Category Archives: Writers ask writers

Writers Ask Writers: early inspirations

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It’s been a while since the Writers Ask Writers group has posted, but we couldn’t let the opportunity to celebrate two new releases go by! The main characters in those new novels—Georgia in Sara Foster’s All That is Lost Between Us, and Evie in Natasha Lester’s A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald—are young women who are inspired to pursue big dreams. Georgia dreams of being a champion fell-runner, and her flight through the Lake District becomes a matter of life and death, while Evie dares to believe she can study medicine when social conventions say otherwise. So the topic we’ve chosen this time is: books we read as young women that were early influences on our own pursuits.

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Links to the posts from Dawn Barker, Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, Natasha Lester, Annabel Smith and Yvette Walker follow mine.

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There are probably many books I read as a girl and as a young woman that contributed to what I would eventually choose to do with my life, but it isn’t always easy to draw a direct line between cause and effect, especially when (as in my case) the journey has been a circuitous one.

Novels as diverse as Catcher in the Rye, Little Women and Great Expectations made lasting impressions on my literary sensibility, and in that sense were early inspirations. But on reflection, I’m surprised to find that I also owe a debt to a popular historical/romance novelist for scattering a few seeds—some that grew into a love of history; others into a vague dissatisfaction with who and what seemed ‘worthy’ subjects of history and historical fiction.

English writer Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert (d. 1993), writing under the pseudonyms Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, achieved sales of more than 56 million books during her writing life. In my late primary school years, I devoured the Jean Plaidy catalogue, jumping from series to series—the Queens of England, the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Georgians, the Plantagenets, Isabella and Ferdinand, the Medicis, the Borgias…

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These novels were enchanting, easy reads, and they took History—previously a dry subject consisting of dates and places and names and lists—and turned it into page-turner stories. I can trace the simple thread connecting the schoolgirl I was, eager to read about people rather than facts, to the writer I became.

But I also remember being curious about what went on in the margins of those stories. Fascinating though the lives of royalty and the powerful and the high-born were—not to mention the array of aspirants and pretenders and scheming mistresses—I would wonder about people who were not destined for a life at court or in other theatres of power. What did it feel like to be an ordinary person in such a society? What gave their lives value? Was life without status no life at all? Was the equation really that simple? It is only now that I can trace this other thread between the schoolgirl and the writer, and see that the debt I owe to ‘Jean Plaidy’ was part inspiration and part challenge.

As for those 56 million sales, I salute you, Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert! And I thank you for playing a part in sending me on the circuitous route that led me to convicts and gutting girls.

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Yvette Walker tells us why Graham Greene was the greatest influence on her young writing life.

Annabel Smith writes about her ‘beloved and much-underlined copy’ of Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home.

Natasha Lester was inspired by Jane Eyre, and through this book her ‘love of the epic novel, the love story…was born.’

Sara Foster recalls two very different novels that she says continue to influence her today.

Emma Chapman tells a beautiful story of a former employer who taught her that anything is possible.

Dawn Barker concedes her favourite was an ‘uncomfortable read’ but knows it helped her to realise ‘the power of words and stories.’

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Writers ask writers: writing in the digital age

Today the Writers Ask Writers group is celebrating twice over. First, a new book from one of our members is being launched today—a very special publication, and one that I have had the great pleasure of reading in successive drafts almost from its genesis.

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Annabel Smith’s The Ark was, as she describes it, ‘born digital’—a novel conceived, written and designed to be read as an interactive digital experience and that takes on the imaginative and ambitious task of inventing systems of communication for a dystopian future. It is also a character-driven novel—the hallmark of all of Annabel’s work—and a study of human behaviour under the extreme pressures of isolation, manipulation and fear. I’m delighted to be featuring Annabel as my next 2, 2 and 2 guest.

The topic of today’s blog, writing in the digital age, is in honour of The Ark on this auspicious occasion, and in celebration of Annabel’s stellar achievement in not only writing a brilliant work of speculative fiction but in mastering, through research and collaboration, the various technologies required to bring it into the world in the way she has.

Congratulations, Annabel!

YvetteWalker01We’re also celebrating the addition of a new Writers Ask Writers member: Yvette Walker, whose stunning debut novel, Letters to the End of Love, was shortlisted for the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and has recently been shortlisted for the WA Emerging Writers Award in the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Yvette also works at one of our fabulous local indie bookstores, Collins Booksellers Cottesloe. A big welcome to Yvette!

