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2, 2 and 2: Jon Doust talks about Return Ticket

Jon Doust
Return Ticket
(Fremantle Press)
Novel

Jon_DoustIt’s impossible to be in a room with Jon Doust and not end up laughing at something—often yourself! I also credit him with teaching me a few things about the proper way to breathe while speaking to an audience, after he noticed that I wasn’t really breathing at all! Which is a roundabout way of saying he’s a generous man as well as a funny one.

Jon is a Western Australian author based in Albany, and it’s a pleasure to feature him here, with his new book, Return Ticket.

Jon’s first novel, Boy on a Wire, was longlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin Award, and his second, To the Highlands, was released to critical acclaim. Return Ticket completes the Jack Muir trilogy. He is also the co-author of three children’s books and has had short stories published in several anthologies.

If Jon’s face looks familiar to you, it might be because his varied professional life has included comedy and acting, as well as farming, retail, banking, journalism and professional speaking. He has appeared as a scientist in ABC-TV series Itch, a priest in horror film Needle, a hard-core AC/DC fan in Thunderstruck, a badly beaten and dead dero in courtroom drama Justice, a mad environmental polluter in TV series Bush Patrol, and a one-armed gambler in the documentary The Edge of the World.

An active member of his local community and beyond, Jon has been a driving force behind various original projects and has undertaken roles in organisations such as the Wilderness Society of WA, Greenpeace and Creative Albany.

Here is the blurb for Return Ticket

Sometimes the best place to see yourself is from another place.

It’s 1972. When hot-headed, impetuous Jack Muir gets off the ship in Durban, he fails to get back on. Instead, he sails into misadventure, fleeing the stifling town of Genoralup to try to lose himself in South Africa at the height of apartheid. But the past has a way of catching up with you, and soon Jack is running again, this time to a kibbutz in Israel.

In the course of a lifetime, Jack will travel far, always caught between fleeing from and seeking those things he needs: a mother’s precious gift, a lover in a time of war, a kind and steady woman.

And, across time and across continents, old Jack Muir will remember those who helped him become a decent man, a better father and a friend.

Over now to Jon…

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2 things that inspired the book

The two things that inspired Return Ticket were the two books before it. Let me explain.

Return Ticket is the last in the Jack Muir trilogy, One Boy’s Journey to Man. I always had it in mind to write two—one based on my five years in boarding school (Boy on a Wire) and one set on a kibbutz, Israel’s unique socialist experiment (Return Ticket). The book in the middle, To the Highlands, I had no intention of writing, but it blew in my face and stayed there. Each of them was inspired by a lack.

Nothing like Boy on a Wire had been written, exposing the bullying, the religious hypocrisy, the suffering of those unable to stand up for themselves and the mothers who went along with a system they could barely cope with.

Nearly all books I had read about Papua New Guinea, apart from a book of short stories by Trevor Shearston, Something in the Blood, had been twee and sweet and with patronising threads denying the truth of Australia’s colonial occupation. And so I wrote To the Highlands.

The last of the three was inspired by the first two, completing Jack Muir’s journey to man. I had to bring him as close as I could to a whole man—all his issues revealed, some sorted; his relationships mature and healthy; and his final place, both internal and external, arrived at, all circles closed. Many of mine probably never will be, but I wanted Jack to get there, to achieve something akin to what Carl Jung might call individuation. And helping Jack get there has helped me get closer.

2 places connected with the book

There are so many places—the home town, Bridgetown, where I learned to shoot guns, climb trees, love koolbardi/magpies, drive tractors and grow fruit and vegetables; Manjimup, where I learned how to belong and thrive in a community; Kincannup, Kinjarling, Albany, where my soul lay in wait. And then there’s the other places that filled me.

Two, in particular, both much loved and loathed at the same time.

Israel, Palestine, where I learned to love, to understand, to believe, and where I found my lifelong partner.

Then there is Iran, Persia, where I learned, again, how love, compassion, understanding, generosity, high culture and tolerance can exist alongside their opposites.

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Jon on an Israeli kibbutz, 1973

2 major influences

I acknowledge the men and women who nurtured me.

First, my grandfather—storyteller, journalist, bushman, Noongar speaker, hunter, fisher, a green before it was a colour. Roy Doust once edited the Blackwood Times, then the Warren Times, both papers named after once-great rivers that flow through the South West. He was also an orchardist and he married a lady with a shop, so we grew up on a farm and in a shop.

