Tag Archives: Dawn Barker

Shortlisting of Elemental, WA Premier’s Book Awards

elemental_COVERThis week I was thrilled to learn that Elemental has been shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards in the Fiction category. My little red-haired gutting girl is proud to be in the company of these stellar titles:

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (Random House Australia)
Coal Creek by Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)
Eyrie by Tim Winton (Penguin Group Australia)
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (Fremantle Press)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Random House Australia)

You can read the full press release here.

The six shortlisted titles are also eligible for the People’s Choice Award. You can vote for your favourite here (WA residents only, and voting closes 29 August).

I was also thrilled to see that the shortlist in a new category, WA Emerging Writers, includes writer friends Dawn Barker for Fractured (you can read a recent 2, 2 and 2 guest post from Dawn here) and Yvette Walker for Letters to the End of Love (my review here).

What an exciting week it’s been!

 

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2, 2 and 2: Dawn Barker talks about Let Her Go

Welcome to a new series on looking up/looking down. While 3, 3 and 3 features creative people, 2, 2 and 2 narrows the focus to writers—and, specifically, writers with new books. It’s exciting to see so many excellent titles recently published and scheduled for the rest of 2014, and I unashamedly hope this series will give you a few to add to your ever-growing ‘to be read’ pile!

DawnBarkerHeadshotKicking off the series is writer friend Dawn Barker, whose first novel, Fractured, was one of Australia’s top-selling debut fiction titles in 2013.

Dawn is a psychiatrist, as well as an author. Her non-fiction has been published in various magazines and websites, such as Essential Baby, Mamamia, Quartz and the Medical Journal of Australia. She is originally from Scotland but now lives in Perth, Western Australia, with her husband and three young children.

Dawn’s new novel, Let Her Go, is part thriller, part mystery, a gripping novel about family, secrets and ethical dilemmas. Here is the book blurb:

How far would you go to have a family?

What would you hide for someone you love?

Confused and desperate, Zoe McAllister boards a ferry to Rottnest Island in the middle of winter, holding a tiny baby close to her chest, terrified that her husband will find her or that her sister will call the police.

Years later, a teenage girl, Louise, is found on the island, unconscious and alone.

Flown out for urgent medical treatment, when she recovers she returns home and overhears her parents discussing her past and the choices they’ve made.  Their secrets, slowly revealed, will shatter more than one family and, for Louise, nothing will ever be the same again.

It’s a pleasure to welcome Dawn…

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2 things that inspired my book

I read two books that were big inspirations for Let Her Go.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, while a completely different genre, was the first. I’d just watched a documentary about surrogacy where the body language of both the intended mother and the surrogate made me feel uncomfortable and I wondered what was going on behind their smiles. I then re-read The Handmaid’s Tale and saw that the world Atwood imagined in a speculative fiction novel—where an underclass of women are used for reproductive purposes—is not that far removed from the one we live in now. I felt conflicted: being a mother myself, I would never deny anyone the right to experience the joy of being a parent, but there are ethical issues to consider. I wanted to write Let Her Go to explore my own feelings about this complex issue.

The other book that was an inspiration is David Vann’s brilliant Caribou Island. While this is set in Alaska, a long way from Western Australia, Vann is an expert at using landscape—in this case, an island—to increase the intensity between characters. I loved the idea of an island being both an escape and a prison. This gave me the idea to set my book partly on Rottnest Island.

2 places connected with my book

As mentioned, there are many sections of Let Her Go set on Rottnest Island, an island 20 kilometres offshore from Perth. Those of us who live in Perth see it shimmering on the horizon every time we drive past the beach, and as well as being a beautiful place, it’s an island steeped in history and myth.

I first heard about C.Y. O’Connor beach when I was on a friend’s boat at Rottnest Island, and so the links between the settings were in my mind from the very beginning. As we sat in a beautiful bay, eating lunch, my friend told me about a quiet beach in South Fremantle where just offshore there was a bronze statue of a man called C.Y. O’Connor on his horse, and that as the tide came in, the statue was gradually submerged. I learned that this was the beach where the real C.Y. O’Connor, a brilliant engineer who designed ‘the golden pipeline’ (which carries water from Perth to the goldfields of Kalgoorlie), rode out in to the water and shot himself. I visited the eerie beach, and then read more about the myths surrounding his death and followed his story to various places in Western Australia which made it into Let Her Go: Mundaring Weir, Fremantle Harbour and Rottnest.

View across Geordie Bay, Rottnest

2 favourite scenes from my book

There are two scenes in Let Her Go that are my favourites, because they seemed to write themselves. It’s a great feeling as a writer when you can almost visualise a scene in your mind and all you have to do is transcribe it. These two sections ended up virtually unchanged from the first draft.

The first is the scene that is now the prologue. In it, we see a woman on the ferry to Rottnest Island, crying, fearful and clutching a baby to her chest. While writing it, I could taste the salt in the air, smell the fumes and feel the rolling nausea from the motion sickness of the ferry. I could sense the desperation in this character, Zoe, to hold on to the child and the fear that someone would come after her and the baby.

