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.
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.
He told me once that the army doctor’s orders were plain: he must push everything he’d seen, everything he’d done, from his mind.
Just don’t ever ask, Meggie. They said it’s best if ye just never ask and things don’t ever get said.
It made sense to him. He had no wish to bring unsayable things from the dark to live with us in the weatherboard cottage in Martha Street. But they did, anyway. Of course they did. I had learned for myself that things like that had to live somewhere.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Upswell, the new imprint of publishing dynamo Terri-ann White. Today it’s my pleasure to feature one of the titles on Upswell’s 2021 list, the recently released novel The Dogs by John Hughes.
Sydney writer John Hughes has published six acclaimed books, including novels The Remnants, Asylum, and No One (shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award). He has won the National Biography Award, the Adelaide Festival Award for Innovation, and NSW and Queensland Premier’s Book Awards.
Since its recent release, The Dogs has garnered outstanding reviews and has been described (Newtown Review of Books) as
a seductive shaping of memory and imagination…superbly plotted literary fiction, a historical-contemporary cross; widescale and microscopic, metaphysical in aims…
It’s a novel I know I will be thinking about for a long time to come.
The story of a life is a secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is no life at all.—Elias Canetti
Is it possible to write about the living without thinking of them as already dead?
Michael Shamanov is a man running away from life’s responsibilities. His marriage is over, he barely sees his son and he hasn’t seen his mother since banishing her to a nursing home two years earlier. A successful screen writer, Michael’s encounter with his mother’s nurse leads him to discover that the greatest story he’s never heard may lie with his dying mother. And perhaps it’s her life he’s been running away from and not his own. Is the past ever finished? Should we respect another’s silence? And if so, is it ever possible to understand and put to rest the strange idea of family that travels through the flesh?
From the Miles Franklin shortlisted author of No One comes a haunting gem of family secrets and impossible decisions.
Always further to fall
AC: Can you tell us a bit about your protagonist, Michael Shamanov, and the situation he finds himself in?
JH: Michael Shamanov is a television scriptwriter in his late fifties. He has a fraught relationship with his mother (who is suffering from dementia and whom he put into a nursing home against her will), and with his son Leo, a Gold Coast property developer, with whom he has barely kept in contact since a fractious divorce when Leo was still very young. He’s smart and articulate (and hopefully funny), but he’s also selfish and unpleasant, and a failure in pretty much all his human dealings, incapable, it would seem, of change. The novel begins with him at the nadir of his life, with apparently nowhere further to fall. Though as he remarks later, ‘That’s the beauty of existence, isn’t it, that there’s always further to fall, always something worse. Fear of something worse might even pass for a definition of what it means to be alive.’ That’s Michael Shamanov in a nutshell.
Talking ten to the dozen
AC: Years ago I read—with great alarm, as I was at the time writing a novel in the first person—that Henry James described the use of first-person point of view in any long fiction as ‘barbaric’, an ‘act of violence on the reader’. Obviously, neither of us is with Henry on this point!
The use of Michael Shamanov’s voice in The Dogs is masterful. We learn so much about who he is and the way his mind works from what he says, what he does not say, and in particular the digressions and tangents that he weaves through his narration. Did you know, from the outset, that you were going to use this perspective, and did you encounter any pitfalls along the way?
JH: Yes, James loathed the first person, he thought it was like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. And for the kind of novel he wanted to write, I take his point. But the writers of Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, obviously thought otherwise.
The Dogs came to me with Michael Shamanov talking ten to the dozen, he was telling his story even before I knew what that story was, so there was no way it could be anything other for me than first person. And unlike Henry James, I think writing in the first person allows you to do two things for the price of one, because even when your narrator is telling you something about someone else, he’s also revealing something of himself, as you say: with every characterisation, he’s also characterising himself. The main problem with a narrator like Shamanov, though, was getting him to shut up, even if his ire was directed mostly against himself!
To know what has to come
AC:The Dogs has one of the most arresting prefaces/prologues I’ve read in a long time. Anna’s reference to ‘the dogs’ chilled me to the bone, and that was before I understood what she meant. What, for you, is the purpose of a preface, or this preface?