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Roy Doust

Nothing more enjoyable in the years before radio and television than sitting in a circle around Pop and listening to him regale us with tales of days gone by. Before he died he came to me with a pile of paper in his hands and said: ‘Here are all my stories, I want you to have them.’ Then he turned, picked up his typewriter and passed it on, and I would have wept in front of him but I saved the tears for later, when I could weep the deep weep of a boy who felt honoured.

Pop had a son, my father, who had four sons. One he wrestled with most of his life but eventually learned to understand and love for who he was.

Return Ticket is dedicated to three women—my mother, the mother of my first Israeli love and a Holocaust survivor, and my wife. Without them I would not have amounted to much, and even with them, I sometimes wonder if I did.

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Return Ticket is available now
Find out more at Fremantle Press
Follow Jon on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; see also his website

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2, 2 and 2 x 51

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Every time I prepare a post in the 2, 2 and 2 series, which features writers with new books, I feel deeply privileged to be able to have this conversation with a writer I admire and respect. I love reading what they have to say about the inspiration behind their work, and the connections they have with place (not necessarily geographical). I leave the third pair up to each writer, which often results in the most fascinating insights of all.

I began the series in mid-2014, and I’ve been a bit erratic in the frequency of posting—notably, a record low in 2017, as I worked intensively on Kathleen O’Connor of Paris (I regret how many wonderful books I missed that year). But since the inception of the series, I’ve featured 51 books—77% by women writers and 82% by Western Australian writers (although I’m a little idiosyncratic on how I define ‘Western Australian’; I claim a couple who no longer live here!). Many fall into the very broad ‘literary fiction’ genre.

Annabel Smith’s dystopian novel The Ark is notable as the only digital work; Maureen Eppen’s Every Family Is Different as the one children’s picture book; Richard Rossiter’s Thicker than Water as the only novella; Tineke Van der Eecken’s Traverse as the sole memoir (although that will change with a post coming up soon) and Chigozie Obioma’s brilliant Man Booker Prize shortlisted The Fishermen as the only work from an author outside Australia.

I’ve listed (with links) all the posts alphabetically below, so browse away. Some of my favourite books, and many of my favourite writers, are on this list.

Jenny Ackland, Little Gods

Jenny Ackland, The Secret Son

Louise Allan, The Sisters’ Song

Dawn Barker, Let Her Go

Meg Caddy, Devil’s Ballast (YA)

Robyn Cadwallader, Book of Colours

Alan Carter, Heaven Sent

Stephen Daisley, Coming Rain

Brooke Davis, Lost and Found

Sarah Drummond, The Sound

Maureen Eppen, Every Family Is Different (picture book)

Tracy Farr, The Hope Fault

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of Men

Deb Fitzpatrick, The Break

Sara Foster, All That Is Lost between Us

Michelle Johnston, Dustfall

S.A. Jones, Isabelle of the Moon and Stars

S.A. Jones, The Fortress

Julia Lawrinson, Before You Forget (YA)

Lynne Leonhardt, Step Up, Mrs Dugdale

Natasha Lester, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald

Isabelle Li, A Chinese Affair (short fiction)

Rebecca Lim, Afterlight (YA)

Robert Lukins, The Everlasting Sunday

Donna Mazza, Fauna

Meg McKinlay, A Single Stone (YA)

Michelle Michau-Crawford, Leaving Elvis and Other Stories (short fiction)

Susan Midalia, Feet to the Stars (short fiction)

Susan Midalia, The Art of Persuasion

Robyn Mundy, Wildlight

Rashida Murphy, The Historian’s Daughter

Alice Nelson, The Children’s House

Catherine Noske, The Salt Madonna

Chigozie Obioma, The Fishermen

Shirley Patton, The Secrets We Keep

Emily Paull, Well-Behaved Women (short fiction)

Marcella Polain, Driving into the Sun

Ian Reid, A Thousand Tongues

Ian Reid, The Mind’s Own Place

Richard Rossiter, Refuge

Richard Rossiter, Thicker than Water (novella)

Angela Savage, Mother of Pearl

Holden Sheppard, Invisible Boys (YA)

Nicole Sinclair, Bloodlines

Annabel Smith, The Ark (digital)

Laurie Steed, You Belong Here

Dianne Touchell, A Small Madness (YA)

Dianne Touchell, Forgetting Foster (YA)

Tineke Van der Eecken, Traverse (memoir)

David Whish-Wilson, The Coves

Felicity Young, The Insanity of Murder

I look forward to featuring many more in the months and years to come, and a big thanks to you for reading!