The other scene is one set at Mundaring Weir, a dam in the hills of Perth. The lake below the dam wall is still, milky, and voices and the calls of birds echo through the valley. While I have set two scenes here, my favourite involves one of the main characters, Nadia, making a huge decision about her family—a decision, and a place, that will follow all the characters forever.

Mundaring, view from the top of the weir

Mundaring, view from the top of the weir

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Launch celebration: at the signing table

You can follow Dawn on:
her website
Twitter: @drdawnbarker
Facebook
Let Her Go is in bookstores now and you can find out more at
Hachette Australia

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Writers ask writers: ‘difficult second novel syndrome’

picisto-20140611023627-550765Today the Writers Ask Writers group comes together to celebrate the launch of a new book by one of the group: Dawn Barker’s second novel, Let Her Go. Fractured, her first, was a page-turner, and I’m really looking forward to reading this one. Dawn will be talking about Let Her Go here next week, the first in the new series 2, 2 and 2 on looking up/looking down.

The topic today is, well, topical: the so-called ‘difficult’ second novel.

If you google difficult second novel syndrome you’ll find pages and pages of angst and counter-angst from writers who have suffered from it, writers who haven’t, those with advice and those with analysis. Causes are multifarious, but most seem to fall generally into two camps: exhaustion (the first novel has drained the imaginative life from the writer) and expectation (the first novel has to be ‘bettered’—whether in terms of sales or critical reception or self-defined success).

I don’t remember feeling exhausted of ideas or energy for writing my second novel—possibly because I knew it was going to involve a lengthy research phase before I entered the writing phase. I began that before my first novel was published, so there was a period of overlap between them, in which I was editing The Sinkings and researching Elemental. One seemed to balance the other.

picisto-20140611032418-617083As for expectation: I wasn’t conscious then of specific ‘second novel’ pressure; I was too busy coming to grips with what I was trying to do conceptually and narratively with Elemental. Danielle Wood summed up this distinction brilliantly when it was put to her that, having written one novel, she now knew ‘how to do it’. She responded that all she had learned was how to write the novel she had written; she would now have to learn how to write the next.

Among the many things I had to learn in the early stages of Elemental were how to write a sustained work in the first person, how to structure a long novel covering a life of more than eighty years, how to pace past and present, immediacy and reflection, and how to create an unfamiliar world through memories not my own. And I learned in the way that works for me: through immersion in the past, through instinct, through questioning, through trial and error.

If you’d asked me then if I knew what I was doing, I’d have shrugged, I’d have shaken my head. There are times I might have cried, but there were not too many of those. Frequently I reminded myself that I had felt the same when writing Little Jock and Willa in The Sinkings, and somehow I’d managed in the end.

picisto-20140611033435-692936In retrospect, I can see that some of the pressure associated with publishing a second novel was circumvented by Inherited, a collection of short stories published between the two novels. That came about more by stealth than design—a gradual accumulation of material through a felt need to actually complete a few sprints during the marathon of the novel!

However, I’m prepared to rewrite history and call it a smart move.

You can click on the links below to read my friends’ views on the difficult second novel:

Annabel Smith found that the first gave her confidence to write the second. The biggest difference between them, she says, was the marketing.

Emma Chapman is still in the process of writing her second novel, and is finding it more relaxed but full of challenges.

Sara Foster was a new mother when she wrote her second novel and found the former more scary than the latter!

Dawn Barker found inspiration for her second novel from such disparate sources as Florence and The Machine and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

PWFC author collage

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Big Mother’s Day book giveaway

17 April 2014: Congratulations to Amanda Barrett, winner of the giveaway and bonus prize!

16 April 2014: Competition CLOSED. Winner announced tomorrow.

15 April 2014: Last day to enter! Competition closes midnight. To enter, remember to (1) sign up for the newsletter, and (2) leave a comment here. Good luck!

This month I’m happy to be teaming up with Writers Ask Writers friends Emma Chapman, Annabel Smith, Sara Foster and Dawn Barker to offer a fabulous Mother’s Day prize of ten books: our most recent releases plus one that each of us has selected as a book we would give to our mothers. So the winner of the competition will receive a copy of the following titles:

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There’s also a bonus prize, if the winner is from Perth: two tickets to see Jennifer Saunders discussing her recently released memoir, Bonkers: My Life in Laughs, at the Octagon Theatre on 28 April 2014, 7.30–8.30pm. (If the winner is not from Perth, the bonus prize will go to the first Perth entrant we draw after that.)

Huge thanks to Beaufort Street Books—one of my favourite bookshops—for sponsoring the giveaway. Jane and her fabulous staff really know books—and really know their customers, too! We’re delighted to have them on board.

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How do you enter? There are a few ways, and the more ways you use, the more chances you’ll have:

  • Sign up for my free email newsletter here, and leave a comment on this post, telling me what book you’d like to give your mother on Mother’s Day. If you’re already a newsletter subscriber, you won’t miss out; just leave your comment and that will count as an entry. *If you want to be in the running for the Jennifer Saunders tickets, make sure you add ‘PS I’m local’ to your comment.
  • Go to Emma’s, Annabel’s, Sara’s and Dawn’s blogs (links at the end of this post) and follow their instructions for entering.

