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2, 2 and 2: Michelle Johnston talks about Dustfall

MJ HeadshotMichelle Johnston
Dustfall (UWA Publishing)
FICTION

I’m finding it hard to stop thinking about Michelle Johnston’s debut novel, Dustfall—compelling, disturbing and strangely lyrical, given the harshness of its environment and the emotional and ethical territory it traverses. It will be my privilege and great pleasure to launch the novel in a couple of weeks, and I think it’s going to find a wide and enthusiastic audience.

Michelle is one of those rare and impressive people who manage to write as well as excel in a demanding professional field. I’ll let the poetry of her author blurb speak for itself:

Dr Michelle Johnston is a consultant Emergency Physician who works at an inner-city hospital. Mostly her days consist of trauma and mess. She believes there is a beating heart of humanity, art and beauty within the sometimes brutal reality of the Emergency Department, and has dedicated her career to finding that sweet spot between creativity and critical care medicine. Books are her other oxygen, and writing her sustenance.

And here is the blurb for Dustfall:

Dr Raymond Filigree, running away from a disastrous medical career, mistakes an unknown name on a map for the perfect refuge. He travels to the isolated town of Wittenoom and takes charge of its small hospital, a place where no previous doctor has managed to stay longer than an eye blink. Instead of settling into a quiet, solitary life, he discovers an asbestos mining corporation with no regard for the safety of its workers and no care for the truth.

Thirty years later, Dr Lou Fitzgerald stumbles across the abandoned Wittenoom Hospital. She, too, is a fugitive from a medical career toppled by a single error. Here she discovers faded letters and barely used medical equipment, and, slowly the story of the hospital’s tragic past comes to her.

Dustfall is the tale of the crashing consequences of medical error, the suffering caused by asbestos mining and the power of storytelling.

Over to Michelle…

Dustfall cover

 

2 things that inspired Dustfall

1 A ghost of a hospital

In 1991, without any planning, forethought or sense, I stumbled across the ruin of Wittenoom Hospital. It was the strangest place I had ever seen. As though it had been abandoned only the day before, there were scraps of gauze rolling across the crumbling concrete floor, stacks of broken shelving with old, waterlogged journals on them, and a mysterious gleaming metal machine in one of the corners. Many of the walls had collapsed or were simply gaping holes, and all the windows were broken. Outside, in the cancerous, dying town of Wittenoom, no-one knew much about the old building. Those citizens who still clung to that doomed, decaying place were of a different breed, and they had other matters on their mind rather than recording a history which was fading in the light. But the vivid memory of the building stuck in my head (as memories made during difficult times of one’s life often do), and 20 years later, it needed to have a story of my own set there. A year after I visited, the hospital was gone altogether. Razed. And most of the other buildings followed. I’ve been up to Wittenoom a number of times since, and on each occasion there is less and less man-made. Nature is consuming it all.

The research into the heinous episode in Western Australia’s mining history followed significantly later, well after I had written the early drafts of Dustfall. And the more I discovered, the more I needed to recraft the manuscript, so as to stay true to both the fictional narrative, and the truth about asbestos mining.

Raymond Wittenoom

2 Mistakes

All medical errors are devastating in one way or another. Not only for the people affected but also for those responsible; they open a floodgate of self-recrimination and doubt. We doctors are an unforgiving breed. Mostly for good reason. Society expects the standards and safeguards in medicine to be beyond reproach. Mistakes will, however, occur, and when they do, most doctors will react to them uniquely, and oftentimes in exaggerated and destructive ways. We tend to be tortured by Fates only we can see. Dustfall has at the heart of its story a medical error. But further fascinating is the juxtaposition of an individual’s response to their own mistake with the way a corporate error is dealt with. The asbestos mining saga offered plenty of material to work with here.

2 geographical spaces connected with the novel

1 The Pilbara

The head-messing vastness of the Pilbara is like nowhere else on earth. It is at once a barren, desolate moonscape coexisting with pockets of lush vegetation and plains of glittering minerals. It is staggering in its extremes. There is soil that is red beyond description and it has skies so blue they ought not be real. This is a magnificent place to try out one’s writerly palette. Plus it is peopled by characters of steel, the cut of whom has made it into the weave of Dustfall.

2 Royal Perth Hospital

I love this place. I have worked amongst her higgledy-piggledy corridors and wards for 27 years. I have cried and laughed and knelt by the side of the newly bereaved and held still-beating hearts in my hand. I have travelled to and from her in the coal of the night, and have spent days frustrated and scared and triumphant and stretched to my very limit. She was always going to feature in my first book, even though she hasn’t been named (and so much has been fictionalised, she is barely recognisable).

2 historical characters who play important roles in Dustfall

The problem here is that there are three. Descartes, Keats and Pliny the Elder. But in no way would I want to rock Amanda’s extraordinary boat, so I have played rock paper scissors with them, and Pliny the Elder (despite his admirable contribution to the story’s denouement) has been cut from this list. [Amanda feels suitably guilty about the summary dismissal of Poor Pliny from the blog. You’ll have to read the novel to give him his voice.]

1 René Descartes

The polymathic father of modern philosophy, a champion of doubt, and a man whose ideas came from fervid dreams when shut indoors with a smoking stove. His doctrines were legion and cut across many disciplines, but the one that leant itself to Raymond’s (the main character in Dustfall) own rather outlandish personal theories about Medicine were the theories on mind–body dualism—that the senses cannot be trusted. Raymond is a man out of time—a misguided poet and a dreamer. He carries with him several books, one of which is Descartes’s Meditation on First Philosophy.