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When I try to imagine what my writing life would be like without the internet for research, the view becomes cloudy. I don’t think I can imagine that.

Online research complements all the other kinds of research I do, and sometimes makes the impossible possible. My studio is full of images and maps I have found online, and I have archive boxes of information I could never have laid my hands on in a non-digital world.

Among the most valuable resources for me as a writer of historical fiction are the newspapers of the time and place I am writing about. When researching colonial Western Australia for The Sinkings, reading newspapers of the 1860s–1880s meant driving in to the Battye Library in Perth, searching subjects via card and microfiche indexes, lacing up microfilm readers and laboriously trawling up and down the columns of blurry broadsheets, continually having to adjust the focus manually. Oh, and also taking extensive notes, because obtaining photocopies of any page I wanted required taking the film to another machine (after queueing for a long time), lacing it up, trying to align the part I wanted to copy, calling for help from busy librarians because invariably I’d get it wrong or the machine wouldn’t be working, and, finally, staring in dismay at an illegible photocopy and realising I’d have to start the process again.

A few years into my research for Elemental, the National Library of Australia’s Trove resource came online. All Australian newspapers from 1803 to 1954 are available via the Trove website, and the database is fully searchable. You can print pages, and there’s even a transcript (electronically translated, and sometimes inaccurate, even comical, in its optical rendering) of the article shown on the screen—in case you don’t want to scroll up and down the columns of the newspaper page.

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The first time I tried Trove, I was almost speechless. Many times since I’ve blessed those far-sighted library and IT visionaries who brought us this truly amazing online source, this well-named trove of history delivered, in a few keystrokes, to our homes and offices.

Digital age? When it comes to research, I’m sold. How about you?

You can read what my writer friends have to say about writing in the digital age via these links:

Annabel Smith
Sara Foster
Natasha Lester
Emma Chapman
Dawn Barker
Yvette Walker

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Writers ask writers: ‘difficult second novel syndrome’

picisto-20140611023627-550765Today the Writers Ask Writers group comes together to celebrate the launch of a new book by one of the group: Dawn Barker’s second novel, Let Her Go. Fractured, her first, was a page-turner, and I’m really looking forward to reading this one. Dawn will be talking about Let Her Go here next week, the first in the new series 2, 2 and 2 on looking up/looking down.

The topic today is, well, topical: the so-called ‘difficult’ second novel.

If you google difficult second novel syndrome you’ll find pages and pages of angst and counter-angst from writers who have suffered from it, writers who haven’t, those with advice and those with analysis. Causes are multifarious, but most seem to fall generally into two camps: exhaustion (the first novel has drained the imaginative life from the writer) and expectation (the first novel has to be ‘bettered’—whether in terms of sales or critical reception or self-defined success).

I don’t remember feeling exhausted of ideas or energy for writing my second novel—possibly because I knew it was going to involve a lengthy research phase before I entered the writing phase. I began that before my first novel was published, so there was a period of overlap between them, in which I was editing The Sinkings and researching Elemental. One seemed to balance the other.

picisto-20140611032418-617083As for expectation: I wasn’t conscious then of specific ‘second novel’ pressure; I was too busy coming to grips with what I was trying to do conceptually and narratively with Elemental. Danielle Wood summed up this distinction brilliantly when it was put to her that, having written one novel, she now knew ‘how to do it’. She responded that all she had learned was how to write the novel she had written; she would now have to learn how to write the next.

Among the many things I had to learn in the early stages of Elemental were how to write a sustained work in the first person, how to structure a long novel covering a life of more than eighty years, how to pace past and present, immediacy and reflection, and how to create an unfamiliar world through memories not my own. And I learned in the way that works for me: through immersion in the past, through instinct, through questioning, through trial and error.

If you’d asked me then if I knew what I was doing, I’d have shrugged, I’d have shaken my head. There are times I might have cried, but there were not too many of those. Frequently I reminded myself that I had felt the same when writing Little Jock and Willa in The Sinkings, and somehow I’d managed in the end.

picisto-20140611033435-692936In retrospect, I can see that some of the pressure associated with publishing a second novel was circumvented by Inherited, a collection of short stories published between the two novels. That came about more by stealth than design—a gradual accumulation of material through a felt need to actually complete a few sprints during the marathon of the novel!

However, I’m prepared to rewrite history and call it a smart move.

You can click on the links below to read my friends’ views on the difficult second novel:

Annabel Smith found that the first gave her confidence to write the second. The biggest difference between them, she says, was the marketing.

