Wild, Weird & Wonderful in Margaret River…

For those of you who don’t know—and I’m sure most of you do—Margaret River is a world-acclaimed food and wine region in the South West of Western Australia, and one of Australia’s most beautiful and vibrant tourist destinations. It is also home to a fabulous writers festival, and I’m delighted to be taking part in this year’s Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, 3–5 May, at Voyager Estate.

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The festival theme is Wild, Weird & Wonderful, and I like to think there’s a bit of all three in all of us.

I’m in very good company this year. Among those on the very long list of authors and presenters are Germaine Greer, Anna Funder, Kim Scott, Liz Byrski, Susan Midalia, Sarah Drummond, Ian Parmenter, Dave Warner, Michael Leunig and William McInnes.

I’ll be talking about Kathleen O’Connor of Paris with chair William Yeoman (Friday, 9.30–10.30am, Main Stage), and about Elemental in a session entitled ‘Salt, Sleet and Wild Seas’, with Sarah Drummond, author of The Sound, and chair Rashida Murphy (Friday, 2–3pm, Main Stage). You can view the full program here.

If you’re going, please come and say hello!

Need a reminder of just how glorious Margaret River is? Here are a few of my favourite photo-memories…

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Margaret River resident and all-round treasure Ian Parmenter

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2, 2 and 2: Lynne Leonhardt talks about Step Up, Mrs Dugdale

Lynne Leonhardt
Step Up, Mrs Dugdale
(Matilda Bay Books)
BIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL

LEL HRIt’s a great pleasure to welcome to the blog Lynne Leonhardt, with her second novel, Step Up, Mrs Dugdale. Lynne and I have been friends since we were each working towards our PhD in Creative Writing—Lynne writing the work that would become her first novel, Finding Jasper (shortlisted for the 2013 Dobbie Award), and me writing what became The Sinkings.

In Lynne’s author bio, it’s possible to catch glimpses of her preoccupations as a novelist. She grew up on an orchard in Donnybrook in the South West of Western Australia—a world familiar to anyone who has read Finding Jasper. She studied music and English literature at the University of Western Australia while bringing up four children (yes, she is Wonder Woman), and Lynne speaks, in this post, about the influence of music, along with art, on her identity and her writing. She is the great-great-grand-niece of leading Australian suffragist Henrietta Augusta Dugdale, the protagonist of her new novel.

Here is the blurb for Step Up, Mrs Dugdale

In 1867, Henrietta Augusta Dugdale, dairywoman of Queenscliff, is pushed to breaking point and leaves her fourteen-year marriage. With access to her children denied, she enters the freethinking world of Melbourne bohemia and sets out to change the law that casts women as property, with no legal rights of their own.

A fearless crusader for women’s justice, the indefatigable ‘Mrs D.’ outclasses those who try to silence or belittle her, all the while haunted by the loss of her three sons, the dark undercurrents of the past and the mysterious fate of her first love.

From newfound facts and family memorabilia, Lynne Leonhardt has created a luminous tale of love, loss, triumph and fortitude, set against the evocative coastal landscape of Port Phillip Bay and the wonder-city of Melbourne at the height of the gold-rush boom. Step Up, Mrs Dugdale is an unforgettable portrait of a pioneering suffragist—a hero for women, a trailblazer for her time.

Over to Lynne…

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2 things that inspired the book

Australian national identity was the thesis topic of my exegesis, part of a PhD in Creative Writing, which I completed in 2007. One of my focal points was the glaring absence of female representation in our national narratives. Because a male heroic tradition of mythical proportions had long dominated social constructions of national identity, women’s experiences and stories either had been inched out or had remained untold.

Finding Henrietta’s roots were the same as mine. By a fortunate stroke of serendipity, that same year I was introduced to Henrietta Augusta Dugdale (née Worrell) by my brother, who had come across the Australian suffragist while googling his second name, ‘Worrell’. From her online biography, it was clear we were related. Why then hadn’t we been told about this heroic member of the family before? I dug out a copy of our old family tree and there she was, literally hanging out on the end of a limb in obscurity. What I saw as the sidelining of our great-great-grand-aunt from family history was a calling. Hardly surprising that my Henrietta quest came as a natural follow-on from my PhD. The more I learned about this remarkable woman—both the public side and the private—the stronger my own sense of identity became.

