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

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

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Photo © Suzanne Phoenix

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

Angela’s debut novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and all three of her crime novels were shortlisted for Ned Kelly Awards.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

Here is the blurb for Mother of Pearl

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

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

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

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

Over to Angela…

CVR_Mother of Pearl_cover

2 things that inspired Mother of Pearl

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

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

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

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

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

2 places connected with Mother of Pearl

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

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

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

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

2 favourite things about writing Mother of Pearl

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

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

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

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

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

Fish Fortune Teller 2

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

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

 

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2, 2 and 2: Richard Rossiter talks about Refuge

Richard Rossiter
Refuge
(UWA Publishing)
Literary fiction—novel

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

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

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

Here is the blurb…

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

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

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

Over to Richard…

Refuge cover-2

2 inspirations for the book

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

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

2 places connected with the book

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

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

2 favourite quotes

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Meg introduces herself as

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

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

The blurb for Devil’s Ballast reads:

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

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

Over to Meg…

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2 inspirations for the book

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

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

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

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

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

2 places connected with the book

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

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

at the helm 18

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

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

2 favourite pirates

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

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

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

pillory 25

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

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

Nigel Featherstone
Bodies of Men
(Hachette Australia)
LITERARY FICTION

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

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

Here is the blurb for Bodies of Men

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

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

Over to Nigel…

BoM with KV

2 things that inspired Bodies of Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 places connected with Bodies of Men

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

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

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

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

2 favourite things about Bodies of Men

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

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

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

That happened with the pelican.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Here is the blurb for Step Up, Mrs Dugdale

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

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

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

Over to Lynne…

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2 things that inspired the book

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

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

 2 places connected with the book

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

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

 2 influences on the book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALICE NELSON PHOTO

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

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

The blurb for The Children’s House reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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2 things that inspired The Children’s House

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

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

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

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

2 places that inspired The Children’s House

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

Harlem Brownstones

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

Cape Cod Cottage

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

marcella polain3

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

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

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

The blurb reads:

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

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

And here is Marcella…

dits book cover

2 things that inspired Driving into the Sun

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

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

2 places that inspired Driving into the Sun

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

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

2 of my favourite things about Driving into the Sun

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

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

 

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

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