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2, 2 and 2: Emily Paull talks about Well-Behaved Women

Emily Paull
Well-Behaved Women
(Margaret River Press)
Short story collection

Processed With Darkroom

Photograph by Charlotte Guest

What a pleasure it is to introduce Emily Paull—one of the most delightfully bookish people I know (and I know a lot of bookish people).

I first met Emily when she was working as bookseller/book buyer at the now-closed (and very much missed) Bookcaffe in Swanbourne, but she was already writing then and it was clear it would not be long before she was experiencing the publishing world from a writer’s perspective. She is now undertaking postgraduate studies and calls herself a future librarian.

Emily writes short stories, and her work has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as Westerly journal. She also writes historical fiction, with more than one novel currently in progress.

Unsurprisingly, she says that when she’s not writing, she can often be found with her nose in a book. Someone after my own heart!

In this post, Emily talks about her first book, the newly released collection Well-Behaved Women. Here is the blurb:

A woman grapples with survivor’s guilt after a body is found in her garden bed; an ageing beauty queen contemplates her past; a world champion free-diver disappears during routine training…

In moments disquieting or quietly inspiring, this collection considers the complexity of the connections we make—with our family, friends and neighbours, and with those met briefly or never at all.

In her timely debut, Emily Paull voices a chorus of characters that reveal and re-evaluate the expectations of women in Australia today—after all, well-behaved women rarely make history.

Over, now, to Emily…

WellBehavedWomen_frontApprHR.jpeg

2 inspirations for stories within the collection

I remember very clearly the inspiration for one of the stories, ‘The Sea also Waits’, which is the first story in the collection. I was reading an article online, either in the New York Times or The Guardian, about the disappearance of Natalia Molchanova. Something about the situation the article set up spoke to me. How can a woman, argued to be one of the best free-divers in the world, simply disappear during a practice dive? The article went into all sorts of details about free-diving and how long these people could stay underwater, and something just clicked in my imagination. I wrote the first line of the story down on a scrap of paper, and later that night I wrote the whole story out in one sitting. It’s barely changed since then. I have always felt like that story arrived fully formed.

As a West Australian, I’ve always been fascinated with the ocean, because it’s beautiful and it’s also dangerous. There’s so much of it. The things that it hides, the secrets it’s been entrusted with. I think that’s why this collection features a second story about a character disappearing into the sea. ‘Picnic at Green’s Pool’ is a kind of homage to Joan Lindsay’s classic work of Australian Gothic, Picnic at Hanging Rock, but I chose to set the story in Denmark, near Albany on Western Australia’s south coast, rather than in the more traditional setting of the bush, because bushland and forest have never really played as important a role in my life. I grew up visiting the ocean, going to our beach house in Falcon Bay, and while I swim in the ocean, I’m definitely a little scared of the vastness of it (and of the sharks that might be lurking in it!). I wrote the story on a trip to Albany after a visit to Green’s Pool and a lot of the imagery that my main character sees when she and her companion visit the beach—such as the father and son trying to lug a kayak up a narrow set of stairs—are things that I saw too. I like to imagine my characters might have been there that day, somewhere near me on the beach.

2 places featured in the collection

Most of the stories are set in Western Australia, but there’s one—‘Font de Gracia’—that is set in Barcelona. I wrote it while I was still doing my undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and History at Murdoch University. Right before my final year, my family went to Spain to visit my mother’s brother and his family. I was struck by the architecture of the place, and the customs of the people, like the way that they eat dinner late at night. We were staying in an apartment near La Rambla and I would go to bed at ten pm and be able to hear the people in the apartment above serving up their meals! It was an eye-opening trip for me, and I gave that sense of the world opening up to my character, Grace, who runs the risk of turning herself into a cliché if she continues with the way she is behaving at the beginning of the story. The crux of the story takes place at this incredible fountain in the centre of Parc de la Ciutadella. It’s full of gilded statues and griffins and horses and I think there’s even a statue of Venus in the middle.

The other story that is set outside Australia is called ‘A Movable Farce’, and it takes place in Paris after the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan Theatre a few years ago. I’ve actually never been to France (it’s on the list), but what I wanted to explore in the piece was the idea that most people who have never been to Paris still have some version of it that exists in their imaginations. It’s a place that has been the setting for so much art, so much literature, so many films. I found myself wondering if the real version of Paris could ever live up to the one that I have created in my imagination. A few months ago, when I woke up to the news that Notre Dame de Paris had caught fire, I was struck by the outpourings of grief for the building—the symbol, really—that were coming from all over the world, and I thought to myself, yes, I was right. The symbol of Paris, the idea of Paris, is a very important one to many people. This is something that my character, Michael, has to come to terms with, because he’s gone to Paris expecting that it will be the making of him and that he’ll be so inspired that he’ll write and write and write, and he finds that his life is pretty much the same as it always has been. I also tried to equate the romanticism he projects onto the women in his life with his feelings about the city. In the aftermath of the attacks, he has this moment of clarity where he realises he has to see things and people as they really are if he’s going to get anywhere at all.

2 favourite well-behaved women of history

 I have two time periods that I’ve been fascinated with for a very long time, and one of those is the early twentieth century with the two world wars, as anyone who knows about my other writing may be aware of. But the other is one I’ve not really tried to write about before—the Tudor period. In particular, I am fascinated with the stories of Henry the Eighth’s six wives. (I devour historical fiction set in the period, and my interest was kicked off by reading The Other Boleyn Girl as a teenager. I’m an unashamed Philippa Gregory fan, even though in some circles she’s viewed as too commercial.) I’d have to say that Katherine of Aragon is one of my favourite women of history. There is something about her story that speaks to me of great strength and resilience. The daughter of two powerful sovereigns (her mother a fearsome warrior), Katherine was betrothed to the son of the English King when she was just a child. She was first married to Arthur, the Prince of Wales, but he died, and Katherine struggled for a long time to fulfil her destiny to become Queen of England by marrying the new heir, Henry. Many sources claim that Henry and Katherine were very much in love, yet when Katherine repeatedly failed to produce a live male heir, she was put through all sorts of very public trials that must have been extremely humiliating for such a proud Catholic woman, and her virtue was questioned repeatedly. Eventually she was put aside and lived out the rest of her days in various dingy castles and estates, eventually dying in Kimbolton Castle. But despite the way her husband treated her, she maintained until the day she died that she was his lawful wife and continued to embroider his shirts for him. There’s something very compelling about this story, and it appeals to me as having a kind of universality for the experience of women throughout time.

The other woman I’ve been fascinated with lately is May Gibbs, the author of the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie stories. I’ve been writing a new book about the experience of women during the time of the First World War, and my character is a kind of imagined contemporary of May Gibbs’. I’ve loved the Gumnut Babies stories since I was a little girl and now I am really enjoying learning about their creator.

