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2, 2 and 2: Monique Mulligan talks about Wherever You Go

Monique Mulligan
Wherever You Go
(
Pilyara Press)
Contemporary fiction

I first met Perth writer Monique Mulligan through her role as presenter (and founder) of the successful Stories on Stage program, a series of author conversations that has run for some years at the Koorliny Arts Centre in Kwinana, Western Australia. Since then, she has become involved in the local writing community in many other ways, not least as an author.

Following on from a career incorporating journalism, editing and publishing, she now combines part-time work at the arts centre with writing. Several of her short stories have been published, and her third children’s picture book, Alexandra Rose and her Icy-Cold Toes, was released in May.

Monique is an amazing cook—I’ve sampled some of her baked treats at Koorliny—and so it’s no surprise to me to hear that her debut contemporary novel, Wherever You Go, features food and explores the connection between emotional states and the art of cooking.

She’s also a talented photographer, as you’ll see below.

Here is the blurb for Wherever You Go:

A life-shattering tragedy threatens to tear apart chef Amy Bennet’s marriage. Desperate to save it, she moves with her husband Matt to Blackwood, a country town where no-one knows who they are.

Forced to deal with her crumbling marriage and the crippling grief that follows her wherever she goes, Amy turns to what she knows best: cooking. She opens a cafe showcasing regional seasonal produce, and forms the Around the World Supper Club, serving mouth-watering feasts to new friends. As her passion for food returns, she finds a place for herself in Blackwood. But when a Pandora’s Box of shame and blame is unlocked, Matt gives Amy an ultimatum that takes their marriage to the edge.

Rich with unexpected characters and extraordinary insight, Wherever You Go is a powerful and ultimately uplifting tale of heartbreaking loss, recovery and redemption.

Over now to Monique…

2 things that inspired the book

The first time I heard the quote ‘Wherever you go, there you are’ by Jon Kabat-Zinn, it resonated strongly on a personal level. The instinctual desire to run away from one’s self saddened, fascinated, frustrated, even infuriated me, because it perfectly summarised the behaviour of someone I cared about.

When I decided to write a novel, I knew I wanted this quote to be part of it, directly as in the title, but also thematically in my characters’ inner and outer worlds. I wanted to explore how people try to get away from themselves, how they try to outrun guilt and grief and pain and shame. To explore the truth that who you are follows you wherever you go. I asked: What happens when you deny this part of you? How long can you do it before the cracks show? How long can you watch someone hide behind a mask, when you know what lies beneath?

Late in the novel, there’s a scene between Amy and her elderly neighbour Irene that directly explores this quote. Interestingly, this was one of the easiest scenes to write, perhaps because it reflected what I wanted to say all those years ago. Perhaps it was a form of catharsis.

The second inspiration was a newspaper article about an Australian family whose children were killed in a tragic accident overseas. At the time our four children were still living at home, and the tragedy shocked and saddened me. I remember my husband and I discussing it, wanting to hold our teenage children tighter than ever. What if something like that happened to us? What would that do to our marriage? Later, when it came to starting Wherever You Go, I was compelled to unpack that second question, to examine the complex nature of grief and the consequences of incomplete grief.

2 places connected with the book

Most of Wherever You Go is set in Blackwood, a fictional town in Western Australia inspired by Bridgetown, about three hours south of Perth. I’ve taken elements of the real town—the soupy winter fog that rises from the valleys, the steep up-and-down hills, the old fibro homes, the locals’ friendly curiosity (and sometimes suspicion) towards newcomers, the region’s wonderful fresh produce and food; I’ve reimagined the town’s bakery as an artisanal bakery and I’ve added Amy’s cafe, Brewed to Taste, which is an amalgamation of many cafes I’ve visited but is bigger than any of the cafes in the real-life town. Early in the writing process, I visited Bridgetown in different seasons, and walked around the streets, taking photos of houses, streetscapes, and birds, flowers and plants. For months, a mood board sat on my desk and I’d refer to my photos whenever I needed to work on creating a sense of place.