2 John Keats

(Or, more accurately, his poem ‘The Eve of St Agnes’—although Keats’s premature death from tuberculosis gets a guernsey.) Keats wrote ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ in 1819. It was certainly considered one of his best, and tells the tale, in Spenserian stanzas, of the romantic tradition in the Middle Ages that if, on St Agnes’s Eve (January 20), a maiden performed certain rites before bed, she would dream of her future husband, thus sealing her life’s matrimonial fate. The rest of the poem is mainly confusion and mild erotica and mixed messages and trouble. It’s gorgeous, and the themes are woven gently through the book. I shan’t give away just how, but the first lines are quoted at the beginning, the eve of the book, where in the poem it is chilly and wintry, and we are about to explode into suffocating heat in the novel.

 

I’m grateful to Amanda for inviting me to introduce Dustfall to you this way, and to sit in the company of such brilliant other writers in the 2, 2 and 2 series. And thank you, for reading.

Dustfall will be in bookstores on 1 February 2018
Find out more at UWA Publishing
Follow Michelle on Twitter

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2, 2 and 2: Louise Allan talks about The Sisters’ Song

Author ShotsLouise Allan
The Sisters’ Song (Allen & Unwin)
FICTION

I’m delighted to introduce Louise Allan as my first 2, 2 and 2 guest for 2018. Louise’s debut novel, The Sisters’ Song, has only been out for a few weeks but it seems to be appearing everywhere—a wonderful, and well-deserved, start to its life.

Louise is well known in the Perth writing community for her engaging, warm-hearted approach to everything she does, and will be familiar to many readers through her popular blogs. But here’s a brief introduction:

Louise grew up in Tasmania, but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her first career was as a doctor, but in 2010 she ceased practising medicine and took up writing.

The manuscript of The Sisters’ Song was shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle–T.A.G. Hungerford Award, and was awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship. Louise has also had short stories, essays and articles published in literary anthologies and medical journals.

Apart from writing, Louise enjoys music, photography, walking and nature.

And here’s the blurb for The Sisters’ Song:

Set in rural Tasmania from the 1920s to the 1990s, The Sisters’ Song traces the lives of two very different sisters. One for whom giving and loving are her most natural qualities and the other who cannot forgive and forget.

As children, Ida loves looking after her younger sister, Nora, but when their beloved father dies in 1926, everything changes. The two girls move in with their grandmother, who is particularly encouraging of Nora’s musical talent. Nora eventually follows her dream of a brilliant musical career, while Ida takes a job as a nanny and their lives become quite separate.

The two sisters are reunited as Nora’s life takes an unwelcome direction and she finds herself, embittered and resentful, isolated in the Tasmanian bush with a husband and children.

Ida longs passionately for a family and when she marries Len, a reliable and good man, she hopes to soon become a mother. Over time, it becomes clear that this is never likely to happen. In Ida’s eyes, it seems that Nora possesses everything in life that could possibly matter yet she values none of it.

Over a span of seventy years, the strengths and flaws of motherhood are revealed through the mercurial relationship of these two very different sisters. The Sisters’ Song speaks of dreams, children and family, all entwined with a musical thread that binds them together.

Over to Louise…

Unknown

2 things that inspired my book      

1 My grandmother’s history

As a child, I heard about my paternal grandmother’s three stillbirths. After the third one, the doctor told my grandmother that if she ever wanted to birth a live baby, she would need a caesarean.

I’d accepted this story then without thinking too deeply about it. As I grew older, particularly once I became a mother, it struck me how heartbreaking it must have been for my grandmother to nurture a baby in her womb for nine months, only for it to die during delivery. Three times.

One day in 2012, I searched the Launceston cemetery records and found the record of the interment of one of these uncles:

Version 2

On 22 March 1937, the stillborn baby of Mrs L.D. Allan (she wasn’t even given her own initials but those of my grandfather) was buried in Section D558 of Carr Villa cemetery. Seeing it recorded was bittersweet—I’m glad there’s a record that he existed, but it was also strikingly sad.

On a visit to the cemetery in Launceston, I tried to find his grave, but it’s unmarked.

I incorporated my grandmother’s story into Ida’s story in my novel.

2 Old family photos

I also drew inspiration from photos taken by my paternal grandfather’s family. My grandfather was born in 1906, one of eighteen children from a working-class family. Despite the lack of money, and the relative expense of cameras, film and developing photos in those days, they managed to leave a substantial photographic record of their lives.

I wrote quite a few scenes using the photos as prompts. The opening paragraph comes from this photo. I changed a few details to suit my story, but the essence comes from this photo, including the mention of the cloche hat!

f Group photo - I think Grandpop Allan is centre front

The photo below is how I imagined Ida, Nora and the kids would look. It’s a photo of my paternal grandmother (L), with her sister-in-law and her children.

zzz Nan Allan and unknown people - possibly Michael McIntee on Left

2 places connected with my book

1 Ben Craeg

Ben Craeg is the name of the mountain I describe in my book. Tasmania has a few mountains called ‘Ben’: Ben Lomond, the highest peak of the Eastern Tiers, and Ben Nevis, where my grandfather once had a sawmill.

When writing the first ever draft of this story, I made up the name Ben Craeg. That version was mainly about Grace, so it’s an anagram of her name, and I thought it sounded very Scottish!

There are mountains wherever you look in Tasmania—it’s not flat and brown like many parts of Australia. Because mountains are referred to as ‘she’, and because they always seem to be quietly watching over the valleys below, to me they have a maternal quality, so I bestowed these qualities on Ben Craeg, in keeping with the themes in my book.

As an aside, I was tickled to see someone had googled ‘Ben Craeg Tasmania’ and ended up on my website. My apologies to that reader for confusing them!

2 Ida’s house

Ida lives in Launceston, Tasmania, and I put her house in the street in which I grew up, although I’ve given the street a different name. The suburb we lived in was built on reclaimed swamp, and whenever a heavy vehicle like a truck or bus drove down our street, the houses shuddered and the glassware in the cabinet clinked. Just as those who live near airports tune out the noise of planes, we were used to the shaking of the floor beneath us and the rattling of the crockery. It unsettled our visitors, though, and I remember explaining to friends that it wasn’t an earthquake, just a truck passing by.

