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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…

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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.

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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…

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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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2, 2 and 2: Laurie Steed talks about You Belong Here

Laurie Steed 2Laurie Steed
You Belong Here (Margaret River Press)
NOVEL, LITERARY FICTION

Laurie Steed is a Western Australian writer I have long admired for his excellent short fiction, so it was exciting to hear that a book was on its way—and surprising to hear that it was a novel. I had the pleasure of listening to him read at his first session at Perth Festival Writers Week last weekend, and it was a huge success. The novel sold out before I could buy a copy, but I will be getting myself to a bookshop this week!

Here’s a little about Laurie:

Laurie Steed’s fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and has appeared in Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Age, Meanjin, Westerly, Island and elsewhere. He is a recipient of fellowships from the University of Iowa, the Baltic Writing Residency, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, the Katharine Susannah Prichard Foundation and the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA). He lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his wife and two young sons.

And the blurb for You Belong Here:

Jen and Steven meet at sixteen and marry at eighteen. Soon they’re the parents of three young children.

Initially, the kids keep them together until love turns to lies and the family implodes. As they become adults, each child faces love and loss in the shadow of their family legacy.

You Belong Here is a book about trust and connection. About what keeps us going in spite of ourselves.

About a place where we belong.

And here’s Laurie to tell us more…

YouBelongHere_front+Small

Two things that inspired my book

1 The Doppler effect

In 2009, I began a short story called ‘The Doppler Effect’, about a boy and his Mum in a park, an astronaut in space, and an overworked NASA employee called Jason. As the story progresses, we discover that (of course) the boy from the park is the astronaut and that Jason is the boy’s father. That the boy travelled continents to reunite with his father, and that, more poignantly, the last voice he’ll hear, while in space, will be his father’s.

I became obsessed with the astronaut—how the boy would both want closeness with his parents, and yet simultaneously need such distance. The idea of the Doppler effect then kicked in, but extrapolated to emotions, as opposed to the distortion one finds in, say, an ambulance siren as it comes near one’s vicinity.

While the story never fully clicked, the idea was immovable: how some families crave intimacy but instead create distance; how one can love and hurt at the same time; and particularly, how, in the face of trauma, intimacy breeds intensity, and so a person might seek numbness over closeness, fear over love.

2 A life of stories

My family is born of stories, tales and anecdotes.

It started when, as children, we made audio plays such as the inimitable Night of the Carnivore and Maniacal Murder, a radio adaptation of an earlier crime chapbook written by my brother James, at age seven. James had, in fact, already written five of these, known loosely as the Victor Drago books.

James Steed -The Victor Drago Books

At the same time, my other brother, Shane, would send me to sleep with stories of Granny and Rangi, two everyday superheroes who fought bullies and righted the wrongs of an unjust society. My mother and sister, meanwhile, were busy acting in the local production of Annie. Even my father, Dr Duncan Steed, had gifted us his father’s cabinet of medical slides for microscopic narratives, a virus, clot or abnormality given stories, songs, in which to grow and develop.

Soon after we moved to Perth, my mother joined Playback, a theatre group where audience members told their stories, and then had actors play it back to them. I acted too, mostly in high school, and indeed my rendition of Carrickfergus from Louis Nowra’s Summer of the Aliens has been known to make dogs cry.

Given such a pedigree, it was not so much a matter of if I’d tell my stories but when, and how. My family had forever been weaving tales; once the dust settled, with horror metal, blues, poetry and graffiti all conquered by the family Steed, I took my turn at the helm with words. They are, to be blunt, the only things that have ever made sense to me.

Two places connected with my book

1 Hamer Park

I’ve nominated Hamer Park (it appears in both ‘The Family Mixtape’ and ‘The First Test’ chapters of the book). But it’s worth noting that Inglewood Oval is next door, and it’s the edge of Inglewood Oval that Alex tumbles down in ‘The Family Mixtape’ and revisits towards the end of ‘The Knife’.

So much happened there in my childhood and adolescence, little of which is captured in You Belong Here. Amy Stark dropped the ball in year seven pass ball (it could have happened to anyone); a boy stormed across the middle of Hamer to take on his little brother’s bully, and promptly had his arse handed to him; and, in one particularly memorable exchange, a guy we called ‘Blue Glasses’ (he wore blue glasses) mused that if our principal were to confront him, and tell him to stop smoking, he’d simply blow smoke back in his face and say, ‘Hi, Mr Torr.’

Not exactly Oscar Wilde, but then Blue Glasses was always his own man.

In the book, as in life, Hamer Park is not good or bad, but a place to make memories, both home and not, all at once.

Hamer Park

2 The Gap

The Gap is a rock formation fifteen-minutes-drive out of Albany, on the southern tip of Western Australia. It’s known for its sedimentary strata, part of which form a natural bridge, and for a stunning twenty-five metre drop from its highest point down to the frothing, foaming ocean. It’s a popular tourist destination for many, and yet to me, it’s also a full-on space, with cold, whip-like winds, and the exhilarating/terrifying experience of looking down into enraged, tumultuous water.