JH: I wrote prefaces for my first two books–The Idea of Home and Someone Else–because my publisher thought the books needed them. I wrote them grudgingly, after everything else was done. Yet many readers have told me it’s the prefaces they love, especially the one to Someone Else. It was my first lesson in realising your publisher always knows better than you do! But seriously, though I didn’t enjoy writing them at the time, I think now they make each book. So I’m glad I dragged myself to the task.
In this book, the preface again came at the end of the writing, though this time the impetus was mine. It wasn’t that I felt the book was incomplete, it was just that the preface could do a lot of historical work in a short space, setting up the relationship between Michael and his mother Anna, and how they’ve got to where they are when the novel begins. But mainly it’s as you write in the question, I wanted the prolepsis: to create in the reader an acute feeling of anticipation, and of terror at the prospect of it being fulfilled; to know what is to come has to come, there can be no other way.
Silence as a weapon
AC: Anna, always a determinedly elusive mother to Michael, now has the ‘crumbly brain’ of an Alzheimer’s patient. We encounter her as an inmate in a nursing home, unable to perform basic functions like feeding herself, but in spite of her apparent helplessness, what struck me when I was reading was her strength, the power she holds over Michael. Could you please talk about the sources of this kind of power?
JH: Silence, like coldness, is an incredibly powerful weapon. Michael wants only a sign of love from his mother, the vaguest idea of why she is the person she is, but she gives him neither. About herself, she will say nothing. She can so easily satisfy his strongest desire, and yet she will not. Worse even than the power over life and death—Anna destroys her son while keeping him alive. That is the power of her silence.
AC: I’m always intrigued by characters who are outright unlikeable or (as in this case) sometimes not easy to like. Michael’s narration of his own failings is painfully honest and often shocking to read—as, for example, in the following passage:
I had access to Leo on weekends. I used to pick him up early on Saturday mornings on the way across from Bondi. But sometimes, when I knew Sarah had booked a weekend up the coast with her new ‘partner’, I wouldn’t show. It’s petty, I know, but it amused me all the same. The phone would ring over and over again. It felt good hearing it ring out…I didn’t think of Leo.
That last sentence!
Likeability does not, of course, equal engagement: a character readers loathe can be as compelling as one they love—or even more so. But did it ever feel like a risk, writing Michael in this way?
JH: Yes, it did feel a risk (if only because given his age, and background, he has many resemblances to me, and it’s an easy step for a reader to mistake the narrator for his author!). It’s all about getting the balance right, I think. I wanted to make real the damage that inherited trauma can do, to give it flesh and blood, and to do that I had to create a highly damaged character. So damaged, in fact, that even though he recognises what his mother has done to him, it doesn’t stop him perpetuating the damage in his son—its transmission is as irresistible to him as a virus, or the passing on of our DNA. The key was to balance this with traits the reader might enjoy—his humour, for instance, the self-lacerating nature of his criticism, but mainly, the fact that his failings may not be as bad as he thinks they are, that beneath them there is someone who loves and wants to be loved, even if he can’t help but put his foot in his mouth! I think there is something compelling about failure, and I hope readers do too, but I hope too that there’s also something compelling about the voice, and it’s this energy that’s magnetic, pulling readers in, even as it seems to drive them away.
AC: Research has shown that trauma can be transferred across generations genetically as well as by social means, and an inheritance of trauma is evident in The Dogs. As Anna’s story is gradually revealed we can see threads involving silence, evasion and withholding at work, connecting Anna’s mother, Ravenna, to Anna herself, and to Michael. I’m wondering about Michael’s son’s, Leo: is he the one to break the pattern?
JH: Without giving too much of the novel away, it’s clear that Leo too is damaged, and repeats, in many ways, the story of his father. But I like to think the last part of the novel reveals him as a different kind of man, and that even while on the surface he appears to be doing something many might consider terrible to help his father, he is doing it out of love, and Michael recognises this, and it breaks him inside and shows him that in his son, at least, he is more than his failings. Trauma is difficult to dilute, even across four generations, but I hope by the novel’s end there is some small sense of hope, even given (I might almost say because of) its final action.
A story made out of stories
AC: I was deeply moved by the piece you wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald about the experience of sitting with your grandmother as she lay dying—and I recommend it to anyone interested in ageing, legacy and honouring the past and the lives of those we love. You describe this experience as having inspired The Dogs, although the novel does not tell your grandmother’s story.