Ida’s house is modelled on my grandparents’ home. It had a front verandah, and I added iron lace and geraniums in boxes. My grandmother cooked with a wood stove, and I remember the copper in their bathroom.

2 interesting parallels

1 ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I read this short story when my daughter studied it in late high school. I’d already written an early draft of my novel, and this story resonated, as it seemed to reflect the themes I was trying to bring out in my novel.

It’s about a young woman’s descent into madness after the birth of her child, and is based on Gilman’s personal experience of post-natal depression, when her husband, a physician, forbade her from working or writing, believing that devoting herself to domestic duties was the key to happiness. Although it was first published in 1892, unfortunately it still resonates today.

Here’s a link to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.

2 Dame Nellie Melba

It could be argued that Dame Nellie Melba is still Australia’s most successful expatriate ever. She sang in the opera houses of Europe and America, and was feted the world over.

Melba is mentioned a couple of times in my novel: Ida’s grandmother had been to one of her concerts, and Ida listens to her records on a gramophone when she lives with the Godfrey-Smiths.

I wrote these sections and then researched Melba’s life. I discovered that Melba’s father was against her singing, expecting that she’d marry and have a family. She did marry and have a son, but later divorced, and, at one point, lost custody of her son for ten years.

I saw the parallels between Melba and Nora, the character in my novel: both wanted to dedicate their lives to music rather than family. Imagine if Melba had stayed in Australia and lived a life of domesticity; the world would never have heard her voice. Imagine, too, how many other Melbas have lived and whose voices have never been heard.

I loved this quote about Melba from one of the websites I researched: But hers was not a life dedicated to love; it was a life dedicated to opera.

For more information on Dame Nellie Melba’s life, see here.

The Sisters’ Song is in stores now
More at Allen & Unwin
You can follow Louise via social media: website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

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2, 2 and 2: Nicole Sinclair talks about Bloodlines

2nd Nicole's photo 2016

Nicole Sinclair and I have been connected in a variety of ways over some years. I first came into contact with her work—anonymously, of course—when I chose one of her stories as winner of the Down South Writers Competition. (Not long after that, she won the Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Award—the first writing award I ever won.) Later I discovered what a skilful and generous interviewer she is when she took that role in a conversation session with me at the Margaret River Writers Festival. And in 2015 we appeared together in an issue of Review of Australian Fiction. I’m delighted that we are now friends as well as writing colleagues.

Nicole’s short fiction and non-fiction has also appeared in Westerlyindigo Journal and Award Winning Australian Writing, and forms part of the artworks along Busselton Jetty. Bloodlines (Margaret River Press, 2017), which was shortlisted for the 2014 TAG Hungerford Award, is her first novel.

You can meet Nicole and hear more about Bloodlines at the Bookcaffe Book Club, at the State Library of WA, on 8 June (5.30–7.00pm). Bookings and more information here.

Here is the back-cover blurb:

Thirty-one-year-old Beth, who grew up in Western Australia’s wheatbelt, is running from her past when she heads to an island in Papua New Guinea. Interwoven with Beth’s narrative about the joys and brutalities of island life is the story of her parents’ passionate, tender love for each other. But Clem and Rose’s union is beset with tragedy, forever marking the lives of those around them.

Shifting between the perspectives of five memorable characters, this ambitious, big-hearted novel heralds an exciting voice in Australian literature. Above all, Bloodlines asks us to consider what it means to make a home, and what we might owe to those who dwell in it.

And now, over to Nicole…

cover1

2 things that inspired the novel

Shearing sheds

Shearing sheds have been a part of Sinclair family culture for generations and my father was a shearer for over fifty years. As kids, we loved climbing through packs overflowing with soft wool, chasing lambs in the pens and sweeping the boards. We worked in sheds when we were older, earning money while at university or to go travelling, and we had greater appreciation for the back-breaking work Dad did to provide for us. Shearing sheds are such a rich source of story: old junk is often stored in them, watching a roustabout throw a fleece can be captivating, and the pranks and talk at smoko and cut-out are always interesting! Many people believe that shearing sheds are places full of crude talk and drink, and I wanted to present an alternative to this stereotype. I also hoped to represent the very act of sheep shearing as something skilled and graceful. Beth’s parents (Clem and Rose) both work in shearing sheds and, through them, I was able to pay homage to this very formative part of my life. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the challenge of depicting their tender love affair (without being sentimental and soppy) against the gritty grime and stink of shearing sheds.

Mothering

I could not have perceived how greatly my life would change through the course of writing Bloodlines. I began writing this novel as a single woman, and within a short period of time, I fell in love and had a baby. Within two years, we had another daughter. Motherhood greatly affected how I wrote and what I wrote about.

An impending baby makes a great deadline! For the first time in my life, I was disciplined with my practice. When the baby was born, and I was strapped for time and sleep-deprived, mothering made me work-savvy. I wrote willy-nilly on scraps of paper, receipts discarded on the kitchen bench bore jottings for a character, a plot point would be recorded on a serviette at a cafe on a much-needed escape from the house. The very structure of the narrative—the prose fragments or small chapters—reflects these small snatches of time afforded me. I was determined to write whenever I could (the house often in disarray) and gave up many of my idealistic, perfectionist attitudes towards creative practice. My work, like my mothering, had to be ‘good enough’.

I used my creative musings to explore the wondrous, often frustrating experience of new motherhood, and the narrative became the richer for it. Rose remains one of my favourite characters, perhaps because in her, I see so much of myself as a vulnerable new mother. Fellow-writer Robyn Mundy read an early draft and commented, ‘…I nodded several times at the moments from your own life: Rose’s challenges with baby Beth’s crying and sleep deprivation (could you have written that wonderful layer into Rose without your experiences?).’

Most likely not.

2 places connected to the novel

Bloodlines is told from five different perspectives, with shifting times and places. The two key settings of this novel are based on places of great significance in my own life. In many ways, the narrative is a tribute to both the physical landscape and the people to whom I felt a close connection in each place.