Well-Behaved Women is in bookshops now
Find out more at Margaret River Press
Follow Emily via her blog

Events coming up:
Cambridge Library, 26 November,10.30am (bookings 9383 8999)
Beaufort Street Books, 29 November, 6.15pm (bookings here)
Rabble Books and Games, 1 December, 6.00pm (bookings here)
Bassendean Library, 4 December, 6.00pm (bookings here)

 

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2, 2 and 2: Holden Sheppard talks about Invisible Boys

Holden Sheppard
Invisible Boys
(Fremantle Press)
YA fiction

Holden - Head Shot - CG19.10.2018

It’s a pleasure to welcome the 2018 TAG Hungerford Award winner, Holden Sheppard—a name you will soon know, if you don’t already—talking about his debut novel, Invisible Boys.

Holden describes himself as—well, let me quote him directly: ‘a misfit: a gym junkie who has played Pokemon competitively, a sensitive geek who loves aggressive punk rock, and a bogan who learned to speak French.’

He’s also one hell of a writer, with accolades including the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award, the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award, and a Highly Commended in the 2018 ASA Emerging Writers’ Mentorship Prize.

His outstanding novella ‘Poster Boy’ won the 2018 Griffith Review Novella Project, and he has also been published in page seventeenIndigo and the Margaret River Press anthology Bright Lights, No City.

Holden serves as the Deputy Chair of WritingWA, and as an ambassador for Lifeline WA.

Here is the blurb for Invisible Boys:

In a small town, everyone thinks they know you: Charlie is a hardcore rocker, who’s not as tough as he looks. Hammer is a footy jock with big AFL dreams, and an even bigger ego. Zeke is a shy over-achiever, never macho enough for his family. But all three boys hide who they really are. When the truth is revealed, will it set them free or blow them apart?

And now, over to Holden…

INVISIBLE BOYS COVER

2 things that inspired your book

Although Invisible Boys is fiction, the inspiration for it was my own life. I grew up gay in Geraldton—a regional town in Western Australia’s Midwest—and that experience was compounded by being Italian-Australian, Catholic and from a blue-collar background. My own upbringing and influences meant I really didn’t want to be homosexual, so I kept it to myself—I stayed invisible, forgive the shameless promo-pun—and I suffered tremendously for this. I felt a huge sense of shame and self-loathing; eventually, I wanted to take my own life.

In 2017, I was finally ready to write about my past. The isolating experience of growing up gay in the country was something I rarely talked about (at least, back then—nowadays I feel like I never shut up about it!). It was gnawing at me to be expressed in a creative way. So I sat down and wrote what would become the beginnings of this book: the emotional truth of my own life, filtered through the characters Zeke, Charlie and Hammer.

A big inspiration for this book was actually music. I got heavily into rock from the age of sixteen. Punk rock saved my life, really. Green Day’s album American Idiot shaped my attitude. Their track ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ is my theme song—it just gets me—and I think that song’s ethos runs through Invisible Boys like an electric current.

Alanis Morissette was also a creative inspiration for this novel: her albums Jagged Little Pill and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie are mind-blowing. What inspires me is how her songs are so vulnerable and boldly tackle feelings we are encultured not to speak openly about. Her lyrics talk of incandescent rage, of wanting to kill herself, of youthful sexual dalliances with much older men, of giving guys blowjobs—all things I could directly relate to. In speaking about taboo topics openly, she freed herself from the shame attached to them. I wanted to do the same with this book: speak freely about what society tells me I should be ashamed of. I wanted Invisible Boys to be so unfettered and bold that people could read this and go, ‘I can’t believe he actually wrote about that!’ and maybe realise they don’t need to feel that shame, either. Shame as an emotion has an evolutionary role, but we often feel it when we shouldn’t. Shame can suck it.

More directly, music had a huge bearing on this novel in terms of the character Charlie. Charlie is a guitarist, and he sees music as his way of escaping Geraldton and finding stardom—something that’s thrown into jeopardy by his sexuality. Consequently, all of his chapters are the titles of rock songs. Charlie’s relationship with music is linked with the times he spent watching Rage on TV with his dad, so his chapter titles are mostly of that late 90s era and include songs from Aussie alternative bands like You Am I, Silverchair and Killing Heidi, plus groups like Rancid, Foo Fighters and Bush.

Holden - Roman Graffiti

2 places connected with your book

The place most connected to this novel is my hometown of Geraldton, which is where Invisible Boys is set. I have truckloads of affection for Gero. I was born there and lived there until I was nineteen; it still feels like home when I go back, and I often get homesick. Sometimes living in Perth can feel airless to me, so I drive myself to the water. As soon as I see the ocean’s cobalt stillness, I exhale. One of my favourite scenic moments in the novel is when Charlie rides Hannah’s bike along Chapman Road at sunset and describes the sun setting over the Indian Ocean as looking like ‘someone’s shining a torch through a broken egg yolk’. This is something I grew up with daily and I loved bringing it to life through Charlie’s eyes.

Other aspects of my hometown are explored through various characters—Zeke’s family dealing with field mice in their house (we constantly had these at our house near the Chapman River); Hammer driving past the iconic canola fields near Greenough; even the Dongara drive-ins get a cameo. Most rural fiction focuses on nature, but I find urban landscapes more interesting, which is why most of my novel is set in pubs, schools, hotels, house parties, shopping centre car parks, gay cruising spots. My writing favours grunge over natural beauty.

The second place associated with this novel is my counsellor’s office. I share this because I first wrote about a gay character from Geraldton as part of my Honours thesis back in 2012. I wrote most of that thesis drunk because I couldn’t handle how it made me feel: I self-medicated with alcohol to survive that year. I was deep-diving into trauma without processing it. It almost killed me, and I’m not exaggerating. At the end of 2012, I was left with two things: a drinking problem, and the fear of ever writing about being gay again, because I thought it would destroy me.

When I got sober in 2015, I went to a specialist drug and alcohol counsellor. I’d rock up each week thinking I was fine, I didn’t need help, and every time, five minutes later, I’d be bawling my fucking eyes out on his couch. This dude is still my counsellor now and he’s amazing. It was after nearly two years of seeing him that I was ready to finally tackle the story of Invisible Boys sober. The counselling helped me to get in touch with myself in a way that simply ‘coming out’ as gay didn’t achieve. Without that therapy, this book never could have been written.

