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2, 2 and 2: Robert Lukins talks about The Everlasting Sunday

Robert Lukins
The Everlasting Sunday
(University of Queensland Press)
LITERARY FICTION

Robert Lukins Author Photo.jpg

A few months ago I read Robert Lukins’ debut novel The Everlasting Sunday and was absolutely blown away. As I wrote in my newsletter:

I can’t praise this novel too much. Lukins is a writer of rare originality in both the way in which his characters view their world and the language he finds to render their impressions. It is infinitely tender and, at the same time, quietly brutal, and I was moved and devastated and elated after finishing it.

I’ve been recommending the novel to readers and book clubs ever since, so I was delighted when Robert agreed to tackle my 2, 2 and 2 questions.

Robert is a Melbourne writer whose work has appeared in publications such as The Big Issue, Rolling Stone, Crikey, Broadsheet and Overland. His author blurb tells us that he has worked as an art researcher and journalist, but he is apparently pretty versatile in his working life, as you’ll read below!

Here is the blurb for The Everlasting Sunday:

During the freezing English winter of 1962, seventeen-year-old Radford is sent to Goodwin Manor, a home for boys who have been ‘found by trouble’. Drawn immediately to the charismatic West, Radford soon discovers that each one of them has something to hide.

Life at the Manor offers only a volatile refuge, and unexpected arrivals threaten the world the boys have built. Will their friendship be enough when trouble finds them again?

At once both beautiful and brutal, The Everlasting Sunday is a haunting debut novel about growing up, growing wild and what it takes to survive.

‘Robert Lukins’ powerful, assured writing cuts like a knife into a world cracking with secrets and tension.’—Lucy Treloar

‘Lukins’ great achievement is to have created an atmosphere that is at once very much of this world, and musical and timeless. Everlasting indeed.’—Michelle de Kretser

‘Extraordinary…The Everlasting Sunday is a beautifully written, subtle novel, dealing with loss, forgiveness, love, redemption and the complexity of our natures.’—John Purcell, Booktopia

And now, over to Robert…

The Everlasting Sunday Cover

2 things that inspired the book

1 A crumbling manor house in rural Shropshire
Beginning just before Christmas in 2002, I spent a year working as a postman in a tiny village in Shropshire, England. I would take my Royal Mail pushbike out into the pre-dawn darkness and make my deliveries through the cobbled streets. My final destination each morning was three or four miles out of town, up through the empty grazing fields. Against the fog and empty white of the hills, a great manor house would emerge. A remarkable sight, though as you approached it was clear that the building was in decay. Abandoned but still collecting junk mail, of course. After pushing the letters through the front door’s slot, I would stand at the gates of the manor and watch the sun rise into the landscape. It was always such a beautiful and lonely moment, and so concentrated. I have carried this memory with me through all the years since, and when I came to write The Everlasting Sunday my subconscious took me back to that place. My story takes place within those crumbling walls.

2 Old family photographs
I stumbled across photographs of my father and his family living through The Big Freeze: the catastrophic British winter of 1962–63. As I grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, hearing the stories my parents told of this winter had a lasting impact on me. They described the chaos of countries grinding to a halt. People being stranded in their homes; some not making it through. When I discovered these pictures of my father and grandfather it reawakened my memories of these family stories and I was drawn to this incredible time. This is the winter that forms such an important part of my novel and is the boundary, and sometimes antagonist, of its story.

Family Photos 1 copy

Family Photos 2

2 places connected with the book

1 Childhood
I’m interested in how the adult self is connected to the child it once was. Whether we are, as a character suggests in my novel, ‘forever children’. With this in mind, I have tried to play with time in this novel. To have time stop in some ways and compress within this house and this winter. The pasts of these characters and the landscape that surrounds them merge with the present and future and I’ve attempted to create a sense of blurring around how the single season of this story sits within the wider world. I’m interested in how moments of the past can haunt us or provide peace.

2 A particular table in a particular pub in a small Shropshire village
In the Shropshire village that was my home for twelve months in the early two-thousands, there was a certain pub at the top of the high street in which I would sit at the same back-corner table for quite a decent percentage of my waking, post-work hours. The building dated from the very first years of the 17th century and inside it felt heavy with history. The oak table that I would sit at looked ancient in its own right. I would perch myself there, listening to the merry hubbub of the room, and slowly attend to my ale and chips. I would imagine the centuries of conversation and stories that the beams and walls and table had listened in on. I thought of all the beer and grime and workers’ sweat that the oak must have absorbed. It was an intoxicating atmosphere (in every sense) and I have never forgotten that intense connection that can exist between a person and the building that protects them. This pub found its way into The Everlasting Sunday, as too did a bound relationship between the manor house and the inhabitants it defends.

2 pieces of art connected with the book

1 J.M.W. Turner’s Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842)
A small copy of this painting was sticky-taped to the space above my desk for the entirety of the writing of my novel. It became a shortcut into the atmosphere of the world of the story. Swirling, claustrophobic, and raging around a more solid centre. This is how I would visualise the physical and psychological space the characters were trapped within. It’s a painting I have always loved and I enjoyed that I was able to connect with it so intimately in writing this book. I truly would stand with my face pressed in close to the picture, trying to get lost in it. The silly things we do.

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

2 ‘Fern Tree’ by Andrea Keller
Again, a shortcut into the tone of the novel. Andrea Keller is one of my favourite musicians. She usually operates from a more obviously jazz place, but this track is a highlight of her sparse, at times melancholic, solo album Family Portraits. The song is built on layers of looped, crystalline piano lines that come in and out of the picture, overlapping to form a beautiful and chaotic noise before retreating into calm. I would often play this song before writing to switch into the mood I needed. It an amazing piece of music that captures so closely the atmosphere I was trying to attain in my writing: of a storm circling a fragile centre of calm.