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Despite all the advancements of the Victorian era, women lost ground they had gained during the Enlightenment. Ironically, the Doctrine of Two Separate Spheres for men and women became more prescriptive, each being defined in diametric opposition to the other. Woman’s place was restricted to inside the home while man’s was outside. Woman’s place was considered private; a man’s, public. Women, especially middle-class married women, were expected to be the ‘Angel in the House’. Bestowed by men, this romanticised rank was used as an argument against giving women the vote.

For women, like Henrietta, arriving in Victoria during the early 1850s, the Doctrine of Separate Spheres was severely disrupted. Initially there were no homes, no privacy, no separation between the sexes. With little more than a sheet of canvas over their heads, women were exposed to the hostile elements and the hurly-burly hotbed of gold fever. Pioneering women had to redefine themselves very quickly out of sheer necessity, in order to survive the harsh practicalities of life in this unknown land.

 2 influences on the book

Art and music are integral to my writing because of their strong correlation with each other. Both art and music were early childhood pastimes when I was growing up in the countryside. I now feel they are very much a part of me. Identity is rooted in the arts. As much as the arts reflect culture, they affect mores and the fundamental sense of self. Like literature, every piece of art and music in itself tells a story, thus being part of a much bigger story in turn.

For me, the visual quite often precedes the written word. Wherever I am, my inner artist’s eye is always on the lookout. The framing and composition of artworks—what is included and what is left out—even in old family photographs, says a lot about society and its contradictions. Sadly, the lack of recognition of women artists through the nineteenth into the twentieth centuries has mirrored that of women writers and musicians. But, I suspect that in art, women could probably express themselves a little more freely.

Nineteenth-century paintings provide windows into domestic interiors of the time—the roles, the décor, fashions and fabrics, even the different shades of dye. Many an hour I have spent trawling through online galleries, immersing myself in Victorian culture, and the cross-pollination of imagery and ideas has added value to my written words.

Because of the enormous creative energy this novel has taken, I haven’t felt the need to dabble in art for quite some years. But the first thing I did when I had finished the final edit of Step Up, Mrs Dugdale was attempt a portrait of Henrietta. The photograph I tried to work from depicts her in her late thirties, but unfortunately the quality is poor. When I look at my version of Henrietta, I get the feeling she could well be looking at us ‘liberated women’ of the twenty-first century and I’m left wondering about her thoughts.

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The appreciation of music is perhaps even more subjective than that of literature and art. Music engages heavily with the subconscious realm. It has an effect on the brain and on our most vital human organ, the heart. Yet music is also a form of escape. It takes one out of oneself. It consoles but it also gives rise to strength. So often, it can convey feelings that cannot otherwise be expressed.

Henrietta, a highly skilled pianist, reflects upon the power of music following an afternoon concert, how music has form of its own:

Music, Beethoven claimed, was the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life. Ah, but there was good music and bad music. Good music like this removed one from the dross of life in a way that transcended all spiritual and physical boundaries.

My musical background and love of music have enabled me to tap into Henrietta’s interior world, as I understand it. Though a long-lapsed pianist, I am familiar with the pieces that she plays in the story, continuing to play these favourites now and then. For all my slip-ups, I am sure the emotion communicated has helped me in translating experiences across time and space.

Step Up, Mrs Dugdale is available here
Follow Lynne via her website or on Facebook

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Seagulls, stories and sunflowers…

Every year on 10 March, descendants of C.Y. O’Connor, along with friends and sundry stragglers like me, gather at the beach named after him to honour the memory of Western Australia’s Engineer-in-Chief, whose visionary schemes helped to transform the colony.

On this day in 1902, The Chief—overworked and exhausted, harassed and reviled by the press, trapped in a volatile political environment—rode his horse along this beach one last time.

But today’s early-morning gathering is no sombre affair. There are conversations and stories. Laughter. Lolloping dogs. Children and irreverent seagulls. Buckets of flower petals to be strewn on the waves and carried out by swimmers to the bronze memorial statue, by sculptor Tony Jones, a hundred metres offshore.