In relation to You Belong Here, it seemed a fine place for Alex to escape; it’s cold, isolated, and away from mobile reception. And yet, even in such surroundings, and despite his hurt, he’s inclined to reach out. It’s here he meets Dex (short for Dexter), a surly teen with his own reasons for revisiting the rocks, as he does every year.

Dex matters to the narrative fabric like The Gap matters, as both are wake-up calls; reminders of choice and of consequence. The Gap is a tourist spot, but not one you’re likely to revisit by choice. It’s a place you go, to feel the weight and then leave. Or, as Dex puts it, there’s ‘only so many times you can come’.

Two favourite aspects of the book

1 What do you mean by that?

One of my favourite aspects of You Belong Here, and one that only really took flight once I started the editing process with Kate O’Donnell, was a willingness to call bullshit on ignorance, gender or cultural bias within the characters. Towards the end of ‘Half-life’, Jay and Emily originally talked mostly about him. Emily was insignificant. Rather than making it about her insignificance, though, we chose to call it out, and it reads better for it:

‘You enjoying the course?’ said Jay.

‘I love it,’ said Emily. ‘A bit lonely, but.’

‘All guys?’

‘Talk shit,’ said Emily.

‘Well I don’t know,’ said Jay.

‘There are lots of girls,’ said Emily. ‘It’s not the girls or the boys. It’s just lonely.’

There’s another exchange in ‘Give or Take’ that I’m particularly fond of but won’t get into here. I guess I’m enamoured by this aspect of the book because we never really say what we think, or we do, but it’s embedded, and so there’s joy in teasing that out, in casting a light, and showing blind spots, if and when they occur.

2 Sincerity, nostalgia, and a willingness to be tragically unhip

In characters like Jay, I found the chance to embrace my inner dork, who’s unaware of how incredibly cool the world would become. How trends would signify not popularity but a dogged desire to be both individual and incredibly predictable at the same time.

Of his literary landscape at the time, David Foster Wallace wrote: ‘Postmodern irony and cynicism have become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.’

I’m with Dave, I think, in that irony has a point—to ridicule absurd traditions or preconceived notions, and to debunk society’s illusions—but what then must we do? Be insightful but sad? Be willing to mock beliefs but never have the courage to believe?

For me, beliefs, and particularly beliefs based on love, compassion and adoration, are joyous things. Some would argue that much traditional religion does this, but to me, one’s beliefs are compromised once too strongly governed by outside influence.

It’s probably naïve and perhaps a bit dorky to say so, but I think love as a concept is incredibly liberating. That it’s exquisite to shout clearly and confidently, ‘I love this.’ That there’s freedom in holding the entirety of the past, good, bad, trivial and significant in your hand, and saying, ‘This matters to me, and maybe this matters to you too.’

 

You Belong Here is in bookshops now
Follow Laurie via his website
More at Margaret River Press

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2, 2 and 2: Michelle Johnston talks about Dustfall

MJ HeadshotMichelle Johnston
Dustfall (UWA Publishing)
FICTION

I’m finding it hard to stop thinking about Michelle Johnston’s debut novel, Dustfall—compelling, disturbing and strangely lyrical, given the harshness of its environment and the emotional and ethical territory it traverses. It will be my privilege and great pleasure to launch the novel in a couple of weeks, and I think it’s going to find a wide and enthusiastic audience.

Michelle is one of those rare and impressive people who manage to write as well as excel in a demanding professional field. I’ll let the poetry of her author blurb speak for itself:

Dr Michelle Johnston is a consultant Emergency Physician who works at an inner-city hospital. Mostly her days consist of trauma and mess. She believes there is a beating heart of humanity, art and beauty within the sometimes brutal reality of the Emergency Department, and has dedicated her career to finding that sweet spot between creativity and critical care medicine. Books are her other oxygen, and writing her sustenance.

And here is the blurb for Dustfall:

Dr Raymond Filigree, running away from a disastrous medical career, mistakes an unknown name on a map for the perfect refuge. He travels to the isolated town of Wittenoom and takes charge of its small hospital, a place where no previous doctor has managed to stay longer than an eye blink. Instead of settling into a quiet, solitary life, he discovers an asbestos mining corporation with no regard for the safety of its workers and no care for the truth.

Thirty years later, Dr Lou Fitzgerald stumbles across the abandoned Wittenoom Hospital. She, too, is a fugitive from a medical career toppled by a single error. Here she discovers faded letters and barely used medical equipment, and, slowly the story of the hospital’s tragic past comes to her.

Dustfall is the tale of the crashing consequences of medical error, the suffering caused by asbestos mining and the power of storytelling.