The Everlasting Sunday is available now
Follow Robert via his website
Listen to a Radio National conversation with Robert here

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2, 2 and 2: Robyn Cadwallader talks about Book of Colours

Robyn Cadwallader
Book of Colours
(HarperCollins)
LITERARY FICTION

Robyn-13

One of my favourite novels of 2015 was Robyn Cadwallader’s haunting The Anchoress. I had the pleasure of interviewing Robyn about her brilliant debut at the Perth Writers Festival that year, and reviewed it here. The Anchoress was a bestseller in Australia and was also published in the UK, the US and France.

Discovering that Robyn’s second novel would be coming out in 2018 gave me that delicious sense of anticipation that comes from knowing something special this way comes. Book of Colours was recently released and is sitting right now on the top of my reading pile.

Robyn lives among vineyards in the country outside Canberra and has a writerly background that embraces a good deal more than two novels. She has published poems, prize-winning short stories and reviews, a poetry collection, i painted unafraid (Wakefield, 2010), and a non-fiction book based on her PhD thesis about virginity and female agency in the Middle Ages, and has edited a collection of essays on asylum seeker policy, We Are Better Than This (ATF, 2015). She is also the reviews editor for the online literary journal Verity La.

Here is the blurb for Book of Colours:

London, 1321: In a small stationer’s shop in Paternoster Row, three people are drawn together around the creation of a magnificent, illuminated prayer book. Even though the commission seems to answer the aspirations of each one of them, their secrets, desires and ambitions threaten its completion. As each struggles to see the book come into being, it will change everything they have understood about their place in the world.

Rich, deep, sensuous and full of life, Book of Colours is also, most movingly, a profoundly beautiful story about creativity and connection, and our instinctive need to understand our world and communicate with others through the pages of a book.

Over, now, to Robyn…

Book of Colours Cover high res copy 2

2 things that inspired the book

The initial inspiration for Book of Colours was curiosity and a question…well, several questions. I had seen many medieval decorated prayer books and had admired their beauty: prayers copied carefully, a beautiful decorated capital or a larger picture, illuminated with gold leaf, of Christ, Mary or the saints, and some delicate foliage in the borders. We’ve probably all seen pictures of them, all written on parchment and decorated by hand.

But I was particularly intrigued by those that seemed to break the rules by including a carnival of life in the margins: jugglers, dancers, cock fights, ball games; animal fables, where animals apparently wreak revenge on humans (Monty Python’s killer rabbit comes straight from a medieval manuscript!); dragons and all manner of fantastical beasts, and even scenes of sin, like a monk and a nun having sex.

All of this in a beautiful and expensive prayer book intended for a woman! How could this be? What was the purpose of such play and fantasy? Scholars have theories, but no-one knows for sure. The margins seemed to resist the authority of the centre, to say that there is more to devotion than paintings of holy figures. I love those fault lines, the places where expectations are undermined, forcing us to rethink our assumptions. What rich material to explore!

A more direct inspiration Book of Colours was a manuscript in the British Library that helped me to find my characters. I sat in the Manuscripts Room with a manuscript painted in the early fourteenth century and an art historian’s study of that particular manuscript. She describes the way it is possible now, through close examination of the painting—brush stroke, detail, style, etc.—to distinguish individual, though unidentified, artists.

So, for example, she described Artist 1 as the most experienced of the group, recognisable by his use of detail and colour, while Artist 2 had a particular talent for painting a crowd and capturing some sense of drama and energy. She went on to describe two more artists, and as I looked at the paintings and followed her analysis, I could imagine the personalities of the illuminators, or limners, as they called them. Why was it, for example, that Artist 4 painted neatly coloured flowers, but his paintings lacked any dynamism? What gave Artist 2 the ability to draw crowds so well? Was Artist 3 perhaps an apprentice? How did they feel about their work? Was Artist 1 the owner of the atelier? How did they get on together? Was there competition or admiration among them all? Instead of four artists distinguished by technique, four characters began to emerge. What personalities and life experiences might their paintings reveal? By the time I closed the manuscript and stood up from my desk, I had the glimmerings of four illuminators, unformed as yet, but each one itching to be in my novel.

2 places connected with the book

London, the setting for my novel, of course—old and new. I’ve spent time in London before, and in 2013 I had a wonderful ten weeks there, researching fourteenth-century London in the British Library. But I was able to do more than read about it: it’s a huge help to be able to walk the streets and land, notice the topography of the land, feel the weather and observe the people. Seven centuries is a long time, and so much of the city has changed, but there’s an essence to a place that seems to seep into the ground.

And there is still the Thames, and the way the land slopes down from St Paul’s; there is Paternoster Row, where my limners have their shop, though it’s now only a small lane; there are Old Change, Cheapside, Smithfield Market, St Bartholomew’s Church and Priory, and parts of the old London Wall. The old stones, the tight network of roads and lanes, the way Old London hugs the river.

Once I had absorbed it all, I pasted my map on the wall above my desk, and let my London take shape in my imagination. It’s different from the London we know, but I can see it all—shops, churches, houses, mud and markets—and walk down its streets.

The second place is the world of possibilities that stories open up. I’m intrigued by the ways that stories are never still, never final, but able to shift and change, depending on our circumstances. You know how it is to read a novel as a child, then as a teenager, then as an adult: the words are the same, but we might understand it differently because we have changed.

In the medieval prayer books made for women, the paintings tell stories: the story of Mary giving birth in a stable, perhaps; or how Jesus rode into town on a donkey and the crowd cheered, only days before he was killed. Each picture has its own narrative. These were familiar, even conventional images and stories, but that doesn’t mean that they were fixed, and unable to be understood in different ways.

In my novel, my characters discover that the pictures go far beyond being simply pious reminders of dogma or morality, and instead become stories of people and places that can touch their everyday lives, meeting them where they are. For the limners who paint the pictures, and for the woman who has commissioned the book, they evoke memories—sometimes memories they have tried to repress, or they speak to their hopes and worries, or they offer consolation and understanding, even possibilities for the future.