Holden Sheppard - June 2019

2 favourite scenes from the book

 My favourite scene from the book is the roof scene in chapter sixteen, which is titled Luna Piena (Italian for ‘full moon’). It’s told from Zeke’s perspective, and features the boys on the roof of a school after a disastrous event for one of them. It was the main scene where the boys get drunk and talk openly—about sex, about being gay—and it felt like freedom. When I was writing the novel, I was so excited to finally get to writing this chapter, and when I wrote it, I wished it could last forever. Growing up, all my mates were straight—and I ostensibly was, too—so when we’d sleep over at someone’s house or break into their parents’ liquor cabinet and get drunk, the talk was, naturally, only about girls. I said the right things and made the right noises to fly under the radar. But I always wished I could have had those kind of male bonding experiences where you can share your feelings without fear of being rejected—and that’s what this scene does. This whole chapter is a moment of understanding for the boys: a sense of being seen. The other reason I love this scene is that is has an exuberant, rebellious streak: a sense of having fun and not giving a fuck. I know it generally sounds like this is a heavy book, but there is a lot of larrikin humour in there, too. The light and dark wrestle in a volatile equilibrium and I like that.

My second favourite scene is Robbie’s wedding near the end of the book. As that chapter unfolds, you get this sense that shit’s about to go down, and it does. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but it was wildly cathartic to write. It’s literally the ballroom scene of the novel, and it has consequences for all the main characters. I remember getting really amped up for writing that chapter: my music shifted from alternative rock to literally just Kylie Minogue on loop until this chapter was done. That music selection probably makes more sense in the context of what happens in that chapter, which I don’t want to spoil. But it was exhilarating to have this bold, unapologetic electro-pop blasting from my speakers as I drew towards the climax of the novel.

Invisible Boys is available now
Find out more at Fremantle Press
Follow Holden via his website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts

Photo credits: (1) Charlotte Guest; (2) and (3) Raphael Farmer

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2, 2 and 2: Ian Reid talks about A Thousand Tongues

Ian Reid
A Thousand Tongues
(Framework Press)
Historical fiction

Version 2I always find Ian Reid’s work interesting, as we share a fascination with the past and the stories it has to tell. And so I was delighted to hear he has published a new book, which was launched in Perth yesterday. 

A Thousand Tongues is Ian’s fourth historical novel, following on from The Mind’s Own Place (which he discusses here), That Untravelled World and The End of Longing. It was partly written during his tenure of a J.S. Battye Memorial Fellowship.

He has also published poetry and several kinds of non-fiction, and his books have been translated into five languages, widely anthologised, and have won international recognition including the Antipodes prize for poetry.

Ian’s research for A Thousand Tongues appears to have taken him far and wide, across time and space. Here is the book’s blurb:

The action of Ian Reid’s latest novel, A Thousand Tongues, extends across a century and a half. Among the story’s settings are the moorlands of Devon and military camps in Normandy, Liverpool docks and a London cemetery, a circus in regional Lancashire and a memorial park in central Perth. But as a reviewer in The Age remarks, ‘wherever his characters go, Ian Reid places us vividly there.’

Discharged from Dartmoor Prison in 1889, a black man breaks back into it soon afterwards. Interned in the same jail during World War I, a brooding conscientious objector seems to invite harsh punishment. On a present-day Australian university campus, a Muslim student is mysteriously murdered. The suspenseful action of A Thousand Tongues gradually reveals how these puzzling events are interlinked. Beautifully written, with unforgettable characters and resonant themes, the novel explores twists and turns of conscience, racial and sexual tensions, the limits of historical enquiry, and legacies of guilt.

Over to Ian…

A Thousand Tongues cover copy

2 things that inspired the book

An escapee who returns
Some years ago, browsing in a small museum in Devon, I picked up a booklet by a local historian. Over the Wall and Away recounted a number of stories about jail escapes, one of which I found particularly intriguing. It concerned a black man who, after many years of incarceration and maltreatment in the infamous Dartmoor Prison, gained his release in 1889—but then a few months later was apprehended while breaking back into the same place!

During the subsequent trial his ostensible motive for this astonishing action came to light, but I sensed a larger untold story between the lines, and it gradually began to take shape in my imagination as I wondered what life would have been like for a person such as this, a black man pushed to the margins of Victorian society. The abolition of slavery in England earlier in the 19th century had been a mixed blessing, because freedom left most British blacks in limbo, with scant opportunities for employment or social integration. I invented a character, Joshua Dunn, whose situation partly resembled that of the real-life person I’d read about…

A conscientious objector with a bad conscience
As I developed Joshua’s story speculatively, it converged with my growing interest in a different topic, something of historic importance that occurred a few decades later: the experience of pacifists during World War I. In Australia at that time the consequences for anyone opposed to military service could be unpleasant enough; future Prime Minister John Curtin was among those imprisoned briefly in 1916 as an anti-conscription agitator.

But because Australia remained the only WWI combatant nation whose soldiers were all volunteers, this country didn’t witness the extremely harsh treatment encountered by conscientious objectors elsewhere, especially in Britain. Reading about things that happened to English ‘conchies’ was an eye-opener that led me into extensive research and ultimately into the devising of a further strand in the plot of A Thousand Tongues. Pivotal in this is the character of Gavin Staines, uncompromising in his stance against the war but burdened by a secret prewar failure of conscience.

2 places connected with the book

Kings Park
Although much of my novel’s action takes place in earlier times and distant locations, there is also a framing story set in present-day Perth. A couple of scenes unfold in Kings Park, an extraordinary place where I often like to walk.

This imposing piece of landscape, perhaps the largest city park anywhere in the world, induces contemplation. Not only is it full of wonderfully diverse natural bushland, it’s also shaped in various ways by cultural values—and these, of course, are contestable values. One scene in my novel brings a pair of central characters to the State War Memorial, which has just been defaced by anti-war slogans; another scene features a political rally in Kings Park to support refugees. Looking out across the Swan River, someone attending the rally imagines countless generations of Nyoongar people standing on that same spot, long before the successive appearance of Dutch, French and English navigators who arrived in search of prosperity, not asylum.

Dartmoor
Most first-time visitors to Dartmoor National Park probably think they know what to expect. Southwest England’s bleakest expanse of windswept moors, with stark, steep, stony tors looming over them. The spooky habitat of Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Fogs, bogs and dogs.

Yet this fascinating region can be full of surprises. Travelling through what I’d thought would be a grim wasteland of topographical clichés, I discovered wonderful variety, uncanny beauty, and glimpses of a long mystery-laden past stretching far back into prehistoric times.

Dartmoor also contains one of the world’s most notorious jails, built more than two centuries ago at Princetown on the high moors. Initially its dark granite walls enclosed thousands of prisoners of war from Napoleonic France and then from America. After the French and American wars finished in 1815, the prison stood unused until 1850 when it became a receptacle for ordinary convicts. In 1917 the convicts were dispersed to other jails so that this place could be converted to a detention centre for conscientious objectors. After the war, it reopened as a civilian prison.

These days, a tourist (and a historical novelist) can find much of interest in Princetown’s Prison Museum—which is where I began to think about the story that became A Thousand Tongues. I say ‘began’ because my first visit wasn’t my last.