A small but significant part of the book is set in Germany. I haven’t actually been to Germany, so my focus here was less on place and more on conflicted relationships and resolution. I chose Germany because that’s where my family (on both sides) comes from and, until the Covid-19 pandemic exploded, it’s where I planned to travel to next year.

2 favourites from the book

It’s no secret that I love good food and wine, and I often daydream of sharing a long-table feast with loved ones as the sun sets over golden hills. In this fantasy, we’re in Tuscany, or maybe the south of France. There are candles in jars and fairy lights strung up in trees, white tablecloths, potted herbs; there is an abundance of simple but good food and wine, laughter and conversation. This is the kind of atmosphere Amy tries to re-create with her Around the World Supper Club feasts—the setting is different, but the spirit of food and human connection is the same. In Wherever You Go, the characters travel vicariously to Italy, France, Morocco, Vietnam and Greece courtesy of Amy’s feasts—and many of the meals they share were tried and tested on my family.

One of my favourite characters is Henry, who has a small part overall but plays a pivotal role in helping to mend a friendship. Henry is ‘naughty’, unexpected, and of all the characters, most strongly drawn from a real-life experience. I can’t say more without a spoiler.

Wherever You Go is now available
Find out more at Pilyara Press
Follow Monique on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter
Contact her via her website

Photo credits: author photo courtesy Neil Mulligan; photographs of Bridgetown by Monique Mulligan

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2, 2 and 2: Kirsten Krauth talks about Almost a Mirror

Kirsten Krauth
Almost a Mirror
(Transit Lounge)
Novel

For authors releasing new books this year—the culmination of years of persistence and determination, of intense creative work in imagining, drafting, rewriting and editing (repeat, repeat, repeat)—the crisis the world has been plunged into has had, and will continue to have, depressing repercussions. With book launches cancelled, festivals postponed, library talks and presentations of all kinds unable to go ahead, authors are losing out on opportunities to raise awareness of new work among the reading public and to earn much-needed income (it’s a fact that most of us earn more from events than from royalties for the books we spend years in creating).

The same applies to those with books released in the second half of 2019, many of whom were booked for festivals and events this year.

All of which is a preamble not only to the exciting new novel I’m introducing today but to all guest posts in the 2, 2 and 2 series. Please support these writers, whenever you’re able to, by buying books, talking about them to friends, libraries and book clubs, engaging with the authors’ social media channels and participating in online events. Many online book launches, talks and even festivals are just beginning to emerge—creative responses to crisis!

K_Krauth_AlmostAMirror

I admired and was fascinated by Kirsten Krauth’s first novel, the startlingly original just_a_girl, and so I am looking forward to reading her new release, Almost a Mirror.

Kirsten is an author and arts journalist who lives in Castlemaine. Her writing has been published in the Guardian, Saturday Paper, Monthly, Age/SMH and Overland. She’s inspired by photography, pop and punk, film, other writers and growing up in the 80s. Almost a Mirror was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize.

Kirsten is creating some innovative ways of promoting Almost a Mirror (see below), so do watch out for online events and links.

Here is the book’s blurb:

What we make of memories and what they make of us.

Like fireflies to the light, Mona, Benny and Jimmy are drawn into the elegantly wasted orbit of the Crystal Ballroom and the post-punk scene of 80s Melbourne, a world that includes Nick Cave and Dodge, a photographer pushing his art to the edge.

With precision and richness Kirsten Krauth hauntingly evokes the power of music to infuse our lives, while diving deep into loss, beauty, innocence and agency. Filled with unforgettable characters, the novel is above all about the shapes that love can take and the many ways we express tenderness throughout a lifetime.

As it moves between the Blue Mountains and Melbourne, Sydney and Castlemaine, Almost a Mirror reflects on the healing power of creativity and the everyday sacredness of family and friendship in the face of unexpected tragedy.

