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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…

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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.

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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!

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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…

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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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2, 2 and 2: Sarah Drummond talks about The Sound

It’s a pleasure to welcome Sarah Drummond to looking up/looking down to talk about The Sound. 

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Photo: Nic Duncan

Sarah is a sublime writer. I was delighted to find that we both had pieces in the anthology Purple Prose (2015), and hers— ‘“Is a magnificent story”: Interviews with pigeon fanciers’—is one of my favourites.

Her first book, published in 2013, is the much lauded Salt Story (2013), a memoir of her time deck handing on the south coast of Western Australia. It was shortlisted for the Emerging WA Writer Award in the 2014 Premier’s Book Awards and longlisted for the prestigious Dobbie Award in the same year.

Sarah has also published essays and short fiction in Shadow Plays: an anthology of speculative fiction, Short Stories Australia, Creative Nonfiction, indigo journal, Best Australian Essays 2010, LINQ Journal, Overland and Kurungabaa.

Her new book, and first novel, The Sound, is based on the true story of the Aboriginal women and sealing crews who sailed from Van Diemen’s Land to Western Australia in the 1820s. Here is the blurb:

Wiremu Heke of Aramoana joins a sealing boat on a voyage from Tasmania to Western Australia. He is on a quest to avenge the destruction of his village but soon finds himself a part of the violent and lawless world that has claimed the lives of those he’s known. It’s a world inhabited by men from many nations. Men who plunder seal colonies and steal women and children from the indigenous communities who live on the islands and shorelines of Australia’s south.

Over to Sarah…

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2 things that inspired my book

1 Selkie stories have guided a lot of my historical fiction. For those who don’t know the tale, selkies are an old Orkney legend about the female seals who shed their seal skins to turn into women on the full moon. They sing and dance on the shore like sirens. When a man finds their shed skin, the woman has to follow him. Often she will spend years searching for her skin, yearning for her sea people. She may have children with him, she may love her husband, but she still wants to be beyond his control, to return to her people. Every day, she searches for her skin. I saw the Tasmanian women as searching for their skins after the sealers took them to the islands as wives and workers.

2 Working on small boats with Salt directly inspired my first book, Salt Story, of sea dogs and fisherwomen, but it also inspired and informed much of The Sound. (I was writing both books at the same time.) My boss, aka Salt, is descended from a sealer who died when he was accidentally shot through the neck in the 1850s. Fishing the south coast was rich with stories, experiences, landscapes and seascapes. There is nothing quite like being out on the water at night and seeing phosphorescent whale tracks.

2 places connected with the book

1 There are many places connected with The Sound. My favourite is the inlet Waychinicup. It is the setting for a scene in the novel where William Hook, Moennan and Tama Hine set a fishing net at night and they see phosphorescence, fire in the water. This scene is peaceful and sensual, a cultural meeting, and an intermission from the chaos and violence in their lives.

2 I say often that The Sound was written from the sea. A proofreader mentioned to my editor that, although many writers dwell on the Australian landscape, this was the first book she’d read where the landscape is experienced from the sea. I really liked that comment because I tried to write it that way. In the 1820s, European Australians were sea people and the Southern Ocean was their highway to transport goods and people.

2 favourite sources

1 The paper ‘Of Other Spaces’ by Michel Foucault helped me to explore how the Breaksea Islander community survived and negotiated living as a kind of separate society, lawless and away from the rest of the world. I think his final paragraph is quite magnificent:

Brothels and colonies are two extreme forms of heterotopia, and if we think, after all, that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilisation, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development (I have not been speaking of that today), but has also been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilisations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.

2 And this is not a quote but a painting by Louis de Sainson, artist aboard the French exploration ship Astrolabe that was moored in King George Sound while the sealers were there. The day after the Astrolabe left King George Sound, the sealers marooned five Menang men on an island so that they could kidnap those men’s wives and daughters. I realised one day on looking at the image that it gave me a tremendous amount of information, including how a European could include a grass tree on a beach shore to give an ‘authentic’ vision of Australia to the folk back home! It also gives me a sense of immediacy, a sense of occasion.