2 favourite images from the book

It is 2015, and Tim Holmes, a young historian from Perth, makes a research trip to the Dartmoor region. (His investigation has a double purpose and he will discover more than he anticipates.) While staying there, he buys an ordnance map and follows an old walking track across the moorland to an ancient formation of standing stones.

Set on grassy plateau, the two large circles were nearly contiguous, almost forming a flattened figure of eight, an hourglass shape. Some of the great dark stones were perfectly rectangular, and the one nearest to him had such evenly placed spots of white lichen on its surface that it was like a chunky half-buried domino tile. The fanciful thought struck him that if the pieces forming each ring had been placed a little closer to one another, and then one of them fell, they would have gone on toppling, each one against the next in a series of mighty concussions, until all lay flat.

Sitting with his back to one of the giant dominoes, he ate what was left of his snack food, massaged his calves and fell into a sombre reverie.

Among the countless generations of men and women inhabiting this region in the past, some of his own forebears might once have walked where he had walked today. Five thousand years ago, ten thousand, what kind of landscape was it here? Perhaps the moors were less dismal in ancient times, more wooded? The immeasurable vista of prehistory stretched far back beyond his ken. This Dartmoor, this almost ageless place, seemed to mock the tiny circles of routine enquiry he’d been trained to follow as a historian.

Drowsily he watched shadows from the tall stones inch across the grass as the sun began its gradual decline over the moors. Time sank with it, not just the time of day but also the very notion of calculable progression itself, drawn down into the ancient land by a slow absorbing suction. As his mood sagged, every past or present human thing felt momentarily miniscule and pointless. You could lose your bearings here, map or no map. Misplace yourself.

Now to another image. It is 1869, and this is a reader’s first meeting with Joshua Dunn, member of a travelling circus troupe.

His black bunched hands had brought him here. For years they’d been proclaiming what kind of man he was, demanding caution and even something close to respect from those who might otherwise have treated him contemptuously. Around the Liverpool docks and streets a fist had the power to ward off trouble, to turn an object of disdain into a feared persuader. In fairground booths all over Lancashire he’d boxed his way to money—enough to live on without begging or thieving. And now, in this grand circus ring, surrounded by a clamorous crowd, he stood facing the legendary Jem Mace, bareknuckle champion of all England.

It was nothing like the kind of contest he’d dreamed about. Instead of being in the role of genuine challenger, eagerly measuring his prowess against the yardstick of Mace’s pre-eminence in the sport of fisticuffs, he was going through the charade of a fixed match.

‘Now listen here, Josh,’ he’d been told, ‘you’re a strong fighter, we know that, but it’s Jem Mace who brings the crowd to us. They want to see him win, and we’ve given him a quiet assurance he won’t be hurt. So put on a good show, eh lad? But pull your punches and let him look superior.’

Josh had to accept the arrangement with a shrug. Besides, he didn’t begrudge his opponent the crowd’s adulation. Mace had done well for himself, coming from a gypsy background, and good luck to him. But Josh, holding back his own natural aggression, felt his heart was a boiler full of steam, near to bursting.

The fight took its predetermined course. Although Josh jabbed away at the older man’s ribs, and once gave his ear a sharp clout just to let him know what he could do, he made sure none of the blows he landed was at full power. Mace, a clever boxer as famous for his dancing style as for his accurate hitting, kept moving around him quickly, smiling at him, confident and poised. When the exhibition had gone on long enough, Josh dropped his guard, let one of Mace’s punches through, and fell back as if stunned. There was an eruption of yelling and whistling and clapping. He picked himself up slowly. Mace waved to the crowd, walked over to him and shook his hand. ‘Well done, lad,’ he said with a wink.

What happens next to Joshua Dunn will set him on a path that eventually takes him to Dartmoor Prison, though his story doesn’t end there.

A Thousand Tongues is available now
Find out more at Framework Press
Follow Ian via his website, Reid on Writing

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2, 2 and 2: Angela Savage talks about Mother of Pearl

Angela Savage
Mother of Pearl
(Transit Lounge)
Literary fiction—novel

WDIWDMTM18

Photo © Suzanne Phoenix

As a writer who has made a recent foray across genres myself, I’m fascinated with cross-genre leaps by other writers. And so I’m thrilled to be featuring award-winning Melbourne writer Angela Savage, who, after three successful crime novels, has turned to literary fiction (she has written a post on ‘Switching genres’ here, if you’re interested to know why.) Angela is a fabulous writer—I’m a fan of her Jayne Keeney PI series—and I’m sure we’re in for something special with this new release, Mother of Pearl.

Angela’s debut novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and all three of her crime novels were shortlisted for Ned Kelly Awards. The Dying Beach was also shortlisted for the Davitt Award. Angela has lived and travelled extensively in Asia, and has taught writing throughout Australia and overseas. She is currently Director of Writers Victoria.

Here is the blurb for Mother of Pearl

A luminous and courageous story about the hopes and dreams we all have for our lives and relationships, and the often fraught and unexpected ways they may be realised.

Angela Savage draws us masterfully into the lives of Anna, an aid worker trying to settle back into life in Australia after more than a decade in Southeast Asia; Meg, Anna’s sister, who holds out hope for a child despite seven fruitless years of IVF; Meg’s husband Nate, and Mukda, a single mother in provincial Thailand who wants to do the right thing by her son and parents.

The women and their families’ lives become intimately intertwined in the unsettling and extraordinary process of trying to bring a child into the world across borders of class, culture and nationality. Rich in characterisation and feeling, Mother of Pearl and the timely issues it raises will generate discussion among readers everywhere.

‘This is a story of family and motherhood, and also a story of culture and exploitation that asks us to think through the costs of our insatiable desire in the West to have everything. What I find remarkable about this novel is how it refuses easy and lazy judgement, how it takes seriously questions of loss, longing, and our human need to connect with each other.’—Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap

Over to Angela…

CVR_Mother of Pearl_cover

2 things that inspired Mother of Pearl

The idea for Mother of Pearl was sparked by a 2013 newspaper article noting a ‘sharp rise’ in citizenship requests for Australian children born in Thailand, and attributing this to Australians flocking overseas ‘to find birth mothers for their children’—in other words, hiring Thai women to be surrogate mothers for them.

I’d always be curious about surrogacy. I’d read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when it was first published in 1985. And I’d followed with great interest the story of ‘Baby Alice’, who was conceived from her mother Maggie Kirkman’s egg, fertilised with donor sperm, and gestated by her aunt Linda in what was one of the world’s first cases of IVF surrogacy, back in 1988 (the sisters wrote about it in My Sister’s Child). I can still remember a striking front page photo in The Age of Maggie breastfeeding her newborn through tubes of donated breast milk taped to her body.

