably alone again when the men who return are morose, insular and unable to communicate with those who love them. Without giving away spoilers, could you talk about the longer term effects of the war on Helen, a new bride when Arthur leaves, and their daughter Ruth?

PJ: One of the things I encountered when I was researching my first novel is the prevalence of families with three generations of soldiers. Many of the Vietnam veterans who I met had grandfathers who served in WWI and fathers who had served in WWII. I am really interested in how this would change the dynamic of the entire family. What happens to intergenerational trauma when it is compounded?

I think it’s the role of historical fiction to fill in the gaps between what is written and the people who lived it. The experiences of women in war are rarely privileged by non-fiction historical narrative, though that is definitely changing. History doesn’t always tell us what ordinary people thought or felt and sometimes the numbers are too big to comprehend. Or maybe your mind won’t let you comprehend them because it’s too much. But having an insight into one person’s experience makes it easier to relate to. Listening to veterans speak about the experiences of their wives and families is often very moving because it takes great courage to love someone whose life has been impacted by war.

‘Almost as if it didn’t happen’

AC: Son Tom, working in Indonesia at the outbreak of World War II, becomes a prisoner of the Japanese and one of the slave workforce building the Pekanbaru Death Railway across Sumatra, which was completed on the day Japan surrendered and subsequently abandoned. Your own great-grandfather was among the thousands who died during its construction, and I noticed he appears briefly in the novel. Was it important to you to explore this terrible tragedy of World War II?

PJ: The novel started out as a story about my great grandfather. He was one of those aspects of the family history that no-one really knew much about other than that he’d died in Indonesia during the war. So a while ago I wrote to the Dutch archives just to see if I could find out anything and within 24 hours I had a copy of his death certificate and a photo of his grave. That was really the start of an absolutely fascinating journey.

My daughter’s Japanese teacher was able to translate the death certificate for me and I learned that Dirk had died very near to Pekanbaru, the start of the infamous Pekanbaru Death Railway built across Sumatra by both POWs and press-ganged Javanese labourers known as Romushas. When I was researching the railway online I came across a website put together by a New Zealander working in Sumatra who was fascinated by the railway. He mapped the length of the line with a drone and a GPS using the little information that he could find. In fact most of his information came from a single text written by a Dutch researcher.

I sent him an email and we started chatting and pretty soon he invited me to come stay with him in Pekanbaru (an experience that went way better than it might have done, in hindsight). The Pekanbaru Death Railway is not very well known. Around the town you can still see rail embankments winding through palm oil plantations and train tracks repurposed as farm fencing. It’s almost as though it didn’t happen, and I think that’s very sad. Standing in the place where my great-grandfather died, listening to the traffic and the call to prayer, was definitely an experience I’ll never forget.

I’m interested in representations of truth in fiction. I wrote my great-grandfather into Only Birds Above knowing only what I’d found out through the archives and the couple of stories and photos from my grandmother. Originally I wanted to include photos in the novel—I have photos of Dirk and I have taken photos of various things in the novel that I thought it would be interesting to include. But in the editing process we decided that the novel was better without them. But it’s that blurring of the line between truth and fiction that really interests me.

Piecing a story together

AC: Only Birds Above is structurally complex, moving between time-frames, generations, characters and places. This has the effect of creating a compelling narrative, with different threads to be drawn together so that the reader can see the whole. But I’m wondering how you managed the process of writing the story—whether you wrote entire strands and wove them together, or worked piece by piece, assembling them into that whole.

PJ: I wrote the first 50,000 words with great confidence but absolutely no plan. I wrote without any sense of continuity or cohesion and in totally random order. And then one day I sat down at my computer and realised with horror that what I had was not a novel but a seething mass of disparate fragments.

I had to call on the assistance of the always amazing Richard Rossiter to try and pull them into some kind of order. It was a bit overwhelming for a while; I thought it would never make any sense at all. But sense emerged in the end.

After that I vowed I would never write a novel with a complex structure again and that I would write in an organised and disciplined way. But maybe my brain is too chaotic for that kind of order because the novel I’m working on now is at least as complex and I’m no more organised. I guess that’s future-Portland’s problem.

Only birds…

AC: I love the novel’s title. Did it come early in the development, or, as so often happens, was it something you and your publisher agonised over?

PJ: I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked with Georgia Richter as editor on this novel. I learned so much during the process; it was both fascinating and humbling. I’m sure Georgia had many hair-tearing-out moments when we were editing but luckily the title wasn’t one of them. It came to me very early in the writing process as it seemed to be a good way of describing a loss of faith. If there’s only birds above you, there’s nothing else, is there?

Only Birds Above is published by Fremantle Press
You can follow Portland via her website

5 Comments

Filed under New books, Talking (new) fiction

First WA release of 2022…

What an exquisite gem of a book with which to begin a new year!

Rashida Murphy’s collection The Bonesetter’s Fee and other stories was runner-up in the 2021 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award and has been published by Spineless Wonders as part of the award prize.

The twenty stories that make up the collection—a few short enough to be considered flash fiction—are clever, quiet, surprising. Some are wickedly humorous (e.g. ‘Strands of Jupiter’), others heartbreaking (e.g. ‘When the sky breaks’). Many tell stories of truths and lies about identity—what is lost, found, forged, inherited, what is clung to, thrown away.

While there is no continuous narrative running through the collection, as I thought about the work long after turning the last page I held in my mind the image of a endearingly quiet, intelligent young girl, watching the folly around her, learning the value of words and of silence, knowing ‘a girl’s worth is not in the symmetry of her bones’. Rashida Murphy has done her justice.

Rashida Murphy
The Bonesetter’s Fee and other stories
Spineless Wonders
$24.99

2 Comments

Filed under New books

Two new WA releases…

Julia Lawrinson
Mel and Shell
Fremantle Press
$16.99

Okay, I know I’m not exactly the target audience for Julia Lawrinson’s tween/YA novel Mel and Shell, but I’m a longtime fan of Julia’s voice and find it hard to go past anything she writes. And this is a novel that I suspect is going to find many, many readers who read for the sheer pleasure of nostalgia, although it’s likely to be leavened with the acerbic aftertaste of hindsight. If you grew up in the days of ABBA and Countdown, if you ate Chico Rolls and played Space Invaders, if you remember the distinctly whitebread version of history favoured in Western Australia’s sesquicentenary celebrations of 1979, I think you’ll enjoy Mel and Shell as much as I did, while appreciating its subtle critique of that time.