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The Sound is in bookshops now
Visit Sarah’s website here
Find out more at Fremantle Press

 

 

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2, 2 and 2: Dianne Touchell talks about Forgetting Foster

Author PhotoDianne Touchell is one of my favourite writers of young adult fiction. Among the many things I admire in her work are its fearlessness, its compassion, its humour, and the respect she so obviously has for her young characters. It comes as no surprise to me to hear that she thinks young adults are far more interesting than grown-ups.

Dianne’s debut, Creepy & Maud (Fremantle Press, 2012), was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award in the Older Readers category. Her second, A Small Madness (Allen & Unwin, 2015), was a Notable book in the CBCA Book of the Year Awards, and you can read her 2, 2 and 2 interview about A Small Madness here.

I am delighted to be featuring her new novel, Forgetting Foster. Here is the book’s blurb…

Foster suddenly recognised the thing that rolled over him and made him feel sick. It was this: Dad was going away somewhere all on his own. And Foster was already missing him.

Foster Sumner is seven years old. He likes toy soldiers, tadpole hunting, going to school and the beach. Best of all he likes listening to his dad’s stories. But then Foster’s dad starts forgetting things. No one is too worried at first. Foster and Dad giggle about it. But the forgetting gets worse. And suddenly no one is laughing anymore.

A heartbreaking story about what it means to forget and to be forgotten.

Over now to Di…

Forgetting Foster Cover

2 things that inspired the book

1 Two people I loved were affected by Alzheimer’s disease and psychotic dementia. Strong, opinionated, charismatic women with large personalities and a lifelong interest in their internal and external worlds. The sort of women you can never imagine would die at all, let alone slowly walk out of their own bodies long before death actually took them. It does something to you, watching them slowly leave you, watching them slowly leave themselves. It did something to me.

There’s the denial that anything is actually wrong, then the anger that you’re now caring for someone who should be looking after you, then the guilt about that anger, then the exhaustion of that caring, and then the fear that as this godawful illness seems to have its teeth in the women of this family I might go the same way. Every time I misplace my keys or walk into a room and forget why I’m there I laugh and then I panic.

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2 I began to wonder what makes a relationship. If a relationship is created and sustained through shared memories, mutual histories and love, what happens when one person in that relationship begins to lose their memory, their history. What happens the first time they look at you with fear instead of love. I struggled with this. I still struggle with this even though both these women are dead now and it doesn’t make a lick of difference.

2 places connected with the book

1 The grown-up mind, which hides in practicalities, logistics, rosters, medical jargon and medication regimes. The mind that takes comfort in turning emotional chaos into an Excel spreadsheet of what time this pill has to be taken and what time this doctor has to be seen. The mind that doesn’t breathe much because too much down-time will create a space for pain. An impractical landscape where I chose to pitch my tent. I spent a lot of time there.

2 The child mind, which hasn’t learned to prevaricate, hasn’t learned to white-knuckle things, hasn’t learned the need to control everything. The mind that acknowledges being frightened and feeling hurt and does both things loudly. The mind that can separate love and fear and can express frustration in words and in play. Their feelings are just as big and confusing but can be relieved by one big long scream. I spent time there too.

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2 favourite things about the book

1 Foster’s father loves stories and has created a love of stories in Foster that enables him to retreat to toy soldiers and dragons and myth as a way of interpreting and coping with confusion and grief. This gives Foster a lovely perspective, an understanding that the world is big and full of bravery. I particularly like this response from Foster when someone takes the time to ask him what he has learned from his dad:

He said stories are the most important thing. He said people don’t tell stories or listen to other people’s stories enough. He said people are mad as March hares but to love them anyway. He said battles are won or lost before the first shot is fired. He said babies need to get the finger of God on them. He said if God is real then so are Dragons. He said the brain is a super-hero and he said Mum is a princess. Oh, and he said an unkind word can clear a room quicker than a fart.

2 Foster has a way of making things that aren’t funny…very funny. He hasn’t learned to be self-deprecating or cynical yet, which means much of the humour comes directly from bald honesty. I like the scene where Dad takes all his clothes off because they are ‘itching’ him. Fossie simply announces that Dad has his Christmas socks on, without mentioning they are the only thing he has on. The grown-up response is shock, embarrassment, defeat. Mum is so appalled that she drops her phone mid-conversation into a bowl of cereal. Throughout the book I could always rely on Fossie taking the sting out of desperate situations by speaking his mind without fear of the consequences, the result of which is often very funny.