The first is Toodyay, a small town (or at least it was when I grew up there!) on the edge of the West Australian wheatbelt. The rolling hills, meandering river and small town characterise my fictional town of Hope Valley, which is drawn from my childhood memories of growing up on a farm near Toodyay. I think the wheatbelt is often overlooked or dismissed (it’s not the coast, the desert, the forested south, the city), and yet I find the wheatbelt landscape very evocative. Through Clem’s daughter, Beth, I explore some of the complexities of belonging and connection to a particular place; how we might long for it, yet also spurn it, hate it.

In 2007 and 2008, I worked as a volunteer in a Catholic school on an island in Papua New Guinea. The experience was intriguing for many different reasons, and I knew I ‘had’ to write about it. Few Australians know much about PNG except the violence and corruption emanating from Port Moresby or, more recently, the debacle of the off-shore detention centre on Manus Island, but it offers the would-be writer (and reader) an extraordinary backdrop: environmental biodiversity, hundreds of distinct cultural groups, locals who love drama, rumour and sharing stories. From the outset, I wanted to evoke the dense-jungled mountain interior and palm-fringed island where I lived and worked, and I wanted to pay tribute to the generous, friendly, hard-working people I lived and worked with—which brought me face to face with the challenges of writing about another culture, one (at times) so vastly different to my own. Bloodlines is my investigation of the outsider in PNG as they grapple with cultural difference and the legacy of colonialism.

Sunplus

These two quite disparate settings—the wheatbelt and PNG—allowed me to look at the ‘push–pull’ of places and tease out some of the inherent issues such as belonging and un-belonging, home and dislocation.

2 favourites lines about connection in the novel

In many ways, Bloodlines is about connection: connection to the past, connection to place, connection to others. Two of my favourite quotes about connection are as follows:

Clem and Beth’s connection (pp. 311–312)

He takes the bleating baby, slips down the hallway and out the back door. He grabs his raincoat and covers her with it, feels the tar-black night wrapping around them.

‘Here, my girl,’ he says, jimmying a swollen shearer’s finger into her mouth.

Under the stars he walks up and down the back lawn, round and round the weeping willow, past his vegie patch where the corn quivers in the pre-dawn breeze, past a whimpering Dog, past nappies forgotten on the line. He walks past the tractor with the flat tyre he’s been meaning to fix, past Rose’s Cortina and the ute, til he’s facing east and can see the first pink softening of morning. He holds his little girl, inhales the sheep and sweat of his raincoat mingling with the sweet, soapy smell of her, until the little body stops shuddering at last and her mouth gives up the suck.

Val’s connection with Beth (pp. 380–381)

(Val is Clem’s cousin and Beth goes to work with her in PNG.)

Val knows Beth will be leaving soon—whether it’s now or next year—and something in her feels like breaking. She’s spent over thirty years up here trying to avoid most white people and now Beth, on the island five minutes, is so far under Val’s skin it hurts. She’s got used to having her around, likes knowing she’s in the far house in their compound: two white meris bookending the others, keeping them safe. She’s going to miss their gin and tonic musings and those hot Sundays after church when she loads the ute with Beth, Lena and Grace, Delilah and Ruth, and they all escape to a waterhole down the highway.

signing with oona

Bloodlines is in bookstores now.
You can find out more at Margaret River Press.
Read Lisa Hill’s excellent review here.

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2, 2 and 2: Tracy Farr talks about The Hope Fault

Tracy-Farr-2016-Photo-by-Grant-Maiden-08

Photo by Grant Maiden

Tracy Farr is a Melbourne-born, Perth-raised, Wellington-based writer—which, had it been planned, would be a pretty good networking strategy for a writer!

Her first novel, the original, intelligent and lyrical The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, introduced a brilliant new talent to literature and was one of my favourites of 2013. Literary award judges were impressed, too: it was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Award and Barbara Jefferis Award, and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Tracy’s new novel, The Hope Fault (Fremantle Press), was recently released, and I am delighted to be featuring it here.

Here is the novel’s back-cover blurb:

In Cassetown, Geologue Bay, Iris and her extended family gather on a midwinter long weekend, to pack up the family holiday house now that it has been sold. They are together for one last time, one last weekend, one last party.

The Hope Fault is a celebration of the complexities of family—aunties and steps and exes, and a baby in need of a name; parents and partners who are missing, and the people who replace them.

It’s about the faultlines that run under the surface, and it’s about uncertainty—the unsettling notion that the earth might shift, literally or metaphorically, at any moment. It’s a contemporary novel that plays with time and with ways of telling stories. It finds poetry and beauty in science, and pattern and magic in landscape.

And now, over to Tracy…

The-Hope-Fault-front-cover

2 things that inspired your book

1 Rock-paper-scissors Very early in this novel’s life, when I was struggling to work out what it was about and where it went, I started referring to it (almost mockingly) as ‘my rock-paper-scissors novel’. Referencing the playground game that I’m sure everyone’s familiar with, it was a shorthand that encompassed some key elements of the book that I’d decided on very early in the process, even though I wasn’t at that stage clear about how I could or would bring them together: rock for geology, and the Hope Fault, a geological feature that runs across the South Island of New Zealand; scissors for Iris, who works with fabric (I thought she would make marks on fabric by dyeing, but as I wrote, Iris turned to stitching); and paper for fairytales and photographs, poems and maps, and letters (whether delivered or never sent).

As I wrote, I came to think of rock-paper-scissors not just as a convenient shorthand for the novel, but as an organising principle, and as a theme. I became interested in rock-paper-scissors—the game itself—for its universality and its history (it’s existed, in some form and across cultures, for centuries), for its elegant simplicity, but also for its circularity and democracy. As Kurt says in the novel:

‘It’s circular, never-ending, that’s the beauty of it. No one thing wins over every other thing. Any choice you make might win, or it might lose. There’s the potential to win with each choice, each move, but there’s also the potential, each move, to lose…Even paper can win. Paper wraps rock.’