It’s 1979. Swedish pop group ABBA rules the airwaves, roller skating is cool, and Mel and Shell are best friends. There’s nothing they like more than making up dances to ABBA songs, and there’s nothing they like less than Scary Sharon and Stinky Simon. But things are changing, fast. Confiding in her pen pal from 1829, Shell discovers she has a lot to learn about loyalty, honesty and roller skating.

Sara Foster
The Hush
HarperCollins
$32.99

I’m intrigued by the premise of Sara Foster’s new title, The Hush, and I think there will be a few copies under my Christmas tree this year. Sara is well-known as a bestselling author of psychological thrillers, and this time she ventures into a dystopian near-future world that sounds frighteningly familiar with our present. I’ve been hearing a lot about The Hush and am looking forward to reading it.

Lainey’s friend Ellis is missing. And she’s not the only one.

In the six months since the first case of a terrifying new epidemic—when a healthy baby wouldn’t take a breath at birth—the country has been thrown into turmoil. The government has passed sweeping new laws to monitor all citizens. And several young pregnant women have vanished without trace.

As a midwife, Lainey’s mum Emma is determined to be there for those who need her. But when seventeen-year-old Lainey finds herself in trouble, this dangerous new world becomes very real. The one person who might help is Emma’s estranged mother, but reaching out to her will put them all in jeopardy…

The Hush is a new breed of near-future thriller, an unflinching look at a society close to tipping point and a story for our times, highlighting the power of female friendship through a dynamic group of women determined to triumph against the odds.

Leave a comment

Filed under New books

Criminally inclined women: new releases from WA writers…

Fremantle Press’s crime list seems to have taken on a different shade of murder recently, with the release of three debut titles by women writers. All three will be finding a place under my Christmas tree this year.

Sally Scott
Fromage
Fremantle Press
$32.99

Sally Scott has a wicked sense of humour, so I feel confident in predicting readers of Fromage are in for a pacy crime story with more than a few laughs along the way. Listen to her talk about killing people with food, as well as the more serious matter of writing while undergoing cancer treatment, in this ABC Radio interview.

Journalist Alex Grant is enjoying the last days of her summer holiday in Croatia when she is accosted by an old school friend, Marie Puharich, and her odious brother, Brian, both there to attend the funeral of their fearsome grandfather’s two loyal retainers. The only upside of the whole sorry business is meeting Marco, the family’s resident Adonis. An incorrigible foodie, Alex is unable to resist Brian’s invitation to visit the family creamery in Australia’s south-west to snoop around for stories and eat her body weight in brie. But trouble has a way of finding Alex, not least because her curiosity is the size of a giant goudawheel. What begins as a country jaunt in search of a juicy story will end in death, disaster and the destruction of multiple pairs of shoes.

Karen Herbert
The River Mouth
Fremantle Press
$32.99

I saw Karen Herbert interviewed at this year’s York Festival, and The River Mouth sounds like a brilliant thriller with a lot to say about the social world. It’s been described by Readings as ‘a stunning debut that will keep you guessing till the last chapter’. There’s an interview here in which Karen talks about her inspiration for writing.

Fifteen-year-old Darren Davies is found facedown in the Weymouth River with a gunshot wound to his chest. The killer is never found. Ten years later, his mother receives a visit from the local police. Sandra’s best friend has been found dead on a remote Pilbara road. And Barbara’s DNA matches the DNA found under Darren’s fingernails. When the investigation into her son’s murder is reopened, Sandra begins to question what she knew about her best friend. As she digs, she discovers that there are many secrets in her small town, and that her murdered son had secrets too.

Laura Ellery
Private Prosecution
Fremantle Press
$32.99

It always adds another layer of interest when authors write what they know. Lisa Ellery is a lawyer who runs her own law practice, and has now turned to writing crime. There’s a great interview with her here.

Andrew Deacon is young, fit and single, a junior prosecutor at the WA DPP with a bright future and a sense of entitlement to match. That future starts to look darker when he spends the night with an attractive stranger, Lily Constantine, and she is found murdered in her apartment the following day. Andrew believes he knows who killed Lily but there is not a shred of evidence to prove it.

This is a pacy, darkly comic whodunnit with a twist—Andrew knows who did it but the clock is ticking and he has to prove it before he gets himself taken out.

2 Comments

Filed under New books

Something new—the York Writers Festival…

I love regional festivals, and they hold a special place in my heart: the very first festival I took part in as a writer was one (sadly now defunct) in Albany, where I discussed my debut novel, The Sinkings. The historic murder that is at the centre of Little Jock’s story in The Sinkings took place at a lonely campsite near Albany, and one of the thrills of my writing life was when several Albany residents introduced themselves to me at the festival as descendants of the real people who feature in the novel.

The York Festival—a diverse, family-friendly multi-arts festival held in the historic town of York—has been running for many years. But this year its program includes a one-day writers festival, curated by the wonderful William Yeoman and featuring some fabulous Western Australian writers—many of them introducing new books.

The writers festival, to be held on Saturday 2 October, is divided into several sets:

The Fiction Set: Skyglow by Leslie Thiele, Wherever You Go by Monique Mulligan and Locust Summer by David Allan-Petale, with a discussion on Truth in Fiction

The Crime Set: The River Mouth by Karen Herbert and Death Leaves the Station by Alexander Thorpe, and a panel on Criminal Speculations

The Non-Fiction Set: Isolation by Stephen Scourfield and Many Maps by Bill and Jenny Bunbury, with what sounds like a fascinating conversation entitled Westralia Triumphant?

The Children’s Set: Beneath the Trees by Cristy Burne, The Wrecker’s Curse by Norman Jorgensen and Where Do Stars Go? by Katie Stewart, and a panel on Writing for Children

The Poetry Set: John Kinsella, Caitlin Maling, Fr Robert Nixon and Rose van Son, and a discussion on Wordmusic

There’s also a Long Table Breakfast, featuring Stephen Scourfield and Will Yeoman, with proceeds going to the local River Conservation Society.

Details and bookings here (check the ‘Writers’ box).