Coupled with my curiosity about surrogacy is a long-standing interest in Australia’s relationship with Asia, particularly Thailand. I wasn’t surprised by the lengths that people would go to in order to have a child, having personally experienced a powerful urge to be a parent and the grief of failed pregnancies. But I did wonder how ‘intended parents’ from Australia arrived at a course of action as precarious as paying a Thai woman to have a baby for them. Why Thailand? I wondered, too, what lay behind a Thai woman’s decision to gestate a baby for a foreigner: whether it was just about the money or if there were other cultural considerations at play—Buddhist ideas about making merit, for example. Was commercial surrogacy even legal in Thailand, or was this an example of the kind of unregulated ‘grey area’ the country is famous for?

The more I reflected on the political, ethical, cultural and emotional aspects of overseas surrogacy between Australia and Thailand, the stronger the appeal of the topic became for me as a writer. With this idea in mind, I enrolled in a PhD in Creative Writing. But I didn’t want to write a diatribe. Taking inspiration from Salman Rushdie in his Paris Review interview, ‘I wanted to make sure in this book that the story was personal, not political. I wanted people to read it and form intimate, novelistic attachments to the characters.’ As the characters of Anna, Meg and Mukda emerged, I started writing the story that became Mother of Pearl.

A second source of inspiration, which finds an echo in the novel’s title, was the memory of something a friend said years ago about a pearl being the perfect metaphor for a baby: an irritant when inside of you that emerges as a thing of beauty. Later I saw an exhibition called Lustre: Pearling & Australia when it visited Melbourne from the Western Australian Museum, where I was struck by this quote from Marilynne Paspaley: ‘The pearl is the only gem that is made by a living creature…it represents life, as every other gem is made by the passing of time and decay.’ Pearls, both literal and metaphorical, ended up permeating the novel.

2 places connected with Mother of Pearl

Mother of Pearl is set in two cities I love, Melbourne and Bangkok.

Melbourne, on the traditional land of the Wurundjeri people, is my hometown. In Mother of Pearl, I explore inner suburban Melbourne: its cosmopolitanism, its extreme weather, the unexpected birdlife in its parks—a city where, as Meg notes, ‘even the built-up spaces…seemed to pulsate with life’, even though the story is set during Melbourne’s worst drought on record. At one point, Meg stares through the window of her studio, ‘where a dead silver birch cast a bony shadow on what remained of the lawn’. Her reflection that ‘only the native plants could withstand the drought’ echoes the anxiety she feels about using eggs from a Thai donor as part of the surrogacy process.

Although my three previous novels are set in Thailand, Bangkok features as a significant setting for the first time in Mother of Pearl, and I strived to portray this richly complex city in nuanced ways. Bangkok as seen through the eyes of Anna, who is besotted by the city, is endlessly fascinating, friendly and playful. For Meg, who is well outside her comfort zone in every sense, Bangkok is suffocating, its streets rife with potential hazards and humiliations. For Mukda, who comes from Thailand’s rural northeast, Bangkok is confounding and lonely.

I was also conscious of writing about a city that is constantly changing. Although the story is set as recently as 2009, many of the places I write about no longer exist. Mother of Pearl is thus, in part, a love letter to the Bangkok of my memories.

2 favourite things about writing Mother of Pearl

One of my favourite aspects of writing is fieldwork, and not just because it means spending more time in Thailand. When I conduct fieldwork, I’m in a heightened state of noticing, attuned to the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and textures around me. I take notes, using a technique suggested by David Almond in his essay ‘Exploring home’: ‘Don’t separate observation, speculation and memory. Record them on the same pages. Allow them to stimulate each other, to interfere with each other.’ I take photos, too, blogging my images and observations at the end of each day so I can refer to them later.

One benefit of being ‘on location’ is that the landscape is replete with the kind of ‘show, don’t tell’ moments that can be so hard to craft at the desk back home. For example, in Mother of Pearl, instead of lengthy exposition about how revered Buddhist monks are in Thailand, I simply describe the priority seating signs on the Skytrain that say, ‘Please offer this seat to monks’.

Best of all are the unplanned pit stops, the scenic detours, the happy accidents that deliver settings or scenes irresistible to a writer.

For example, there’s a scene in Mother of Pearl where Anna takes Meg to visit Bangkok’s famous Jim Thompson House museum. While they wait to join their tour, they explore the tropical garden surrounding the house and stumble across a couple of security guards who are using a fish in a large ceramic pot to select lottery numbers for them. The young men have written the numbers one to nine on white flower buds, which they float on the water. When the fish swims to the surface and tries to swallow one of the buds, the men make a note of the number. As Anna and Meg watch, the fish chooses the numbers two and three, twice. The incident prompts Meg to reflect on luck and gambling in the context of her IVF experience.

This vignette is drawn directly from life. My daughter and I came across the guards and their prognosticating fish when we visited Jim Thompson House in December 2015, and I knew I just had to find a place for this chance encounter in my novel.

Fish Fortune Teller 2

A second favourite element of the writing process is the magic that can happen. Nigel Featherstone wrote about this in a previous 2, 2 and 2 post with regard to the image of a pelican in his work (coincidentally, the same image he describes of the pelican feeding her young from her bleeding breast appears in Mother of Pearl). In my case, I had chosen the name Mukda (pronounced mook-dah) for the main Thai character, knowing her name meant mother-of-pearl. What I didn’t realise until much later was that the name Meg, which I’d chosen for one of the Australian sisters, also means pearl—a coincidence that has significant resonance in the novel.

Mother of Pearl is released on 1 August
Find out more at Transit Lounge
Read a review by Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers
Follow Angela via her blog and on Twitter @angsavage

 

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2, 2 and 2: Richard Rossiter talks about Refuge

Richard Rossiter
Refuge
(UWA Publishing)
Literary fiction—novel

DSC_6973[1]Richard Rossiter is a highly respected and much loved member of the Western Australian writing and publishing community—writer, editor, mentor and occasional judge of literary awards (including the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and the WA Premier’s Book Awards). He has been the fiction editor for Westerly and Indigo, has supervised many postgraduate creative writing students, and is an editorial board member with Margaret River Press and an Honorary Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University.

Richard was the academic supervisor of my Honours and PhD theses—and without his encouragement, they might never have happened. He continues to be a trusted and generous mentor and friend.

His new release, Refuge, follows on from his acclaimed novella Thicker Than Water (2014) and short story collection Arrhythmia (2009). Refuge has just been launched in Margaret River, and I’m thrilled to have been given the honour of launching it in Perth on 24 July.

Here is the blurb…

Quentin ‘Tinny’ Thompson and his German neighbour, Greta, have at least one thing in common.  In their tin sheds close to the coast, they are attempting to live out of the firing line of modern society. Tinny’s sons are growing up and one of them, Rock, wants to head to the city and live with his mother, who is sometimes Prue and sometimes Peaches.  Greta’s dream of life in Australia began with a school project on the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt. Heedless of his fate, she decides to follow in his footsteps. However, isolation does not guarantee safety. Violenceso visible in a disintegrating Europe—is not contained. It arrives at her shed in the bush in the figure of the disturbed Clive.