I have brought sunflowers, for Kate—large as dinner-plates and the brilliant cadmium yellow she loved—and as I fly one like a frisbee into the Indian Ocean I hope it will travel far…

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2, 2 and 2: Alice Nelson talks about The Children’s House

Alice Nelson
The Children’s House
(Penguin Random House)
LITERARY FICTION

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It’s such a pleasure to introduce Perth author Alice Nelson talking about her second novel and one of my favourite reads of 2018. The Children’s House, released last October, was longlisted for the 2019 Indie Awards and has been described by Better Reading as ‘spellbinding storytelling at its best and purest’ .

Alice’s first novel, The Last Sky—another favourite of mine (I featured it in this post)—was shortlisted for The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and was shortlisted for the Australian Society of Authors’ Barbara Jefferis Award, and Alice was named Best Young Australian Novelist of 2009 in the Sydney Morning Herald’s national awards program. Her short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Sydney Review of Books, The Asia Literary Review, Southerly, the West Australian Newspaper and the Australian Book Review.

The blurb for The Children’s House reads:

The Children’s House explores the traumas that divide families and the love and hope that creates them.

Marina Hirsch is a young professor teaching at Columbia, made famous by a book on the Romani people. In her small academic circle, she is known as ‘the Gypsy scholar’, a chronicler of hermetic communities.

Recently moved into a Harlem brownstone with her psychoanalyst husband, one hot summer day she witnesses a Rwandan refugee woman—Constance—leave her tiny son in the middle of the sidewalk. Scooping the boy up, Marina hurries to his mother and hands him back. The year is 1997, three years after the Rwandan genocide.

As the summer progresses, the two women form a tentative relationship, but soon Marina’s fierce attachment to the young boy and the dark opacity of Constance’s past threaten to test the boundaries of love, motherhood and power.

If you haven’t already read The Children’s House, I feel sure you will want to after reading this beautiful guest post by Alice…

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2 things that inspired The Children’s House

There’s a line in a novel by Anne Michaels that seemed to me to so beautifully summarise the complex terrain that I wanted to explore in The Children’s House. Michaels writes:

‘There is nothing a man will not do to another. But there’s also nothing a man will not do for another.’

My novel ventures into some difficult territory and while it is about some of the terrible things humans are capable of, I also wanted to explore acts of grace and empathy; the profound echoes that compassion and generosity can have. I wanted to write about consolation and restoration as well as loss and exile, and Michaels’ beautiful lines were a reminder for me of the ways that kindness and goodwill can be incredibly potent forces in an individual life and in a community, and acted as an encouragement for me to write a novel that was about the co-existence of acts of horror and acts of compassion.

Another literary gift that inspired me to continue writing this often unwieldy and difficult novel over many years was listening to the Irish writer Anne Enright talk about the way that the work of writing a novel is also a process of educating the heart, and that we have to become equal to the books we wish to write. I write very slowly and painstakingly and this particular novel took several years to write, so hearing Enright’s words of encouragement gave me faith that the work I was doing was a way for me to spend a sustained period of time dwelling with some of the questions and preoccupations that haunt me; questions about memory, loss, inheritance and the possibilities of restoration and solace.

2 places that inspired The Children’s House

One of the interesting things about the writing of The Children’s House was the way that particular houses exerted such a profound influence on the story, even to the point of altering the narrative arc. There is the brownstone in Harlem where the novel is set, which is actually the house that I lived in during my years in New York. I never consciously planned that the characters in the novel would live in that brownstone, but it was a place that I was enormously attached to for a long time and as the novel took shape, it seemed to be the natural home for my characters. Towards the end of the writing process, I actually went back and stayed in the New York brownstone for three months. It was a somewhat surreal experience because I felt like I had been transplanted into the world of my novel and I kept expecting that I might glimpse one of my characters disappearing around a corner ahead of me, but it was also incredibly useful in making sure that the texture of Harlem was authentic, that I had got it right.

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The section of the book that is set in Cape Cod came about because I spent a winter there writing in a little cottage above the dunes in Truro. It was a very cold, bitter winter and all of the nearby houses had been shut up for the season. The insufficient midwinter light, the windswept beach and the isolation made a deep impression on me and it was during that time that I wrote the sections about my central character Marina travelling to Cape Cod to try and uncover the mystery of her mother’s disappearance many years earlier. That winter house above the dunes became Marina’s mother’s house, and the section of the book set there turned out to be very important to the narrative trajectory.