Circularity is important in the novel, and so is the number three (most obviously in the novel’s three parts). Rock-paper-scissors is a fairytale three, a lovely prime number (Kurt’s keen on primes, too: ‘Three’s just one of those numbers. There’s something about primes, but three in particular.’).

2 A bunch of people Another throwaway line I used early on for this novel, when people asked me what it was about (when, honestly, I didn’t really know the answer to that question), was that it was ‘a novel about a bunch of people’. Behind that uncertain answer was one certainty: that it was important to me that this novel featured a cast of characters, with each of their voices coming up in the mix at different times, and with, at times, all of them talking in chorus, speaking over one another. I knew I wanted them stuck in a house, tripping over one another, in a sort of turned-around version of an Agatha Christie-type country house murder mystery (but without a murder). I was particularly inspired by (obsessed with) the Man Booker–shortlisted 2012 novel Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy. I loved that novel’s bunch of people (the family, the friends, the stoner maintenance man, the elderly neighbour, the beautiful stranger), their range of ages and relationships, the sense of unease, and the set-up of the book, where they’re all at a holiday villa in the south of France.

My novel’s bunch of people was also inspired by the bunch of people in Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse (after which one of my novel’s later chapters is named). The Hope Fault’s three-part structure echoes aspects of the structure of To the Lighthouse (including the central part, titled ‘Time Passes’ in Woolf’s novel, which in my novel had a working title of ‘Time Passes (backwards)’), but it was Woolf’s bunch of people—family and friends, out of time, out of place—in their holiday house, the shifting perspective, the sense that nothing much happens (yet everything happens), that interested me. I was interested, too, in the ways that both novels play with time. And would my own bunch of people make it to their lighthouse?

2 places connected with your book

1 There are so many real places connected with this book that I felt I had to invent a fictional place to contain those multitudes. The contemporary sections of the book take place in a family beach house in Cassetown, on the shores of Geologue Bay. There isn’t (as far as I know) a Cassetown, nor is there a Geologue Bay, but I’d hope that Western Australian readers might get a cheeky little zing of recognition and think of Geographe Bay, and recognise in the name of my Cassetown an echo of the real-life town of Vasse. If I had to point to Cassetown on a map, I’d wave my finger over the south-west of Australia, vaguely in the vicinity of Cowaramup, Busselton, Dunsborough and Vasse, but without actually touching down on the map, because Cassetown isn’t quite any of these places. Rather, it’s a mashup of those places, which I know reasonably well from spending holidays there as a child and through my teens and twenties.

I decided on this fictional place for a number of reasons, not least because I imagined a local geography for the house (the house here, by a river that leads to the bay) that none of the real places quite provided. I really like the sense of the universal that’s provided by a fictional place (rooted in real places)—one lovely comment I’ve had from New Zealand readers of the book is that they didn’t realise that it’s set in Australia, they read it as a rainy New Zealand setting. If I’m honest, that’s a response I was sort of hoping for—that WA readers get that pleasing jolt of recognition, but for non-WA readers, Cassetown can read as an Everyplace that’s close to them. The fictional placename also picks up the thread through the novel of names and naming, and of things (and people) having more than one name. And the fictional setting is a nod to the importance in this novel of fairytale, fiction and make-believe.

Tracy-point-whale-Dunsborough-1967

Tracy on the beach at Dunsborough, 1967

2 The house in the novel is an amalgam of several real-life houses, mixed and mashed and added-to in my mind to come up with this particular place that forms the stage on which the majority of the novel is performed. Closest in feel and layout to the house in the novel—though furthest in geographical distance—is a house near Te Anau (on the way to Milford Sound in New Zealand) that I found on a holiday home rental site, and stayed at for two or three nights with my extended family back in 2010. Like the house in my novel, it was an old farmhouse on a decent bit of land, though now more or less in the suburbs, surrounded by close neighbours. The hallway at the beginning of the novel is the hallway in the Te Anau house; the big music room at the side, the deck leading off it; the large number of bedrooms (were there eight?!), leading off the hallway, or off each other; the dogleg to the kitchen at the rear of the house, and family meals eaten at the table in the kitchen—they all come from that house in Te Anau. There are other houses that are part of the house in the novel: Normandell House, the home of New Zealand Pacific Studio, where I had a rainy writing residency while writing the first draft of the novel; Olive Cottage in Mildura, where I lived for a midwinter month when I was Mildura Writers Festival writer-in-residence, and where I wrote the last scenes of my midwinter novel; my uncle and aunt’s rambling old house near Vasse; my ex’s parents’ house in Cowaramup; the back verandah and outside laundry (a place of cubbies, dress-ups, and playing schools) of my childhood home in North Cottesloe.

2 favourite characters

1 Luce was the last of the cast of characters that I came up with for the novel, and she is, in many ways, my favourite. She was the missing link, early on; once I introduced Luce, and worked out how she fitted into the family and the story, everything finally clicked into place. She’s the 15-year-old daughter of Marti. Kurt (20) is her cousin; Kurt’s mum (Iris) and Luce’s mum (Marti) are best friends, and ex-sisters-in-law. Luce, Kurt and Iris are the three point-of-view characters in the contemporary sections (the first and third parts) of the novel. I particularly love the way that Luce shines in the third and final part of the novel.

Names are important in this novel, and Luce’s is, on the one hand, dreadful (listen to it: Luce/loose!). She’s never known by her first name, Lucy; she’s Luce, or Lucinda-sky (with diamonds), or Lulu. I’ve been asked if there’s a lot of me in Iris, or partying Marti, the characters closest in age to me. But I think that Luce is the character in this novel who has the most of me in her. Though she’s forty years younger than me, I am, in many ways, still that confused and prickly teenager, socially awkward, both wanting and not wanting solitude, wanting to do the right thing but often not sure how to do it.