Forgetting Foster is available in bookshops now
Visit Di’s website
Find out more at Allen & Unwin

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2, 2 and 2: Natasha Lester talks about A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald

UnknownIt’s a pleasure to welcome Natasha Lester to 2, 2 and 2. Natasha has been a writer friend for several years (see the Writers Ask Writers series of posts) and I’ve had the privilege of reading, in draft form, parts of the novel she is about to release, so I know that readers are in for a treat!

A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald (Hachette Australia) is Natasha’s third book, and she already has her fourth ready to follow in April 2017. Her previous novels are What is Left Over After (2010, winner of the TAG Hungerford Award for an unpublished manuscript) and If I Should Lose You (2012). She is well known as a writing teacher and mentor, and has been described by The Age newspaper as ‘a remarkable Australian talent’.

Here’s the blurb for A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald:

It’s 1922 in the Manhattan of gin, jazz and prosperity. Women wear makeup and hitched hemlines—and enjoy a new freedom to vote and work. Not so Evelyn Lockhart, forbidden from pursuing her passion: to become one of the first female doctors.

Chasing her dream will mean turning her back on the only life she knows: her competitive sister, Viola; her conservative parents; and the childhood best friend she is expected to marry, Charlie.

And if Evie does fight Columbia University’s medical school for acceptance, how will she support herself? So when there’s a casting call for the infamous late-night Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, will Evie find the nerve to audition? And if she does, what will it mean for her fledgling relationship with Upper East Side banker Thomas Whitman, a man Evie thinks she could fall in love with, if only she lived a life less scandalous?

And now over to Natasha:

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2 things that inspired your book

1 Bizarrely, a biography of Emily Dickinson, Lives Like Loaded Guns, by Lyndall Gordon, was the thing that really kicked the idea off. And no, I’m not a huge Emily Dickinson fan, nor am I a big biography reader. It was really a moment of serendipity. I was at the Perth Writers’ Festival in 2012 and Lyndall Gordon was speaking about her book and for some reason I went along to the session—I don’t know why but I’m so glad I did! Lyndall spoke so feelingly about Emily Dickinson and her biography that I just had to buy it. One of the things the biography touched on was the fact that in the mid to late nineteenth century, a very small number women began to go to university for the first time, even though it was very much frowned upon by society. Of course, these days, women go to university and nobody thinks twice about it, so I was fascinated by the idea that university used to be, for women, an exception rather than the norm. Being the evil novelist I am, I began to wonder what would be the most unacceptable thing for a woman to study at university and it was medicine, with obstetrics right at the top of that list. That was when I knew I had my book.

2 The other inspiration was a scribbled note I’d written down after watching an ABC documentary on the history of music about 10 years ago. One of the segments in the documentary was about an infamous Broadway revue called the Ziegfeld Follies and I thought to myself at the time: wow, that would be a fabulous setting for a novel. So, a woman studying obstetrics in New York combined with my scribbled note about the Ziegfeld Follies in New York became, via a long and winding road, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald.

2 places connected with your book

1 New York is the lifeblood of my book. It wouldn’t be the same without that city. It’s a city I love, a city with a huge history, but it’s also a city of opposites: uptown and downtown, the east side and the west side, skyscrapers and tenements. And it’s those contrasts that I play with in my book: two sisters who are unalike, yet related by blood; two brothers who are the obverse of the other, yet love the same woman; the struggle of a woman to break into the world of medicine and obstetrics against the wishes of all the men in charge; the life that goes on in a boardinghouse in Greenwich Village versus that which takes place in a mansion on the Upper East Side. All the places I’ve used in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald actually existed, from the New Amsterdam Theatre at 42nd Street, to the Sloane Hospital for Women on Amsterdam Avenue, to Chumley’s speakeasy in Greenwich Village, and Minetta Street, where Evie lives, on one of the few curving streets in the city.
[The following photos were taken by Natasha on a research trip to New York.]