Apologies to our international readers, but this one is open only to Australian residents.

The competition ends midnight on Tuesday 15 April, and we’ll be announcing the winner on Thursday 17th. So if you win, you’ll be well prepared for spoiling your mother, or someone else’s, or just yourself on Mother’s Day!

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My mother is a great reader, and my sister and I are always giving her books, or suggesting titles she might like to borrow from the library. Among several she’s enjoyed recently are Jo Baker’s Longbourne (Pride and Prejudice told from the servants’ point of view), Ian Reid’s That Untravelled World (a novel of early twentieth-century Perth) and Deborah Burrows’s Taking a Chance (a romance set in World War II Perth).

I’ve chosen Simone Lazaroo’s 2010 novel Sustenance as a wonderful Mother’s Day read, for several reasons. But first, let me tell you a little about it.

sustenance_cover_AWSustenance is set in the foothills of Bali, at the Elsewhere Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel for Western tourists. The main character, Perpetua de Mello, daughter of a Malaccan mother and an English father, is the hotel’s cook and an observer of life and of lives—the hotel’s wealthy guests, its Balinese staff, its owners (her ageing father and his dubious American business partner), its village neighbours, and a visiting Australian food critic who has a proposition for her.

The peaceful, idyllic world of the Elsewhere is torn asunder when the hotel is invaded by armed gunmen, its staff and guests taken hostage, and everything underpinning the comfortable complacency of Western tourism is revealed.

And so to my reasons for choosing Sustenance as an ideal Mother’s Day book.

First, the writing. Simone Lazaroo is one of Western Australia’s—indeed, Australia’s—most gifted writers, three times winner of the WA Premier’s Book Award for Fiction, and Sustenance is a beautiful, moving, witty, thought-provoking book.

Second, the food! It is a sensory delight to read the sumptuous descriptions of Perpetua’s meals, and we discover so much about this character through her respect for ingredients and the traditional recipes inherited from her mother.

Third, place. Bali is a destination well loved by so many Australians—including my mother—and this novel both celebrates and interrogates the relationship between the countries. It also evokes a visceral sense of place—the colours, the textures, the tropical scents, the human tapestry.

elemental_COVERFinally, Sustenance is a mother’s story—powerfully so—and that is an aspect of the novel best discovered through the reading. And I think that makes it a good companion novel for Elemental, a grandmother’s story written by my character Meggie and intended as as a gift for her granddaughter’s 21st birthday. Elemental’s dedication reads:

For
Edna Jean

and all grandmothers

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And so, get commenting and signing up, and you’ll be in the draw for our big book giveaway—plus the bonus Jennifer Saunders tickets if you’re located in Perth. Links to posts by Sara, Annabel, Emma and Dawn are below.

Good luck!

Sara Foster has chosen for the giveaway a book she’s already given to her mother, M.L. Stedman’s bestselling The Light Between Oceans. Sara’s mother loved it!

Annabel Smith’s Mother’s Day pick is Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, ‘a book about motherhood—about the sacrifices it asks of us and the rewards.’

Emma Chapman calls her chosen book, The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait, a real page-turner: ‘a wonderful, heartbreaking novel about the effects of depression on a family.’

Dawn Barker says of her pick, Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret: ‘My mum would love the page turning story and the emotional drama—as I did.’

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Reasons to love a novel: issues and empathy

When I was writing the novel that eventually was published as The Sinkings (2008), I used to become anxious whenever anyone asked me that dreaded question What’s it about? It wasn’t that I was trying to keep it a secret, nor that I was lacking in focus. But I believe it can be creatively disastrous to talk too much about a work still in development; that it can have the effect of closing off what is, and should remain for some time, an open question. My novel was ‘about’ many things, and I didn’t have a neat one-sentence answer handy. (Come to think of it, I still need more than one sentence to describe The Sinkings!)

I remember, one time, mumbling, Oh, it’s about a convict. And, another time, mentioning intersex. In the latter case, the person I was talking to responded, Oh, so it’s an issues novel.

An issues novel. I don’t think I’d heard that term before, but I immediately understood what my friend meant. I’d read novels that position a medical condition or a current controversy or a matter of social justice front and centre, with everything else—characters, relationships, place, dramatic arc—almost incidental to that, there merely as a vehicle for the big ‘about’.

The Sinkings isn’t like that. But it does—among other things—explore the black, white and many greys of an ‘issue’, and that kind of exploration is one of the things that inspire me as a writer. And I realise, too, that it’s something I find compelling as a reader.

I love the capacity of fiction to spirit us, emotionally and intellectually, into the skin of other characters, to worry for the impossible situations writers have put them in, to feel their dilemmas for ourselves, to wonder: Why did this happen? What if I were that person, in that time, that place, that situation… would I have done that? What would I do?