2 Iris was the first character I came up with for this novel, and she is the novel’s reference point. I’ve always thought of the cast of this novel (there’s a confession: I think of it very much as having a cast of characters, as if it’s a play or film) as a cloud or network of characters. I’d draw it on the page or whiteboard, and keep it on the desk or wall for reference as I wrote: a network with Iris in the centre, and the others arrayed around her, with lines connecting out from Iris like the spokes of a wheel, but also across and around, connecting character to character. Iris is in her late fifties in the novel, living on her own now that her 20-year-old son’s off at uni. It’s ten years after her marriage broke down, and she’s good mates (now) with her ex, and with his new wife. I always saw Iris as still, stable, quiet, dependable. She’s the person at the centre of the lives of her extended family, her circle of friends. I imagine her as the person who facilitates the celebrations of all those around her (her son’s 21st, her mum’s 100th, her best friend’s wedding), but without really stopping to celebrate her own milestones. She quietly gets on and organises all their lives. Everyone needs an Iris.

The Hope Fault is in bookstores now.
Visit Tracy’s website
Find out more at Fremantle Press

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2, 2 and 2: Julia Lawrinson talks about Before You Forget

julia-lawrinson-2016-headshot

Julia Lawrinson has long been one of my favourite writers. She’s also one of the smartest and most articulate people I know,  someone I admire and respect enormously, so it is a thrill, and a privilege, to have this opportunity to feature her new novel, Before You Forget.

Julia has an impressive publication record: 13 novels for children and young adults since 2001. Her books include Obsession, 2001 (winner, Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards), Bye Beautiful, 2006 (Notable Book in the Children’s Book Council Awards, shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Book Awards, shortlisted for Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards), The Push, 2008 (shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Book Awards) and Chess Nuts, 2010 (Notable Book in the Children’s Book Council Awards). She appears regularly at schools and writers events, including the Melbourne and Perth Writers Festivals, the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (Singapore), the Celebrate Reading Conference at the Literature Centre, Voices on the Coast (Queensland) and Kindling Words East (Vermont, USA), as well as in regional Western Australia (Albany, Geraldton, Bunbury, Newman and Port Hedland) for Children’s Book Week and for the Literature Centre’s Youth Literature days.

What Julia has written in response to the 2, 2 and 2 questions below gives a deeply moving context for this new work—in terms of its subject matter and her motivation for writing it. I would always be looking forward to having another Julia Lawrinson on my bookshelves, but this one feels special even before I read it.

Here is the blurb for Before You Forget (Penguin Random House):

Year Twelve is not off to a good start for Amelia. Art is her world, but her art teacher hates everything she does; her best friend has stopped talking to her; her mother and father may as well be living in separate houses; and her father is slowly forgetting everything. Even Amelia.

At times funny, at times heartbreaking, this is an ultimately uplifting story about the delicate fabric of family and friendship, and the painful realisation that not everything can remain the same forever.

And now, here’s Julia…

beforeyouforget_final-cover-1

2 things that inspired the book

1 My daughter’s struggle with her father’s younger onset Alzheimer’s disease
My daughter was 12 when her father started displaying the alarming symptoms of younger onset Alzheimer’s disease, and 15 when he was finally diagnosed. The most noticeable thing about younger onset is not so much memory loss, at first, but personality change. Her dad began stockpiling food, bringing strange men home and giving them money, getting up in the middle of the night and bellowing at us, driving erratically, and becoming furious over the smallest things. Worse, he was unaware of what was happening, unable to acknowledge or discuss it. The change in personhood was disconcerting, disorienting and difficult for me, and worse for my daughter. It was hard to understand, to deal with, to explain to others. So, the need for the novel.

2 The transformative power of art in everyday life
I’m not sure where I picked up the idea that any difficulty in life is endurable if only you can transform it into art, but I became convinced of this from an early age. In Before You Forget, Amelia is an art student who struggles to find visual form for what is happening to her father, and to their relationship. But she also experiences that sense of losing yourself in the act of creation, which is the pleasure of any art form, whether it is writing, music, painting, acting. Making something from what has been destroyed, or has disappeared.

2 places connected with the book

1 Fremantle
I spent a lot of time wandering around Fremantle when I was writing Before You Forget. It was a terrible time in my life, but walking soothed, and I tried to get as close to the water as I could. I was sprayed by water in winter as I walked into the wind at South Mole; picked my way around seaweed on Bathers Beach, listening to the hush of waves; watched dogs large and small gambolling on South Beach, fetching sticks and balls, racing each other on the sand. I like to think that the rhythm of those walks can be felt in the writing. Certainly, Fremantle features large in the novel.

2 Ground Zero
Amelia is obsessed with watching and re-watching 9/11 footage: the unanticipated horror of it is her personal disaster writ large, as well as an exemplar of the randomness of fate. She wants to understand how people survived it, how they found a way to think about what had happened. How life, however changed, continues after catastrophes of all kinds.

When I took my daughter to New York, we spent sobering days at the memorial and the museum. In the museum, the Virgil quotation ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time’ (repurposed from its original context) stretches out among a sea of blue tiles. Many of the exhibitions are dedicated to remembering those who perished by recording the ordinariness of their extinguished lives: when they were born, things their families and friends most recall, their favourite subject at school. It struck me as a worthy aim of any memorial: to provide a continuing existence for the spirits who are lost, to honour the past for the comfort of the living. A testament to the centrality of memory.

no-day-shall

2 favourite characters

1 Hecta the Jack Russell
Hecta in the novel is very much based on our Hecta in real life. As Simon’s condition deteriorates, fictional Hecta behaves much as actual Hecta did: becoming naughtier and naughtier. He escapes out of carelessly open front doors, climbs onto tables, steals carers’ sandwiches out of their handbags, and eats the same, still covered in cling wrap. Anyone who has had an untrainable Jack Russell (is there any other kind?!) will recognise Hecta’s antics!

hecta-by-annie

Hecta, by Annie Lawrinson

2 Ms M the art teacher
Ms M is a formidable art teacher who expects her charges to do their best work, and is not afraid of sharing her disapprobation if they do not. Ms M is reliable in a way Amelia’s parents suddenly are not, and the art room becomes her haven. Although I am entirely unskilled in the visual arts, the teacher and the space were analogous to my supportive English teachers, and, of course, the library with its written treasures.