I’m thrilled to be taking part in the festival, chairing sessions with Monique Mulligan (10.30am), Cristy Burne (11.30am) and Rose van Son (4.30pm). In this episode of the festival’s Pod Fiction podcast, Will Yeoman and I talk about these sessions and the festival in general.

York, situated on Ballardong Nyoongar land, is 98 kilometres east of Perth—a short drive for Perth residents. It is the oldest inland town in the state (established 1835), and really worth visiting, with its heritage buildings and vibrant arts scene.

I’d love to see you there.

4 Comments

Filed under Events, New books

Two July releases by WA writers…

David Allan-Petale
Locust Summer
Fremantle Press
$26.99

This beautifully written debut novel from writer/journalist David Allan-Petale is set in a fictional town in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt. Although strongly evocative of rural life and the relentless work involved in farming the land, the novel’s strength, for me, lies in the delicacy of its handling of family relationships and the way those bonds are tested by internal and external pressures. Locust Summer was shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel Literary Award.

On the cusp of summer, 1986, Rowan Brockman’s mother asks if he can come home to Septimus in the Western Australian Wheatbelt to help with the harvest. Rowan’s brother Albert, the natural heir to the farm, has died, and Rowan’s dad’s health is failing. Although he longs to, there is no way that Rowan can refuse his mother’s request as she prepares the farm for sale.

This is the story of the final harvest—the story of a young man in a place he doesn’t want to be, being given one last chance to make peace before the past, and those he has loved, disappear.

Read reviews by Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers and Gemma Nisbet in the West Australian.

Meg McKinlay
Bella and the Voyaging House
Fremantle Press
$12.99

Perth writer Meg McKinlay has produced some of my favourite children’s picture books and fiction for young people—A Single Stone (Prime Minister’s Literary Award, Queensland Literary Award), Catch a Falling Star (SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, WA Premier’s Book Award), Ten Tiny Things, Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros and many others. And I’ve lost count of how many copies of The Truth about Penguins I’ve bought! This is her latest, a chapter book for young readers.

Bella’s house likes to travel, setting sail across the ocean while everyone sleeps. Bella’s parents don’t mind as long as the house is home by daylight. One night, Bella has a wonderful idea for her grandfather’s birthday. She wants to find a figurine he made of her grandmother, which was lost overboard in an accident. Bella and the house go in search of it, but things don’t quite go according to plan…

Read a review by Writing WA

Leave a comment

Filed under New books

More new releases from WA writers…

Elfie Shiosaki
Homecoming
Magabala Books
$24.99

I’ve heard wonderful things about this debut hybrid work (poetry/prose) from Noongar and Yawuru writer Elfie Shiosaki, who lectures in Indigenous Rights at the University of Western Australia.

Homecoming pieces together fragments of stories about four generations of Noongar women and explores how they navigated the changing landscapes of colonisation, protectionism, and assimilation to hold their families together.

This seminal collection of poetry, prose and historical colonial archives, tells First Nations truths of unending love for children—those that were present, those taken, those hidden and those that ultimately stood in the light.

Homecoming speaks to the intergenerational dialogue about Country, kin and culture. This elegant and extraordinary form of restorative story work amplifies Aboriginal women’s voices, and enables four generations of women to speak for themselves. This sublime debut highlights the tenacity of family as well as First Nation’s agency to resist, survive and renew.

Elfie Shiosaki has restored humanity and power to her family in this beautifully articulated collection and has given voice to those silenced by our brutal past.

Listen to an interview with Elfie Shiosaki on ABC Radio Perth here.

Mel Hall
The Little Boat on Trusting Lane
Fremantle Press
$29.99

Some of my favourite writers (Simone Lazaroo, Rashida Murphy, Laurie Steed) have been talking up this newly released novel from Fremantle Press. Mel Hall has previously published a novella (The Choir of Gravediggers, Ginninderra Press, 2016), and was shortlisted for the Fogarty Literary Award in 2019.

Richard runs his alternative healing centre from an old houseboat in a scrapyard on Trusting Lane. The Little Mother Earth Ship provides spiritual sustenance at regular meetings of the Circle of IEWA. While Richard plies his new-age wisdom, disciples Finn and August help to run the centre. But warning letters from the council are piling up down the side of the fridge and the arrival of a new mystic, Celestiaa Davinaa, is about to rock their world. How many alternative healers can one small boat hold before the enterprise capsizes?

Read a review by Books + Publishing here.

3 Comments

Filed under New books

Two new releases from WA writers…

Brigid Lowry
A Year of Loving Kindness to Myself: and other essays
Fremantle Press
$29.99

A book high on my ‘to buy list’ is a new book of essays by Brigid Lowry, A Year of Loving Kindness to Myself. Brigid is a wonderful writer and a lovely person, wise and funny, and I would read pretty much anything she wrote. This one sounds like a perfect Mother’s Day release, and a collection of and for these crazy times we are living through…

A beautifully presented and uplifting book of contemplative, wry, sometimes funny essays about living thoughtfully and with care amidst life’s challenges. If you’re struggling to maintain grace and good humour amidst daily potholes and pitfalls, Brigid Lowry may be just the warm, wise and witty companion you need. Informed by contemporary psychology and Buddhist philosophy, Brigid’s essays offer reflections on everything from friendship to grief, and from gratitude to self-care. Give this book to a friend or gift it to yourself. A Year of Loving Kindness to Myself is all the encouragement you’ll need to nurture you and those around you.

Emma Young
The Last Bookshop
Fremantle Press
$32.99

Another new autumn release is Emma Young’s The Last Bookshop. I’ve already bought a copy of this for a friend, who loved it, and it sounds like another good one for Mother’s Day. Emma has worked as a bookseller and a journalist, and The Last Bookshop, in its manuscript form, was shortlisted for the 2019 Fogarty Literary Award…

Cait Copper’s best friends have always been books—along with the rare souls who love them as much as she does, like the grandmotherly June. When Cait set up her shop, Book Fiend, right in the heart of the city, she thought she’d skipped straight to ‘happily ever after’. But things are changing, and fast. June’s sudden interest in Cait’s lacklustre love life and the appearance of the handsome ‘Mystery Shopper’ force her to concede there might be more to happiness than her shop and her cat. The city is transforming, with luxury chain stores circling Book Fiend’s prime location. And meanwhile, a far more personal tragedy is brewing. Soon Cait is questioning not only the viability of the shop, but the life she’s shaped around it. An unlikely band of allies is determined she won’t face these questions alone; but is a love of books enough to halt the march of progress and time?