I love that subversive idea!  Once the book is made and sent into the world, its pictures and the stories they tell—even those in a book of prayers for women—cannot be controlled. The open and always-opening network of ideas and connections is one of the most lovely qualities of stories.

2 favourite things from the novel

 I am especially fond of the gargoyle in Book of Colours because it just seemed to insist it should be included. When I was writing the first draft, I described William, one of my main characters, arriving in London and admiring St Paul’s Cathedral. He looks at the army of gargoyles at the base of the cathedral roof, and as he watches, one of them very slowly turns its head towards him and blinks. I had no idea why; the words just seemed to follow one another and there it was. I liked the idea and left it, thinking I would wait and see what happened. Soon the gargoyle was appearing in all sorts of places. It was ugly, and pushy, and shadowy, and I thought it should stay, this creature of the margins. I had some idea of its significance, but it was only at the last draft that I began to really understand why I had kept it. It’s unnerving, but I love that aspect of writing, where the unconscious leads.

A favourite passage in the novel is from a guide to illumination that one of the illuminators is writing for an apprentice. While it is intended as instruction for those who paint, I recognise now how much it applies to me and the novel I have written:

The Book
A book is shaped so that it may be picked up and carried, held onto as a baby might clutch a blanket, pondered in the quiet or lonely hours of the night, visited like a friend. You decorate the book for another, for it to be passed on from owner to daughter or son and from them to their children. Once you finish it, you cannot say where it will go and how it will be used. It might sit for years on a shelf, or stay wrapped in a cloth, forgotten. It might be a grieving woman’s companion for the rest of her life, or a child’s first sight of words, open at a page that carries the marks of much use. Perhaps it will go across the sea in a boat. Perhaps it will crumble or burn. It might be passed from hand to hand, through years, for longer than you can dream of. You cannot know. All you can do is paint faithfully and well, then let the book go.

 

Book of Colours is available now
Find out more at HarperCollins
Follow Robyn via her website

 

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2, 2 and 2: S.A. Jones talks about The Fortress

S.A. Jones
The Fortress
(Echo Publishing)
LITERARY FICTION

SA Jones-The Fortress headshot 1

The Fortress is the third novel by S.A. Jones and, with its speculative and erotic elements, a radical departure from Red Dress Walking (2008) and Isabelle of the Moon and Stars (2014).  The Fortress has been described as:

The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Natural Way of Things at a cocktail party thrown by Anais Nin’
‘A Molotov cocktail of a book: intensely furious, perversely fascinating, and unputdownable.’—Jodi McAlister
‘…a damning judgement on patriarchy, and a meditation on the labours of atonement.’—Damon Young
‘One of the decade’s best books’—Better Reading

I found it absorbing and confronting; a fast-paced read and, at the same time, a work of intelligence and formidable imagination that makes you pause to think; a novel so relevant to the #metoo movement that it appears to have been expressly created in that dark light. Which, although a lifetime in the making, it has been.

S.A. Jones’s impressive author blurb will tell you that she has a PhD in History, and has published opinion pieces and essays on politics, history, sexuality, public policy and theology for Kill Your Darlings, The Age, The Guardian, Overland, The Toast, Regime, The Drum and Page Seventeen. In 2013 she was recognised as one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence for her work in public policy, and just this week was named a finalist in the 2018 Women in Industry Awards.

The blurb fails to mention her great love of chardonnay and Wuthering Heights and all-things-Christmas, and her fierce capacity for friendship. But there, now you know.

The blurb for The Fortress reads:

Jonathon Bridge’s arrival at The Fortress—a society run and populated by women—begins with a recitation of the conditions of his stay: he is forbidden to ask questions, to raise his hand in anger, and to refuse sex.

Jonathon has offered himself as a supplicant in The Fortress after his pregnant wife Adalia discovered the ugly sexual violence pervading his top-tier firm. She has agreed to continue their fractured relationship on the condition he enter The Fortress for one year.

Jonathon is utterly unprepared for what will happen to him over the course of the year—not only to his body, but to his mind and his heart.

This absorbing, confronting and moving novel asks questions about consent, power, love and fulfilment. It asks what it takes for a man to change, and whether change is possible without a radical reversal of the conditions that seem normal.

And now, over to Serje…

Fortress-400x612

2 things that inspired The Fortress

I began writing this book when I was about twelve, although I didn’t know it then. At the time I was a competitive swimmer and had the occasional dream of Olympic glory. But I also wanted to be Prime Minister and David Attenborough, so I was keeping my options open.

Along with four others in my swim squad, all boys, I had achieved the qualifying time to try out for the state swim team. This meant travelling from our tiny island in the Buccaneer Archipelago to the big smoke of Port Hedland in the Pilbara.

Being four boys and me in the 1980s, our squad was called ‘SJ and the Meaner Machine’, after the formidable Australian relay team ‘The Mean Machine’.

We were chaperoned by the coach and his wife and billeted with a family in Port Hedland. A roster of chores was drawn up for us five kids while we were there (a sensible thing to do given we ate constantly and created mountains of chlorinated washing).

When it was Jeffrey’s turn to do the dishes, he refused. This put my coach and his wife in an awkward position, because Jeffrey was their son. His parents insisted.

Jeffrey refused and began to glow red around the ears. This was a warning sign we were all familiar with. Jeffrey was an epic tantrum thrower—the sort of tantrums that should be preserved on scrolls and alluded to in awed whispers.

The embarrassment in the room at Jeffrey’s refusal became a palpable thing, another presence.

As the redness spread from Jeffrey’s ears to his temples and a high-pitched whine began to escape his mouth, Jeffrey’s mother announced that I would do his dishes.

His dishes. As well as the dishes I was rostered to do.

‘That’s not fair’, I pointed out.

But the desire to avert a scene was stronger than the inclination for fairness, and my protests fell on deaf ears.