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2 influences that helped me to solve particular problems in the novel

The Children’s House is a complex novel and my challenge in writing it was to find a way in which echoes, patterns and symmetries could be brought together to form a coherent whole. It’s also a novel that slips in and out of the consciousness of different characters and contains several voices. I play the piano and I was working through Bach’s Preludes and Fugues when I was writing the novel, and at one point I realised that what I was trying to create was almost a literary version of a fugue, where there is a main theme and then several voices in contrapuntal motion. The form can be quite intricate and very complicated technically, with three or four voices interweaving, but Bach is masterful in creating the most harmonious wholes, these glorious polyphonic pieces. So conceiving of the structural problems I was having in these musical metaphors was very helpful and gave me a new way to look at what was happening on the page.

Another influence on the novel was my extensive reading of psychoanalytic literature, and in particular, a paper called ‘Ghosts in the Nursery: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant–Mother Relationships’. The Children’s House is very much concerned with the ways that we inherit the unresolved lives of our parents, and the different ways that our psyches are shadowed by history—both personal and collective—so my deepening understandings of psychoanalytic theory were immensely helpful.

The Children’s House is available now in Australia,
and is forthcoming in other territories this year
Find out more at Penguin Random House
Contact Alice via her website

 

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Our Imagined Selves…

Most people who know me also know that I don’t get on with summer. Which is why I spent most of January somewhere a bit cooler…

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Ah, take me back…

But there’s one thing I do love about Perth summer—Perth Festival Writers Week! If you’re here next week, culminating in the weekend of 23–24 February, you’re in for a treat.

Curator William Yeoman, in his second festival—‘Our Imagined Selves’—has put together a fabulous program, with visiting guests Ben Okri, Anna Funder, Monica McInerney, David Malouf, Markus Zusak, Trent Dalton, Esi Edugyan, Fiona Wright, Jane Caro, Benjamin Law, Chloe Hooper, Hugh Mackay, Kristina Olsson, Carly Findlay, Angela Meyer and many others. Local writers are out in force, too, including Alice Nelson, S.A. Jones, Dervla McTiernan, Susan Midalia, David Whish-Wilson, Meg McKinlay, Steve Hawke, A.J. Betts and Carrie Cox.

I’m thrilled to be chairing a session with award-winning UK author Amy Sackville, who will be talking about her wonderful new novel, Painter to the King. And my fellow panellist in the ‘(Re)Writing History’ session is UK historical novelist Andrew Miller, whose latest, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, I didn’t want to put down.

I’m also going to be trying very hard not to fangirl Gail Jones at the Sunday morning breakfast, ‘Ars Longa Vita Brevis’, during which she, Amy Sackville and I will be talking about our most recent works, all of them about art and artists.

My Saturday afternoon workshop ‘Writing Fiction: Getting Started’ is designed for those just starting out—or thinking about it—and covers basics like inspiration and creativity, and an introduction to the craft aspects of writing fiction.

Every year I warn myself not to go crazy in the bookshop, but I already have two four must-haves on my list, and I suspect that’s just the beginning!

Please come and say hello if you see me around, and I hope you have a wonderful festival.

 

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2, 2 and 2: Marcella Polain talks about Driving into the Sun

It’s a late start to 2019 on looking up/looking down, but as I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege of travelling throughout January, my working year has only just begun.

And what a wonderful way to begin the year’s blogging, with a guest post from one of Western Australia’s most accomplished writers…

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Marcella Polain
Driving into the Sun
(Fremantle Press)
LITERARY FICTION

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I worked with Marcella for several years at Edith Cowan University, where she played a prominent role in developing the Writing program and has taught and mentored hundreds of emerging writers. Marcella is one of those enormously talented writers who can turn her creative mind to almost any genre: she is well known throughout Australia as an award-winning poet (winner of the Anne Elder Prize and shortlisted for many major awards), has a background in theatre and screen writing, and has published widely as an essayist (longlisted for the Calibre Prize). Her debut novel, The Edge of the World, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Marcella was born in Singapore and arrived in Perth as an immigrant, at the age of two, with her Armenian mother and Irish father.

Having eagerly awaited Marcella’s second novel for many years, I am thrilled to be able to feature it here.

The blurb reads:

For Orla, living in the suburbs in 1968 on the cusp of adolescence, her father is a great shining light, whose warm and powerful presence fills her world.