Your grandmother, as a young woman and mother, lived through a tragic time in history, the Great Ukrainian Famine of the early 1930s. It is obviously a powerful narrative, and one intimately connected with your very existence. You have used the emotional weight of that story of survival but none of the details, and I’m wondering whether you consciously rejected the idea of using the story itself. Must we always transform our own experiences and those of people close to us—tell them slant—in order to see the dogs for ourselves?
JH: In his long poem ‘Phantom’, the Scottish poet Don Paterson writes:
what kind of twisted ape ends up believing the rushlight of his little human art truer than the great sun on his back? I knew the game was up for me the day I stood before my father’s corpse and thought If I can’t get a poem out of this…
As you say, I knew the game was up for me the day I sat beside my grandmother, who lay dying of dementia in a nursing home bed. Though I didn’t think the thought in such an explicit way, it must surely have been there. If I can’t get a novel out of this…Writers are terrible cannibals of their family and friends. Where else do our characters and stories come from? From other literature, perhaps, but mainly from those we know best (including ourselves, although there I’d say there’s no one alive who doesn’t know the self they want to be far better than the self they are—when it comes to self-knowledge, that is, all of us are idealists!).
But in this case, although the novel came out of my experience sitting beside my grandmother’s bed, and the way of its telling corresponds closely to the way her story was revealed to me, I also knew that the story itself had to be different, and not only because I needed to spare my grandmother. Because I knew when I started writing the book that it is, in one way, a story about second-hand stories. History comes to us as Anna’s memories come to Michael—fragmented, contradictory, incomplete—and we have to make sense of it, as Michael does, in his self-conscious and highly allusive stories that dominate the second part of the novel. All our stories of the time before us can’t help but be second-hand. For this reason, I needed Anna’s story to feel like a pastiche—a story made out of stories. The reader is given the source, in the fragments of Anna’s edited transcript, and then the story Michael makes of these. First-hand accounts, like that of his mother, say, ‘This is what happened.’ Second-hand accounts ask, ‘What happened? How do we know?’ Michael—who wasn’t there and doesn’t know—must build his mother’s story then out of other stories, to demonstrate his helplessness in the face of his mother’s experience. (And mine too!)
In a way the second part of the novel is really about writing itself, about being a writer, and the process of putting a story together out of what we don’t know. So yes, it made sense for me to tell the story slant, in part to respect my grandmother’s privacy, but also because the novel demanded it be told that way. And yet, it’s also true that in the way it explores intergenerational trauma and the secrets that run through even the most ordinary of families, it begins and ends with my grandmother in that bed, and the knowledge that I did ‘get a novel out of this’, one in which I hope I have done her justice, and for which my family will forgive me, and hopefully continue speaking to me, if only until I turn the spotlight on them!
Photo credits: author photo by Tim Derricourt; family photo photographer unknown
Addendum, 19 June 2022: Plagiarism allegations concerning The Dogs On 9 June, The Guardian published an article claiming that passages from The Dogs had been taken from the English translation of Svetlana Andrievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War. A response to this claim by author John Hughes and publisher Terri-ann White (Upswell) appears on the Upswell ‘News’ page (dated 9 June). On 15 June, The Guardian published further claims of plagiarism in The Dogs. A response by Hughes was published in The Guardian, and a further response from White appears on the Upswell ‘News’ page (dated 17 June).
All year I have been looking forward to interviewing Robyn Mundy about her brilliant new novel, Cold Coast. Robyn is the author of The Nature of Ice, set in Antarctica, and Wildlight, set on remote Maatsuyker Island, off Tasmania’s southern coast (read a post about Wildlighthere), and this new novel takes readers to another of the wild places of the world: Arctic Norway. As the photos below show, it is as rugged as it is stunningly beautiful.
Among many endorsements for Cold Coast is this from award-winning novelist Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites:
Cold Coast summons the raw beauty of Svalbard with achingly evocative prose. At once visceral and lyrical, I was totally absorbed in the story of Wanny Woldstad and her yearning for wilder freedoms.
When Robyn is not writing or travelling (in the days when that was possible), she teaches writing and works as a volunteer marine radio operator. She shares her home in Tasmania with a penguin biologist and a Blue Heeler.
She is also a dear friend of so many years that they can probably be measured in decades now, and is one of my favourite writers.