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2, 2 and 2: Catherine Noske talks about The Salt Madonna

Catherine Noske
The Salt Madonna
(Picador)
Literary fiction (novel)

0W0A3949 (favourite)

Here’s a book I’ve just started reading, and I’m already absolutely intrigued with the story and enchanted by the writing. The Salt Madonna is the debut novel of Catherine (Kate) Noske—well known in the Western Australian writing and publishing community, and far beyond that, as editor of the literary journal Westerly. Kate is also a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia and sits on the board of Writing WA. She has been a judge of the WA Premier’s Book Awards, the TAG Hungerford Award and the ALS Gold Medal.

Kate’s undergraduate academic work won her the A.D. Hope Prize, while her creative writing achievements include shortlisting for the 2015 Dorothy Hewett Award, a Varuna fellowship and the Elyne Mitchell Prize for Rural Women Writers (which she has won twice).

The back-cover blurb of The Salt Madonna reads…

This is the story of a crime.
This is the story of a miracle.
There are two stories here.

Hannah Mulvey left her island home as a teenager. But her stubborn, defiant mother is dying, and now Hannah has returned to Chesil, taking up a teaching post at the tiny schoolhouse, doing what she can in the long days of this final year.

But though Hannah cannot pinpoint exactly when it begins, something threatens her small community. A girl disappears entirely from class. Odd reports and rumours reach her through her young charges. People mutter on street corners, the church bell tolls through the night and the island’s women gather at strange hours…And then the miracles begin.

A page-turning, thought-provoking portrayal of a remote community caught up in a collective moment of madness, of good intentions turned terribly awry. A blistering examination of truth and power, and how we might tell one from the other.

Over now to Kate…

Cover (FINAL)

2 things that inspired the book

The Salt Madonna has taken me more than ten years to write, so narrowing down the list of things that have inspired the writing in that time is difficult…

Perhaps the first one should be the moment that started it all. I spent most of 2009 travelling and working around France. In that time, I saw Lourdes and saw playing out there still the story of Bernadette of Lourdes, well over a hundred years later. Small places have long memories—that has been important in my writing. And anyone who has read the story will see the effect Bernadette has had on my writing of Mary as a character! But the most important moment of that trip was quite random—I started writing sitting on a clifftop near Arromanches. I had been watching a girl running across a field of yellow grass, and this image of Mary as a character came to me, almost completely fully formed. The passage I wrote in my diary that day is still in the final version of the book.

The second thing which has more consistently inspired me is being with my horses. They feature in the book, and riding is as important to Hannah as it is to me. The black horse is one of my favourite characters, and he is influenced by two horses I know and love. But they also became a symbol for me of everything that is complicated in white Australian being-in-place—riding a horse in the bush comes with such a legacy of colonial exploration and exploitation of the land. The image of the stockman is part of that colonial identity. But horses are also much more sensitive to the bush than we are, and riding through that space is a way of being connected to it—they listen to the bush more carefully than we do, and encourage us to notice things we might not otherwise. So there is always a lot going on in the simple act of riding… (Plus I just love my horses.)

Narrawong State Forest[2]

2 places connected with the book

My book is in a way caught between two places. When I was first writing it, I was imagining my home, Narrawong, a little place near Portland in south-west Victoria. But it was very difficult to write fiction layered over that space. It felt as though I was too close to it, and it was too important to me. I also didn’t want people to think that this was based on real life in any way. It is very definitely fiction. So I started to transplant the story to an imagined place. I actually began writing it as set in Western Australia, off the coast of Albany. That wasn’t a random choice: Albany and Portland have a lot in common in terms of geographic and geological form, latitude, size, industry. They are both, most importantly for my purposes, facing the Southern Ocean. Even before I had moved over here to Western Australia, and before I had visited Albany, I was writing over that space. There is a disturbing politics in my having done that. At the heart of it, I think my home as a place has the strongest influence over my work. But I needed some distance from it to be able to write about it, and imagining it mapped across the country around Albany gave me that space.