Emma Chapman is still in the process of writing her second novel, and is finding it more relaxed but full of challenges.

Sara Foster was a new mother when she wrote her second novel and found the former more scary than the latter!

Dawn Barker found inspiration for her second novel from such disparate sources as Florence and The Machine and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

PWFC author collage

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And the Mother’s Day giveaway winner is…

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picisto-20140325120046-443119Thanks to everyone who entered the big Mother’s Day book giveaway featuring the latest releases from Annabel Smith, Emma Chapman, Dawn Barker, Sara Foster and me, plus a book that each of us chose as a Mother’s Day gift.

And … drum roll, please … the winner is Amanda Barrett. Congratulations, Amanda!

And there’s a little bit of icing on the cake for our winner: as Amanda is from the Perth area, she also receives the special bonus prize of two tickets to the Jennifer Saunders event at the Octagon Theatre on 28 April.

BSB_logo_long_black_SMALLThanks again to our friends at Beaufort Street Books for sponsoring the giveaway.

For those who have recently signed up for my newsletter, the next edition will be out in a few weeks. In the meantime, there are new posts coming up on the blog.

I wish you all a happy and safe Easter break!

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Big Mother’s Day book giveaway

17 April 2014: Congratulations to Amanda Barrett, winner of the giveaway and bonus prize!

16 April 2014: Competition CLOSED. Winner announced tomorrow.

15 April 2014: Last day to enter! Competition closes midnight. To enter, remember to (1) sign up for the newsletter, and (2) leave a comment here. Good luck!

This month I’m happy to be teaming up with Writers Ask Writers friends Emma Chapman, Annabel Smith, Sara Foster and Dawn Barker to offer a fabulous Mother’s Day prize of ten books: our most recent releases plus one that each of us has selected as a book we would give to our mothers. So the winner of the competition will receive a copy of the following titles:

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There’s also a bonus prize, if the winner is from Perth: two tickets to see Jennifer Saunders discussing her recently released memoir, Bonkers: My Life in Laughs, at the Octagon Theatre on 28 April 2014, 7.30–8.30pm. (If the winner is not from Perth, the bonus prize will go to the first Perth entrant we draw after that.)

Huge thanks to Beaufort Street Books—one of my favourite bookshops—for sponsoring the giveaway. Jane and her fabulous staff really know books—and really know their customers, too! We’re delighted to have them on board.

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How do you enter? There are a few ways, and the more ways you use, the more chances you’ll have:

  • Sign up for my free email newsletter here, and leave a comment on this post, telling me what book you’d like to give your mother on Mother’s Day. If you’re already a newsletter subscriber, you won’t miss out; just leave your comment and that will count as an entry. *If you want to be in the running for the Jennifer Saunders tickets, make sure you add ‘PS I’m local’ to your comment.
  • Go to Emma’s, Annabel’s, Sara’s and Dawn’s blogs (links at the end of this post) and follow their instructions for entering.

Apologies to our international readers, but this one is open only to Australian residents.

The competition ends midnight on Tuesday 15 April, and we’ll be announcing the winner on Thursday 17th. So if you win, you’ll be well prepared for spoiling your mother, or someone else’s, or just yourself on Mother’s Day!

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My mother is a great reader, and my sister and I are always giving her books, or suggesting titles she might like to borrow from the library. Among several she’s enjoyed recently are Jo Baker’s Longbourne (Pride and Prejudice told from the servants’ point of view), Ian Reid’s That Untravelled World (a novel of early twentieth-century Perth) and Deborah Burrows’s Taking a Chance (a romance set in World War II Perth).

I’ve chosen Simone Lazaroo’s 2010 novel Sustenance as a wonderful Mother’s Day read, for several reasons. But first, let me tell you a little about it.

sustenance_cover_AWSustenance is set in the foothills of Bali, at the Elsewhere Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel for Western tourists. The main character, Perpetua de Mello, daughter of a Malaccan mother and an English father, is the hotel’s cook and an observer of life and of lives—the hotel’s wealthy guests, its Balinese staff, its owners (her ageing father and his dubious American business partner), its village neighbours, and a visiting Australian food critic who has a proposition for her.

The peaceful, idyllic world of the Elsewhere is torn asunder when the hotel is invaded by armed gunmen, its staff and guests taken hostage, and everything underpinning the comfortable complacency of Western tourism is revealed.

And so to my reasons for choosing Sustenance as an ideal Mother’s Day book.