As I stood by the sink doing Jeffrey’s dishes, my face burning with humiliation, Jeffrey smirked at me from the doorway.

For the few days we were billeted there, I had to do all Jeffrey’s chores as well as my own.

During those few days, my consciousness of girlhood, and what that means in relation to boyhood, was born. Even setting aside the gross error of judgement in releasing Jeffrey from his chores, there were three other kids in that team besides me and Jeffrey. But they were boys.

Housework was girl work. I was the girl. The SJ in the Meaner Machine.

In some ways, Jeffrey has always been smirking at me from the doorway of that kitchen.

I’ve read wonderful, powerful books about the female experience such as Kate Grenville’s Dark Places, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things.

But where was the book about Jeffrey? About what happens to a boy who learns early in life that the world will bend his way. Who is not taught to discipline his emotions and appetites. Who expects that handmaids will clean up when he won’t.

And, more importantly, what does it take for this man to change?

The Fortress is my answer to that question.

For my second point of inspiration, let me return to Jeffrey’s smirking. That experience was humiliating, but it was also galvanising. Perhaps without the Jeffreys and their smirking I would not be so driven and so focused.

Nothing inspires bloody-mindedness so much as being told ‘you can’t’.

2 places connected with The Fortress

I began writing The Fortress in the most idyllic circumstances. I was on holiday in Kamala Beach, Thailand, with my husband, daughter, sister and brother-in-law. After breakfast I would find a secluded spot under a tree or beach umbrella and write. Over dinner, we would discuss the ideas and characters I was developing.

Thai food, margaritas, sand underfoot and good company made writing this book the most joyful of my novel-writing experiences.

Bec and SJ Kamala Beach

The Fortress is also connected to the dining room in one of my close girlfriends’ house. I’ve sat around her table many times over the twenty plus years of our friendship, and on a particular evening I realised something: that with one exception, all the women sitting at that table had disclosed to me their experience of sexual assault.

Some had been sexually abused by a trusted family friend, some by family members, some by partners, some by people they didn’t know. The ubiquity of the experience, the banality of it even, both saddened and enraged me.

The Fortress represents the concentration and disciplining of that rage.

2 favourite artworks inspired by The Fortress

Ekphrasis has always fascinated me, so to have The Fortress refracted in other mediums is gratifying and intriguing.

Tom Conyers painted this after reading The Fortress. His visual rendering of my words moves me so much. And those olöcks…sublime. [Olöcks are ground-dwelling birds that inhabit The Fortress.]

The Fortress painting

Ambient musician Jason Johnston, performing as Newtropic, composed this piece after being inspired by a space in The Fortress called the Shaenet. The Shaenet is a garden where medicinal and recreational herbs are grown.

The Fortress is available now
Reviews at Better Reading and The Australian
Listen to an interview on RRR
Find out more at Echo Publishing

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2, 2 and 2: Shirley Patton talks about The Secrets We Keep

UnknownShirley Patton
The Secrets We Keep
(HarperCollins—HQ Fiction)
CONTEMPORARY FICTION

I met Shirley Patton in 2009 when she attended workshops I ran in Hobart and Launceston for the Tasmanian Writers Centre. I clearly remember her from those two weekend sessions—her abundant energy, her determination to learn. After that, we kept in touch, mostly via social media, and our paths crossed occasionally at writers festivals. I couldn’t have been more delighted when I heard the news that her debut novel was coming out this year.

Shirley lives in Tasmania but has strong connections to Western Australia, and these have found their way into her writing—as have aspects of her professional experience. Authenticity and sense of place have been highlighted as two of the novel’s strengths in this review by Theresa Smith Writes.

Here’s some more about Shirley’s background:

Dr Shirley Patton grew up in outback Western Australia and now lives with her partner and a miniature schnauzer in wine-growing country overlooking the beautiful Tamar River in Northern Tasmania.

A decade ago, she left an academic career as a published researcher of family violence and as a lecturer at the University of Tasmania to write fiction full time. Since then, she has obtained a Masters of Creative Writing and has published several short stories in a variety of literary publications. Prior to practising social work, Shirley worked in the media as a television newsreader and chat show host.

Like one of the characters in The Secrets We Keep, Shirley’s Irish great-grandmother, Jane, used to read tea leaves.

And here’s the novel’s blurb:

A mother’s secret, a father’s betrayal, a town on the edge…

When social worker Aimee arrives in the mining town of Kalgoorlie, she is ready for a fresh start. Her colleagues Lori and Paddy seem friendly, and she is also drawn to one of her cases: the Steele family, whose future looks particularly bleak. But Aimee has a dark secret and as the past reaches out towards her once more, she realises that somehow her secret is connected to this unfamiliar but harshly beautiful town and its inhabitants.

As she strengthens her ties with the local community—especially with the vibrant Lori, stoical Kerry and wise Agnes—she finds herself questioning earlier decisions. Can Aimee reveal her secret, even if it is not hers alone to share?

A compelling novel of the transcendental love of children and the truth’s unwillingness to stay hidden.  

Over to Shirley to tell us more…

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2 things that inspired my book

1 Growing up in Kalgoorlie and the older women I met
Growing up in Kalgoorlie as a migrant child, I absorbed this new place and culture like a sponge; it feels imprinted on my skin. I knew every street, every building, the landscape. When I decided I wanted to write a novel, I knew I wanted to bear witness to a time and place. Perhaps it was nostalgia; it had been almost two decades since I’d left to live in Tasmania. Maybe it was the reflective period I was in; I had just buried my father in the dusty old Kalgoorlie cemetery alongside my much earlier departed mother. Part of that inner journeying reminded me of the Kalgoorlie women I had met who had influenced my thinking on the numinous—everyday women with vibrant spiritual lives who encouraged the seeker in me. Agnes, the tea-leaf reader, leapt straight onto the page from the first sentence I wrote of The Secrets We Keep, even though she didn’t remain the main character and it didn’t remain the first sentence!