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Grove Court, Greenwich Village

 

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Perry Street, just off Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village

2 Evie grows up in Concord, Massachusets, which is where Louisa May Alcott lived, and where she wrote Little Women. I wanted Evie to grow up outside Manhattan so that the decision to go to medical school involves not only a complete shift in the direction of her life, but also a physical shift in terms of where she lives. And Little Women was a source of inspiration to me when I was writing—it’s a book about sisters, as is mine—so I thought it was fitting to set part of A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald in Concord. It’s completely unlike New York City, full of pastel-coloured timber houses and so much greenery, so it lends another contrast, plus it’s close to Radcliffe College, where Evie initially goes to school. I visited both Concord and New York when researching the book, which meant I was able to write with a full and complete picture of both places in my head.

2 favourites from the book

1 The 1920s has a very specific set of slang words, which I just loved using. Terms like panther sweat for whiskey, spifflicated for drunk, hotsy-totsy for excellent, and billboard for a flashy woman. Plus the animal anatomical phrases, used to signify that something is great: cat’s whiskers, cat’s meow, cat’s pyjamas, butterfly’s boots, bee’s knees, elephant’s eyebrows. I had lots of fun with all of these.

2 One of my favourite quotes from the book is the first line of Part 2, where we jump ahead two years in time. Our last impression of Evie at the end of Part 1 is as a determined woman who’s decided to go ahead with medical school no matter what the cost to her reputation, but she’s still a relatively polite person, and a little afraid of what her decision will mean. Then she has this line of dialogue at the start of Part 2 and we know instantly that things have changed: she’s much braver now, and she’s prepared to fight. Her supervisor at the hospital, a man who can’t comprehend the idea of a female obstetrician, has just told Evie, in front of all the other medical students, that she’s not qualified to have an opinion about birthing women, and this is Evie’s response:

‘Given that I possess one, I think I have a more intimate knowledge of the vagina than any man could ever lay claim to. That should make me well qualified to be an obstetrician,’ Evie said.

Exactly!!!

A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald will be in stores on 26 April.
Visit Natasha’s website
Find out more at Hachette Australia

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Robyn Mundy talks about Wildlight

Robyn Mundy author #1205CFD

Photo by Kirsty Pilkington

I’ve been waiting a long time for something new from my friend Robyn Mundy, and the wait has been worth it. I couldn’t be more thrilled that she’s here talking about her brilliant new novel, Wildlight (Picador).

Robyn’s first novel, The Nature of Ice (Allen & Unwin, 2009), remains one of my all-time favourites, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Dobbie Award. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to beg, borrow or steal a copy—or preferably buy one here. After you’ve read Wildlight, that is.

If there is a link between The Nature of Ice and Wildlight, it is in the wild places that Robyn brings so beautifully to life in each—in the former, Antarctica; the latter, Maatsuyker Island.

Robyn is intimately acquainted with both. In the preliminary stage of writing Wildlight, she and her partner spent four months living and working alone on Maatsuyker Island as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. And she has summered and over-wintered at Australian Antarctic stations, working as a field assistant on science research projects.

Robyn works seasonally as an Assistant Expedition Leader on ship-based tours to the Antarctic, Arctic and other remote locales. The rest of the time, she lives in Hobart, where she writes and teaches writing.

Here is the blurb for Wildlight:

We all bow to the weather. It’s the light and dark of being at this place. You plant yourself on the edge of an ocean and you see how startling nature is, that it’s fierce and beautiful and totally indiscriminate.

Sixteen-year-old Stephanie West has been dragged from Sydney to remote Maatsuyker Island off the coast of Tasmania by her parents, hoping to recapture a childhood idyll and come to terms with their grief over the death of Steph’s twin brother. Cut off from friends and the comforts of home, exiled to a lonely fortress with a lighthouse that bears the brunt of savage storms, the months ahead look to be filled with ghosts of the past.

Steph’s saviour is Tom Forrest, a 19-year-old deckhand aboard a crayfishing boat. When the weather allows, Tom visits the island, and he and Steph soon form an attraction. But Tom must conceal at all costs the illegal fishing he takes part in, orchestrated by his tyrannical brother. And he dare not dwell on his fear of the sea or his deep-worn premonition that the ocean will one day take him.