The experience of falling into the universe of a book, and into the skin of the other, can help us to understand, to think, to feel, and when people do that they are far less likely to fear or to denigrate. In other words, it can engender empathy.

My reading in 2013 brought me to several impressive books that did exactly that. In this post I’m highlighting two of them.

In her hugely successful debut novel, Fractured, Dawn Barker gives a compassionate portrayal of a family pulled to pieces by a young woman’s severe postpartum mental illness. The beauty of the way Fractured is structured, moving forwards and backwards from a pivotal event, is that cause and effect are kept in suspension, layering the reader’s means of understanding the how and the why. Similarly, the narrative point of view is continually shifting, so that we see what is happening through the eyes of the young mother, Anna, her husband, Tony, her parents-in-law and her mother—a strategy that tends to keep the reader’s allegiances also shifting, making judgment impossible. This extract is from Anna’s point of view.

fractured coverAs soon as Anna sat down in the waiting room, Jack began to cry. Just give me a break, she wanted to shout. Just shut up for five minutes. I can’t do this. But, of course, she didn’t shout. She stood up and pushed the pram back and forward, back and forward. The lady sitting across from her was trying to catch her eye; Anna felt obliged to meet it.

‘Aww, he’s so little! How old is he?’ The woman leaned over to see into the pram.

‘He’s four weeks,’ she said with a slight smile, then turned away.

‘He’s so beautiful.’ Now the woman’s head was right inside the pram. ‘Hello, gorgeous boy. What’s the matter with you? Are you hungry?’

‘No, he’s not,’ she said. ‘He’s just crying. That’s what babies do.’

The stranger raised her eyebrows and went back to her magazine.

‘Sorry,’ Anna mumbled. Her face burned. She didn’t want to cry, not here, in front of everyone. She sat down and took a deep breath, but she couldn’t get enough air. Her lips and fingers tingled. That woman was staring at her, but her face was blurred around the edges and white flashes exploded in front of Anna’s eyes. Was the woman laughing at her? She gripped the arms of her chair with her numb fingers and hoped she was smiling.

—Dawn Barker, Fractured (Hachette, 2013)

Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl—also a debut—is one of the most confronting novels I’ve read in a while, plunging me into what is now an alien world, but which of course was once (a long time ago!) my world: that of an adolescent girl. Fourteen-year-old Layla is an impressively drawn character—intelligent, sexually precocious, terribly vulnerable. Her story is given nuance and context by those of two adult characters—her mother, Margot, who is struggling with lonely middle age, and an unrelated Japanese man, Tadashi, who has a disturbing sexual fetish. just_a_girl is a powerful, and often uncomfortable, look at contemporary culture, with Layla at the heart of it, as subject and object, as confirmation and contradiction. Living, for the duration of the novel, in Layla’s skin made me reflect that it has possibly always been so with teenage girls, and to feel compassion for both the girl beneath the armour and the armour itself.

Here is part of the opening passage:

justagirl_web_mainEdnThe guy formerly known as youamizz told me he’d be wearing a red Strokes t-shirt. I see him from the train as it pulls in at Newcastle. He’s not bad enough to make me run away. But he’s older than I thought. Old enough to be my … maybe. He looks average but also kinda sweet when he spots me. He’s got a pretty hot bod. His smile lights me up. I can feel him framing me. Sizing me up as I swing towards him. I’m in my poxy school uniform. As I always am when mum drops me off at the station heading to granny’s. Mum doesn’t handle change. She gets suspicious. I went to put on my jeans and boots in the train toilet. But I opened the door to the puddles and stench and just thought, fuck it. At least he already knows.

He takes my hand. Kisses me on the cheek. Laughs and we’re away. He’s just as funny in real life. I relax and sit on the wharf and he buys me hot chips. We check into a hotel down on the water at Honeysuckle. The concierge asks if he requires an extra trundle bed for me.

—Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (UWA Publishing, 2013)

Fractured was one of the most reviewed novels in the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lisa Hill has just posted an excellent review of just_a_girl.

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Writers ask writers: tools of the trade

MWF Ang_portraitThis month on Writers Ask Writers, we’re talking tools of the writer’s trade, and I’m delighted to welcome our special guest, Melbourne crime writer Angela Savage. I’ve just read the first in Angela’s Jane Keeney PI series (Behind the Night Bazaar), set in Chiang Mai, and can’t wait to read the rest (The Half-Child and The Dying Beach).

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I don’t really think myself as having ‘tools of trade’, although I have a studio full of ‘stuff’ that probably qualifies. Here’s a random selection:

DSCN4018Reference books: shelves and shelves of them, accumulated over three decades of work as a book editor—many, perhaps most, of them pre-dating the internet.

Stationery: I couldn’t get by without my post-it notes, markers in every colour, and more pens and pencils than the average person would use in a lifetime. My late Burmese cat, Daisy, once famously ate all the post-it notes off the side of a manuscript, which is why her successor is not allowed on the desk!
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DSCN4004Notebooks: ordinary A4 or foolscap lined lecture books, plus travel journals in all shapes and sizes.