2 Working in a Kalgoorlie welfare office and the social workers I met
Beginning work as a clerk in a welfare office, shortly after my mother died, I met my first social workers and my first feminists. They changed my life with their commitment, their passion, their intellectual discourse and their feistiness. Much later, I became a social worker in Tasmania. Hearing women’s stories of survival in my research and aware, as a practitioner and a teacher, of the ethical dilemmas people experience, I wanted to explore the notion of choice and how people make meaning of their decisions and live with them, at a political and a personal level. For, as Agnes says in The Secrets We Keep: ‘What is history but personal choices writ large.’

2 places connected with my book

1 Kalgoorlie, Western Australia
The harsh beauty, the dryness, the 360 degree horizons, the excitement when it rains, the mesa-like slime dumps, the pipeline, the grand old buildings—the town and its surrounds are, I think, a character in the novel too. A goldmining town, Kalgoorlie celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. This photo taken of the Goldfields region is so evocative of the outskirts of town. Kalgoorlie is red dust, dryness and blue, blue skies, yet in the rainbow and sparks of lightning there is hope. And hope plays a part in the lives of my characters in The Secrets We Keep. Indeed, hope is an important theme in my own life.

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Photo Frank McCubben

2 Rosevears, Tasmania
I’ve gained a sense of peace from my environment, overlooking the Tamar River, and it supports my writing. I love this photo that I took of a rainbow at ‘the bottom of the garden’. In the winter the mountains in the distance are tipped with snow and the colours of the river change every day. I’d meditate every morning before I wrote, and when I’d mull over a scene I’d often walk along the river with my dog and talk aloud to myself to clarify my thinking. It is an environment conducive to reflection and to my musings on the notions, entertained in The Secrets We Keep, of choice and destiny.

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Photo Shirley Patton

2 favourite quotes

1
The life of every (wo)man is a diary in which (s)he meant to write one story but wrote another.—adapted from J.M. Barrie.

This quote, from the author of Peter Pan, is at the start of my novel. At one point in the novel, the main character, Aimee, finds herself in unexpected circumstances and laments that ‘these were chapters she could never have imagined herself writing, chapters from other women’s lives, other women’s scripts, surely not hers.’ I find Barrie’s quote both poignant and inspiring because it reminds me of how much life can be affected by external factors beyond our control, whilst I remain in awe of our capacity to endure and survive.

2
Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, new friend, a new love, a new country.—Anais Nin

This quote, and the accompanying painting, lifts my spirits. I love the writings of Anais Nin; she invokes in me a sense of daring. In leaving an academic career a decade ago to write fiction full time, I certainly threw ‘my dreams into space’. As I say on my author webpage: It’s never too late to follow your creative dreams.

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Image Christian Schloe

The Secrets We Keep is being launched in Launceston (12 April), Perth (18 April), Kalgoorlie (20 April) and Busselton (26 April). Details here.

The Secrets We Keep is in bookshops now
Find out more at HarperCollins
Follow Shirley via her website or on Facebook

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2, 2 and 2: Jenny Ackland talks about Little Gods

ACKLAND

Jenny Ackland
Little Gods
(Allen & Unwin)
LITERARY FICTION

In the early months of 2016, when I was spending every day in the reading room of the State Library of Western Australia, I would take a lunch break, sit in the library’s cafe with my pot of tea, and read. It might seem like a strange way to counter reading fatigue with, well, reading, but I found it enormously rejuvenating to step away from the archives and into another world. One of the books I read, and loved, during this time was Jenny Ackland’s first novel, The Secret Son, so I was excited to hear that she had a new one coming out.

Jenny, a Melbourne-based writer and teacher, describes The Secret Son (2015) as a ‘Ned Kelly–Gallipoli “mash-up” about truth and history’. It is also a deeply evocative novel of place (Turkey), with a fascinating cast of characters and a plot that weaves past and present together with the intricacy of a fine Turkish rug. She talks about it here, and you can read reviews by Sue at Whispering Gums and Lisa at ANZ LitLovers.

It was my great pleasure to meet Jenny again in Perth last year, when she was hard at work completing Little Gods at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in Greenmount. And now the novel has made its way into the world and is already gathering stellar press reviews. You can read Nicole Melanson’s review on her WordMothers blog here.

The blurb for Little Gods reads…

The setting is the Mallee, wide, flat scrubland in north-western Victoria, country where men are bred quiet, women stoic and the gothic is never far away. Olive Lovelock has just turned twelve. She is smart, fanciful and brave, and on the cusp of something darker than the small world she has known her entire life. When she learns she had a baby sister who died, Olive becomes convinced it was murder. Her obsession with the mystery, and quest to find out what happened, have seismic repercussions for the rest of the family and their community.

Little Gods is about the mess of family, about secrets, vengeance and innocence lost. It explores resilience and girlhood, and question how families live with all of their complexities and contradictions.

Over, now, to Jenny…

LITTLE GODS COVER

2 things that inspired my book

1 A news article
Years ago, I clipped an article from an Australian newspaper about a Victorian woman who had grown up thinking she was responsible—when she was a child—for the death of her baby sister. As it turned out, her mother had killed the baby and blamed her daughter. This was revealed with a clichéd deathbed confession, but the whole thing struck me as super tragic and super horrible. It sent me down a rabbit hole of research into infanticide, how mothers are depicted in fiction, looking at representation of sad, bad and ‘mad’ mothers. Twisted fairy-tales, Medea. All very dark. I decided upon a similar core for my novel: the historical death of a baby and an unfolding story taking place several years later. First versions of the book were very grim. One early reader said I was ‘saturating the reader in death’, which made me realise I’d taken it too far into a place that wasn’t ultimately fitting for these characters and the type of story I wanted to create. I scaled it back, brought the story back into the light. I located the moments of childhood joy and freedom. I wanted my book to have humour in it as well. I think humour offsets darker stuff; it not only makes it more palatable but in a weird way somehow accentuates the seriousness. Like sugar in a savoury dish when cooking, or salted caramel.