Perth readers: Robyn will be in conversation at Beaufort Street Books on Tuesday 30 November. Bookings here
In 1932, Wanny Woldstad, a young widow, travels to Svalbard, daring to enter the Norwegian trappers’ fiercely guarded male domain. She must prove to Anders Sæterdal, her trapping partner who makes no secret of his disdain, that a woman is fit for the task. Over the course of a Svalbard winter, Wanny and Sæterdal will confront polar bears, traverse glaciers, withstand blizzards and the dangers of sea ice, and hike miles to trap Arctic fox, all in the frigid darkness of the four-month polar night. For Wanny, the darkness hides her own deceptions that, if exposed, speak to the untenable sacrifice of a 1930s woman longing to fulfil a dream.
Alongside the raw, confronting nature of the trappers’ work is the story of a young blue Arctic fox, itself a hunter, who must eke out a living and navigate the trappers’ world if it is to survive its ﬁrst Arctic winter.
A cabin with a story
AC: Robyn, while Cold Coast is a work of fiction, Wanny Woldstad (pronounced ‘Vonny Volstad’) was indeed Svalbard’s first female hunter and trapper. How did you come upon her story?
RM: I spend several months of each year working as a ship-based guide on tourist expeditions to the polar regions, north and south. Our voyages include Svalbard, an extraordinary archipelago in the High Arctic, way north of Norway. A favourite site to visit is Hornsund in the south-west corner of Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest island. At the inner end of the fjord sits a pint-sized trapper’s cabin, set at the foot of a mountain with cliffs and ledges alive with the shrieks of breeding seabirds. When I discovered that the cabin was used by Wanny Woldstad in the early 1930s, and that she was Svalbard’s first female trapper and hunter, I wanted to know more. How did a woman—a young widow—break into a fiercely guarded male domain? What was the experience of months of winter darkness in bitterly cold conditions? Those questions set me on a course of research and writing that became Cold Coast.
A scaffold for imagination
AC: Creating a character drawn from real life, a novel inspired by a true story, is not without its challenges. Wanny published her own story in the 1950s, and I’m wondering whether this was a help or a hindrance to your development of the character we read about in Cold Coast.
RM: Wanny’s published memoir, First Woman Trapper on Svalbard, proved utterly invaluable. It took me six months to get hold of a copy through a local library document delivery service (hallelujah for our fantastic libraries and the services they provide), and several months more to have it translated from Norwegian to English. While I often craved more of Wanny’s internal world—her thoughts and feelings, her anxieties and misgivings—she offered a sparkling window into the day-to-day life of an Arctic trapper: the practical challenges, the physical exhaustion of the work that meant trekking 20 kilometres a day to check and reset fox traps, rowing a leaky boat six hours in dodgy weather to reach their outer cabin, crossing a glacier on foot in the dead of winter, encountering polar bears. Just as importantly, I gained an intimate sense of domestic life inside the hut—the room where they cooked and ate and slept, the same space where Wanny set aside her embroidery to flay fox and bear pelts. Her memoir provided the scaffolding that gave structure to my own story and ignited numerous scenes.
Tougher than bears and blizzards
AC: There are many journeys in Cold Coast—physical, into a wild place that poses life-threatening challenges; psychological, testing mind and spirit in the pursuit of a formidable dream. And with only two main characters for most of the narrative, there’s also the journey of a complex relationship. Could you please tell us about Wanny’s trapping partner, Anders?
RM: I hope readers will pay a nod to Anders Sæterdal who, despite his grave reservations about a woman trapper and having to withstand derision from fellow trappers, afforded Wanny her chance to go north. Anders acknowledged two crucial qualities in Wanny: as Tromsø’s first taxi driver, operating her own cab, he saw a get-up-and-go, self-made woman; and she had formidable skill with a rifle—Wanny regularly won target shooting championships. That blend of independence, determination and practical prowess was Wanny’s ticket to the Arctic, yet Anders immediately regretted the decision to take her. In turn, he proved an unyielding taskmaster. Out in the field he expected Wanny to take care of herself, get herself out of trouble; she had to learn fast and work hard. I suspect the effort of proving herself to Anders Sæterdal was a far tougher undertaking for Wanny than it might have been for a first-time male trapper.