The setting in the book is an island. That was something I was firm on very early. I love small towns, and the dual power of isolation bringing people together and creating tension in proximity. Lady Julia Percy Island is off the coast of Narrawong, and I used to be able to see it from my home as a child—it was a powerful imaginative space for me too. Chesil is grounded in these memories. In the end, I am not sure where it is, what piece of coast it is connected to. Perhaps both Victoria and Western Australia, as I am. When I did eventually travel to Albany, it felt in a way already familiar—an illusion, I’m sure, but a strange and powerful one!

Chesil drawing

2 favourite names

I’m not so good at names, but there are two in the book which feel particularly right. The first is almost not a name—the black horse. It seems lazy on my part not to name him, I know. It was something my editor questioned! It also seems cold of Laura as a character not to have a name for him. But it isn’t just laziness; it has a basis. There is an old superstition that it is unlucky to change a horse’s name. The black horse in the book is a present to Laura, a high-bred horse with a fancy stud name. It seemed antithetical to my idea of Laura that she would like that—she is very down-to-earth, and I couldn’t imagine her using it. But I also wanted to hint at a little vein of superstition in her character, alongside some stubbornness, that she wouldn’t change it, either, and would refer to him simply by his colour. Her superstition becomes important in the story, and this was a subtle way for me to set it up. So subtle probably that very few readers will notice it. But it was still very satisfying for me—it helped me write her.

The other name I am proud of is the name of the island, Chesil. This has a few threads coming together. First is probably the most obvious connection—Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which is a novel of hidden trauma and violence, and was a big influence on those same themes in my work. The second connection is to my home. Portland was settled by whalers and a family of squatters, the Henty family. They named the bay after Lord William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, Marquess of Titchfield and fifth Duke of Portland. All of these names are still in use around the town, as streets in particular, tying the place back to an English lord and our colonial history. The Aboriginal names for those same places have been overwritten. I only learned the Aboriginal name for my home, Pinnumbul, in asking local elders for advice about the acknowledgement of country in the front of my book. But the name Chesil is also tied to an English place, the Isle of Portland, which is connected to the English mainland by the 29 kilometres of shingle that is Chesil Beach. It floored me when I realised this connection between the names of my home and McEwan’s novel. Using Chesil as the name for the island seemed like a good way to suggest that same legacy of colonisation in the imaginary space of my book, and at the same time continue for me the underlying connection of it to my home. I wrote Lord William into the opening of the book, as a little nod to the connection. But it also just seemed fitting metaphorically to name my imaginary island after the shifting and unstable connection of a shingle beach.

The Salt Madonna is released today
and you can find it in bookstores in your area and online
Find out more at Picador (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Follow Kate on Facebook; contact details here

Image credits: author photo by Jess Gately; horses in Narrawong State Forest, photo by Amy Sylvester; sketch of Chesil island by Kate Noske

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2, 2 and 2: Donna Mazza talks about Fauna

Donna Mazza
Fauna
(Allen & Unwin)
Literary fiction (novel)

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I’m so excited to be introducing this novel, this writer, for the first 2, 2 and 2 post of 2020. I have loved Donna Mazza’s work for years—her early short stories, her Hungerford Award–winning novel The Albanian, and, more recently, award-winning short fiction that has evolved into new and edgier areas. Needless to say, I’ve been looking forward to her second novel, Fauna, for a long time.

Donna’s author blurb neatly condenses her impressive career:

Donna Mazza is an award-winning author of poetry, short fiction and novels. Her debut novel, The Albanian (2007), won the TAG Hungerford Award and she was the Mick Dark Flagship Fellow for Environmental Writing at Varuna, the National Writers House, for her short fiction. Donna teaches literature and writing at Edith Cowan University and lives in a small country town in the South West with her family, including many chickens.

To that I would add that she is a much loved and respected member of the Western Australian writing community, particularly in the South West. I learned a great deal from her when I had the amazing good fortune to be part of an early writing group with Donna and three other brilliant women writers, and I can only imagine how many students, emerging writers and peers have benefited from her sure and generous guidance.

And so to Fauna. Here is the blurb…

How far would you go to save your daughter?

Set seventeen years into a very recognisable future, Fauna is an astonishing psychological drama with an incredible twist: What if the child you are carrying is not entirely human?

Using DNA technology, scientists have started to reverse the extinction of creatures like the mammoth and the Tasmanian Tiger. The benefits of this radical approach could be far-reaching. But how far will they go?