2 Nostalgia
Nothing specific that was nostalgic inspired me, it was more that I wanted to try to enter that psychological space with this book. There is such warmth in nostalgia: it is comforting and for me has an orange tinge, maybe because of old sepia photographs. People are wary of it, though. According to many, it’s not cool to give oneself over to such dirty urges; it’s indulgent and should be in the bin with sentimentalism. I came across some scholarly articles online that focus on nostalgia as part of the migrant experience, suggesting that it can result from populations feeling uprooted and unsure; that the profound sense of loss and longing can be part of that new life experience. Similarly, the stepping across from childhood to adolescence and then into to adulthood can be dislocating and hard. You are in a new country—adolescence and then adulthood—new terrain that can be challenging. And we can’t go back, so we yearn for those times when things were simpler. I read recently too that nostalgia is stronger for people leaving childhood, not adults, which is fascinating.

2 places connected with my book

1 Geographical—the Mallee
I have a strong and inexplicable attraction to the Mallee. I love the wide flatness of Victoria’s Western District. I love the colours of the flora and how the roads sit straight and flat on the landscape. The dry yellowness. When I was rewriting this novel (long story short: the manuscript had been finished many, many times, but I ripped out two thirds and rewrote over a year or more), I came to wonder whether I could introduce some gothic elements; not the dark tropes of the US Southern or English gothic literature, but a ‘Mallee-illuminated’ version, with eucalypts and pines instead of Spanish Moss, and an abandoned silo instead of a castle. There’s a raven, and a ouija board, and villains and ghosts, but all of it is set against a bright sunlit palette.

wheat-fields-western-district-m-a-hobbs-bluethumb-art

Wheatfields, Western District. Photograph M.A. Hobbs

2 Metaphysical—liminality  
I found myself interested in the idea of liminal spaces, especially the crossover line between girlhood and adulthood. This led me to think more about lines; of the spaces and roles people can find themselves in. How we perform as humans, according to the rules. How children view adult-world and how easily adults seem to forget what it was to be young. How distant they make themselves just through age, and how inaccessible emotionally. Girls with strong personalities are squashed in multitudes of ways, so I wanted to depict a girl in that in-between place as she is just at the point of crossing over, just before the realities of the world hit her. A girl who is strong-minded and thinks she knows everything but in fact has little self-awareness.

FEARLESS 2

Fearless Girl, sculpture by Kristen Visbal. Photograph Google images

2 favourite passages

This is Olive Lovelock, leaving the local pool with her friend Peter, in the early pages of the novel:

They were walking to the bike rack. Olive balanced her towel in a sheik roll on top of her head and Peter flicked his fingers in a way that made them crack. He counted under his breath each time he did it: Whone, twhoo, thuree, foah, fahv.

He was always doing things with his body. Jumping on things, climbing things, skipping over or under or trying to walk in funny ways, kicking his legs up high or bent so far over that his palms touched the footpath in front of his feet. Olive thought it was stupid and they’d had an argument. He tried to say she used to like those things, that she had used to laugh, and she told him she never had. Never.

At the entrance, people were pushing out through the gates, families going to their station wagons in the car park, weary but happy as if a good day’s work had been done. For Olive, it was more than that. Being at the pool, she was real. Her body was real in the water, the way it enclosed her with its vivid blueness. Her fingers were real as they opened the plastic wrapper of a smooth-bottomed pie or pulled an icy pole out of its sticky paper sheath. She was real lying on the hot concrete with her stomach and leg tops almost burning, water outlining her body in small warming puddles. The pool was one of the places where she came into her body and she wished she could stay there forever. She always held back in the real as long as she was able, whether at the pool or in Peter’s backyard or astride her bike at the park. She tried to stay as long as she could in all of those other places but eventually she had to leave the real. She had to leave those places and go home.

Grace, the raven that Olive finds and raises:

Sunday morning and the sun rose on the bleached Mallee landscape and lit the distressed greens and greys. The magpies carolled before they left their trees to feed and the farmhouse began to stir. Grace was at the back door knocking on the glass. She had been under Rue’s sprinkler and as she sat on Olive’s lap, her feathers looked like they’d been sewn with dozens of tiny diamonds. Drops of water, sitting in perfectly round jewels.

When Olive held Grace’s tail feathers in her hand, there was a soft sharpness to the edge against her palm, the interleaving feathers cross-hatched as they narrowed from the body to the tail. With her face right down close, looking on an angle, she could see that the feathers were not solid black at all. There were secret colours hidden, all types of purples and greens, and like petrol in a puddle they were iridescent, oily and beautiful.

Little Gods is in bookshops now
and available from online stores such as Readings
Find out more at Allen & Unwin
Follow Jenny via her website

*Author photograph: Julian Dolman

 

 

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Susan Midalia talks about The Art of Persuasion

UnknownSusan Midalia
The Art of Persuasion
(Fremantle Press)
NOVEL

Susan Midalia writes exquisite prose, and is looked up to by many as one of Australia’s leading exponents of the short story genre. She is equally well known as a teacher, editor and mentor, and I am only one of many writers who have benefited from her knowledge and generosity. She is also a friend, and a delightful human being, and I’m thrilled to feature her new book today.

The Art of Persuasion is Susan’s first novel, a work with many of the characteristics of a Susan Midalia story—compassion, wit, warmth of spirit, attentiveness to language, characters with a distinctive voice. And there are some surprises, too—a modern love story with the feel of a comedy of manners from another time, a story arc involving a political campaign in an urban Australian setting.