AC: There are other stories circling Wanny’s during her year on Svalbard that give us a different perspective on the world she and Anders have entered and what they are there for. I found the main interleaving narrative—the chapters headed ‘Fox’—utterly compelling, and a remarkable feat of imaginative engagement with the non-human world. What was behind your decision to include these other narratives?
RM: Thank you, Amanda. From the start I wanted to offer a contrasting experience to that of the human hunters. I chose the perspective of an Arctic fox. The fox itself is hunter and hunted, a small animal prized for its pelt, needing to eke out sufficient food to survive its first Arctic winter as it navigates the trappers’ perilous world. The fox chapters are purposely concise, adhering to the fox’s ‘creature-ness’. I wasn’t sure how this strand of the narrative would play out, only that the interplay offered the capacity for affection between Wanny and this small Arctic fox, along with the inevitable tension for a starving fox tempted each and every day by a trap baited with its favourite ptarmigan meat.
Imagining beyond the human
AC: Staying with the ‘Fox’ chapters for the moment: they are so detailed in their minute observations of the animals’ behaviour that it feels like we are there, watching, feeling, seeing through their eyes. How did you, as a writer, enter that space?
RM: One of my cherished experiences of travelling regularly to the Arctic has been encounters with Arctic fox. I won’t forget standing on the slopes right beside Wanny’s hut, watching a family of fox kits romp through snow and tussle together, as playful as puppies or kittens. I am fascinated by Arctic foxes—their speed and agility in navigating death-defying mountain ledges and near vertical slopes in order to hunt, their capacity to snooze in a howling gale, their ability to vanish then reappear in an entirely different place. Some of the old trapper accounts talk about having a house fox each season, an animal so tame it would stay around the cabin and take scraps of food from a trapper’s hand. In writing from a fox’s perspective, the characterisation of the fox comes solely through its actions; I loved falling into the fox world and imagining those moments.
A receding landscape
AC: Svalbard—situated between mainland Norway and the North Pole—is one of the stars of the novel, fully alive on the page. Climatic extremes, plant and animal life, geographical features, rare phenomena—beautiful, often surprising descriptions that come from your own intimate knowledge of place are among my favourite passages. Here are two examples, but I could give pages of them:
…it is neither night nor day. Soft, it feels to Anders, this silky in-between, the sky all lilac and butter.
Leaves of Arctic willow turn gold and russet; they wither, consumed into the permafrost’s water-logged skin.
How different are they, the Svalbard you know and the Svalbard of Wanny’s time?
RM: Part of my research was to pore over maps, terrain and distances, and to investigate changes to the glacier that Wanny and Anders regularly crossed on foot. Now could be a moment where a picture paints a thousand words. This map shows the extent of ice in Wanny’s time in 1932 (dark green), the recession of the glacier by 1990 (mid green) and further diminishment through to 2010 (light green). Sadly, the melting of ice from increased global temperatures is consistent across the Arctic latitudes.
Contextualising the visceral
AC: There is no getting away from the gruesomeness of the trappers’ work, and readers have to be prepared to set aside the modern lens through which we view the trapping of animals for their skins today. Some scenes are confronting to read, but I know, from having myself written of a horrific historical murder, that it can also be confronting to write of such visceral things. How did you approach that aspect of the writing?
RM: Vivid scenes of trapping and hunting represent a small part of the novel, but as you so capably know, Amanda, often the most visceral images reside in the unspoken. Nonetheless, there was a stage of writing where I needed a break from tackling the more gruesome aspects. One scene I wrote never made it to the final cut, the publisher deeming it too confronting. I simply had to be true to the trappers of the time, to the pragmatism of their work, to their reason for being in Svalbard. On reading Wanny’s memoir, seeing her overt disapproval of the ‘one-sided nature’ of trapping, along with her mention of ‘the vanity of women providing we trappers an income’, I suspect that the work, for her, came second to simply experiencing the Arctic and its wildlife.
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 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.
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.
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.
It takes a courageous person to establish a new publishing imprint during a pandemic. Even more so when the venture is based in Perth. And even more when the publisher announces her interest in
books that elude easy categorising and working somewhat against the grain of current trends…books that may have trouble finding a home in the contemporary Australian publishing sector.