Wildlight is an exquisite, vividly detailed exploration of the wayward journey of adolescence, and how the intense experience of a place can change the course of even the most well-planned life.

And now, over to Robyn…

Wildlight front cover

2 things that inspired your book

1 Land: I grew up studying my parents’ wall chart of Tasmania and listening, through a crackling radio, to evening weather reports from around the state. Maatsuyker Island’s pattern of westerly storms had me picture a wind-battered outpost on the edge of the Southern Ocean; I’d see keepers trudging to and from the lighthouse to dutifully tend its light. I must have put myself in that picture, for I longed to know such a place.

2 Ocean: A second inspiration stems from a growing-up of boating: rowing down the bay to pull the net and craypot, or trips with Dad in the big boat, a packet of jaw-wrenching Minties ever at hand. I can still summon the moment of seeing the craypot reach the surface, peering down to a small haul of crayfish.

As an adult, visits to Hobart often included a walk around Constitution Dock to see the fleet of fishing boats with their craypots stacked on deck. But it wasn’t until I spent four months on Maatsuyker Island in 2010–11, looking down upon these small boats in formidable conditions, that I gained full admiration for their fishermen and women.

IMG_9190 Serenity 2#1216508

How and why do these formative experiences, stored in memory sometimes for decades, transfigure into story? I only know that a wild place, and the people who inhabit it, inspired the makings of Wildlight.

2 places connected with your book

1 Becoming: I’m interested in the way a wild place—far removed from the comfortable urban lives we might otherwise live—impacts upon us. I’m not talking idyll. Immersion in such a setting can be hard, uncomfortable, may even resemble an imprisonment. Stephanie of Wildlight will tell you that. But ultimately, and sometimes only on reflection, the encounter—clear and simple in its focus, removed from the thousand distractions that cluster our day—is liberating, vivid, perhaps powerful enough to shape or direct us beyond. I am fascinated with the process of becoming and its connection with place.

2 Writing at Camden Haven: In the early stages of writing Wildlight I was lucky enough to be awarded a writing residency at gorgeous Camden Haven on the Mid North Coast region of New South Wales. It came packaged with the valuable guidance of mentor Ian Templeman, to whom Wildlight is dedicated. One day Ian commented on my hosts’ home, built on a bend of the Camden River: I can imagine your character living somewhere like this. That idea put itself to creative work and evolved into the setting and trajectory of the final part of the novel. Thank you, dear Ian.

2 favourite quotes from the book

1 I really like my character Tom. He is nineteen, a deckie on his older brother’s crayboat. He wants a purpose to his life. He wants to be free of his brother’s control. Tom’s need for a future of his own choosing has him chart the point within a person where goodness ends and a darker force takes over. With sound reason Tom fears the ocean, but at the same time the awe he feels for his surrounds is something I love about his character:

On a clear morning he’d be pulling pots in the dark, the first hint of dawn the eastern horizon purpling to a bruise. Before the sun tipped above the ocean, the promise of light would amplify the sky—a curtain turned blood orange, the Mewstone toy-like against its breadth.

IMG_8394 red sunrise Mewstone_web

2 On my desk I have a piece of lighthouse glass I found on Maatsuyker Island. For such a small object it’s surprisingly heavy, the glass 10 mm in thickness. It holds its own story: a bygone storm with force enough to smash a toughened shield of glass. Throughout Wildlight the glass of the lighthouse takes a hold of my character Stephanie:

She heard herself babbling when she’d promised herself she wouldn’t; that at first the glass looked clear but when you really looked it was the most delicate sea green imaginable, each curve infused with hundred-year-old bubbles. The lighthouse glass was sunlight punching through the back of a wave and that’s how she saw it, the swirl and twist and how the ocean’s energy seemed locked inside the glass. Light set it in motion.

IMG_8367 prisms & view_web

Wildlight is in bookstores now
For more information, visit Pan Macmillan/Picador
Visit Robyn’s website, Writing the Wild
Book trailer here

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