Longing for another child, Stacey is recruited by LifeBLOOD®, a company that offers massive incentives for her to join an experimental genetics program. As part of the agreement, Stacey and her husband’s embryo will be blended with edited cells. Just how edited, Stacey doesn’t really know. Nor does she have any idea how much her longed-for new daughter will change her life and that of her family. Or how hard she will have to fight to protect her.

Fauna is a transformative, lyrical and moving novel about love and motherhood, home and family—and what it means to be human.

Over to Donna…

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2 things that inspired Fauna

The first time I saw Ljuba, the baby mammoth, was in the May 2009 edition of National Geographic. She was the best preserved Ice Age baby found in Siberia and I had the privilege of seeing her in the Australian Museum in Sydney in 2018. Ljuba planted a seed for me, but Fauna is not about the mammoth. In April 2013 National Geographic ran another article, ‘Bringing them back to life’, which considers the ethics of using genetic technology to revive extinct species. Thylacines, passenger pigeons, bucardo and mammoths were all up for consideration, but I took this in a different direction and applied it to humans. Fauna isn’t just about the ‘what if’ question but digs deeply into what this would really be like for a human mother.

There is a narrative in the novel connected to a story my grandfather told. When he was a young man in Southern Italy, he said they were digging the foundation for a house and unearthed a grave. In there, they found a bronze bowl and some human bones. In his story, the bones are very long and they wondered if they were from a real giant. I love the mystery of this, it’s so evocative. In my story I have taken inspiration from it and dreamed up something different for the Italian relics. In Fauna, the bones which Stacey inherits from her stepfather are inspired by this story my grandfather told but they connect to her own story.

2 places connected with the book

I have always really loved the landscape where I grew up around the Leschenault Estuary and for me it is a place where I feel my own roots are planted. The family in Fauna move to the South West and live on a fictional property near the water there. I spent lots of time walking and observing in this landscape, to give the work a really authentic feel of that place and to try and celebrate that beautiful landscape and its wildlife. I watched the birds and walked in the water and on the beach, taking notes. I tried to imagine what the place would look like in the near future, looking at clues in the trees and at the edges of the water.

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Several years ago my family went down to Hamelin Bay for a short holiday and stayed in a chalet at the caravan park there. We were woken by the awful, meaty sound of two drunken men punching each other. It was a windy night and the long branches of the peppermint trees were blowing around. A frayed length of old rope swung about too, giving the whole place a very haunting feel. During the day, this place is quite lovely and doesn’t feel at all gothic, but that night made quite an impression. Naturally, it’s the perfect stop for a rare family holiday in Fauna; they even make a pit-stop at Simmo’s Ice Creamery and visit the emus there, as I have with my own family.

2 favourite secondary characters in Fauna

Stacey is the narrator of Fauna and as I worked on the novel, and her back story developed, she was in need of a mother. I had a lot of fun creating her mother, Sandra, and I feel like we might be friends if she were real. She is a colourful and alternative woman who is very honest and has lived a bit of a crazy life. I don’t really know where she came from but I feel like I know her and sometimes she made me laugh out loud as I was writing her.

One of my favourite characters in Fauna is Tayto, the little dog Stacey gets for the family. My own dog, Louis, slept beside me every day when I was writing the novel and he is Tayto. The part of the novel where Stacey gets the puppy was great fun to write and nothing like the very clean pet shop where we got Louis. The house where Tayto comes from is one of my favourite parts of the novel.

Fauna is released tomorrow, 4 February 2020
Find out more at Allen & Unwin
Follow Donna on Instagram and Facebook

Donna Landscape 2

Photo credits: author photos by Sarah Mills; cormorant at Leschenault Estuary by Donna Mazza

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

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

Processed With Darkroom

Photograph by Charlotte Guest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over, now, to Emily…

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2 inspirations for stories within the collection

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

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

2 places featured in the collection

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

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

2 favourite well-behaved women of history

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

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

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

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

 

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

Holden Sheppard
Invisible Boys
(Fremantle Press)
YA fiction

Holden - Head Shot - CG19.10.2018

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the blurb for Invisible Boys:

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

And now, over to Holden…

INVISIBLE BOYS COVER

2 things that inspired your book

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

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

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

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

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

Holden - Roman Graffiti

2 places connected with your book

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

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

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

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

Holden Sheppard - June 2019

2 favourite scenes from the book

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Reid
A Thousand Tongues
(Framework Press)
Historical fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over to Ian…

A Thousand Tongues cover copy

2 things that inspired the book

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

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

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

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

2 places connected with the book

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 favourite images from the book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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