Lives do not remain static, even for those who resist change.

Refuge is a tender exploration of love and friendship, families, race relations, the consolations of the natural world and, above all, what it means to belong.

Over to Richard…

Refuge cover-2

2 inspirations for the book

1 Place is integral to this novel. Here it is informed by many years of roaming a narrow strip of coast accessed along Juniper Road in the south-west of Western Australia. The cover image (by Caroline Juniper) is indicative of the mix of coastal vegetation, granite rocks, reef and ocean typical of this part of the world. The view south leads to Gracetown, Cowaramup Bay.

2 The story is driven (I suppose) by my own ambivalence about either engaging with a world that seems increasingly unstable at all levels—socially, politically, environmentally—or attempting to withdraw from it and live in a more self-contained manner, where the land itself is your nearest neighbour.

2 places connected with the book

As suggested above, the story is anchored in a particular south-west location. For me it represents more general characteristics of the natural world: contrary strains of mutability and constancy, flux and permanence, chaos and the ‘still point of the turning world’, to quote Eliot. Survival against the odds. ‘At the still point, there the dance is’ (Eliot). 

2 Harder to name, there is also a psychological space, no doubt evolved from life experiences of serious surgery that compel acknowledgement of your own mortality. Time’s winged chariot is a powerful motivator to bring on the philosophic years, to force into the open the big questions concerning our existence.

2 favourite quotes

1 After Tinny returns from hospital, he no longer has a secure sense of self; he is no longer clear about the boundaries—social and physical—that define him. In the passage below, he is walking towards the coast in the late morning.

He came to the top of a small rise and innthe distance could see the ocean, mad with whitecaps. He moved slowly, stretching out his arms like the wings of a bird, and then his legs in giant strides. His long hair flicked into his eyes and he moved his head so it blew backwards. He could feel it streaming behind him. Then he bent low to the wind and started to run down the slope: at any moment he could take off and fly over the treetops to the sea. His eyes watered in the wind, he spun around and around, his arms the limbs of a tree, his bare feet digging into the soft, damp sand; he swayed with the gusts, his thoughts deserted him; the leaves of the marri brushed his face and he could feel the coarsening bark of his skin, the red blood sap moving through him. He stretched out, shooting upwards with purple tips of the new leaves, his trunk thickening, feet rooting below the ground, around rocks, through sticky clay and into the stream below.

2 I was first introduced to the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins as a school student. These lines from ‘Heaven–Haven’ (subtitled ‘A nun takes the veil’) have remained with me all my adult life. At various points in the development of the novel, it was titled ‘Where no storms come’ and ‘The swing of the sea’.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

 

Refuge is available in bookstores now
Find out more at UWA Publishing

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2, 2 and 2: Meg Caddy talks about Devil’s Ballast

Meg Caddy
Devil’s Ballast
(Text Publishing)
YA fiction

009 Meg Headshots 180823 JWyldWestern Australia has more than its share of brilliant YA authors, and one of them is Meg Caddy. Her debut novel, Waer, shortlisted for the 2013 Text Prize and the 2017 CBCA Children’s Book Awards, was described by The West Australian as ‘an astonishing debut…The writing is assured, the action is swift and the characters ring as true as Caddy’s psychological insights.’ I loved it!

I’m delighted she’s here to talk about her much-anticipated new release, Devil’s Ballast.

Meg introduces herself as

a short, nerdy, bespectacled D&D geek. She spends her days ordering and selling books and her nights penning novels. Meg has an Honours degree in Literature and History and Not Sleeping Enough. She lives with two rescue cats (Captain and Lieutenant) and an ever-expanding bookshelf.

She’s also a researcher after my own heart, as you’ll soon see!

The blurb for Devil’s Ballast reads:

Anne Bonny was eighteen when she ran away from her violent husband, James, into the arms of pirate captain Calico Jack Rackham. Now she’s ensconced aboard Jack’s ship Ranger, passing as a cabin boy and playing her ruthless part in a crew that is raining down mayhem and murder on the ships of the Caribbean. But James Bonny is willing to pay to get his ‘property’ back. And pirate-hunter Captain Barnet is happy to take his money. The Ranger’s a fast ship: Anne might just be able to outrun Barnet. But can she outrun the consequences of her relationship with Calico Jack?

Devil’s Ballast is action-packed yet nuanced, culturally relevant and sharp as a cutlass. Based on the true story of Anne Bonny, this new novel by the remarkable Meg Caddy brings to life one of history’s most fascinating anti-heroines.

Over to Meg…

thumbnail_Caddy_DevilsBallast_4

2 inspirations for the book

anne beginning 18I’ve always been mad for pirates, and for history. I have a clear memory of insisting on the role of ‘pirate princess’ in a game when I was four, and the obsession never went away. There are photos scattered through my childhood, teenage, and adult years of pirate dress-ups. When I was eighteen, I went to England for a gap year and spent every spare moment researching pirates, visiting old ships, and planning pirate stories. I found my way around London using a map from 1720.

I did a number of papers at university on pirates, and when I started my Honours degree I decided to write my thesis on the changing representations of pirates and piracy in the Early Modern Period. The dissertation tied together a lot of research and also uncovered a lot of stories I’d never known before. I started to focus on the micro-societies that functioned on a pirate ship, especially when many of the crews included marginalised individuals. I wanted to write a pirate adventure, and I wanted it to reflect the diverse, interesting, brutal crews that actually existed during the Golden Age of Piracy in the early eighteenth century.

As well as being pirate-obsessed, I’m a passionate feminist. I’m surrounded by badass, clever, dynamic women in my everyday life, from my mother and grandmothers, to my cousins and friends, to my coworkers and fellow writers. For me, Anne Bonny’s story was born from those values.

anne bonny picUnlike most pirates, who met dramatic, well-publicised and often grisly ends, we don’t know what happened to Anne. She was never executed, and it’s suspected that after being arrested, she was rescued by her father’s influence. The most popular rumour is that she went back to Charleston with her father, married one of his business associates, had a ridiculous number of children, and settled down into obscurity until the end of her days. The first time I read that, it broke my heart. It’s a story that gives her a long life, yes, but not one she chose. And then I read other stories of Anne’s life; stories where she’s demonised or fetishised or reduced to a damsel in distress.

The historical accounts, on the other hand, show that she was young, impetuous, cunning, ruthless, and fearless at sea. She demanded her right to her own body, and defended that right fiercely. She had close friends, people who loved her to the very end of the gallows rope. The aim of Devil’s Ballast was to put that in ink, to try and give her a voice that wasn’t heroic or villainous, but human and raw. I hope it’s a good intersection of pirate adventure, and feminist love-story to this woman who knocked back every restriction the world tried to bind her with.