Over, now, to Kirsten…

Almost a Mirror cover - web

2 things that inspired the book

I was looking at a photograph by Sally Mann of a girl—her daughter—holding a flower, a night-blooming cereus, or queen of the night, and I began thinking about an artist, a photographer, who takes photos of her children and that tricky artist–mother dynamic. In the opening chapter of Almost a Mirror, the central character, Mona, is being photographed by a famous photographer in his studio. She steps out of the frame. Later in the book, she becomes a photographer, taking polaroids of her son. I was interested in looking at innocence and agency.

I was sitting on the stairs that lead up to the Crystal Ballroom, a notorious music venue in St Kilda in the late 70s and 80s that launched the careers of the Birthday Party—Nick Cave, Rowland S. Howard, Mick Harvey, Phill Calvert and Tracey Pew—and became an underground hub of musicians, artists, filmmakers, fashion designers and many who just felt they didn’t belong in suburban Melbourne. I had to write about the place.

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2 places connected with the book

The Ballroom has such a rich atmosphere of decay and decadence, and when I was there I could feel the ghosts of Nick and Rowland in the bar downstairs. It was originally a palatial room in the late 1800s with a chandelier, ornate mirrors and a sprung floor for waltzes. By the post-punk era, the floor was great for pogo-ing and people were pinching crystals from the chandelier.

I’ve always been drawn to the Blue Mountains—I once lived in Springwood—and both my books have been partly set there. Here one of my characters, Jimmy, heads to Katoomba, the soft-headed Orphan Rock, on a day where people walk adrift in the aftermath of fire (it was written before the fires this year), and he stands at Echo Point and waits to see the horizon.

2 favourite songs that inspired chapters

As the book is set up as a mixtape of 80s songs, each song title a chapter (44 in total), I’m working on a compilation of readings/songs with musicians around the country. My original book launches/festival appearances (postponed now) were going to be gigs with music.

I’ve been in the studio and we’ve been working on doing covers of two of my favourite songs, ‘Barbados’ (The Models) and ‘Wide Open Road’ (The Triffids). Peter Fenton has reinterpreted the songs and they are exquisitely beautiful, very moving. They give me shivers, and the words are so poignant for these times, too: ‘Now you can go any place that you want to go…’ The songs have been mixed and produced by Richard Andrew. It’s a wonderful thing to be part of right now, especially as each chapter was inspired originally by the songs.

KirstenKrauth_Records

Almost a Mirror is now available
Find out more at Transit Lounge
Follow Kirsten on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
Watch the book trailer

Photo credits: author photos by Penny Ryan; Nick Cave photo by Wayne O’Farrell

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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.

Unknown-1

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.

Unknown-2

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.

Unknown

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)

author photo with chook 3

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…

Fauna_FCR

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…

WellBehavedWomen_frontApprHR.jpeg

2 inspirations for stories within the collection

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

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

2 places featured in the collection

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

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

2 favourite well-behaved women of history

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

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

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

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

 

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

Holden Sheppard
Invisible Boys
(Fremantle Press)
YA fiction

Holden - Head Shot - CG19.10.2018

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the blurb for Invisible Boys:

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

And now, over to Holden…

INVISIBLE BOYS COVER

2 things that inspired your book

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

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

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

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

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

Holden - Roman Graffiti

2 places connected with your book

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

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

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

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

Holden Sheppard - June 2019

2 favourite scenes from the book

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Reid
A Thousand Tongues
(Framework Press)
Historical fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over to Ian…

A Thousand Tongues cover copy

2 things that inspired the book

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

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

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

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

2 places connected with the book

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 favourite images from the book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WDIWDMTM18

Photo © Suzanne Phoenix

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

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

Here is the blurb for Mother of Pearl

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

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

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

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

Over to Angela…

CVR_Mother of Pearl_cover

2 things that inspired Mother of Pearl

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

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

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

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

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

2 places connected with Mother of Pearl

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

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

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

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

2 favourite things about writing Mother of Pearl

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

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

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

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

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

Fish Fortune Teller 2

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

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

 

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