Over to Michelle…

Dustfall cover

 

2 things that inspired Dustfall

1 A ghost of a hospital

In 1991, without any planning, forethought or sense, I stumbled across the ruin of Wittenoom Hospital. It was the strangest place I had ever seen. As though it had been abandoned only the day before, there were scraps of gauze rolling across the crumbling concrete floor, stacks of broken shelving with old, waterlogged journals on them, and a mysterious gleaming metal machine in one of the corners. Many of the walls had collapsed or were simply gaping holes, and all the windows were broken. Outside, in the cancerous, dying town of Wittenoom, no-one knew much about the old building. Those citizens who still clung to that doomed, decaying place were of a different breed, and they had other matters on their mind rather than recording a history which was fading in the light. But the vivid memory of the building stuck in my head (as memories made during difficult times of one’s life often do), and 20 years later, it needed to have a story of my own set there. A year after I visited, the hospital was gone altogether. Razed. And most of the other buildings followed. I’ve been up to Wittenoom a number of times since, and on each occasion there is less and less man-made. Nature is consuming it all.

The research into the heinous episode in Western Australia’s mining history followed significantly later, well after I had written the early drafts of Dustfall. And the more I discovered, the more I needed to recraft the manuscript, so as to stay true to both the fictional narrative, and the truth about asbestos mining.

Raymond Wittenoom

2 Mistakes

All medical errors are devastating in one way or another. Not only for the people affected but also for those responsible; they open a floodgate of self-recrimination and doubt. We doctors are an unforgiving breed. Mostly for good reason. Society expects the standards and safeguards in medicine to be beyond reproach. Mistakes will, however, occur, and when they do, most doctors will react to them uniquely, and oftentimes in exaggerated and destructive ways. We tend to be tortured by Fates only we can see. Dustfall has at the heart of its story a medical error. But further fascinating is the juxtaposition of an individual’s response to their own mistake with the way a corporate error is dealt with. The asbestos mining saga offered plenty of material to work with here.

2 geographical spaces connected with the novel

1 The Pilbara

The head-messing vastness of the Pilbara is like nowhere else on earth. It is at once a barren, desolate moonscape coexisting with pockets of lush vegetation and plains of glittering minerals. It is staggering in its extremes. There is soil that is red beyond description and it has skies so blue they ought not be real. This is a magnificent place to try out one’s writerly palette. Plus it is peopled by characters of steel, the cut of whom has made it into the weave of Dustfall.

2 Royal Perth Hospital

I love this place. I have worked amongst her higgledy-piggledy corridors and wards for 27 years. I have cried and laughed and knelt by the side of the newly bereaved and held still-beating hearts in my hand. I have travelled to and from her in the coal of the night, and have spent days frustrated and scared and triumphant and stretched to my very limit. She was always going to feature in my first book, even though she hasn’t been named (and so much has been fictionalised, she is barely recognisable).

2 historical characters who play important roles in Dustfall

The problem here is that there are three. Descartes, Keats and Pliny the Elder. But in no way would I want to rock Amanda’s extraordinary boat, so I have played rock paper scissors with them, and Pliny the Elder (despite his admirable contribution to the story’s denouement) has been cut from this list. [Amanda feels suitably guilty about the summary dismissal of Poor Pliny from the blog. You’ll have to read the novel to give him his voice.]

1 René Descartes

The polymathic father of modern philosophy, a champion of doubt, and a man whose ideas came from fervid dreams when shut indoors with a smoking stove. His doctrines were legion and cut across many disciplines, but the one that leant itself to Raymond’s (the main character in Dustfall) own rather outlandish personal theories about Medicine were the theories on mind–body dualism—that the senses cannot be trusted. Raymond is a man out of time—a misguided poet and a dreamer. He carries with him several books, one of which is Descartes’s Meditation on First Philosophy.

2 John Keats

(Or, more accurately, his poem ‘The Eve of St Agnes’—although Keats’s premature death from tuberculosis gets a guernsey.) Keats wrote ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ in 1819. It was certainly considered one of his best, and tells the tale, in Spenserian stanzas, of the romantic tradition in the Middle Ages that if, on St Agnes’s Eve (January 20), a maiden performed certain rites before bed, she would dream of her future husband, thus sealing her life’s matrimonial fate. The rest of the poem is mainly confusion and mild erotica and mixed messages and trouble. It’s gorgeous, and the themes are woven gently through the book. I shan’t give away just how, but the first lines are quoted at the beginning, the eve of the book, where in the poem it is chilly and wintry, and we are about to explode into suffocating heat in the novel.

 

I’m grateful to Amanda for inviting me to introduce Dustfall to you this way, and to sit in the company of such brilliant other writers in the 2, 2 and 2 series. And thank you, for reading.