2 places connected with the book

In 2018, when I was in the literary Doldrums and trying to rewrite Devil’s Ballast from scratch for possibly the sixth time, I decided to take a month off and travel to places where Anne lived. I started in Nassau, a small island in the Bahamas, where she lived from the ages of sixteen to eighteen with her husband James Bonny. It was also the first place she personally led a successful boat-heist.

My hotel was a street away from a pirate museum with Anne’s face painted on the side. Everyone there knew her, knew her story, had rumours and legends and connections to tell me. In Australia when I talk about Anne Bonny most people have never heard of her, so it was beautiful to see how alive her memory is in Nassau. I went on boat tours, swam with dolphins, visited museums, interviewed a professor at the university there and generally spent a lot of time breathing Anne’s air.

at the helm 18

After Nassau I went to Charleston in South Carolina, where Anne lived from age twelve or thirteen until she eloped with James Bonny. I met with my two American pen-pals there, Kristin and Beverly, and we spent six days living on a boat in the marina. Both Kristin and Beverly are delightful nerds, so they were more than happy to help me track down glimpses of Anne throughout Charleston. We went on a three-hour pirate tour in the pouring rain and travelled out to Goose Creek, trying to find the plantation where Anne used to live. It’s a lake now, difficult to access by road, so we had to trespass over private property to get to the bank—one of the most rebellious things I’ve ever done, for the nerdiest reason possible. I was trying to channel my inner Anne!

Nassau was research directly for the book but Charleston was a pilgrimage as much as anything, a way of reminding myself that Anne was a person with a full and detailed life before she was ever a pirate.

2 favourite pirates

If I’m going to talk about favourites, it’s going to be favourite pirates, and that will always include Bonny and Read, so I’m taking them out of the running here. You can read all about them in Devil’s Ballast (shameless plug). My favourite two pirates aside from Bonny and Read are as follows:

I’m usually a Golden Age kind of girl, which means I keep to the pirates of 1500–1750, but there are always exceptions and Ching Shih (late eighteenth/early nineteenth century) is right up there with some of the most prolific and exciting pirates of all time. At first a sex-worker in a floating brothel, she became more successful as a pirate than Bartholomew Roberts and Blackbeard put together, with over three hundred ships. Some place her followers at as many as forty thousand at some points, both men and women. Originally the fleet belonged to her husband, but after his death she stepped into power and kept it for years before retiring peacefully. She was ruthless and fearless, and her Red Flag Fleet withstood attacks from Chinese pirates, Chinese officials, British bounty hunters and the Portuguese Navy.

Grace O’Malley, or Granuaile, was the original Pirate Queen. She sailed in the sixteenth century, a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I—and they were both red-headed, bad-tempered women who commanded men. Grace’s father, Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, had a large fleet of ships and Grace grew up with strategy and seafaring. She married, and when her husband died his men were so loyal to her that they followed her back home as her own private army, and she started to amass power and ships. She rallied against the English in Ireland, gave birth on a ship (and supposedly fought off pirates the same week), kicked her second husband out of his own castle, and managed to gain the friendship and support of Elizabeth I, even after a lifetime of disrupting English ships and control. I love her utterly, and I hope one day to have the writing chops to put down her story.

pillory 25

Devil’s Ballast is released on 7 May 2019
Find out more at Text Publishing
Follow Meg on Twitter and Facebook

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2, 2 and 2: Nigel Featherstone talks about Bodies of Men

Nigel Featherstone
Bodies of Men
(Hachette Australia)
LITERARY FICTION

NF_5785-HRWhat a pleasure to be able to introduce a novel I’ve been looking forward to ever since I heard about it last year via social media. And from a writer whose short fiction I have admired for a long time.

Nigel Featherstone’s publication record is even more impressive and varied than I knew: story collection Joy (2000); debut novel Remnants (2005); The Beach Volcano (2014)—the third in an award-winning series of novellas; libretto for The Weight of Light, a contemporary song cycle that had its world premiere in 2018; and short stories in literary journals such as Meanjin, Overland and Review of Australian Fiction. Nigel has held residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains), Bundanon (Shoalhaven River) and UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy, and otherwise lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales.

Here is the blurb for Bodies of Men

Egypt, 1941. Only hours after disembarking in Alexandria, William Marsh, an Australian corporal at twenty-one, is face down in the sand, caught in a stoush with the Italian enemy. He is saved by James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney and the last person he expected to see. But where William escapes unharmed, not all are so fortunate. William is sent to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert, with a private directive to find an AWOL soldier: James Kelly. When the two are reunited, James is recovering from an accident, hidden away in the home of an unusual family—a family with secrets. Together they will risk it all to find answers. Soon William and James are thrust headlong into territory more dangerous than either could have imagined.

‘A beautifully written, tender and sensitive love story told within the tense and uncertain context of war.’—Karen Viggers, bestselling author of The Lightkeeper’s Wife

Over to Nigel…

BoM with KV

2 things that inspired Bodies of Men

For much of my writing life I’ve more or less plucked stories from the air: perhaps a story was inspired by snippet of conversation overheard in public; or maybe it was asking myself ‘what if?’ (a common question for a writer) and the narrative evolved from there. But Bodies of Men came into the world in a different way.

Back in 2013 a friend sent me an email out of the blue that said in its entirety, Apply for this, and then a link to a residency opportunity at UNSW Canberra, which provides the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy. I’ve spent much of my life being a pacifist (both politically and domestically) and I took to the streets to protest the first Gulf War. Why would I want to spend time in a military academy? I had also become concerned about Australia’s amplification of its military history for nefarious political purposes. Did I really want to add to that noise? Further, could a novel really combat the increasingly nationalistic narrative? The more I thought about it, however, the more I became intrigued by the idea of researching different expressions of masculinity under extreme military pressure. So I applied and somehow was awarded the residency.

I spent three months that year researching and writing in the Academy Library, which, according to UNSW Canberra, is one of the world’s best military resources. For someone who had doubted the wisdom of being on a military campus, it turned out to be a highly productive time!

Day after day I searched the stacks. I found that I wasn’t so much engaged by military strategy—the politically driven machinations of war—but then I came upon two books that moved me deeply. The first was Peter Stanley’s Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force, which was a joint-winner of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for History. Using evidence that exists on files, Stanley brings to light the diversity of men who served in the First World War and reveals their various crimes and disgraces. The book includes a paragraph about a man called Thomas Chilton, who was born in Scotland but enlisted in Melbourne; he was a former member of the British regular army, so was valuable to the AIF. Chilton went on to be wounded in Gallipoli and, despite facing a charge of stealing and receiving stolen goods, received a promotion. In Belgium, on Christmas Day 1918, Chilton was caught being rather intimate with a local man; a court-martial on St Valentine’s Day found him guilty of a serious demeanour, but he failed to appear at the dock to return to Australia. The AIF chose not to pursue him. Whatever happened to Thomas Chilton? Did he disappear in Europe with his lover?