Before You Forget (Penguin Random House) will be available
in bookshops and online
on 30 January
You can contact Julia via her website

 

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2, 2 and 2: Rashida Murphy talks about The Historian’s Daughter

Version 2It’s my great pleasure to be introducing Rashida Murphy’s accomplished debut novel twice this week—first, here on looking up/looking down; second, on the occasion of her book launch on the 31st (details here)

I absolutely love The Historian’s Daughter—the intelligence and vulnerability of young Hannah; the tender relationships between the sisters, between them and their mother, and between Hannah and her ‘mad aunt’; the novel’s pace alongside its sophisticated use of restraint; and the lyrical prose that sings from the page as the narrative takes us from India to Australia to Iran and back to ‘home’.

Here is the book’s blurb…

In an old house with ‘too many windows and women’, high in the Indian hills, young Hannah lives with her older sister Gloria; her two older brothers; her mother—the Magician; a colourful assortment of aunts, blow-ins and misfits; and her father—the Historian. It is a world of secrets, jealousies and lies, ruled by the Historian but smoothed over by the Magician, whose kindnesses and wisdom bring homely comfort and all-enveloping love to a ramshackle building that seems destined for chaos.

And then one day the Magician is gone, Gloria is gone, and the Historian has spirited Hannah and her brothers away to a new and at first bewildering life in Perth. As Hannah grows and makes her own way through Australian life, an education and friendships, she begins to penetrate to the heart of one of the old house’s greatest secrets—and to the meaning of her own existence.

And now, over to Rashida…

Historian_s_Daughter_Cover_grande

2 things that inspired the book

1 A sentence I wrote in my journal in 2007: This is not the story he wanted me to tell. I thought it would be the start of a short story. I had no idea who ‘he’ was and what the ‘story’ would be. In 2008–09 my husband and I moved to Melbourne and I wrote a few short stories that didn’t go anywhere. I started writing The Historian’s Daughter in 2011 and this sentence began to make sense. Now it’s the first line of my novel.

2 An incomplete memory. I grew up in a fairy chaotic household (in India) with itinerants wandering through, often with little explanation. I remember a group of Iranian students who lived with us at various times and one boy in particular who stayed with my family for several years. I don’t know what happened to him. This bothered me, especially when I made friends with Iranian refugees in Perth, so I imagined (and researched) what life would have been like for a young person caught up in a revolution. The novel is, in part, my attempt at bringing closure to events I cannot inhabit anymore.

2 places connected with the book

1 Iran—in particular, its capital city, Tehran. I’ve never been there but I based some of the action of the novel in the city. It was strange to be ‘writing a place’ I’d never been to and I wondered several times whether I should choose another place. Especially because all ‘good writing’ should come from ‘what you know.’ But the Iranian Revolution of 1979 placed my characters firmly within that history, so it was hard to avoid. I steeped myself in Iranian films and novels and history and drove most of my Iranian friends to distraction by asking them endless questions about food and culture (and eavesdropping on their conversations). I don’t speak Farsi but I can follow some of it.

2 Perth. Funny, for a novel partly set in India and partly in Iran, it’s actually Perth that has the strongest resonance for me. Perth’s sunny disposition provided the perfect background for a novel about darkness and family misdemeanours—in a way that (I hope) West Australians can relate to. And despite the fact that my writing always seems to locate itself in ‘other’ places, Perth is home. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Except, maybe, Florence.

2 favourite characters in the book

1 Jarrah the dog. I am not a dog person—most definitely a cat person—so I have no idea why or how Jarrah padded in so firmly, and settled into my writing life so comfortably. Jarrah’s appearance caused us both (me and the main character Hannah) much consternation and surprise. I think Jarrah and his owner, Gabriel, arrived at the same time and I just went with it. But Gabriel has a function as the laconic Australian romantic interest, whereas Jarrah gads about, reclining under kitchen tables, rebuking Hannah, making friends with her sister and generally behaving better than most people in the novel.

2 Gabriel. I chose the name in honour of one of my literary heroes, Farmer Gabriel Oak from Far From The Madding Crowd. ‘My’ Gabriel is a woodworker (which is probably why he has a dog called Jarrah) and volunteer firefighter, a good Aussie salt-of-the-earth type, whose straightforward thinking confuses Hannah, who can’t fathom why he’s so cheerful and confident. Hannah doesn’t have much to be cheerful about. Here’s the first time Gabriel appears in the novel.

Bent over a large plastic bag filled with sawdust and wood shavings, hands and arms plunged into its depths, he muttered small curses and agitated the dust that settled on him like brown snowflakes.

I watched from the door as he straightened up holding a small round object and said, ‘Gotcha little bugger.’ Then, his right hand over his eyes to peer at me, he sneezed loudly again and said, ‘Oh heck. How long have you been there? Come in please. I’d lost a router bit in there somewhere.’

He stamped his feet, whacked his chest with his hands and came towards me, trailing curls of wood and smelling of smoke, a tall man with green eyes and laughter in his voice.

‘What can I do you for?’ He offered me a warm, dusty hand and gripped mine firmly in exchange.

Easy to see why Hannah falls in love with him, right?

Version 2

Speaking at the New Norcia Writers’ Festival, 2016

 

The Historian’s Daughter will be in bookstores in September
Visit Rashida’s website
Find out more at UWA Publishing

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2, 2 and 2: Isabelle Li talks about A Chinese Affair

Isabelle Li photoA Chinese Affair, a debut short story collection recently released by Margaret River Press, is a beautiful work of art, and I am delighted to be introducing its author, Isabelle Li. It was my pleasure to work with Isabelle in the editing of the collection and I was impressed by its intelligence and depth, and the haunting beauty of the prose.