The publisher is Terri-ann White, writer, arts aficionado, former bookseller, teacher and researcher, and until June 2020 Director and Publisher of UWA Publishing. In this last role, she published the three fiction titles among my four books, and I have many times credited her publicly with having changed the course of my life in the process.
Upswell published its first three titles this year: Imaginative Possession: Learning to Live in the Antipodes (narrative non-fiction) by Belinda Probert, The Sweetest Fruits by American-Vietnamese writer Monique Truong (fiction) and The Dogs byJohn Hughes (fiction). All have been widely reviewed.
And the Upswell2022 catalogue has just been released—a list that gives a fascinating insight into the curatorial hand behind it. It features new writers alongside established, and includes a wide range of genres: fiction (though there are surprisingly few titles in this category), narrative non-fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art.
Good luck and best wishes to Upswell—an exciting new addition to Australian publishing!
The WA Premier’s Book Awards for 2020 releases were announced last night at a lovely ceremony at the State Library of Western Australia.
WA Premier’s Award for an Emerging Writer: Rebecca Giggs, Fathoms: The World in the Whale (Scribe Publications)
WA Premier’s Award for Writing for Children: Meg McKinlay and Matt Ottley, How to Make a Bird (Walker Books)
Daisy Utemorrah Award for Unpublished Indigenous Junior and YA fiction: Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler, Dirran
WA Writer’s Fellowship: Sisonke Msimang
Congratulations to the winners, and also to the wonderful shortlisted authors (a full list of those shortlisted is on the State Library’s website).
Before the announcement, A.J. Betts and I, as previous Fellowship winners, took part in a discussion about the impact of the Fellowship with Jo Trilling (ABC Perth). The event was streamed live on the State Library’s YouTube channel.
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.
Today it’s my great pleasure to be talking with another debut Western Australian novelist: Zoe Deleuil. Zoe’s accomplished psychological suspense novel, The Night Village, was shortlisted for the Hungerford Award in 2018 and subsequently picked up by Fremantle Press. (What a wonderful vehicle such awards are for unearthing new talent and exciting manuscripts!)
Zoe’s short fiction and poetry have been published in literary journals and anthologies, and she also writes feature articles for newspapers and magazines.
She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University in the UK, and currently lives with her family in Berlin.
When Simone arrives in London from Perth for a working holiday, a newborn baby is not on her agenda. But she is determined to be a good mother, even though she barely knows her boyfriend, Paul. Even though his apartment at the Barbican is grey and isolated. Even though she feels utterly unprepared for motherhood. When his cousin Rachel comes to stay, the claustrophobic apartment starts to feel even smaller, as Simone begins to wonder why Rachel has come, and what secrets the cousins share.
AC:Zoe, The Night Village is a psychological thriller, a tale that burrows into the darkness of what seems, on the surface, a domestic scenario. I must commend you: you do sinister very well! But I wondered where all of this came from.
ZD: It’s strange trying to trace the story’s development, as when I started writing I didn’t expect it to turn into a suspense novel. Looking back, though, I do remember visiting my local library a lot, accompanied by two rowdy toddlers. With no time to look for the perfect novel, I’d always take something from the Librarian’s Pick of the Week table, and most of those books were psychological suspense and thrillers—SJ Watson, Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, Susan Hill and more. So when I started writing The Night Village I had that style fresh in my mind. I always wondered which librarian picked the books, but when I asked one day I was told they all did!
Having said that, my imagination does veer quickly towards the sinister—anything from a closed shower curtain to a creaking branch can set me off. Writing a novel at least puts that tendency to good use.
AC:The novel is set in London, and in particular in the Barbican Estate, a large postwar residential complex in the ‘Brutalist’ architectural style. Could you please talk about what role/s the city and the estate play in the world of the novel?
ZD: With its soaring concrete towers and fortress-like design, the Barbican Estate is revered by many architects, but to visitors it can feel almost post-apocalyptic on a winter’s day. Simone can’t hear her neighbours through the thick walls, at night she looks out to empty offices, and the apartment itself is sealed and quiet and colourless. All these elements increase her sense of isolation and unease, and hopefully add to the spooky atmosphere.
London itself also drives the story forward, as Simone is constantly bumping up against strangers, both friendly and menacing. There’s a beautiful novel by Russell Hoban called Amaryllis Night and Day and much of the narrative is simply the main character wandering around London to his own unique map. As a new mother, Simone also creates a new map of the city, ending up somewhere very different from where she started.