The second book that burrowed into my bones was Deserter: a hidden history of the Second World War by Charles Glass (2013). In a refreshingly compassionate way, Glass tells the story of three servicemen—two US and one British—who found that they could not fully commit to serving their respective armies. Perhaps many of us have the idea that a deserter is someone who is a coward, but Glass shows that the matter is much more complex. For example, one of the men Glass brings to life was able to perform well when he had respect for his superiors and they of him, but whenever he couldn’t find it in himself to respect his superiors he deserted. Was that an act of cowardice or courage?

While I would go on to read many books about the war experience, including poetry, the above two inspired the story that would become Bodies of Men. Of course, during the writing, and the rewriting, the story followed its own course, with James Kelly and William Marsh having free will, but I very much doubt the novel would ever have come into existence without those three months spent in the Academy Library, UNSW Canberra.

2 places connected with Bodies of Men

There are two important places in Bodies of Men, one I know intimately, the other only through the main characters. While the narrative focuses on the experiences of James and William when they are serving in Egypt, the story of their adolescent friendship is a significant part of their journey; that adolescent friendship reaches its conclusion while on holiday in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. This part of the novel is set in a slightly fictionalised version of a village where my own family holidayed regularly. The village is nothing more than a collection of garden estates—it’s in an isolated part of the mountains and there are no shops—but it is surrounded by national park, and the contrast between the lush English-style landscape and the natural wilderness is marked. I loved the place when I was a child, and I wanted to give what I would call in the novel ‘Mount Bellstay’ to James and William as the setting for a moment that would change their lives forever. But I’m being coy: while Bodies of Men is a work of fiction, I did base this part of the story on an event that I experienced when I was an adolescent and on holidays in the Blue Mountains.

(A potentially interesting side note: during the writing of Bodies of Men I discovered that Patrick White, who met his partner Manoly Lascaris while serving with the AIF in the Middle East in 1941, also had a childhood connection to the same Blue Mountains village.)

The second place that is important to the novel is Alexandria, where James and William spend much of their time. This Egyptian city is entirely fascinating: founded in 331 BC, it has a long and colourful—even magical—history, especially in terms of its connection to Alexander the Great; for a considerable period, Alexandria considered itself to be at the centre of the world’s intellectual and cultural life. As opposed to a certain Blue Mountains village, which I know so well (right now I could draw a detailed map of it from memory), Alexandria is a place that I have had to learn a lot about.

During the writing of Bodies of Men I arrived at two important decisions: I would only tell the story from the perspective of James and William, who, when not working, are essentially tourists; and that their perspective must be informed by experiences that can be found on the historical record—diaries, memoirs, photographs, handheld movie footage, official war art, among other sources. Through the eyes of Australian servicemen who documented their experiences of Alexandria, I have, to a certain extent, been able to experience the city as they experienced it, at least in an imaginative sense. Further, because Bodies of Men is a love story, and love stories are essentially about dreams, it has been my intention to render the Alexandria sequences with a dreamy quality. Love stories are also about the contrast between familiarity and unfamiliarity, and I hope that comes across on the page as well.

2 favourite things about Bodies of Men

All the characters in Bodies of Men are fictional, though they have been informed—directly, indirectly, or creatively—by what’s on the historical record: a diary entry here or a photograph there sparked something in my brain and a character started to come to life. As is the way with these things, some characters seem to appear more or less fully formed, and that was the case with Yetta Hillen, a Turkish-born Jewish resident of Alexandria who rescues James after a motorbike accident. The novel is James and William’s, but to a certain extent it’s also Yetta’s: there is a very good reason for why she rescues James, and there is a very good reason why she is nervous about having done so. Still, she and James develop a closeness that has been present since the first draft (of which I did many); for whatever reason, I have always enjoyed being in the presence of that closeness, and in the presence of Yetta as a person. Why? Although her life is very different to mine, I came to realise that we have certain things in common: our life trajectories have been from religiosity to atheism; we have found meaning in words on the page; and we have found peace in looking after a small garden. Although I have spent much of the past five years in the heads of James and William and have absolutely adored being part of their journey, often, when I think of Bodies of Men, I am with Yetta Hillen. She also good at giving advice. Here she is sharing some wisdom with James and William:

There are three types of courage. There is the courage to stay the course. There is the courage to admit, this is not for me. And then there is the courage to love. The wise person knows which type of courage they need, and when and why.

I write by putting a literal pen to a literal piece of paper, and I approach the first draft as an exercise in stream-of-consciousness; it is through the redrafting process that the story finds its structure and narrative spine. Before pen goes down on paper, I do know a fair bit about the characters, the story, and the core theme, but apart from that I allow myself to follow the energy in the story and try to just put one sentence after another. That means I sometimes go down dead-end streets, which is okay—it’s all a part of the creation of the novel—and sometimes I find myself writing about something that I don’t entirely understand but it feels as if there is something there, a life force that should not be ignored.

That happened with the pelican.

When in the Western Desert William receives a letter from Jillian Knowles, a friend from Adelaide, who tells him about finding an injured pelican on a beach. When she tries to help the bird, it scurries away and then disappears. What on earth did that mean? Indeed, an early reader of the manuscript wondered if the sequence should be removed. During the rewriting process I deleted many sections for a variety of reasons, but I always resisted getting rid of Jillian’s letter.

Long after the novel was acquired by Hachette—indeed, this was only a few weeks ago—I found myself considering the stained-glass windows in the Australian War Memorial. There are fifteen windows, each depicting a human trait during the First World War—‘comradeship’, ‘patriotism’, ‘loyalty’ etc. All traits are represented by a male form, except ‘devotion’, which is represented by a female form and includes ‘a pelican feeding her young from her bleeding breast, the ancient symbol of devotion’ (that from the AWM’s website). Uhuh! Was that why I felt that Jillian’s injured pelican needed to be in the story? In an unconscious way, was she trying to send William a message about the meaning of devotion, and its danger, and its ever-shifting nature? No doubt I’m not the best person to judge; readers will have their own interpretation. I’m just glad the pelican remains in the final version of the novel.

Perhaps Jillian can be the one who brings this post to a close, in the same way she brought her letter to a close:

The injured bird made me think of you, William, being such a long way overseas, wherever you are—in Tel Aviv, perhaps, or Damascus, or Cairo. None of those places mean much to me, I’m afraid. I just hope that you are safe and well. But it’s a false hope, isn’t it? You are unlikely to be safe, but still that is my wish for you.

 

Bodies of Men is released today
Find out more at Hachette Australia
Contact Nigel via his blog

 

 

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