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Inspired by time and place…

A lot of research went into the writing of my second novel, Elemental—and research is something I love. I remember missing the first half of a teleconference because I was so engrossed in something I was researching on the net that I forgot the time! But possibly the most exciting part was visiting places in the UK where the novel is set: the Shetland Islands, fishing villages in the north-east of Scotland, Great Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast.

Here are a few photographs from those visits, along with some brief extracts from the novel they inspired.

Fishing villages

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I was born in a village as far north-east as you can go on the Scottish mainland, closer to Norway than London. Roanhaven was only two miles from the town of Gadlehead, and I’m told they’re all the one place now. But back then, oh, we were a folk apart, we thought Gadlehead as much a stranger-place as Fraserburgh to the north, Collieston to the south, and all those inland villages where Ma would sell fish from the creel on her back.

Pink granite

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That wind!…Every year it took a little more of the houses in Tiller Street, wearing them away grain by grain. Not the frames, no, for the pink granite of Gadlehead will survive more generations than I’ll ever know, but the soft matter between that yields to the elements.

Seaboots

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Jockel Buchan, an old fisherman, strode through the shallows to reach me. Waded in, he did, almost to the knees of his great seaboots.

The Knab, Lerwick

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The Knab is spectacular. You can see forever from its wild summit. Rabbits scamper this way and that among the gorse and marigolds, and the cliff face is home to hundreds of puffins hunkering down among the small mauve flowers…

Puffins

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Aye, they are the strangest little things, birds that look as though they’ve been put together on the Lord’s day off by someone with a sense of humour—a hodgepodge thrown together with the bits left over from other birds…

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The big October giveaway!

UPDATE: Thursday 31 October 2013. The competition has now closed. Congratulations to winner Megan Warren. Happy reading, Megan!

This month the Writers Ask Writers group is giving away a set of TWELVE books (value $300)—a copy of our most recent releases, plus a book we’ve each selected that has, in some way, inspired our own.

If you live in Australia, you can enter the giveaway by going to the Elemental Facebook page and clicking on the blue BOOK GIVEAWAY tab, centre; alternatively, you can link directly by using the Facebook mobile app link.

Here are the titles you could win:

REVISED giveaway oct 2013

Interesting choices? Read on to find out what’s behind these pairings. And good luck!

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In the conception and writing of Elemental—a period of more than five years—I was never conscious of having Tirra Lirra by the River in my head. If you’d asked me then what my writing inspirations were, I might have opened up an archive box full of research materials—an eclectic collection of books (history, biology, philosophy, language, poetry, memoir), photocopies from archives and newspapers, travel notes and photographs, printouts from websites.

All of the materials in that archive box were indeed inspirational, and indispensable, and they mean a great deal to me.

But now, reflecting on the novel I have written, I can recognise other inspirations—the kind that are less about the particularities of time and place, character and circumstance, and more about writing itself.

They lay scattered, like breadcrumbs, along the reading pathways of my life—trails winding around books I love, stories I have lived and breathed as my own, authors whose words scale summits I aspire to reach. Among them are novels by Gail Jones, Annie Proulx, Simone Lazaroo, Anne Michaels… so many others.

And one of them is Jessica Anderson’s 1978 classic and best-known work, which won her the first of her two Miles Franklin Awards.

Old hands writing something with a pen in a notebookTirra Lirra by the River and Elemental have in common an elderly woman reflecting on her life. And through that central act of reflection, the two novels also share a preoccupation with memory, time and change—although Anderson’s Nora Porteous and my narrating character, Meggie Tulloch, are women of different eras, different worlds. There is nothing alike in their life experiences, or in their character or heart.

However, I fell in love with Tirra Lirra by the River primarily for its voice (something I have spoken of in a previous post)—the acerbic, imperious, unflinching voice of the elderly Nora Porteous who, returning (grudgingly) to the place and people of her childhood, looks back on all that drove her away and all that has brought her back.

And this is where I owe my debt to the late Jessica Anderson. I think it was Tirra Lirra by the River that taught me what I needed to know to create a distinctive voice for the first three parts of Elemental: the voice of Meggie Tulloch, the fisher girl/gutting quine who emigrates from Scotland to Western Australia, who lives through what she calls ‘the shifts in the world when everything changes’, who is daughter, sister, mother, wife, widow, grandmother and, through all of these, friend.

And I think it was Tirra Lirra that gave me resilience when I happened to read Henry James’s crushing opinion that ‘In any long fiction, use of the first-person point of view is barbaric.’

Thank you, Jessica Anderson, for proving Henry wrong so resolutely and so elegantly. For giving me so much to aspire to.