Talismans: because I am open to the idea of good luck (not bad).
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Manila folders: possibly half the world’s supply, and yes, I know what’s in most of them, although on occasion I’ve been surprised.

100_5941Tea: I drink copious volumes every day, at least partially as part of the creative process (time out).

Heavy-duty airconditioner: because I live in Perth!
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Technology: I love my MacBook Pro—I’ve been using Macs since Macs began—and I work with Microsoft Word and the Macquarie Online dictionary.

That list only scratches the surface, and it excludes all the pinup boards, archive boxes and research books specific to each of my books. It also excludes these:

DSCN4026because I’ve given them up. Honest.

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Here are the links to posts by the other writers, who all have interesting things to say about their tools of trade.

Angela Savage: ‘I love Chinese-made notebooks with nonsensical English phrases on the cover like “Health is the things that makes you feel that now is the best time of the year”…’—Read more here

Annabel Smith: ‘I make notes with a pencil and am especially fond of the ones made out of recycled Chinese newspapers—they are beautifully smooth—and sustainable—what more could a gal want?’—Read more here

Natasha Lester: ‘[Scrivener] is a note-taker, a word-processor, a scene organiser, a research collector, an organiser, a motivator; in short, it’s a miracle.’—Read more here

Sara Foster: ‘I like perforated notebooks so I can tear out pages and collate them properly. I save the pretty notebooks for diaries instead.’—Read more here

Emma Chapman: ‘I made myself a crucial “inspiration board” to remind myself that this process isn’t always easy, but that the most important thing is to keep going.’—Read more here

Dawn Barker: ‘If I write in the morning, a strong flat white. If I write in the evening once the children have fallen asleep, a big glass of wine.’—Read more here

What are your idiosyncrasies when it comes to tools of trade?

PWFC author collage

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Writers ask writers: why I write

This month’s question in the Writers Ask Writers blog series is particularly challenging, and one that writers are often asked: Why do you write? Here is my response, followed by links to posts from Dawn Barker, Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, Natasha Lester and Annabel Smith.

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In an online article entitled 15 Famous Authors on Why They Write (Flavorwire), we’re told George Orwell listed four reasons: ‘sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose’—to which he added, in the process undercutting his own certainty: ‘All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.’

The same article quotes Joan Didion as saying: ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.’

I find my own instincts far more allied to Joan’s than to George’s.

Another online article (an organisation called Author’s Promoter) boasts a pie chart, representing the results of a survey of 100 published authors. Why do writers write?

As a way to express themselves (15%)
Because they have to (13%)
To help others (13%)
To educate (11%)
To share their imagination (8%)
To influence (6%)
Because they are influenced by other writers (6%)
Because it is a passion and a pleasure (5%)
Because it is therapeutic (5%)
Because it is their profession (3%)
To entertain (2%)
To immortalise themselves or others (2%)
For exposure and fame (2%)
Because they were victims of circumstance (2%)
Because of curiosity (2%)

Now, unless my calculator is faulty, that adds up to 95%, but let’s not quibble.

Once again I find myself with Joan rather than with the 100 published authors who took part in the survey.

In thinking about how to answer this seemingly simple question, I have meandered up and down a few paths—the philosophical, the aesthetic, the downright flippant (Why do I write? It’s not for the money!)—finally leaning towards the existential.

And so I offer a simple analogy.

In 1998, during a holiday to the UK, I travelled to Scotland for the first time. My husband and I drove up through the spine of England, crossed into the west of Scotland, passed through Glasgow, drove north alongside Loch Gare—eventually, that is, after going south for some time thanks to a wrong turn insisted on by the navigator, ahem, me—and finally into the Highlands, our destination. The area around Glencoe was the most spectacular, rugged, luminescent landscape I had ever seen, and I fell utterly in love with it. But my seduction had begun almost as soon as we crossed the border. The outer-city sprawl of Glasgow, the sparse Lowlands, the narrow road winding round the lake, signposted with warnings like BEWARE OF FALLING SHEEP, the dour faces and deadpan humour of people in bars and cafes—I had looked on all of these things and felt a slap of recognition: So this is where I come from. Ancestrally, this was true. But I am two generations removed from my nearest Scottish forebear; I never expected to feel such a visceral connectedness to a place so far from what I’d always thought of as my place.

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A few years before this, I had decided to take some Creative Writing units at university. I’d had a patchy kind of background in writing. In primary school, ‘composition’, as it was called then, was my favourite subject. At thirteen, I had my first poem published in the school magazine. In the same year I wrote my first ‘novel’ (about fifteen pages, I think) and was crushed when my English teacher did not value my sense of melodrama and cautioned me against plot contrivances like gypsy fortune-tellers. I also wrote execrable song lyrics in my twenties. However, by the time I enrolled in writing classes at university, I had been working as a book editor for many years and my motivation for choosing these units was closely tied to that rather than to any ambition to be a writer. I wanted to understand the creative processes of the writers I worked with and to put myself on the other side of the red pen, to feel what it was like to have my work critically assessed and edited. I thought it would make me a better editor, and I think it did. But it also gave me a light-bulb moment: So this is what I’m supposed to be doing. And I think I’d had to reach the right time of my life to flick that switch.