In case you missed it, I also recently interviewed another WA writer (currently living in London), Michael Burrows, about his original and deeply moving novel about war, love and heroism, Where the Line Breaks.

Leave a comment

Filed under New books

Talking (new) fiction: Michael Burrows’ Where the Line Breaks

I was intrigued from the moment I heard about Michael Burrows’ debut novel, Where the Line Breaks, and so I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to talk to him about it and to be bringing you that interview today.

Michael was born and raised in Perth, but currently lives in London, where he first travelled to work at the 2012 Olympics. He says that after he backpacked through Europe for a year, the great British weather persuaded him to settle in the UK.

He completed his MA in 2017 at City, University of London, where he wrote the first draft of this novel. Where the Line Breaks was shortlisted for the 2019 Fogarty Literary Award.

Matthew Denton, a starry-eyed Australian completing his PhD in London, is determined to prove that the Unknown Digger—Australia’s answer to England’s Soldier Poets—is none other than war hero Lieutenant Alan Lewis VC of the 10th Light Horse.

Like Lieutenant Lewis, Matthew is in love, and fighting for what he believes in—but the footnotes to Matt’s thesis come to reveal that all is not fair in love and war.

One hundred years and a lifetime’s experience apart, it becomes more and more difficult to say what makes a hero, especially if that hero is supposed to be you.

When two strands become three

AC: Michael, I’m always fascinated with the architecture of a novel, so I’d like to begin with that. The structure of Where the Line Breaks is one of the most inventive I’ve come across. On the face of it, a reader approaches the novel very much aware (because of the book’s internal design) that they are about to read a dual narrative. One narrative is presented in the form of a PhD thesis written by the present-day protagonist, student Matthew Denton; the second tells the story of the subject of Matthew’s thesis, Australian war hero Alan Lewis of the 10th Light Horse. But the reader is in for a surprise: this dual-narrative novel quickly evolves into a triple narrative. Without giving away any spoilers, could you please talk about this third strand and how it operates in the novel?

MB: From very early on in the writing process I knew that I needed some way of laying out the established historical timeline, that is, the story that the world has come to know, so that I could reveal the truth behind those events in the Alan Lewis storyline. I also wanted a way to comment on the major themes of the book directly—the ideas of heroism and romance and patriotism—and the thesis allowed me to do that in a fun, slightly different way.

What complicated it was that I also needed a way to tell Matt’s own story, and you can’t really do that in the thesis while maintaining the academic language. My solution was for Matt to reveal his own story through the footnotes to the thesis, occasionally dropping in personal thoughts and relating the historical timeline to his own life in a way that felt realistic. I really tried to make his narrative emerge organically; his story is triggered by related things in the thesis itself, as much as possible. As the thesis goes on, Matt’s story starts to take on a life of its own and grows bigger and more complicated, and the footnotes expand accordingly.

It’s a structure that I find really intriguing, and I hope people enjoy reading, because it gave me a lot of levels on which to play with the truth, to comment on things, and to echo relevant beats in the other storylines.

I’m not sure that this thesis would be marked particularly well as a proper PhD thesis, but I think it’s a lot more fun to read than a real PhD.

Fabricating authenticity

AC: Matthew’s academic argument is that Lewis is the (fictional) ‘Unknown Digger’ of the First World War, the previously anonymous poet responsible for a collection of poems that have become iconic artefacts in Australian literature since their discovery in the 1990s. I imagine it must have been great fun to create the various conceits at work here—the literary and cultural landscape in which the poems have achieved almost mythic status; the academic quest to counter existing beliefs about the identity of the Unknown Digger and to definitively prove an alternative; the ‘Unknown Digger industry’ and those texts and specialists who are part of it. I’m also wondering how demanding it was. How did you keep track of all your fabrications, and was it difficult to keep yourself separate from this parallel world of your own creation?

MB: I had a little too much fun constructing Matt’s arguments, inventing relevant sources, and creating the various historians and cultural icons he references. When it came time to sort the fact from the fiction for acknowledgement in the finished book, I had forgotten which sections I made up and which were real. Or, I found I had somehow placed a fictional quote into a very real reference book, or vice versa, which I then had to remedy.

There was a lot of fun had in creating titles and publishers for books—there may be a few puns in there that were purely for my own pleasure. I was also very lucky that Fremantle Press appreciated the fact that I had added a few of my fictional titles to their backlist—before I ever dreamed I would be lucky enough to get published by them—and allowed them to stay.

Like for any good thesis, I kept a bibliography (and even thought about adding it to the book at one stage) in order to keep tabs on all the various sources. I definitely enjoyed it—that freedom to create the perfect quote for whatever section of Matt’s thesis needed it was dangerous! If I‘d been able to do that in my own academic writing at university I might never have left.

Imperfect heroes

AC: The Alan Lewis narrative is woven around Matthew’s thesis, telling a story that is sometimes consonant with the thesis and sometimes a counter to it (and to the arguments of other theorists). In doing so, it unpicks truths and shows up hagiography for the way it renders individuals one-dimensional, denying them full humanity. Did you intend this to be the novel’s moral centre?

MB: It’s tough as a writer, and you will know this, because you fall in love with your characters and want them to be loved and quoted and maybe even looked up to, while still wanting them to be imperfect, rounded, fully-dimensional people. So, yes, sometimes they have to do less than perfect things in service of the story. I was definitely looking to question the way we mythologise war heroes and plaster them with these unattainable levels of perfection, but my real intention was just to muddy the area a little, and to examine why we feel the need to create these unattainable ideals in the first place. If the novel has a moral centre then it’s probably a bit of an unstable quagmire—my characters are not perfect, they don’t necessarily do the right things, but I think they are more realistic that way.

Would you trust this man?

AC: How reliable as the narrator of his own story is Matthew Denton?

MB: Matt is trying to prove that Alan Lewis is the Unknown Digger, and he is willing to do that by manhandling the facts in whatever way he can to support his argument, so I wouldn’t call him a paradigm of reliability. The fun of writing Matt’s thesis was finding the right level of control Matt had—in a way he’s writing the footnotes almost automatically, but at the same time he’s very aware he’s writing the footnotes and telling a story and he wants to be the hero in his own life, so how far can we trust him?