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Here are links to why my writer friends have chosen their companion titles—and to more ways you can enter our big October giveaway.

Dawn Barker: The subject matter was horrific, and made even more so by the way she [Lionel Shriver] chose to be quite blunt and realistic in the way she wrote. This book didn’t have a Hollywood ending to make it more palatable.’—Read more here

Emma Chapman: ‘…each one made me think differently about what women’s fiction was and how for women writers at that time, it was almost impossible to separate your gender from your identity.’ —Read more here

Sara Foster: I wasn’t just moved by the story, I was also impressed by how Anthony managed to combine realism with idealism when discussing conservation. This delicate line is one my characters struggle with in Shallow Breath…’ —Read more here

Natasha Lester: Joan Didion’s book covers some similar themes; it’s about mothers and daughters and their relationships, it’s about husbands and wives and their relationships, and it’s about the way grief can simply overtake a person, although they may appear to be functioning on the outside.’ —Read more here

Annabel Smith: In hindsight, I see Zadie Smith’s protagonist, Alex-Li Tandem, as a kind of spiritual brother to my protagonist Charlie: a little lost, blind to his own shortcomings, stubbornly refusing to grow or do the things he knows he needs to do…’—Read more here

PWFC author collage

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10 things I love about Sydney…

In no particular order…

The Rocks

I always think of Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow… a place of ghosts and time-travellers

Sydney skies

which always have a story to tell

Those intrepid bridge walkers

I admire them but I’ll never be one of them!

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Balmain

fond memories of Saturday-morning shopping in this old suburb when I lived in nearby Drummoyne many years ago—and I still love its shops and cafes and markets and Federation architecture

Opera whites

a stray glimpse of those iconic sails through the trees—the Sydney wow factor!

The Art Gallery of New South Wales

home of one of my favourite paintings, Grace Cossington-Smith’s The sock knitter

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The coat hanger

52,800 tonnes of cross-harbour style

Adriano Zumbo

macarons and works of art sculpted in choux and sugar… yes, please!

Great friends

Tony and Pauline (with the charming Pompey). Click here to read the story of Tony’s long-lost—and now found—band, Fuchsia

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and…

Better Read Than Dead

voted Lonely Planet’s Favourite Sydney Bookshop—and the lovely folks at BRTD have invited me there to talk about Elemental on Wednesday 24 July, 6.30pm (more information here). If you’re nearby and free that night, please come along—I’d love to see you!

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Cook the book?

305552_519986454721641_290325696_nAt the launch of Elemental last week, the wonderful Britt Ingerson, Publishing Assistant at UWA Publishing, made these gorgeous butterfly biscuits. They were so popular that they disappeared in the blink of an eye. If you want Britt’s recipe, you can find it here.

Britt writes that her inspiration came from this passage in Elemental:

I sniffed some luscious smell, unfamiliar. Mmmm, said Kitta, throwing back her head, breathing it in. Cinnamon an’ raisins! And beautiful it was after weeks of fish oil, fish blood, fish guts, fish, fish, fish. We went into a bakery—heaven! You could almost eat the air. I was achingly tempted to sacrifice four of my precious pennies on a sugar biscuit fashioned into the shape of a butterfly, but a chorus of long-dead Duthies protested in my head: Raickless waste! Extravagance!

And then, my lovely neighbour Mike Ockenden came by with some traditional Cullen Skink—hands-down the most delicious soup I’ve eaten since I had the same in north-east Scotland—no, actually Mike’s was better! Here’s what Meggie says about it:

Ooh, imagine! The taste of a smokie! Or Cullen Skink, the milky soup made with mashed potato and smoked haddock. I nodded, hungry for cold-water fish, fish from my mother’s creel.

I love that Mike made it the way Meggie would have done, too.Slide1

A huge thank-you to Britt and Mike for these very special culinary responses to Meggie’s story. A new spin on ‘cooking the books’?

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On launching a book…

Monarch life stages

My new novel, Elemental, was released on 1 May but tonight it will be officially launched—which means there’ll be a lovely gathering of friends, family and colleagues, some wine, a couple of speeches. A launch celebrates the result of a long metamorphosis, which can be grossly simplified as: a cluster of ideas > manuscript > book. You hope what you release into the world is something of beauty and something of value.

A friend phoned last night and asked me how I feel.

I remember trying to describe that for my first launch in 2008. This is what I said then:

I’ve loved working with other people’s books [as an editor] for 24 years. When I began researching and writing The Sinkings in 2003, I hoped, as all writers do, that my manuscript might one day turn into a book but I knew too much about publishing to be confident that that would ever happen. So I am truly thrilled to be standing here with this book in my hand, and still perhaps a little incredulous at my good fortune. Thank you, Terri-ann [Terri-ann White, Director, UWA Publishing], for believing in The Sinkings and taking a chance on a new writer—no small thing in the publishing world today.