First, the writing. Simone Lazaroo is one of Western Australia’s—indeed, Australia’s—most gifted writers, three times winner of the WA Premier’s Book Award for Fiction, and Sustenance is a beautiful, moving, witty, thought-provoking book.

Second, the food! It is a sensory delight to read the sumptuous descriptions of Perpetua’s meals, and we discover so much about this character through her respect for ingredients and the traditional recipes inherited from her mother.

Third, place. Bali is a destination well loved by so many Australians—including my mother—and this novel both celebrates and interrogates the relationship between the countries. It also evokes a visceral sense of place—the colours, the textures, the tropical scents, the human tapestry.

elemental_COVERFinally, Sustenance is a mother’s story—powerfully so—and that is an aspect of the novel best discovered through the reading. And I think that makes it a good companion novel for Elemental, a grandmother’s story written by my character Meggie and intended as as a gift for her granddaughter’s 21st birthday. Elemental’s dedication reads:

For
Edna Jean

and all grandmothers

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And so, get commenting and signing up, and you’ll be in the draw for our big book giveaway—plus the bonus Jennifer Saunders tickets if you’re located in Perth. Links to posts by Sara, Annabel, Emma and Dawn are below.

Good luck!

Sara Foster has chosen for the giveaway a book she’s already given to her mother, M.L. Stedman’s bestselling The Light Between Oceans. Sara’s mother loved it!

Annabel Smith’s Mother’s Day pick is Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, ‘a book about motherhood—about the sacrifices it asks of us and the rewards.’

Emma Chapman calls her chosen book, The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait, a real page-turner: ‘a wonderful, heartbreaking novel about the effects of depression on a family.’

Dawn Barker says of her pick, Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret: ‘My mum would love the page turning story and the emotional drama—as I did.’

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Writers ask writers: tools of the trade

MWF Ang_portraitThis month on Writers Ask Writers, we’re talking tools of the writer’s trade, and I’m delighted to welcome our special guest, Melbourne crime writer Angela Savage. I’ve just read the first in Angela’s Jane Keeney PI series (Behind the Night Bazaar), set in Chiang Mai, and can’t wait to read the rest (The Half-Child and The Dying Beach).

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I don’t really think myself as having ‘tools of trade’, although I have a studio full of ‘stuff’ that probably qualifies. Here’s a random selection:

DSCN4018Reference books: shelves and shelves of them, accumulated over three decades of work as a book editor—many, perhaps most, of them pre-dating the internet.

Stationery: I couldn’t get by without my post-it notes, markers in every colour, and more pens and pencils than the average person would use in a lifetime. My late Burmese cat, Daisy, once famously ate all the post-it notes off the side of a manuscript, which is why her successor is not allowed on the desk!
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DSCN4004Notebooks: ordinary A4 or foolscap lined lecture books, plus travel journals in all shapes and sizes.

Talismans: because I am open to the idea of good luck (not bad).
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Manila folders: possibly half the world’s supply, and yes, I know what’s in most of them, although on occasion I’ve been surprised.

100_5941Tea: I drink copious volumes every day, at least partially as part of the creative process (time out).

Heavy-duty airconditioner: because I live in Perth!
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Technology: I love my MacBook Pro—I’ve been using Macs since Macs began—and I work with Microsoft Word and the Macquarie Online dictionary.

That list only scratches the surface, and it excludes all the pinup boards, archive boxes and research books specific to each of my books. It also excludes these:

DSCN4026because I’ve given them up. Honest.

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Here are the links to posts by the other writers, who all have interesting things to say about their tools of trade.

Angela Savage: ‘I love Chinese-made notebooks with nonsensical English phrases on the cover like “Health is the things that makes you feel that now is the best time of the year”…’—Read more here

Annabel Smith: ‘I make notes with a pencil and am especially fond of the ones made out of recycled Chinese newspapers—they are beautifully smooth—and sustainable—what more could a gal want?’—Read more here

Natasha Lester: ‘[Scrivener] is a note-taker, a word-processor, a scene organiser, a research collector, an organiser, a motivator; in short, it’s a miracle.’—Read more here

Sara Foster: ‘I like perforated notebooks so I can tear out pages and collate them properly. I save the pretty notebooks for diaries instead.’—Read more here

Emma Chapman: ‘I made myself a crucial “inspiration board” to remind myself that this process isn’t always easy, but that the most important thing is to keep going.’—Read more here

Dawn Barker: ‘If I write in the morning, a strong flat white. If I write in the evening once the children have fallen asleep, a big glass of wine.’—Read more here

What are your idiosyncrasies when it comes to tools of trade?