But, at the end of the day, he’s an academic, and interested in finding the truth, so while there is fun to be had in deciphering what’s real, I don’t think he’s malicious. If anything, there are points when he is too honest!

Accumulating research, letting it go

AC: Many times I caught my breath at the sensory qualities of the prose. One example (of many):

…powder dry on his lips, the limestone taste of zinc cream. The powdery residue is in his eyelashes, and tears spring from the corners of his eyes, attempting to wash away the dirt, but with each blink it grows worse. He closes his eyes but no matter which direction they roll the tiny grains push into the soft wet whites, caught beneath the thin skin of his eyelids, pricking and tearing.

I was also drawn to the minute experiential details:

Red spent four hours last week picking [lice] from his shirt and throwing them on the fire. They make a little pop as they burn.

Did research play a role in your ability to project yourself so convincingly into the brutal physical world of the novel, and also to occupy that emotional landscape? And did this take a toll on you?

MB: I love the research period on a project—losing yourself in the minutiae of a topic and finding these wonderful little morsels of information that you’ll probably never even use. I did a lot of research for this novel, but I found that once I’d done enough, I was able to put the research aside and immerse myself in the landscape without the need to constantly be looking at notes and checking accuracy. I was only able to get to that place because I had done the research.

I wouldn’t say it took a toll on me, but it would sometimes take a while to get into that space again, especially if I’d spent a bit of time working on the thesis storyline and was coming back to the Alan Lewis storyline. Often I would find it easier to write by playing a specific song on repeat, sometimes for hours on end, to stay in the right tone. Whatever works, right?

Multiple obsessions

AC: Writing a PhD requires many things, and obsession surely has to be one of them. That can be seen very clearly in Matthew’s work, but the more I read, the more I began to feel that this is actually a novel of obsession. Is it possible for you to talk about the other obsessions at work here without giving too much away?

MB: I’m glad you felt it wasn’t just Matt obsessing over the PhD, because I think Matt and Alan are both grappling with their own obsessions, based around their ideas of heroism and bravery and, on another level, masculinity. What the dual narratives allowed me to do was to tackle those themes from opposite sides, almost, so that Alan’s obsessions lead him, eventually, to a certain crucial point. Then Matt, with the weight of history, and the benefit of hindsight, moving away from it in time, is obsessed in his own way with living up to that point. I also wanted the book to explore this modern day obsession I think we all have with defining everything, breaking everything down to right or wrong, good or bad, black or white. Focusing on the various obsessions in the novel, and the tunnel vision it gives both Matt and Alan, was a really great way of confronting those ideas.

Aspects of the self

AC: Where the Line Breaks is your first novel, and it’s been said of first novels that many, if not most, contain autobiographical threads. In fact, Kerryn Goldsworthy put forward the idea that in this respect, the debut novel is a little sub-genre of its own. I firmly believed that mine had no autobiographical element whatsoever until others pointed out that one of my main characters, like me, is a book editor, lives in an old house, has a cat, etc.—minor details, but still! I noticed a few such correlations between your life and Matthew Denton’s. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

MB: There is definitely some correlation between my life and Matt’s. I think in a very early draft he was even named Matt Burroughs, because I figured that if people were going to draw comparisons then I might as well state it plainly—the difference between us being the lengths we are willing to go to in order to prove ourselves correct. I certainly drew on my own experiences of moving away from Perth, finding somewhere to live in London, and studying at university, but then I had to start making things up because my life in London was and is quite normal and uneventful, and as you and I both know, things need to happen in a book.

Likewise, though, there is something of me in Alan Lewis too. Both these characters started with something of me (that old adage of ‘write what you know’), in Alan’s case it was that need to prove himself, and that fear that he won’t be able to when the time comes, which I think we all grapple with. The joy of being a writer is that you can then explore those aspects of yourself by pushing your characters to extremes.

Those damn footnotes!
(said every editor, ever)

AC: I alluded earlier to the internal design of the book, which incorporates, as one strand, the full text of Matthew’s thesis complete with the apparatus of title page, abstract, contents page, acknowledgments and, critically, footnotes. I couldn’t help wondering just how unpopular this made you with your editor and graphic designer!

MB: On the night of the Fogarty Literary Award presentation, when Fremantle Press announced that they would be offering all three shortlisted novels publication,* my editor Georgia Richter approached me and the first thing she said was that the footnotes were going to be interesting to work with! I’m so thankful for Georgia and the designers who persevered with it, making sure everything worked on the page, because it was hard! The problem is that if you take out a chunk of thesis when you’re editing, then the footnotes move position too, so then you have to go back over every page to make sure it hasn’t messed up the formatting a few pages later. We got there eventually, though, and the finished book looks incredible, and that is all thanks to them!

Where the Line Breaks is published by Fremantle Press
You can follow Michael on Twitter and via his website

*The other two shortlisted titles were The History of Mischief by Rebecca Higgie (published in 2020), and The Last Bookshop by Emma Young (published this year). The award was won by Rebecca Higgie.

Image credit: author photo by Rosalind Alcazar

8 Comments

Filed under New books, Talking (new) fiction

Talking (new) fiction: Susan Midalia’s Everyday Madness

What a great pleasure it is to introduce a new book by Susan Midalia on the blog today. Susan is well known in the Western Australian writing community—and beyond—as a writer, editor, workshop presenter and mentor, and is usually, I’ve found, the wittiest person in the room! I have valued her friendship over many years, and have many times been grateful for her careful eye and sage advice.

Her three short story collections (The History of the Beanbag; An Unknown Sky; Feet to the Stars) were all shortlisted for major awards, and her first novel, The Art of Persuasion, established her as just as much of a force in longer form fiction.

The work we are discussing today is Susan’s new novel, Everyday Madness.

Life sucks when you’re a vacuum cleaner salesman facing redundancy, and your wife of nearly forty years fills your days and nights with incessant chatter. But when Gloria suddenly and alarmingly stops talking, the silence is more than fifty-nine-year-old Bernard can bear.

In desperation, Bernard turns to his ex-daughter-in-law for help. Meg has issues of her own, and her bright and funny daughter Ella sometimes wonders if her mum is trying so hard to keep her safe that it stops both of them from spreading their wings. Will Meg’s suspicious nature thwart her chance encounter with the kindly but enigmatic Hal? And is there still hope for Bernard and Gloria on the other side of silence?