Dustfall will be in bookstores on 1 February 2018
Find out more at UWA Publishing
Follow Michelle on Twitter

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2, 2 and 2: Louise Allan talks about The Sisters’ Song

Author ShotsLouise Allan
The Sisters’ Song (Allen & Unwin)
FICTION

I’m delighted to introduce Louise Allan as my first 2, 2 and 2 guest for 2018. Louise’s debut novel, The Sisters’ Song, has only been out for a few weeks but it seems to be appearing everywhere—a wonderful, and well-deserved, start to its life.

Louise is well known in the Perth writing community for her engaging, warm-hearted approach to everything she does, and will be familiar to many readers through her popular blogs. But here’s a brief introduction:

Louise grew up in Tasmania, but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her first career was as a doctor, but in 2010 she ceased practising medicine and took up writing.

The manuscript of The Sisters’ Song was shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle–T.A.G. Hungerford Award, and was awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship. Louise has also had short stories, essays and articles published in literary anthologies and medical journals.

Apart from writing, Louise enjoys music, photography, walking and nature.

And here’s the blurb for The Sisters’ Song:

Set in rural Tasmania from the 1920s to the 1990s, The Sisters’ Song traces the lives of two very different sisters. One for whom giving and loving are her most natural qualities and the other who cannot forgive and forget.

As children, Ida loves looking after her younger sister, Nora, but when their beloved father dies in 1926, everything changes. The two girls move in with their grandmother, who is particularly encouraging of Nora’s musical talent. Nora eventually follows her dream of a brilliant musical career, while Ida takes a job as a nanny and their lives become quite separate.

The two sisters are reunited as Nora’s life takes an unwelcome direction and she finds herself, embittered and resentful, isolated in the Tasmanian bush with a husband and children.

Ida longs passionately for a family and when she marries Len, a reliable and good man, she hopes to soon become a mother. Over time, it becomes clear that this is never likely to happen. In Ida’s eyes, it seems that Nora possesses everything in life that could possibly matter yet she values none of it.

Over a span of seventy years, the strengths and flaws of motherhood are revealed through the mercurial relationship of these two very different sisters. The Sisters’ Song speaks of dreams, children and family, all entwined with a musical thread that binds them together.

Over to Louise…

Unknown

2 things that inspired my book      

1 My grandmother’s history

As a child, I heard about my paternal grandmother’s three stillbirths. After the third one, the doctor told my grandmother that if she ever wanted to birth a live baby, she would need a caesarean.

I’d accepted this story then without thinking too deeply about it. As I grew older, particularly once I became a mother, it struck me how heartbreaking it must have been for my grandmother to nurture a baby in her womb for nine months, only for it to die during delivery. Three times.

One day in 2012, I searched the Launceston cemetery records and found the record of the interment of one of these uncles:

Version 2

On 22 March 1937, the stillborn baby of Mrs L.D. Allan (she wasn’t even given her own initials but those of my grandfather) was buried in Section D558 of Carr Villa cemetery. Seeing it recorded was bittersweet—I’m glad there’s a record that he existed, but it was also strikingly sad.

On a visit to the cemetery in Launceston, I tried to find his grave, but it’s unmarked.

I incorporated my grandmother’s story into Ida’s story in my novel.

2 Old family photos

I also drew inspiration from photos taken by my paternal grandfather’s family. My grandfather was born in 1906, one of eighteen children from a working-class family. Despite the lack of money, and the relative expense of cameras, film and developing photos in those days, they managed to leave a substantial photographic record of their lives.

I wrote quite a few scenes using the photos as prompts. The opening paragraph comes from this photo. I changed a few details to suit my story, but the essence comes from this photo, including the mention of the cloche hat!

f Group photo - I think Grandpop Allan is centre front

The photo below is how I imagined Ida, Nora and the kids would look. It’s a photo of my paternal grandmother (L), with her sister-in-law and her children.

zzz Nan Allan and unknown people - possibly Michael McIntee on Left

2 places connected with my book

1 Ben Craeg

Ben Craeg is the name of the mountain I describe in my book. Tasmania has a few mountains called ‘Ben’: Ben Lomond, the highest peak of the Eastern Tiers, and Ben Nevis, where my grandfather once had a sawmill.

When writing the first ever draft of this story, I made up the name Ben Craeg. That version was mainly about Grace, so it’s an anagram of her name, and I thought it sounded very Scottish!

There are mountains wherever you look in Tasmania—it’s not flat and brown like many parts of Australia. Because mountains are referred to as ‘she’, and because they always seem to be quietly watching over the valleys below, to me they have a maternal quality, so I bestowed these qualities on Ben Craeg, in keeping with the themes in my book.

As an aside, I was tickled to see someone had googled ‘Ben Craeg Tasmania’ and ended up on my website. My apologies to that reader for confusing them!