PWFC author collage

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The big October giveaway!

UPDATE: Thursday 31 October 2013. The competition has now closed. Congratulations to winner Megan Warren. Happy reading, Megan!

This month the Writers Ask Writers group is giving away a set of TWELVE books (value $300)—a copy of our most recent releases, plus a book we’ve each selected that has, in some way, inspired our own.

If you live in Australia, you can enter the giveaway by going to the Elemental Facebook page and clicking on the blue BOOK GIVEAWAY tab, centre; alternatively, you can link directly by using the Facebook mobile app link.

Here are the titles you could win:

REVISED giveaway oct 2013

Interesting choices? Read on to find out what’s behind these pairings. And good luck!

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In the conception and writing of Elemental—a period of more than five years—I was never conscious of having Tirra Lirra by the River in my head. If you’d asked me then what my writing inspirations were, I might have opened up an archive box full of research materials—an eclectic collection of books (history, biology, philosophy, language, poetry, memoir), photocopies from archives and newspapers, travel notes and photographs, printouts from websites.

All of the materials in that archive box were indeed inspirational, and indispensable, and they mean a great deal to me.

But now, reflecting on the novel I have written, I can recognise other inspirations—the kind that are less about the particularities of time and place, character and circumstance, and more about writing itself.

They lay scattered, like breadcrumbs, along the reading pathways of my life—trails winding around books I love, stories I have lived and breathed as my own, authors whose words scale summits I aspire to reach. Among them are novels by Gail Jones, Annie Proulx, Simone Lazaroo, Anne Michaels… so many others.

And one of them is Jessica Anderson’s 1978 classic and best-known work, which won her the first of her two Miles Franklin Awards.

Old hands writing something with a pen in a notebookTirra Lirra by the River and Elemental have in common an elderly woman reflecting on her life. And through that central act of reflection, the two novels also share a preoccupation with memory, time and change—although Anderson’s Nora Porteous and my narrating character, Meggie Tulloch, are women of different eras, different worlds. There is nothing alike in their life experiences, or in their character or heart.

However, I fell in love with Tirra Lirra by the River primarily for its voice (something I have spoken of in a previous post)—the acerbic, imperious, unflinching voice of the elderly Nora Porteous who, returning (grudgingly) to the place and people of her childhood, looks back on all that drove her away and all that has brought her back.

And this is where I owe my debt to the late Jessica Anderson. I think it was Tirra Lirra by the River that taught me what I needed to know to create a distinctive voice for the first three parts of Elemental: the voice of Meggie Tulloch, the fisher girl/gutting quine who emigrates from Scotland to Western Australia, who lives through what she calls ‘the shifts in the world when everything changes’, who is daughter, sister, mother, wife, widow, grandmother and, through all of these, friend.

And I think it was Tirra Lirra that gave me resilience when I happened to read Henry James’s crushing opinion that ‘In any long fiction, use of the first-person point of view is barbaric.’

Thank you, Jessica Anderson, for proving Henry wrong so resolutely and so elegantly. For giving me so much to aspire to.

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Here are links to why my writer friends have chosen their companion titles—and to more ways you can enter our big October giveaway.

Dawn Barker: The subject matter was horrific, and made even more so by the way she [Lionel Shriver] chose to be quite blunt and realistic in the way she wrote. This book didn’t have a Hollywood ending to make it more palatable.’—Read more here

Emma Chapman: ‘…each one made me think differently about what women’s fiction was and how for women writers at that time, it was almost impossible to separate your gender from your identity.’ —Read more here

Sara Foster: I wasn’t just moved by the story, I was also impressed by how Anthony managed to combine realism with idealism when discussing conservation. This delicate line is one my characters struggle with in Shallow Breath…’ —Read more here

Natasha Lester: Joan Didion’s book covers some similar themes; it’s about mothers and daughters and their relationships, it’s about husbands and wives and their relationships, and it’s about the way grief can simply overtake a person, although they may appear to be functioning on the outside.’ —Read more here

Annabel Smith: In hindsight, I see Zadie Smith’s protagonist, Alex-Li Tandem, as a kind of spiritual brother to my protagonist Charlie: a little lost, blind to his own shortcomings, stubbornly refusing to grow or do the things he knows he needs to do…’—Read more here

PWFC author collage

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