But in the aftermath of his sudden death, Orla, her mother and her sister are left in a no-man’s-land, a place where the rights and protections of the nuclear family suddenly and mysteriously no longer apply, and where the path between girl and woman must be navigated alone.

And here is Marcella…

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2 things that inspired Driving into the Sun

I can’t read Nabokov’s Lolita. I know you’re probably thinking that I should try harder [I would never presume to do that, Marcella!], that many writers are of the view it’s one of the best novels ever written. Well, I’ve tried several times and I just can’t. To me, reading about Humbert is unbearable. Children and women are taken in by people like him, have to shape their lives around them—living contingently, and sometimes not living at all. When I try to read it, I just keep thinking, ‘But what about the girl? What about her story?’

A fleeting conversation at a café on the Swan River (around the turn of the last century, when I was beginning my first novel, The Edge of the World). Some women writers, a little older than me, were saying how safe Perth was when they were teenagers. I was taken aback because that’s not my memory of it at all. The Perth of my youth had an underbelly, clearly visible to me. I could tell that class had something to do with this difference of view (and Australians don’t like talking about class), but it really got me thinking that there must be a lot of people like me, for whom the past is not a safer, happier place in which they could move about freely. And I thought: well, those stories—the underbelly stories—are just as legitimate as any other. I’m also not entirely convinced that wealthier suburbs were much safer and happier in the 60s. They still had men returned from war who drank too much, and women whose lives were curtailed. They had serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke, as well.

2 places that inspired Driving into the Sun

Is monstrosity a place? It’s a state of being, culturally prescribed, and, in that way, a place occupied by some. I’m interested in the way culture creates its monsters—not just by mistreating people and so shaping their behaviour into the aberrant, but also by prescribing ideas of what monsters are—how they look, where they reside, how they behave. We believe these cultural delusions, and so we run from those who fit the stereotype (maybe unkempt and dishevelled) into the arms of the well-groomed one who can appear safe but isn’t.

Childhood is a place powerfully remembered and embodied; we all carry it with us and within us. And grief is a place—we talk a lot about grief as a journey, so it can certainly be considered terrain we traverse. Think about the impact of each of these places on their own and then consider their intersection. Childhood and grief make a very special place, indeed. It’s an elite world. Only some are chosen. All go unwillingly. And it’s largely invisible. Those who live in it might look just like the rest of us but they’re not.

2 of my favourite things about Driving into the Sun

Driving into the Sun began as a story in which horses were a major focus. I love everything about horses—their smell, their sounds, their breath, their nervousness, twitchiness, drowsiness, disinterest, their power, eyelashes, warmth, their muzzles, hooves, necks, the way their hides ripple when flies land on them, the texture of the hair of their manes, their muscularity, the way they turn their ears to track sound or lay them flat when annoyed. As I write this, I wonder (again) why—of all the creatures in the world—I feel closest to horses. When I look at the list above, I think perhaps I’m a bit like a horse. Or maybe it’s just that I fell in love with Fury when I was five. (Does anyone else remember Fury?) The opening shot is still vivid in me: Fury (of the title) suddenly appearing on a rise, rearing, pawing, whinnying. Even very young, I recognised that power and agitation—that life-force. I thought it the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I wanted to write about all this, about horses and what they mean—and I think that is still in Orla as she longs for a horse—but writing also has its own life-force, and the story became about other things, as well.

Fury was wild and the other wildness I love is the Indian Ocean, a gift largely taken for granted where I live. It draws me in the same way it draws many. My first ever home was surrounded by jungle, built right alongside the curve of sand in a protected cove. I don’t remember but I’ve seen photos. I grew up in Perth and loved visits to the beach. In Driving into the Sun, Orla wonders why her family doesn’t seem to know that before the sea breeze arrives is the best time to be at the beach, which is something I did wonder as a kid. Perhaps we have to grow up in a place to embody that kind of weather knowledge. Or perhaps it’s just that it’s hard to get three kids organised quickly enough! Or perhaps it has to matter. Writing any scenes with real or imagined ocean is always infused with the extra pleasure of re-creating a little wildness.

 

Driving into the Sun is a February 2019 release
Find out more at Fremantle Press
Marcella Polain will be talking about her new novel at Perth Writers Week

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looking back/looking forward…

A big thank-you to everyone who has contributed to, or read,
looking up/looking down in 2018.

May the New Year bring you
good health,
good books
and good company!

Amanda x

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