2 Ida’s house

Ida lives in Launceston, Tasmania, and I put her house in the street in which I grew up, although I’ve given the street a different name. The suburb we lived in was built on reclaimed swamp, and whenever a heavy vehicle like a truck or bus drove down our street, the houses shuddered and the glassware in the cabinet clinked. Just as those who live near airports tune out the noise of planes, we were used to the shaking of the floor beneath us and the rattling of the crockery. It unsettled our visitors, though, and I remember explaining to friends that it wasn’t an earthquake, just a truck passing by.

Ida’s house is modelled on my grandparents’ home. It had a front verandah, and I added iron lace and geraniums in boxes. My grandmother cooked with a wood stove, and I remember the copper in their bathroom.

2 interesting parallels

1 ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I read this short story when my daughter studied it in late high school. I’d already written an early draft of my novel, and this story resonated, as it seemed to reflect the themes I was trying to bring out in my novel.

It’s about a young woman’s descent into madness after the birth of her child, and is based on Gilman’s personal experience of post-natal depression, when her husband, a physician, forbade her from working or writing, believing that devoting herself to domestic duties was the key to happiness. Although it was first published in 1892, unfortunately it still resonates today.

Here’s a link to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.

2 Dame Nellie Melba

It could be argued that Dame Nellie Melba is still Australia’s most successful expatriate ever. She sang in the opera houses of Europe and America, and was feted the world over.

Melba is mentioned a couple of times in my novel: Ida’s grandmother had been to one of her concerts, and Ida listens to her records on a gramophone when she lives with the Godfrey-Smiths.

I wrote these sections and then researched Melba’s life. I discovered that Melba’s father was against her singing, expecting that she’d marry and have a family. She did marry and have a son, but later divorced, and, at one point, lost custody of her son for ten years.

I saw the parallels between Melba and Nora, the character in my novel: both wanted to dedicate their lives to music rather than family. Imagine if Melba had stayed in Australia and lived a life of domesticity; the world would never have heard her voice. Imagine, too, how many other Melbas have lived and whose voices have never been heard.

I loved this quote about Melba from one of the websites I researched: But hers was not a life dedicated to love; it was a life dedicated to opera.

For more information on Dame Nellie Melba’s life, see here.

The Sisters’ Song is in stores now
More at Allen & Unwin
You can follow Louise via social media: website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

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2, 2 and 2: Nicole Sinclair talks about Bloodlines

2nd Nicole's photo 2016

Nicole Sinclair and I have been connected in a variety of ways over some years. I first came into contact with her work—anonymously, of course—when I chose one of her stories as winner of the Down South Writers Competition. (Not long after that, she won the Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Award—the first writing award I ever won.) Later I discovered what a skilful and generous interviewer she is when she took that role in a conversation session with me at the Margaret River Writers Festival. And in 2015 we appeared together in an issue of Review of Australian Fiction. I’m delighted that we are now friends as well as writing colleagues.

Nicole’s short fiction and non-fiction has also appeared in Westerlyindigo Journal and Award Winning Australian Writing, and forms part of the artworks along Busselton Jetty. Bloodlines (Margaret River Press, 2017), which was shortlisted for the 2014 TAG Hungerford Award, is her first novel.

You can meet Nicole and hear more about Bloodlines at the Bookcaffe Book Club, at the State Library of WA, on 8 June (5.30–7.00pm). Bookings and more information here.

Here is the back-cover blurb:

Thirty-one-year-old Beth, who grew up in Western Australia’s wheatbelt, is running from her past when she heads to an island in Papua New Guinea. Interwoven with Beth’s narrative about the joys and brutalities of island life is the story of her parents’ passionate, tender love for each other. But Clem and Rose’s union is beset with tragedy, forever marking the lives of those around them.

Shifting between the perspectives of five memorable characters, this ambitious, big-hearted novel heralds an exciting voice in Australian literature. Above all, Bloodlines asks us to consider what it means to make a home, and what we might owe to those who dwell in it.

And now, over to Nicole…

cover1

2 things that inspired the novel

Shearing sheds

Shearing sheds have been a part of Sinclair family culture for generations and my father was a shearer for over fifty years. As kids, we loved climbing through packs overflowing with soft wool, chasing lambs in the pens and sweeping the boards. We worked in sheds when we were older, earning money while at university or to go travelling, and we had greater appreciation for the back-breaking work Dad did to provide for us. Shearing sheds are such a rich source of story: old junk is often stored in them, watching a roustabout throw a fleece can be captivating, and the pranks and talk at smoko and cut-out are always interesting! Many people believe that shearing sheds are places full of crude talk and drink, and I wanted to present an alternative to this stereotype. I also hoped to represent the very act of sheep shearing as something skilled and graceful. Beth’s parents (Clem and Rose) both work in shearing sheds and, through them, I was able to pay homage to this very formative part of my life. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the challenge of depicting their tender love affair (without being sentimental and soppy) against the gritty grime and stink of shearing sheds.