That other country, Motherhood
AC:Motherhood is at the centre of the novel, and there is so much that could be discussed concerning your portrayal of Simone’s entry into this new world. I imagine book clubs are going to love doing just that! I’ll confine myself to asking about the issue of motherhood and gender roles—as expressed, for example, in the following passage:
[The use of valium in the 1960s and SSRIs today] made it easier for us to keep smiling and to keep doing and to not feel quite so very, very angry, because despite everything nothing had changed. We got to work, yes, but we still had to do everything else.
ZD: For Paul and Simone, what had been a pleasant and undemanding relationship changes overnight with the arrival of an unplanned baby. After two weeks of paternity leave Paul returns to work, while Simone is left at home, holding a wailing newborn, her identity reduced to one word: mother. Add sleep deprivation, the impact of pregnancy and birth and her isolation in an unfamiliar city, and Susan Midalia’s wonderfully accurate ‘everyday madness’ soon descends. Simone feels isolated and unsupported, while Paul doesn’t really know how he can help apart from going out and earning money. It’s a dynamic familiar to many new parents, and in Paul and Simone’s case the tension is ramped up further by the fact that they don’t really know each other. From a storytelling point of view, it gave me a lot to work with.
When a character knocks on your door…
AC:Into the fraught situation of new motherhood comes a character who destabilises the already unstable. Could you talk, please, about Rachel (without, of course, giving away any spoilers)?
ZD: Rachel turned up at the door of the apartment, much as she does in the novel, when I was writing one day. Until that happened, I never believed writers who say that a character can just appear fully formed, but now I only hope it happens again. She felt like someone whose story I was getting to know as I wrote, and she’s a persistent and shadowy presence who is probably more than a little inspired by all the gothic novels I’ve read over the years.
AC:I loved your character Jennifer, who works at the V&A Museum of Childhood. She seems to play a pivotal role in Simone’s story. Could you tell us about her and what she represents?
ZD: Jennifer is a sixty-something woman who befriends Simone one day when she visits the museum with her baby. She makes Simone a cup of tea, sits with her, listens, and is a kind of substitute parent and wise elder when Simone’s own mother is far away. So much of parenting is simply being present, being there and nowhere else, and I think that’s the lesson that Jennifer brings.
Writing place from afar
AC:Zoe, I understand you were born and raised in Perth, went to London to live and work (as your character Simone does) and now live with your family in Germany. With The Night Village set in London, I was wondering about your connection with place. Is it a major inspiration for your work? And as someone who finds it easier to write about a place when I’m not in it, may I ask about your take on whether it’s easier to write about a place from afar?
ZD: Place seems to come first when I start a story, and then I think about who might live there and how they respond to their environment. I wrote The Night Village in Perth, and in some ways remembering London—the milky winter light, the warmth of buses and museums, the streets and sounds—was as good as being there.
I moved to Berlin, my husband’s hometown, in 2018, thinking rather blithely that I’d set a novel here. But the longer I stay, the less qualified I feel to write about Germany. I’m learning German and maybe, if I’m lucky, a story will come. Strangely enough, my imagination is now directed towards Perth. So yes, I am with you, Amanda, on finding it easier to write about a place when you aren’t there.
The title from within
AC:As a book editor, I’ve often had to assure the writers I’ve worked with that titles can be the devil, and that probably every writer, at least once in their career, has had to go through the agonising experience of discovering that the title they love and are wedded to has not found favour with the publisher’s marketing department. The Night Village strikes me as a very effective title for this story. Did it emerge organically, or was it a difficult one to get right?
ZD: This manuscript was originally called She Came To Stay, borrowed from the Simone de Beauvoir novel when I needed to quickly come up with a title before submitting it to the Hungerford Award. The Night Village did emerge organically, first as I wrote about the doll houses at the Museum of Childhood and then as I started to think about an unseen village of wakeful parents and children, all in their separate houses yet somehow connected across every sleepless night.
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.
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…
Author of KATHLEEN O’CONNOR OF PARIS (narrative non-fiction), ELEMENTAL and THE SINKINGS (novels) and INHERITED (short story collection). looking up/looking down is an occasional blog about writing, reading and watching the world...