Isabelle grew up in China and migrated to Australia in 1999. She received her Master of Arts and Master of Creative Arts from University of Technology Sydney, and is currently studying her Doctor of Creative Arts in Western Sydney University. Her short stories have appeared in various anthologies, including The Best Australian Stories. Her poetry translation has been published by World Literature in China.

Here is the back-cover blurb for A Chinese Affair:

A Chinese Affair brings a new, exciting voice to the Australian literary landscape.

‘Be of service to the people.’ Chairman Mao’s command was once printed on posters, the front covers of journals, the flaps of school satchels, and I grew up believing that was to be my mission. But who are my people? Have I been of service to anyone? As if walking in a snowstorm, I look back to find that my footprints have been erased. I do not know where I am and can no longer find my way back.

In sixteen exquisite stories, Isabelle Li explores recent Chinese migration to Australia and elsewhere. Some are explicitly connected, through common characters or incidents; in others, the threads are both allusive and elusive—intergenerational and interracial relationships, the weight of history and indebtedness, the search for meaning, and the muteness peculiar to cultural dislocation and the inexpressibility of self in a second language.

The stories explore what it means to leave behind one’s familiar environment and establish a new life, the struggle to survive and thrive, the triumph and compromise, love and heartache, failure and resilience.

And here is Isabelle…

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2 things that inspired my book

The title story in A Chinese Affair opens with a dream: ‘I dream of my mother again. She is sitting in front of the sewing machine, crying.’ The first story I wrote in this collection, ‘The Floating Fragrance’, also opens with a dream, and is followed by another one later. All three dreams are real, though altered, and the setting is the house where I lived for the first seventeen years of my life. My brother was the last to leave before it was demolished. He told me he locked up the place as usual, to ‘preserve it for dreaming’. Dreams intrigue me. Their vividness and strangeness, the haunting quality and unbound lyricism, the disappearing nature of an oneiric experience, inspire my writing. The code switching between dreaming and waking presents infinite possibilities for drama and revelation. ‘Further South’ also opens with a dream:

On the morning of my twenty-eighth birthday, I woke up from a long dream. My body still carried the bittersweet sensation of an epiphany, but the memory was like the last wisp of incense, blown out of shape by the first movement of the air.

At the end of the story, the narrator recalls the dream and understands its message.

This collection is also inspired by language, and the lack or loss of it. The characters are mostly members of the new wave of Chinese migrants. Their cultural dislocation, combined with the inability to express themselves, results in what I have termed ‘endemic muteness’. They do not belong to any overseas Chinese communities or social organisations. Even if they are part of a group, few personal disclosures are involved in their social interactions. They filter or disguise, say one thing while meaning another. Their loneliness and longing are individual and not shared. They are not mute because they do not want to speak, but because they have nothing to say. Living in an English-speaking environment, they have lost the rich context of their Chinese language. As a result, they lose the ability not only to communicate with others but to recognise and articulate their inner feelings and emotions. An example is ‘Narrative of Grief’. Lily is forced to abandon her mother-tongue as a child. She is dissociated from her own feelings, evidenced by numbness to her surroundings and a lack of understanding of her profound sense of loss. To survive, she has to toughen up, and she’s made the enormous effort in English. Chinese, the mere utterance of it, makes her vulnerable. Her propensity for melancholy proves just how traumatic the loss of language can be.

2 places connected with my book

The migrant characters feel rootless, floating constantly between spaces and permanently disoriented. They yearn for a place to belong, for an identity that is certain, while leading a transitory existence in transient spaces, which are simultaneously here and there, now and then, but are also nowhere and in-between.

In ‘Lyrebird’, Ivy shares a unit with Sam but is often out house-sitting. She has been to a doctor’s apartment with five budgies, a pink lady’s house with two cats, and an engineer’s balcony with a collection of bonsai. Ivy says:

I move from one place to another, sharing the unit with Sam in between. ‘Don’t you want stability?’ Sam asks. He does not know that all the while I am saving up to buy my own place. It will be a small apartment with an elevated outlook on a quiet street, where I will rise with the sun and sleep among the stars.

The protagonist in ‘Further South’ is also feeling out of place. She wakes up in a rented room in a country where she feels physically uncomfortable, goes to work in a corporation where she does not fit in, meets her friends in a restaurant where she is humiliated, and ends the day in her room where she receives anonymous phone calls. Late in the night, she says:

I sat on my bed, leaned on the windowsill, and opened a corner of the curtain. The city was asleep and I was peeping into a dream that belonged to someone else.

2 favourite character names

I named myself Isabelle after one of my favourite characters, Isabel Archer, from The Portrait of a Lady, though I prefer the French spelling. Likewise, my characters have chosen their English names for a range of reasons. In Chinese culture, given names are made up of one or two characters, carrying with them positive associations, good wishes and high aspirations. So my characters, in deciding on a name, have given hints to their inner selves.

One of the heroines, Crystal, explains her name:

People give me good-hearted advice: ‘You’ve got to be yourself. Why don’t you use your Chinese name? It’s very special.’ I do not want to be special. I am not an exotic bird and have no interest in showing off my plumage. I am Crystal, perfect in structure and form, hard and clear in every molecule.

Ivy, on the other hand, adopts her name for a completely different set of reasons:

‘You are what you eat,’ says my book of English proverbs. I believe in the power of food. When I feel tired, I eat ginger. If my eyes lose their shine, I eat goji berries. If my hair looks dull, I eat seaweed. I tend to myself like a gardener tends a plant, and that is why I named myself Ivy—hoping for low maintenance.

On the surface, the characters blend in by giving themselves English names. Deep down, they have demonstrated a distinctively Chinese attitude and carried forward their Chinese heritage.

A Chinese Affair is published by Margaret River Press and is available in bookshops now
See Margaret River Press for more information
Review by William Yeoman, The West Australian, here

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