Mothering

I could not have perceived how greatly my life would change through the course of writing Bloodlines. I began writing this novel as a single woman, and within a short period of time, I fell in love and had a baby. Within two years, we had another daughter. Motherhood greatly affected how I wrote and what I wrote about.

An impending baby makes a great deadline! For the first time in my life, I was disciplined with my practice. When the baby was born, and I was strapped for time and sleep-deprived, mothering made me work-savvy. I wrote willy-nilly on scraps of paper, receipts discarded on the kitchen bench bore jottings for a character, a plot point would be recorded on a serviette at a cafe on a much-needed escape from the house. The very structure of the narrative—the prose fragments or small chapters—reflects these small snatches of time afforded me. I was determined to write whenever I could (the house often in disarray) and gave up many of my idealistic, perfectionist attitudes towards creative practice. My work, like my mothering, had to be ‘good enough’.

I used my creative musings to explore the wondrous, often frustrating experience of new motherhood, and the narrative became the richer for it. Rose remains one of my favourite characters, perhaps because in her, I see so much of myself as a vulnerable new mother. Fellow-writer Robyn Mundy read an early draft and commented, ‘…I nodded several times at the moments from your own life: Rose’s challenges with baby Beth’s crying and sleep deprivation (could you have written that wonderful layer into Rose without your experiences?).’

Most likely not.

2 places connected to the novel

Bloodlines is told from five different perspectives, with shifting times and places. The two key settings of this novel are based on places of great significance in my own life. In many ways, the narrative is a tribute to both the physical landscape and the people to whom I felt a close connection in each place.

The first is Toodyay, a small town (or at least it was when I grew up there!) on the edge of the West Australian wheatbelt. The rolling hills, meandering river and small town characterise my fictional town of Hope Valley, which is drawn from my childhood memories of growing up on a farm near Toodyay. I think the wheatbelt is often overlooked or dismissed (it’s not the coast, the desert, the forested south, the city), and yet I find the wheatbelt landscape very evocative. Through Clem’s daughter, Beth, I explore some of the complexities of belonging and connection to a particular place; how we might long for it, yet also spurn it, hate it.

In 2007 and 2008, I worked as a volunteer in a Catholic school on an island in Papua New Guinea. The experience was intriguing for many different reasons, and I knew I ‘had’ to write about it. Few Australians know much about PNG except the violence and corruption emanating from Port Moresby or, more recently, the debacle of the off-shore detention centre on Manus Island, but it offers the would-be writer (and reader) an extraordinary backdrop: environmental biodiversity, hundreds of distinct cultural groups, locals who love drama, rumour and sharing stories. From the outset, I wanted to evoke the dense-jungled mountain interior and palm-fringed island where I lived and worked, and I wanted to pay tribute to the generous, friendly, hard-working people I lived and worked with—which brought me face to face with the challenges of writing about another culture, one (at times) so vastly different to my own. Bloodlines is my investigation of the outsider in PNG as they grapple with cultural difference and the legacy of colonialism.

Sunplus

These two quite disparate settings—the wheatbelt and PNG—allowed me to look at the ‘push–pull’ of places and tease out some of the inherent issues such as belonging and un-belonging, home and dislocation.

2 favourites lines about connection in the novel

In many ways, Bloodlines is about connection: connection to the past, connection to place, connection to others. Two of my favourite quotes about connection are as follows:

Clem and Beth’s connection (pp. 311–312)

He takes the bleating baby, slips down the hallway and out the back door. He grabs his raincoat and covers her with it, feels the tar-black night wrapping around them.

‘Here, my girl,’ he says, jimmying a swollen shearer’s finger into her mouth.

Under the stars he walks up and down the back lawn, round and round the weeping willow, past his vegie patch where the corn quivers in the pre-dawn breeze, past a whimpering Dog, past nappies forgotten on the line. He walks past the tractor with the flat tyre he’s been meaning to fix, past Rose’s Cortina and the ute, til he’s facing east and can see the first pink softening of morning. He holds his little girl, inhales the sheep and sweat of his raincoat mingling with the sweet, soapy smell of her, until the little body stops shuddering at last and her mouth gives up the suck.

Val’s connection with Beth (pp. 380–381)

(Val is Clem’s cousin and Beth goes to work with her in PNG.)

Val knows Beth will be leaving soon—whether it’s now or next year—and something in her feels like breaking. She’s spent over thirty years up here trying to avoid most white people and now Beth, on the island five minutes, is so far under Val’s skin it hurts. She’s got used to having her around, likes knowing she’s in the far house in their compound: two white meris bookending the others, keeping them safe. She’s going to miss their gin and tonic musings and those hot Sundays after church when she loads the ute with Beth, Lena and Grace, Delilah and Ruth, and they all escape to a waterhole down the highway.

signing with oona

Bloodlines is in bookstores now.
You can find out more at Margaret River Press.
Read Lisa Hill’s excellent review here.