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These two moments of clarity come from the same place, have same constituent cells—the blood and tissue and neurons of identity. What I do. Who I am.

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Here are links to the reasons my Writers Ask Writers friends offered. Every one of these rang true for me. And how about you? Easy question? Or does it get you thinking?

Annabel Smith: …it has to do with the creative impulse, with creating something from nothing, with the deep satisfaction of pounding at a sentence, a paragraph, and beyond, to create something which others will connect with and be moved by. —Read more here

Natasha Lester:  …my reasons have to do with being a child and then a teenager and then a young woman and now a much older woman who still finds herself lost in the world of a book.—Read more here

Sara Foster: I write to try to look life in the eye—both when it thrills me and when it terrorises me. I write to explore the vagaries of human nature, the dichotomy of what is said and what is done. —Read more here

Emma Chapman: Writing offers you the chance to imagine a life wildly different to your own, and being a dreamy teenager at the time, any life seemed more interesting than my mish-mash of school and home.—Read more here

Dawn Barker: writing is an escape, an intellectual challenge, and an incredibly frustrating puzzle that gives me immense satisfaction when I solve it. —Read more here

PWFC author collage

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Writers ask writers: author for a day

kirstenkrauth_webThis month in our Writers Ask Writers series, the question posed is: If you could jump into the life of another author, past or present, for one day, who would it be and why? And it’s a pleasure to welcome, as guest blogger for August, Kirsten Krauth, who has recently released her accomplished debut novel, just_a_girl, described as ‘a Puberty Blues for the digital age’. There are links at the end to Kirsten’s choice of author, along with those of Annabel Smith, Natasha Lester, Sara Foster, Emma Chapman and Dawn Barker.

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Katharine Susannah Prichard seems to have been a presence in my life since the beginning of my writing career. The first validation I ever received as a writer was as winner of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Award in 1996. And a few years later, a story of mine called ‘The prospect of grace’, which draws on the lives of four famous couples including Katharine Susannah Prichard and Hugo Throssell, won the Patricia Hackett Prize for best contribution to the literary journal Westerly (the story has since been included in Inherited).

DSCN3567I have been a member of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, in the Perth hills suburb of Greenmount, for many years, and last weekend I spent a few hours there fulfilling my duties as a member of the Literary Advisory Board. Serendipitous, because it gave me an opportunity to take a photograph of the lovely old weatherboard house that was once Katharine’s home and place of work, and is now still a place where writers work—and learn and share writerly things.

Katharine Susannah Prichard was productive in her long lifetime. It makes me reel to think of what she achieved: 13 novels (translated into 13 foreign languages for international publication), 10 plays, five short story collections, two volumes of poetry, an autobiography, a work of non-fiction, and many pamphlets and articles. I doubt there are many literary writers who could come close today.

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While I admire this amazing output, it is not the reason I would choose to be Katharine Susannah Prichard for a day.

Nor is it because she had an especially happy life. She did not—or so it appears, at this distance, to me. I don’t doubt that there was happiness, both through her writing and in her personal life; one only has to read the passionate dedication to Hugo Throssell in her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, to know there was love:

To you, all those wild weeds
and wind flowers of my life,
I bring, my lord,
and lay them at your feet;
they are not frankincense
or myrrh
but you were Krishna, Christ and Dionysus
in your beauty, tenderness and strength.

But she also lived through unbearable personal sadness, losing her father and, later, her husband to suicide. And as someone who cared deeply about social justice, and believed in fighting for something better for all of humanity, happiness frequently eluded her.

As a young journalist, she worked in the slums of Melbourne, witnessing the plight of women slaving in sweatshops. In 1908–09, she spent a year in England, a time of hunger marches, Salvation Army soup kitchens and extreme poverty—symptomatic of a fraying social fabric (as Virginia Woolf was to say, ‘On or about December 1910, human character changed’). Returning to England just before the First World War, she remained there throughout the war years, and took part in suffragette marches and feminist lectures on women’s issues such as birth control. For a week in 1914 she reported from the battlefront in France.

These experiences deepened her compassion for the powerless, a thread running through so many of her novels—exploited Aboriginal women in Coonardoo (and the play Brumby Innes), returned servicemen in Intimate Strangers, struggling timber workers in Working Bullocks.

DSCN3573They also formed in her a great interest in pacifism and socialism and, later, in communism—and this last made her a target of official inquiry. It took guts to be a communist in those times. She became known as ‘the Red Witch of Greenmount’, and during the years of the Second World War her house was searched and she was put under surveillance amid fears that she was signalling from the hills to enemy craft at sea!

It’s not because I long to be notorious that I would wish myself into Katharine’s skin.

