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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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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: Dianne Touchell talks about Forgetting Foster

Author PhotoDianne Touchell is one of my favourite writers of young adult fiction. Among the many things I admire in her work are its fearlessness, its compassion, its humour, and the respect she so obviously has for her young characters. It comes as no surprise to me to hear that she thinks young adults are far more interesting than grown-ups.

Dianne’s debut, Creepy & Maud (Fremantle Press, 2012), was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award in the Older Readers category. Her second, A Small Madness (Allen & Unwin, 2015), was a Notable book in the CBCA Book of the Year Awards, and you can read her 2, 2 and 2 interview about A Small Madness here.

I am delighted to be featuring her new novel, Forgetting Foster. Here is the book’s blurb…

Foster suddenly recognised the thing that rolled over him and made him feel sick. It was this: Dad was going away somewhere all on his own. And Foster was already missing him.

Foster Sumner is seven years old. He likes toy soldiers, tadpole hunting, going to school and the beach. Best of all he likes listening to his dad’s stories. But then Foster’s dad starts forgetting things. No one is too worried at first. Foster and Dad giggle about it. But the forgetting gets worse. And suddenly no one is laughing anymore.

A heartbreaking story about what it means to forget and to be forgotten.

Over now to Di…

Forgetting Foster Cover

2 things that inspired the book

1 Two people I loved were affected by Alzheimer’s disease and psychotic dementia. Strong, opinionated, charismatic women with large personalities and a lifelong interest in their internal and external worlds. The sort of women you can never imagine would die at all, let alone slowly walk out of their own bodies long before death actually took them. It does something to you, watching them slowly leave you, watching them slowly leave themselves. It did something to me.

There’s the denial that anything is actually wrong, then the anger that you’re now caring for someone who should be looking after you, then the guilt about that anger, then the exhaustion of that caring, and then the fear that as this godawful illness seems to have its teeth in the women of this family I might go the same way. Every time I misplace my keys or walk into a room and forget why I’m there I laugh and then I panic.

Hand holding 1

2 I began to wonder what makes a relationship. If a relationship is created and sustained through shared memories, mutual histories and love, what happens when one person in that relationship begins to lose their memory, their history. What happens the first time they look at you with fear instead of love. I struggled with this. I still struggle with this even though both these women are dead now and it doesn’t make a lick of difference.

2 places connected with the book

1 The grown-up mind, which hides in practicalities, logistics, rosters, medical jargon and medication regimes. The mind that takes comfort in turning emotional chaos into an Excel spreadsheet of what time this pill has to be taken and what time this doctor has to be seen. The mind that doesn’t breathe much because too much down-time will create a space for pain. An impractical landscape where I chose to pitch my tent. I spent a lot of time there.

2 The child mind, which hasn’t learned to prevaricate, hasn’t learned to white-knuckle things, hasn’t learned the need to control everything. The mind that acknowledges being frightened and feeling hurt and does both things loudly. The mind that can separate love and fear and can express frustration in words and in play. Their feelings are just as big and confusing but can be relieved by one big long scream. I spent time there too.

6bgeneral1front (1)

2 favourite things about the book

1 Foster’s father loves stories and has created a love of stories in Foster that enables him to retreat to toy soldiers and dragons and myth as a way of interpreting and coping with confusion and grief. This gives Foster a lovely perspective, an understanding that the world is big and full of bravery. I particularly like this response from Foster when someone takes the time to ask him what he has learned from his dad:

He said stories are the most important thing. He said people don’t tell stories or listen to other people’s stories enough. He said people are mad as March hares but to love them anyway. He said battles are won or lost before the first shot is fired. He said babies need to get the finger of God on them. He said if God is real then so are Dragons. He said the brain is a super-hero and he said Mum is a princess. Oh, and he said an unkind word can clear a room quicker than a fart.

2 Foster has a way of making things that aren’t funny…very funny. He hasn’t learned to be self-deprecating or cynical yet, which means much of the humour comes directly from bald honesty. I like the scene where Dad takes all his clothes off because they are ‘itching’ him. Fossie simply announces that Dad has his Christmas socks on, without mentioning they are the only thing he has on. The grown-up response is shock, embarrassment, defeat. Mum is so appalled that she drops her phone mid-conversation into a bowl of cereal. Throughout the book I could always rely on Fossie taking the sting out of desperate situations by speaking his mind without fear of the consequences, the result of which is often very funny.

Forgetting Foster is available in bookshops now
Visit Di’s website
Find out more at Allen & Unwin

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