Creating voices

AC: Susan, some years ago, when you were talking about one of your short fiction collections, I remember you saying that you’d set yourself the challenge of writing from many points of view, trying to capture the voices of people of different age, gender, background. I thought of this when reading your new novel, which is told from four alternating and very different points of view: married couple Bernard and Gloria, their former daughter-in-law, Meg, and their granddaughter, Ella. Could you please talk about the challenges involved in creating, and sustaining, four distinct voices in a longer narrative?

SM: I’ve long been fascinated by the complex psychology, indeed the irreducible mystery, of different forms of selfhood. I’m what the writer Zadie Smith describes, in less high-falutin’ terms, as ‘an equal-opportunity voyeur’. Creating four different perspectives in Everyday Madness was certainly a challenge, particularly because the characters are in many ways unlike me. I had to think about the content of their interior monologues and dialogue: what, for example, might a middle-aged man think about being thrown out of work? What are the preoccupations of a ‘typical’ housewife? I also thought of them as individuals with their own distinctive voices. Bernard is an arrogant cynic; Gloria is dejected and bewildered; Meg is a jaded divorcee and an over-anxious mother; and Ella is a smart and lively twelve-year-old. Capturing their voices meant considering their outlook on life, their characteristic vocabulary and use of syntax, even the rhythms of their sentences. I also had to modify their voices as their perceptions changed, while maintaining the bedrock of their character. As just one example: Bernard’s increasing capacity for self-doubt and self-criticism is shown through the use of questions and self-mockery in his later interior monologues.

I created those four voices in the same way that I create all my fictional material: by wide reading, close observation of people, attentiveness to popular culture, and remaining politically informed. Another crucial part of the process was reading my drafts aloud. I do this regardless of the book I’m writing, but it’s particularly useful for any writer who wants to practise the art of ventriloquism. The voice has to sound plausible, distinctive and engaging.

I must say that capturing Ella’s voice was the toughest challenge of all. It’s a long time since I’ve been twelve years old! I received some really helpful feedback from a friend’s granddaughter, and I re-read a couple of Sonya Hartnett’s YA novels for her brilliant evocation of adolescent anxiety and thwarted desire. And I used the internet, of course, to find the right cultural references for a young girl living in contemporary Perth: her taste in music, her leisure activities, the ubiquitous presence of the mobile phone. I belong to a generation in which the telegram was the fastest form of technology!

What ‘madness’ isn’t

AC: Mental health issues, and the stigma surrounding them, are prominent in the novel, in several ways. Could you talk about how you handled these?

SM: The most explicit example in my novel of a mental health issue is Gloria’s diagnosed depression. I had two important aims in writing about her illness. One was addressing the misconception that depression is nothing worse than an occasional case of ‘the blues’, by showing the serious nature of Gloria’s symptoms. Her depression begins with protracted insomnia and an inability to eat, then spirals into visual and auditory hallucinations and near-catatonia. I wanted readers to feel the lived experience of her illness: her intense fear, her sense of bodily assailment, the anguish of her isolation, her irrational sense of shame. My second aim was to de-stigmatise clinical depression by using a medical, not a moral, model to explain its cause. Gloria’s depression is diagnosed as exogamous—environmentally caused—instead of being seen, as it sometimes is, as a sign of weakness or self-pity; and her recovery is effected by medication. Importantly, too, I wanted to show the therapeutic value of understanding and compassionate friends in Gloria’s road to recovery.

In writing about Gloria’s illness, I remembered, and re-read, William Styron’s book about his terrifying descent into clinical depression. His Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness ends with tentative words of hope: ‘[w]hoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair against despair.’ And while Styron understands that different people respond to different treatments, he’s adamant that medication saved his life.

Other characters in my novel experience ‘madness’ in less frightening, non-clinical ways: anxiety, abjection, self-aggrandisement, unfounded suspicions. I’ve explored the process through which so-called ‘normal’ or rational people can become irrational under the pressure of social or personal circumstances. Losing a job, being anxious about a child’s safety, a burning desire for approval: these are the experiences that make my characters lose their capacity for sound judgment. As my novel’s title suggests, I wanted to show how a lapse into irrationality by normally rational people is common, indeed a defining characteristic of our selfhood. The eighteenth-century writer Jonathan Swift summed it up perfectly: ‘Man [sic] is not a rational animal, but a creature capable of reason.’

Unlikeable characters and second chances

AC: I was interested to read that Everyday Madness has its genesis in a previously published short story of yours (‘Working It Out’, in the collection Feet to the Stars). You say that the character Bernard (Alan in the story) offered you ‘the challenge of making an unlikeable character capable of change’. I found this idea fascinating—almost a ‘sliding doors’ scenario, with the character taking one path in the story and another in the novel. It also made me wonder about the question of likeable/unlikeable characters. I’ve often heard readers say they haven’t liked a book because they didn’t like/couldn’t relate to a particular character, or any of the characters. I confess I’ve occasionally said the same thing myself! And yet isn’t fiction full of, and enlivened by, unlikeable characters? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

SM: I’ve always considered my short stories self-contained or complete, but for some inexplicable reason, the character of Alan kept asking me to give him a second chance. So I gave a cynical, self-pitying, arrogant man the opportunity for redemption over the course of an extended narrative. I made a deliberate decision to begin my novel with the voice of this highly unlikeable character as a way of confronting readers with the reality of human nastiness and frailty, and in the knowledge that readers of novels always have an expectation of character development or change. I wanted readers to ask: why is Bernard like this? What’s his backstory? Where might he go from here? An unlikeable character, then, can pique the reader’s curiosity, animate the plot, generate strong emotions and encourage readers to reflect on their own values and beliefs. These seem to me highly ‘enjoyable’ aspects of the reading experience. I must admit that I don’t understand the tendency in contemporary culture to dismiss books with unlikeable characters. After all, some of the most complex and compelling figures in literature have been thoroughly despicable or repulsive women or men. Iago, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Uriah Heap, Hannibal Lecter…there are thousands more of such beasts. But I ‘enjoy’ their characters, and the books in which they appear, because I admire the aesthetic skill with which they’ve been created; for the way they drive or complicate a plot; for the insights they provide about human psychology and the society they inhabit.