But I admire Katharine Susannah Prichard. I admire her commitment and her compassion—and especially her fearlessness. And that is why I would like to be her for a day. I would like to feel that kind of fearlessness in my blood. I harbour a suspicion that I might also find it an adulterated brew, tainted with the self-doubt and uncertainty that are found in any writer. But I imagine, I am sure, there is much I could learn about courage from this remarkable woman, this compassionate writer.

~~~

Here are the links to companion posts from our group and guest Kirsten Krauth:

Kirsten Krauth: When I was a kid, a family member was obsessed with [Leonard Cohen] … I always rolled my eyes; it’s so embarrassing when adults think their music is cool.—Read more here

Annabel Smith: [As Truman Capote] the day would begin with me lounging in my smoking jacket while I opened my mail, including fan mail, letters of outrage about my sexuality and moral degeneracy …—Read more here

Natasha Lester: [Joan Didion] made meaning out of her life. She wrote about unique experiences in a way that made them seem commonplace and connective.—Read more here

Sara Foster: I will go back to a day in 1990 on a crowded train and become JK Rowling the moment she met Harry Potter in her imagination for the first time …—Read more here

Emma Chapman: I wanted to write about the stereotype of the ideal writer: someone who is free to write when they want, read when they want, and take the day off when they want. That’s the life I wanted …—Read more here

Dawn Barker: Mary Shelley … had lots of trauma in her life, but she had one wonderful summer that would change her life and propel her into literary history.—Read more here

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Writers ask writers: books that changed my life

hannah richellIt’s a pleasure to welcome Hannah Richell, author of Secrets of the Tides and the recently released The Shadow Year, as our guest in this month’s Writers Ask Writers series. Great to have you with us, Hannah!

Our question is: What are the books that have changed your life? I’ve really had to think about this because I suspect every book you read changes your life, in the same way that every day you live changes your life—imperceptibly, infinitesimally, incrementally. But with some books—as with some days—the impact is more profound, although it might only be with hindsight that you realise this.

It’s large, this latter category, so I’ve limited myself to an eclectic group of four—two that helped confirm me as a lifelong reader and two that, in surprising ways (considering they are non-fiction), affected the kind of writer I would become:

md4201611800Enid Blyton’s exotic school series

Exotic? Well, to a schoolgirl in Western Australia, the world of boarding schools was exotic. And this world was unfolded, year by year, in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s series in which girls played mystifying games like lacrosse and had midnight feasts and learned French (there was always a Mam’zelle), and there had to be something almost mystically wise, inviolably good, about the individual destined to scale the heights to become Head Girl. This was my first experience of narrative compulsion—I was avid for the next book, and the next, to find out what would happen to characters whose lives I had become invested in. Imagine it: a series set in a school with a set of characters who grow with each book; a school peopled with quirky teachers and a saintly but twinkly eyed, much revered headmistress; boarders of all kinds with faults to overcome and talents to develop; a place where lifelong friendships are formed; where games are played and lessons learned. Sounding familiar? I’ve always thought the Harry Potter series owes a debt to these early models.

1298405-3263547853-lLittle Women (1868)

Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War era story of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy is the first book I loved so much that I re-read it until the pages wore away. I responded to its story of love, family, friendship; its internal storytelling (there’s so much reading or acting out or writing of stories); its coming-of-age struggles; its grave, moving handling of death; its gentle humour and honouring of the joy to be found in ordinary things. The writer character, Jo, probably inspired generations of girls to write, but I always found Amy more interesting—Amy the artist, flawed, honest, kind, much maligned as trivial and shallow (I always knew she was anything but).

DSCN3407Biological Science: The Web of Life (1973)

A high school textbook? On science? Those who know me might find this hard to credit, but I loved this book because (although I couldn’t have articulated this back in high school) it was my introduction to ideas about the environment, the body, genetics, evolution—ideas that continue to interest me and find their way into my writing. I also hated this book because I had to read it, and learn it, and regurgitate it for examiners; I can still recite kingdom–phylum–class–order–family–genus–species (the order of biological classification) in the same way that I can recite aus–bei–mit–von–nach–zu–gegenüber–ausser–seit–entgegen (German prepositions that take the dative case). DSCN3406I’m so glad that love trumped hate and I kept this well-worn, much annotated, falling-to-bits copy. And the last time I opened it I found a few brittle flowers pressed between the pages.

100_5886The People of Perth (1979)

Tom Stannage’s social history of my own city—personally significant also because it was my first paid proofreading assignment—introduced me to a new kind of writing about the past, anchored not in dates and figures but in people’s lives. And not royalty or statesmen or founding fathers, not just those elevated by wealth or political prominence, by race or gender or class—but convicts and servants, women from all walks of life, Aboriginal people, children and the elderly, dissidents and artists, criminals and drunkards.  In 1979, the year of the state’s sequi-centenary, this book was a revelation. I’ve returned to it many times in the course of research, and this piece by S. A. Jones suggests its influence on me as a writer.

I could equally have included—for different reasons—Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, the entire Agatha Christie catalogue, My Place by Sally Morgan, Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson, everything Gail Jones has written …