Here we are, third book, five years later, and I can still say: that’s how I feel. Thrilled. Lucky. Thankful.

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Writers ask writers: writing space

PWFC author collage

This month’s question in the Writers Ask Writers blog series is: Where do you write? Here’s my response, and you can scroll down to find links to those from my writer friends Dawn Barker, Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, Natasha Lester and Annabel Smith.

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DSCN3110My house was built as a shop (1928), and I write in a backyard studio that was once the storeroom for the shop. It’s a comfortable, messy, unglamorous space filled with books and maps, postcards and photographs, archive boxes and filing cabinets and hundreds of manila folders. I’m sorry to say that the paperless office is a concept unknown around here!

I love my studio, and it’s a bonus that the only rush-hour traffic I ever encounter on the way there is a few sleepy doves.

But much of my just-released novel Elemental was written in other places.

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Writing desk at Kelly’s Cottage

As the recipient of writing residencies/fellowships, I’ve spent time at Kelly’s Cottage, at the top of Kelly’s Steps in Salamanca, Hobart, overlooking Mt Wellington; Hawthornden Castle in Midlothian (south of Edinburgh) in a snow-bound Scottish winter; and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, a glorious stately home in County Monaghan in Ireland, populated by writers, artists, sculptors, dancers, musicians and filmmakers.

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Hawthornden Castle; the top left dormer window was my attic room

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You need gloves at Hawthornden in winter!

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At the Tyrone Guthrie Centre

If you look closely at the photos, you might notice that I carried around with me the same images—dog-eared photocopies of photos, found in old books, of the herring girls I was writing about.

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In the Morning Room, my space at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. Photo by Maria Maier

Place—landscape, people, history—affects me deeply as a person and as a writer, although there is often a gap of years before I can see a direct relationship between a place I’ve been and its trace in my writing. But I know that the atmospheric grey skies of Tasmania, Scotland and Ireland all found their way into my imagination, and into Elemental.

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At Ledig House

This last photo (right) was taken in late 2012 at Ledig House, in upstate New York. No herring girls this time—I was (and still am) working on a new project, set in Paris.

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to write in these beautiful places (thanks to the Tasmanian Writers Centre, Mrs Drue Heinz, the Australia Council and Writers Omi), and to have my own place as a continuing inspiration.

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Click on the links to read what my writer friends had to say:

Annabel Smith: With a school-aged child, my writing day is short. I don’t want to waste even half an hour travelling to a library. And I am well-trained by now to ignore the siren song of bed-making, breakfast dishes, and piles of washing. So I write from home. I have a nice big desk, sandwiched between two ubiquitous Expedit shelving units from Ikea.—Read more here

Natasha Lester: I also have one entire wall covered in bookshelves because I love sharing my space with all these wonderful words. How can I not aspire to greatness when I have Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and Margaret Atwood sitting just within reach? —Read more here

Sara Foster: I have fantasies about a studio—a room of my own, with wall-to-wall bookcases, and inspirational images and quotes all over the walls. However, while I’m working on that I’ve found that good things can come out of being nomadic—sometimes my location, the weather, or something I witness can really influence a scene.—Read more here

Emma Chapman: Sitting at the same desk all day can make me go a bit crazy. If I feel like that, I take a walk around Lake Monger, or sit on our small terrace and read an unrelated novel. I also like to work in cafes in my local area, just to get me out and about. Baking with music on really loud also helps me to get back in the zone.—Read more here

Dawn Barker: It helps to have a dedicated writing space at home that I can associate purely with writing. Before I had an office, I’d write at the kitchen table, or with my laptop on my knees in bed, but I like the feeling now of entering a new physical and emotional space when I sit down at my desk.—Read more here

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Twelve-book giveaway!

UPDATE: Monday 6 May 2013. The competition has now closed. Congratulations to winner Jess Fitzpatrick. Happy reading, Jess!

If you live in Australia or the UK, here’s a chance to win a pack of TWELVE books (value over AUD$300) from the ‘Writers Ask Writers’ group. Just go to the Elemental Facebook page and click on the blue BOOK GIVEAWAY tab, top right.

The titles you could win are:

How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

Fractured by Dawn Barker

If I Should Lose You and What Is Left Over, After by Natasha Lester

Whisky Charlie Foxtrot and A New Map of the Universe by Annabel Smith

Shallow Breath, Beneath the Shadows and Come Back to Me by Sara Foster

and mine: the newly released Elemental, Inherited and The Sinkings

Good luck!

13.04 Giveaway Collage

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