Here’s a little more about Susan…

Susan Midalia is the author of three short story collections, all of them shortlisted for major literary awards: A History of the Beanbag, An Unknown Sky and Feet to the Stars. She has been the judge of literary awards such as the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition. She has also been an assessor for the Literature Board of the Australia Council. She is currently a board member of writingWA and Margaret River Press, and takes great pleasure in working as a teacher for A Maze of Story, a volunteer organisation that encourages creative writing by socially disadvantaged children. Susan has lived in Perth for most of her adult life, and is blessed with a husband who works to pay the bills so she can enjoy the luxury of writing. She has two adult sons, of whom she is inordinately proud.

And here is the blurb for The Art of Persuasion

Twenty-five-year-old Hazel is reading the classics, starting with ‘A’. It’s one way to pass the time when you’ve quit your job and lost your way. But then she has a chance encounter with an irresistible older man. When Hazel is partnered with him on a political campaign, her attraction is deepened by the strength of his convictions. Adam seems to be attracted to her too—but why is he resisting? And what does Jane Austen have to teach a young woman about life, love and literature in the 21st century?

The wonderful Michelle de Kretser has described the novel as ‘a witty and tender comedy of manners that also has political bite’. And Ryan O’Neill, winner of last year’s Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, says it’s ‘a perfect modern romance’. 

Over to Susan…

9781925591033_RGB

2 things that inspired my book

I was impelled to write my novel after seeing the memorial to the SIEV X, on the shores of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. SIEV stands for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel, a term which describes, in dehumanising militaristic terms, a boat carrying more than 400 asylum seekers that was heading for Australia in 2001. When the boat capsized, 353 people drowned; four subsequent inquiries undertaken by both major political parties absolved the federal government of any responsibility for what was described, in chilling Orwellian Newspeak, as ‘A Certain Maritime Incident’. I won’t go into details here, except to say that the credibility of those inquiries has been widely disputed. The memorial to the largely forgotten SIEV X, completed in 2007 in the face of strenuous opposition from the conservative government, was the work of the Uniting Church, the writer Stephen Biddulph and hundreds of children from across Australia. It comprises 353 white poles stretching out on an incline like a wave, and many of the poles are inscribed with the name of the identified dead. Others are anonymous. On each pole there are also paintings by children of the many joyful experiences, including rainbows, flowers, kites and birds, which have been lost to the asylum seekers. It takes a long time to observe each pole; to reflect and try to take in the enormity of the experience. Seeing the memorial four years ago reduced me to tears, and has stayed with me ever since.

sievx-memorial-poles

A second and very different impulse for writing was my love of Jane Austen’s novels, and the pleasure of teaching them. In particular, I wanted to explore what Austen’s moral concept of love—falling in love with a person whose values and conduct one admires—might mean to a young woman living in a highly sexualised contemporary culture in which what matters is surface appeal. I also wanted to model my mode of social and moral criticism on Austen’s, using wit to mock vice and folly, to entertain instead of lecturing the reader. The genre of comedy also enacts an optimistic vision of the world; and while there’s every reason these days to despair of corruption, self-interest and bigotry, it’s crucial to retain a belief in progress and the fundamental decency of people. It was a challenge to write an optimistic novel without lapsing into sentimentality or smugness; to affirm the value of kindness without being self-righteous or naïve.

2 places connected to my book

The physical setting is Perth, in 2014, and it’s primarily a political space. Based on my own experience in political door-knocking campaigns in the western suburbs, I’ve used ‘place’ to reveal the complacency, indifference, cynicism and just plain ignorance of many people I encountered. And that was in the more educated suburbs of Perth! My city also has a ‘laidback’ atmosphere and ethos; as one of the characters in my novel remarks, our low crime rate, lovely beaches and clean air make it a great place to bring up children. The ‘downside’ of this middle-class idyll is a hedonistic insularity and blindness to the suffering of others. (I’ll always remember the former Prime Minister John Howard describing his vision for Australia as ‘relaxed and comfortable’, as if Australia was a giant Ugg Boot instead of a nation committed to social justice and equality.) The Perth setting of my novel is also an attempt to contest the Sydney- and Melbourne-centric view that prevails in Australian literary culture. It’s difficult for many West Australian writers to gain traction over east: to be invited to writers’ festivals, have your work reviewed, get reasonable sales figures. Setting my novel in Perth was thus a way of insisting that West Australian writers have something of value to contribute to the national literary culture.

The other important space in my novel is psychological: what happens in the space of the mind. I’m a writer of character and consciousness who enjoys imagining what it might be like to be someone who is very different from me. I’m a woman in my sixties pretending to be 25-year-old Hazel West: a millennial who’s unemployed, aimless, mildly depressed and looking for love. (We do, however, share a sense of humour and a deeply irritating tendency to self-pity.) The Art of Persuasion is a third-person limited narration, so it was a challenge, as well as fun, to ventriloquise Hazel’s voice and evoke her state of mind and cultural milieu. I sent the unpublished manuscript to my younger son, who was twenty-seven at the time, for feedback, and he told me I had the voice and the cultural references of his generation just right. Using Hazel’s perspective was also a way of contesting the stereotype of young people as narcissistic, lazy and irresponsible. I know from my experience as a parent and teacher that there are many admirable young people who are committed to social justice and the viability of the planet, and who wish to make a useful contribution to society.

2 favourite things from my novel

Hazel is my favourite character because of her complexity: she’s both feisty and self-doubting, acerbic and tender, a young feminist pining for love, and with the capacity to learn from experience. But I’m also fond of the novel’s romantic hero, Adam. His literary antecedents come from Jane Austen: he has the moral solidity of Captain Wentworth (Persuasion), the hidden past of Mr Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), and, like Mr Knightley from Emma, he’s considerably older than the heroine, acting as her guide or mentor. I’m interested in what makes for a ‘good’ man in the early twenty-first century; ‘good’ both in his personal life and in the wider community. Adam is also sexually attractive, but in an understated way, and I’ve used this to make fun of the hypersexualised romantic heroes in pulp fiction. I wanted to remind readers, as Austen’s novels do, that subtlety is far more erotic than blatant displays of masculine sexual prowess. Unlike Austen’s heroes, however, Adam is a widower with a five-year-old son, and it’s partly this complication that acts as an obstacle to the consummation of his relationship with Hazel. Romantic comedies rely on an obstacle to the union and the erotics of deferral: I wanted the reader to keep asking how long it would take until Adam and Hazel finally ended up together in bed!