What are the books that have changed your life? It’s interesting to see the diversity of titles, plus a couple of shared favourites, among the Writers Ask Writers group.

Hannah Richell: Inside were the Greek Myths, stories of brutal gods and powerful goddesses, fallible mortals and amazing, mystical creatures. They were fairy tales on steroids, filled with the sort of racy content that boggled my young brain and left a lasting impression.—Read more here

Dawn Barker: [We Need to Talk about Kevin] was the book that has had the biggest influence on my own writing career, because this is the book that made me realise that I could write Fractured … as soon as I started reading it, I had a physical reaction: my heart sped up, my skin tingled.—Read more here

Emma Chapman: I just couldn’t get enough of [The Magic Faraway Tree]: the endless possibilities of the worlds at the top of the tree, the whimsical characters. It’s the first time I remember getting lost in a book.—Read more here

Sara Foster: [In The Elephant Whisperer] I got so much from Lawrence Anthony’s balanced reflections on what it is possible for humans to achieve, how we can know so much yet understand so little, and how our blind spots are failing us.—Read more here

Natasha Lester: [Little Women] inspired me so much that it kickstarted the idea for the book I’m currently working on and I was very lucky to visit Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord just last week.—Read more here

Annabel Smith: I read Don DeLillo’s White Noise in my second year of university, aged twenty or so. It was the first time I had encountered what appeared on the surface to be a book about nothing—the minutiae of one somewhat dysfunctional family’s life—but turned out to be a book about EVERYTHING.—Read more here

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Writers ask writers: dealing with discouragement

This month, the question posed in our Writers Ask Writers blog series came from one of Annabel Smith’s readers: How do you maintain interest in your project when you’re discouraged?

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Becoming discouraged during the course of writing can happen for various reasons. Sometimes, for me, it’s because the editor who sits on my shoulder, who has to be levered off with whatever sharp stick I can find, refuses to go and won’t be silenced, and the air is filled with waspish, deflating questions like So what?

Discouragement is likely to result in despair and gloom. General prickliness in response to  everyday questions. Sometimes a kind of creative paralysis. Extreme anxiety. But with the exception of one abandoned novel many years ago, it hasn’t resulted in a loss of interest.

One of the reasons I did lose interest in that long abandoned novel is that, as a neophyte knowing nothing, I read everything, and everything seemed to suggest you needed things like a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, and a 20-page back-story for every character, and a clear vision of what you were wanting to say before you started. Well, I tried that, and I lost everything: momentum, enthusiasm, motivation.

It wasn’t until I went to a workshop in 2000 presented by Australian novelist Sue Woolfe that I discovered that there are many ways to write a novel. The workshop was attended by several experienced writers I admired and they seemed to be grappling with the same things that I was. Sue Woolfe’s startling proposition, a proposition that she and Kate Grenville also put forward in their edited collection Making stories: how ten Australian novels were written, was that it was OK not to plan, not to know. That in fact, not planning and not knowing could be a process in itself. I discovered there were many novelists who worked this way, finding their way as they went, through the writing itself, drawing on that well of ideas, research, thinking and wondering that compelled them to begin, carrying (to appropriate Adrienne Rich’s metaphor in ‘Diving into the wreck’) a knife, a camera, a book of myths. And so evolved the sketchy, spidery process I now use.

But …

This way of working has its difficulties.

It is not certain, and it is not comfortable. And it is another of the reasons why discouragement can set in.

I’m still working out what is the best way, for me, of dealing with this—I try different strategies, and the way forward often seems to lie in the space between persevering and allowing time for sifting and settling. But I do have a few mantras that help me keep the faith:

‘There is no way to be a writer and be comfortable.’—Eva Sallis (Hornung),  Text, 3 (2), 1999

‘Trust that the story is there.’—author unknown

‘Mastery [of the art of writing] is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.’—John Gardner, The Art of Fiction (2001)

As for comfort along the way, I put my faith in this:

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and this:

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To read how my writer friends deal with discouragement, click on the links below. It’s reassuring to know you’re not the only one to run into a brick wall from time to time! If you have some strategies that work for you, I’d love to hear about them.

Dawn Barker: That is the reason I write: when I feel like the project is going nowhere, something happens that starts it all again: the thrill, the excitement when you know that you can write something that might just work.—Read more here

Emma Chapman: … it’s easy, after coming through a difficult patch, to look back on it and be glad it happened. To see the positive with hindsight. But it’s not so easy when you are in the thick of one, unable to see the other end.—Read more here

Sara Foster: One of the most valuable things I’ve learned so far is not to fear discouragement when I am writing. A stumbling block might contain a valuable lesson … —Read more here

Natasha Lester: A residency is a wonderful boost. It made me feel that the work must have something good in it to have been selected above all the other submissions, and it gave me a whole week of tranquil and focussed writing time …— Read more here

Annabel Smith: … some years ago I became strangely addicted to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Remember the lifelines? Well, my husband, Jonathan Franzen and Ferris Bueller have all provided potential solutions to my writing dilemmas; they’ve been my lifelines.— Read more here

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