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2, 2 and 2: Tracy Farr talks about The Hope Fault

Tracy-Farr-2016-Photo-by-Grant-Maiden-08

Photo by Grant Maiden

Tracy Farr is a Melbourne-born, Perth-raised, Wellington-based writer—which, had it been planned, would be a pretty good networking strategy for a writer!

Her first novel, the original, intelligent and lyrical The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, introduced a brilliant new talent to literature and was one of my favourites of 2013. Literary award judges were impressed, too: it was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Award and Barbara Jefferis Award, and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Tracy’s new novel, The Hope Fault (Fremantle Press), was recently released, and I am delighted to be featuring it here.

Here is the novel’s back-cover blurb:

In Cassetown, Geologue Bay, Iris and her extended family gather on a midwinter long weekend, to pack up the family holiday house now that it has been sold. They are together for one last time, one last weekend, one last party.

The Hope Fault is a celebration of the complexities of family—aunties and steps and exes, and a baby in need of a name; parents and partners who are missing, and the people who replace them.

It’s about the faultlines that run under the surface, and it’s about uncertainty—the unsettling notion that the earth might shift, literally or metaphorically, at any moment. It’s a contemporary novel that plays with time and with ways of telling stories. It finds poetry and beauty in science, and pattern and magic in landscape.

And now, over to Tracy…

The-Hope-Fault-front-cover

2 things that inspired your book

1 Rock-paper-scissors Very early in this novel’s life, when I was struggling to work out what it was about and where it went, I started referring to it (almost mockingly) as ‘my rock-paper-scissors novel’. Referencing the playground game that I’m sure everyone’s familiar with, it was a shorthand that encompassed some key elements of the book that I’d decided on very early in the process, even though I wasn’t at that stage clear about how I could or would bring them together: rock for geology, and the Hope Fault, a geological feature that runs across the South Island of New Zealand; scissors for Iris, who works with fabric (I thought she would make marks on fabric by dyeing, but as I wrote, Iris turned to stitching); and paper for fairytales and photographs, poems and maps, and letters (whether delivered or never sent).

As I wrote, I came to think of rock-paper-scissors not just as a convenient shorthand for the novel, but as an organising principle, and as a theme. I became interested in rock-paper-scissors—the game itself—for its universality and its history (it’s existed, in some form and across cultures, for centuries), for its elegant simplicity, but also for its circularity and democracy. As Kurt says in the novel:

‘It’s circular, never-ending, that’s the beauty of it. No one thing wins over every other thing. Any choice you make might win, or it might lose. There’s the potential to win with each choice, each move, but there’s also the potential, each move, to lose…Even paper can win. Paper wraps rock.’

Circularity is important in the novel, and so is the number three (most obviously in the novel’s three parts). Rock-paper-scissors is a fairytale three, a lovely prime number (Kurt’s keen on primes, too: ‘Three’s just one of those numbers. There’s something about primes, but three in particular.’).

2 A bunch of people Another throwaway line I used early on for this novel, when people asked me what it was about (when, honestly, I didn’t really know the answer to that question), was that it was ‘a novel about a bunch of people’. Behind that uncertain answer was one certainty: that it was important to me that this novel featured a cast of characters, with each of their voices coming up in the mix at different times, and with, at times, all of them talking in chorus, speaking over one another. I knew I wanted them stuck in a house, tripping over one another, in a sort of turned-around version of an Agatha Christie-type country house murder mystery (but without a murder). I was particularly inspired by (obsessed with) the Man Booker–shortlisted 2012 novel Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy. I loved that novel’s bunch of people (the family, the friends, the stoner maintenance man, the elderly neighbour, the beautiful stranger), their range of ages and relationships, the sense of unease, and the set-up of the book, where they’re all at a holiday villa in the south of France.

My novel’s bunch of people was also inspired by the bunch of people in Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse (after which one of my novel’s later chapters is named). The Hope Fault’s three-part structure echoes aspects of the structure of To the Lighthouse (including the central part, titled ‘Time Passes’ in Woolf’s novel, which in my novel had a working title of ‘Time Passes (backwards)’), but it was Woolf’s bunch of people—family and friends, out of time, out of place—in their holiday house, the shifting perspective, the sense that nothing much happens (yet everything happens), that interested me. I was interested, too, in the ways that both novels play with time. And would my own bunch of people make it to their lighthouse?