I’m also disconcerted by the current desire for ‘relatable’ characters. I don’t want to dismiss it entirely; I think it’s important for readers to know that their experiences have been respected by a writer. Some readers might ‘relate’ to Bernard when he loses his job. Others might ‘relate’ to Gloria’s experience of depression or Meg’s experience of divorce. This kind of reader identification can be comforting or consoling; as the novelist C.S. Lewis observed: ‘We read to know that we are not alone.’ But on the other hand, I feel very strongly that the readerly desire for ‘relatable’ characters can lead to a narrowing of our interests, a diminishment of our imaginative capacities. I like to think that reading can expand the limits of our world, complicate our beliefs, help us to learn about other cultures and periods of history. And I would, quite frankly, be bored if I kept reading books that were merely a reflection of my own experiences; of myself.

That’s how I feel about writing as well. What impels me as a writer is imagining someone who’s not me. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a means of understanding difference instead of merely judging it. Consider, for example, Gloria, a mother who doesn’t love her child. Because I love both my children deeply, it would be easy for me to assume that a mother like Gloria is morally deficient. The much more difficult task for a writer, as well as in our own lives, is to ask why. Why might a mother feel this way? Why might a woman like Meg be an over-protective mother? Why might a girl like Ella feel estranged from her father? The novel as a genre is one of the best art forms we have for charting the evolution of characters over time; for helping us understand the choices people make and who they might become.

Men changing themselves

AC: You offer us various negative versions of masculinity throughout the novel—a cheating husband, a patriarch at times careless and at others emotionally abusive, a superior, entitled son, a father who stares at young women at the beach…The most positive of your male characters is rather an enigma, and I don’t want to introduce any spoilers, but could you talk in general terms about where the heart of positive masculinity lies in the novel?

SM: As a feminist, and I hope as a decent human being, I abhor the systemic sexism and misogyny that continues to violate, demean or trivialise women, and to deny them justice. And yes, there are several examples in my novel of men behaving badly, with varying degrees of severity: references to rape and paedophilia; a husband’s emotional and psychological abuse of his wife; and casual, everyday sexism. But as a feminist, I also believe in the possibility of and necessity for social change. For me, this means a commitment to social activism and political writing, but it also means believing that men have to change themselves. They have to learn to be more self-reflective and self-critical, to treat women as equals, to listen to women instead of deriding or silencing them. There are two important examples in my novel of men who change for the better. And yes, to avoid spoilers, I’ll respond in general terms. One of the male characters learns humility, the other acknowledges his shame. Humility and shame—two qualities traditionally gendered ‘feminine’—and which ultimately enable the male characters to develop more honest, more expansive ways of being in the world. While my novel never loses sight of the reality of toxic masculinity, I also wanted to honour those men who are willing to be ‘feminised’—willing to become good men.

In writing a feminist novel, I also wanted to avoid the ‘blame game’ that automatically casts men as the oppressors and women as their victims. My treatment of the experience of adultery is a case in point; in my view, simply labelling a man an ‘adulterer’ does little to address the complexities of human relationships. My novel also recognises that women can be self-victimisers as well as victims. Using Meg again as an example: her investment in an ideal of maternal devotion results in smothering her daughter with ‘care’. And while she’s a good feminist who knows that a woman shouldn’t be valued for her sex appeal, Meg continues to feel anxious about her sexual desirability. This raises an important point about the nature of ideology: that it is both propositional and performative. Thus, feminism ‘proposes’ that a woman’s appearance has nothing to do with her worth. Women know this, rationally. But the images of sexually desirable women with which we’re constantly bombarded ‘perform’ on our emotions, fuel our desire to look beautiful. To compare ourselves to other women. To fear growing old. Bah, humbug, I say. When I’m able to think rationally, that is.

Transcendent friendships

AC: Female friendship is a strong element of the novel. We have the adolescent girls—three firm friends, and the destabilising effect when a fourth is introduced. We have the older women, Gloria and Donna, and the younger, Meg and Hanna. And then, the cross-generational, in-law friendship of Gloria and Meg, a relationship rich with opportunities for conflict and misunderstanding, but which for me shines through as one of the most interesting and most uplifting elements of the novel. Where did this come from, Susan, and how did you go about developing this strand of the narrative?

SM: Yes, female friendships are important in my novel, as well as in my life. I wanted to show how such friendships can be emotionally and psychologically nourishing and a source of political solidarity, as well as capable of accommodating differences. And I’m so pleased, Amanda, that you particularly warmed to the intergenerational friendship between Meg and her former mother-in-law Gloria. It’s one of my favourite relationships in the novel because it involves transcending the superficialities of personality and recognising the value of character. Meg has long been irritated by Gloria’s garrulousness and her apparent vacuousness, but she comes to learn that Gloria is far more astute than she’s given her credit for; that she’s kind and thoughtful, and without a shred of self-pity. One of the most difficult sections for me to write was the ‘reconciliation scene’ between the two women. I didn’t want it to be overly sentimental or implausibly transformational; I hope I’ve avoided those pitfalls.

In developing this relationship, I drew partly on my own inclination, as a highly educated woman who values the life of the mind, to be an intellectual snob. So in this sense, Meg is like me: she has to overcome her arrogant assumptions about Gloria and recognise the woman’s essential goodness. I also had in mind Jane Austen’s novel Emma, in which the heroine is given a right royal lecture about her public humiliation of the garrulous, irritating spinster Miss Bates. Badly done, Emma! Mr Knightley declares. It was badly done, indeed! It’s the classic conflict between head and heart. Do we value intelligence more than a generous heart? Emma, like Meg, comes to understand that intellectual snobbery is both a grievous misuse of one’s intelligence and a profound moral failing.

These specifics aside, I also developed the Meg–Gloria relationship in the same way that I’ve developed all the relationships—marital, familial, platonic—in both my novels. I don’t begin with a plan; I never use a plot summary or even the rudiments of a narrative arc. I have hunches; vague outlines; a few fragments of speech; a name; an occupation. Then I begin to develop the characters, give them a story, by imagining what they might think, feel, say or do in a given situation. I make many changes over the course of many drafts until I reach what I had no idea would be the end until I arrive there. I know some novelists are meticulous planners who summarise the content of each chapter, but I can’t, nor do I wish to, work in that way. One of the reasons I love writing fiction is encountering the unexpected: characters who refuse to act in ways I’d intended; intuiting the need for a new character; even ending up writing a comic novel that I thought would be much darker.