In a favourite passage from my novel, Hazel’s lifelong friend and flat-mate Beth is ranting about women who succumb to the very ideas that reduce them to decorative objects. She and Hazel—who’s trying hard to keep up with her garrulous friend—are also slightly drunk (that was part of the fun of writing it).

Beth started waving her glass about because she’d just seen something truly disturbing, she said, an ad in the local paper, set out in huge pink font: WHAT’S THE DESIGNER VAGINA? She’d nearly toppled over when she read it, she said, all the stuff about tightening this and rejuvenating that, collagen and creams, making women feel even more ashamed of their bodies than they already did … almost spilling her wine now, denouncing all the women, thousands there were, having surgery on their bums because they wanted a perky one like Pippa Middleton’s. That kind of thing drove her nuts, she said, and who the hell was Pippa Middleton anyway? Hazel tried to explain but Beth said she already knew and that’s not why she was angry. She was angry because Pippa Middleton was only famous for having a sister who was only famous because she’d married a prince who seemed like a nice enough guy, cheering up disabled kids and all that, but that wasn’t the point, was it, about the monarchy? An accident of birth, unearned wealth and privilege and the next girl who told her they adored Kate Middleton because she was so pretty and wore such stylish clothes and had such a cute baby was in serious danger of being punched. Hazel was confused for a moment because she thought Beth wanted to punch the baby, and then she wondered aloud what they could have for dinner.

Please join Susan in celebrating the novel’s entry into the world:
Tuesday 10 April, 6.30pm
Centre for Stories, 100 Aberdeen Street, Northbridge

The Art of Persuasion will be in bookshops on 1 April 2018
More at Fremantle Press
Follow Susan on her website

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2, 2 and 2: Maureen Eppen talks about Every Family Is Different

Maureen Eppen 1Maureen Eppen
Every Family is Different (Serenity Press)
illustrated by Veronica Rooke
CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK

I met the lovely Maureen Eppen some years ago when she invited me to Secret Harbour to talk to the First Edition Book Club, a group of passionate readers who have been meeting now for 14 years. They were erudite, engaged and insightful, and it was a pleasure to discuss Elemental with them.

Since then, Maureen’s path and mine have crossed many times and in different contexts, but it was only last year that I discovered that she was also hard at work on her own creative projects. Every Family is Different is the first to be published, and I’m delighted to feature it here.

First, a little more about Maureen:

Maureen Eppen has been a freelance journalist for more than 30 years and now works in corporate communications and marketing. She writes book reviews and author interviews, hosts the Shelf Aware blog series, and is a grammar nerd who frequently questions her own spelling and punctuation. When she’s not procrastinating over working on her first novel, Maureen practises yoga, and she has completed two half-marathons and countless fun runs—at a glacial pace.

And here is the book’s blurb:

Who’s in your family?

Some children live with their mum and dad, others live with their grandparents or foster parents. Some live in a big house, others live in a tiny apartment.

With captivating illustrations, Every Family is Different celebrates what it means to be part of a family, and reminds us that there’s something that’s always the same in every family…

 

Over to Maureen…

Every Family is Different_cover

2 things that inspired my book

My mum, Maureen O’Donnell, is a compassionate, generous and loving woman, and this book would never have been written without her unwavering belief in me. Mum left her family and friends in England to support my dad in his desire to relocate to Australia in the 1960s, only to find herself bringing up my sisters and me single-handedly just a few years later, with no relatives to support her. As a result, family is incredibly important to all of us. This sentiment is also embraced by my daughters and their cousins, and we are now welcoming the next generation to our extended family.

Mum, my sisters and me

While I was lucky to grow up in a positive, welcoming neighbourhood, I’ve heard of situations in which children being brought up by single parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents or same-sex parents have felt ostracised or somehow ‘less’ than others. I wanted my book to highlight that there’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ family these days. Families come in a variety of shapes, sizes and configurations—but love is a common element to them all.

2 places connected to my book

Home—literally and figuratively. I wrote the earliest drafts for this picture book, and others, in my home office, where I worked as a freelance journalist while my daughters were growing up. I also feel a sense of ‘home’ whenever I spend time with my family and closest friends, and they have been incredibly supportive of my journey towards becoming a published author.

There is also a strong connection to my childhood home, in the suburb of Calista, south of Perth, where I grew up in the 1970s. A child’s life in those days was carefree and physically active—with parks and bushland to explore, school within walking or cycling distance, and playtime inspired by imagination rather than spent in front of a screen. Friends lived ‘just around the corner’, and we were free to spend happy days outdoors, as long as we were home when the street lights came on.

2 favourite images

The image of two dads and their baby was illustrator Veronica Rooke’s initial concept of a ‘non-traditional’ family. When Monique Mulligan from publisher Serenity Press showed it to me for the first time, I burst into tears of joy. All of Veronica’s illustrations perfectly reflect what I wanted my words to convey, and I love the way Serenity Press has combined my words and Veronica’s artwork in this beautiful book.

Every Family is Different_original concept

Every page of the book resonates with me, because the families I describe exist within my extended family and among friends and neighbours. Having said that, I have enjoyed the reactions from readers when they see the penultimate pages, which describe families that include ‘one person and a pet…or lots and lots of pets’. The pictures accompanying these words always delight.

Every Family is Different will be in bookshops soon
or can be pre-ordered from Serenity Press
You can contact Maureen via her website
or follow her on Facebook or Twitter

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