2 places connected with your book

1 There are so many real places connected with this book that I felt I had to invent a fictional place to contain those multitudes. The contemporary sections of the book take place in a family beach house in Cassetown, on the shores of Geologue Bay. There isn’t (as far as I know) a Cassetown, nor is there a Geologue Bay, but I’d hope that Western Australian readers might get a cheeky little zing of recognition and think of Geographe Bay, and recognise in the name of my Cassetown an echo of the real-life town of Vasse. If I had to point to Cassetown on a map, I’d wave my finger over the south-west of Australia, vaguely in the vicinity of Cowaramup, Busselton, Dunsborough and Vasse, but without actually touching down on the map, because Cassetown isn’t quite any of these places. Rather, it’s a mashup of those places, which I know reasonably well from spending holidays there as a child and through my teens and twenties.

I decided on this fictional place for a number of reasons, not least because I imagined a local geography for the house (the house here, by a river that leads to the bay) that none of the real places quite provided. I really like the sense of the universal that’s provided by a fictional place (rooted in real places)—one lovely comment I’ve had from New Zealand readers of the book is that they didn’t realise that it’s set in Australia, they read it as a rainy New Zealand setting. If I’m honest, that’s a response I was sort of hoping for—that WA readers get that pleasing jolt of recognition, but for non-WA readers, Cassetown can read as an Everyplace that’s close to them. The fictional placename also picks up the thread through the novel of names and naming, and of things (and people) having more than one name. And the fictional setting is a nod to the importance in this novel of fairytale, fiction and make-believe.

Tracy-point-whale-Dunsborough-1967

Tracy on the beach at Dunsborough, 1967

2 The house in the novel is an amalgam of several real-life houses, mixed and mashed and added-to in my mind to come up with this particular place that forms the stage on which the majority of the novel is performed. Closest in feel and layout to the house in the novel—though furthest in geographical distance—is a house near Te Anau (on the way to Milford Sound in New Zealand) that I found on a holiday home rental site, and stayed at for two or three nights with my extended family back in 2010. Like the house in my novel, it was an old farmhouse on a decent bit of land, though now more or less in the suburbs, surrounded by close neighbours. The hallway at the beginning of the novel is the hallway in the Te Anau house; the big music room at the side, the deck leading off it; the large number of bedrooms (were there eight?!), leading off the hallway, or off each other; the dogleg to the kitchen at the rear of the house, and family meals eaten at the table in the kitchen—they all come from that house in Te Anau. There are other houses that are part of the house in the novel: Normandell House, the home of New Zealand Pacific Studio, where I had a rainy writing residency while writing the first draft of the novel; Olive Cottage in Mildura, where I lived for a midwinter month when I was Mildura Writers Festival writer-in-residence, and where I wrote the last scenes of my midwinter novel; my uncle and aunt’s rambling old house near Vasse; my ex’s parents’ house in Cowaramup; the back verandah and outside laundry (a place of cubbies, dress-ups, and playing schools) of my childhood home in North Cottesloe.

2 favourite characters

1 Luce was the last of the cast of characters that I came up with for the novel, and she is, in many ways, my favourite. She was the missing link, early on; once I introduced Luce, and worked out how she fitted into the family and the story, everything finally clicked into place. She’s the 15-year-old daughter of Marti. Kurt (20) is her cousin; Kurt’s mum (Iris) and Luce’s mum (Marti) are best friends, and ex-sisters-in-law. Luce, Kurt and Iris are the three point-of-view characters in the contemporary sections (the first and third parts) of the novel. I particularly love the way that Luce shines in the third and final part of the novel.

Names are important in this novel, and Luce’s is, on the one hand, dreadful (listen to it: Luce/loose!). She’s never known by her first name, Lucy; she’s Luce, or Lucinda-sky (with diamonds), or Lulu. I’ve been asked if there’s a lot of me in Iris, or partying Marti, the characters closest in age to me. But I think that Luce is the character in this novel who has the most of me in her. Though she’s forty years younger than me, I am, in many ways, still that confused and prickly teenager, socially awkward, both wanting and not wanting solitude, wanting to do the right thing but often not sure how to do it.

2 Iris was the first character I came up with for this novel, and she is the novel’s reference point. I’ve always thought of the cast of this novel (there’s a confession: I think of it very much as having a cast of characters, as if it’s a play or film) as a cloud or network of characters. I’d draw it on the page or whiteboard, and keep it on the desk or wall for reference as I wrote: a network with Iris in the centre, and the others arrayed around her, with lines connecting out from Iris like the spokes of a wheel, but also across and around, connecting character to character. Iris is in her late fifties in the novel, living on her own now that her 20-year-old son’s off at uni. It’s ten years after her marriage broke down, and she’s good mates (now) with her ex, and with his new wife. I always saw Iris as still, stable, quiet, dependable. She’s the person at the centre of the lives of her extended family, her circle of friends. I imagine her as the person who facilitates the celebrations of all those around her (her son’s 21st, her mum’s 100th, her best friend’s wedding), but without really stopping to celebrate her own milestones. She quietly gets on and organises all their lives. Everyone needs an Iris.

The Hope Fault is in bookstores now.
Visit Tracy’s website
Find out more at Fremantle Press

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