Valuing interior space

AC: I realised when I finished reading that I didn’t have a strong sense of the time and place of the novel, other than a general idea that it was contemporary and set in Australia. Does this reflect a conscious decision on your part—a kind of de-identification—or are time and place simply subordinate to the role of characters and relationships for you as a writer (and perhaps as a reader)?

SM: A realist novel like mine needs to create some sense of time and place to make it convincing for readers. I’ve ‘signposted’ my novel’s historical context by referring in the opening section to Australia’s Mandarin-speaking prime minister (Kevin Rudd); and then, towards the end of the novel, I show Bernard’s disillusionment with the same prime minister’s lack of action on climate change. He also refers to the possibility of the country’s first female prime minister (Julia Gillard). These details allow readers to work out the novel’s time frame for themselves. I’ve also included some descriptions of suburbs (Dianella, Mt Lawley) and interior settings to provide a sense of physical location.

But the absence of a strong sense of time and place in my novel wasn’t a conscious decision. Instead, it simply reflects the kind of imagination I happen to possess. It’s auditory and empathetic rather than visual: I’m attuned to conversations and voices, and I seem to be intent on imagining what it might be like to be someone other than me. Many other writers are endowed with the same kind of imagination. Here’s Jane Austen, again! Her six completed novels rarely describe what places look like, and when they do, it’s usually in generalised terms. Her novels rarely specify the historical period in which they are set, but their depiction of the class structure, customs, social activities and conversations makes their social and historical contexts seem vividly real. While I wouldn’t for one moment presume to elevate my writing to lofty Austenian heights, I think my novelworks in the same Austenian way. It represents contemporary Perth less as a physical place and more as an atmosphere, with its own recognisable rhythms, textures and ways of life.

It’s also certainly the case that I’m more interested, as both a writer and a reader, in psychological or interior space than external space. I’m particularly drawn to the reality that people are essentially unknowable or opaque. How can we ever know, with any certainty, what someone is thinking or feeling, even when they tell us? This concept of the self is a distinctly western and relatively recent historical phenomenon, and it’s one that’s had a huge impact on both the content and mode of contemporary literature. In my novel, characters often read people’s external signs as symbols of their inner life, but they are often denied the satisfaction of ultimate revelations. I also wanted to show the capacity of my characters to be surprised by others, in ways that can be either affirming or unsettling, elating or confronting. It’s rich terrain for a novelist, offering as it does the possibility of misunderstandings, misrecognitions, conflicts—all the drama of human existence, in tragic or comic guise.

The concept of ‘unknowability’ is also enacted in my novel’s mode of narration. Instead of using an omniscient narrator—the kind who tells us precisely what’s happening in a character’s head—I’ve used four different narrative perspectives. In this way, the reader gets a kaleidoscope of views, a jostling of opinions, as characters try to work each other out. Which is, after all, what real life is like.

Language as psychological action

AC: One of the concerns in your novel is the nature and functions of language. Tell us how this interest weaves its way into Everyday Madness.

SM: As a writer focused on characters and their relationships, I’m particularly interested in language as a form of psychological action: on what people do to one another with words. Sometimes the action is destructive: Bernard, for example, uses sarcastic jibes to humiliate his wife, and perfunctory responses to her questions as a means of avoiding intimacy. But language can also be healing. In my novel, the simple, sincerely meant words ‘I’m sorry’ are, in the context in which they’re used, a plea for reconnection.

Language can also be an assertion of power, or an expression of powerlessness. Gloria, for example, a run-at-the-mouth irritation to her husband, later tells him that ‘[w]hen people don’t see you, you try to make them hear you’. Language is also a means of overcoming isolation. My novel uses Meg’s studies as a speech pathologist to show how meaningful verbal communication can create a sense of belonging, and a life-enhancing reciprocity between self and other.

I also enjoyed using a language other than English in my novel: German, which I grew up speaking. Bernard is a postwar immigrant, and his retention of some German words is both a nostalgic yearning for his childhood and a commitment to the present, as he begins teaching the language to his granddaughter Ella. It also gave me the opportunity to have a bit of fun with those unbelievably long German compound nouns. How could we not fall in love with Freundschaftsbeziehung?

But English remains my one true love. One of my early memories is my father’s purchase of a huge Webster’s Dictionary—obscenely fat, dauntingly weighty—with helpfully indented marks to show the letters of the alphabet. The size of that dictionary was an irresistible invitation to discover a multitude of words. The English language has more words than any other, partly because it has so many linguistic influences, and partly because it’s so highly connotative. How could I not be a reader? Or a writer?

They’re everywhere!

AC: And finally, Susan, let’s get to the really in-depth stuff. Why do you think the world has gone crazy over flamingos over the last few years?

SM: This is astonishing to me, Amanda! Before I even conceived of my novel, with its various references to flamingos, a friend gifted me a carry bag covered with images of that very same bird. I also bought myself two flamingo treats: sturdy bookends, and a doorstopper. Maybe I have prescient powers! Since posting news of my novel’s release, I have been given flamingos in the form of congratulatory cards, a pencil-holder and a pair of socks. Now, whenever I go shopping, I see those birds on so many items: pyjamas; men’s shorts; umbrellas; lanterns; even a chardonnay called ‘The Magnificent Journey of Mimi Flamingo’! So why the current rage for flamingos? I think it’s a combination of their gracefulness, their colour—which varies from a soft, lovely pink to an intense orange—and their endearing way of tucking their heads into their necks. And maybe people are fascinated by the fact that, as one of my characters says, no one knows why flamingos stand on one leg. I might use this as the title for my next novel: No One Knows Why Flamingos Stand On One Leg. Subtitled: How years of scientific research have failed to arrive at a definitive answer, plus a raft of other puzzles and conundrums that variously inspire, intrigue or piss people off.

Everyday Madness is published by Fremantle Press
Check Susan’s website for coming events; follow her on Twitter or Instagram

Image credits: author photo by Jen Bowden, 2018; flamingo photo by Susan Midalia

4 Comments

Filed under New books, Talking (new) fiction