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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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New edition of Elemental

UWA Publishing is releasing a new edition of Elemental for the Australia/New Zealand territory, and I couldn’t be happier with the result. It’s a new size and a new price—with a new cover, too. I confess I will miss the original image of my wee reid-heid, with her arresting stare, but I love this new, atmospheric vision for the novel…

Elemental front cover

I’m told the new edition will be in stores on 1 December but is available for ordering via the UWA Publishing website next week.

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2, 2 and 2: Rashida Murphy talks about The Historian’s Daughter

Version 2It’s my great pleasure to be introducing Rashida Murphy’s accomplished debut novel twice this week—first, here on looking up/looking down; second, on the occasion of her book launch on the 31st (details here)

I absolutely love The Historian’s Daughter—the intelligence and vulnerability of young Hannah; the tender relationships between the sisters, between them and their mother, and between Hannah and her ‘mad aunt’; the novel’s pace alongside its sophisticated use of restraint; and the lyrical prose that sings from the page as the narrative takes us from India to Australia to Iran and back to ‘home’.

Here is the book’s blurb…

In an old house with ‘too many windows and women’, high in the Indian hills, young Hannah lives with her older sister Gloria; her two older brothers; her mother—the Magician; a colourful assortment of aunts, blow-ins and misfits; and her father—the Historian. It is a world of secrets, jealousies and lies, ruled by the Historian but smoothed over by the Magician, whose kindnesses and wisdom bring homely comfort and all-enveloping love to a ramshackle building that seems destined for chaos.

And then one day the Magician is gone, Gloria is gone, and the Historian has spirited Hannah and her brothers away to a new and at first bewildering life in Perth. As Hannah grows and makes her own way through Australian life, an education and friendships, she begins to penetrate to the heart of one of the old house’s greatest secrets—and to the meaning of her own existence.

And now, over to Rashida…

Historian_s_Daughter_Cover_grande

2 things that inspired the book

1 A sentence I wrote in my journal in 2007: This is not the story he wanted me to tell. I thought it would be the start of a short story. I had no idea who ‘he’ was and what the ‘story’ would be. In 2008–09 my husband and I moved to Melbourne and I wrote a few short stories that didn’t go anywhere. I started writing The Historian’s Daughter in 2011 and this sentence began to make sense. Now it’s the first line of my novel.

2 An incomplete memory. I grew up in a fairy chaotic household (in India) with itinerants wandering through, often with little explanation. I remember a group of Iranian students who lived with us at various times and one boy in particular who stayed with my family for several years. I don’t know what happened to him. This bothered me, especially when I made friends with Iranian refugees in Perth, so I imagined (and researched) what life would have been like for a young person caught up in a revolution. The novel is, in part, my attempt at bringing closure to events I cannot inhabit anymore.

2 places connected with the book

1 Iran—in particular, its capital city, Tehran. I’ve never been there but I based some of the action of the novel in the city. It was strange to be ‘writing a place’ I’d never been to and I wondered several times whether I should choose another place. Especially because all ‘good writing’ should come from ‘what you know.’ But the Iranian Revolution of 1979 placed my characters firmly within that history, so it was hard to avoid. I steeped myself in Iranian films and novels and history and drove most of my Iranian friends to distraction by asking them endless questions about food and culture (and eavesdropping on their conversations). I don’t speak Farsi but I can follow some of it.

2 Perth. Funny, for a novel partly set in India and partly in Iran, it’s actually Perth that has the strongest resonance for me. Perth’s sunny disposition provided the perfect background for a novel about darkness and family misdemeanours—in a way that (I hope) West Australians can relate to. And despite the fact that my writing always seems to locate itself in ‘other’ places, Perth is home. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Except, maybe, Florence.

2 favourite characters in the book

1 Jarrah the dog. I am not a dog person—most definitely a cat person—so I have no idea why or how Jarrah padded in so firmly, and settled into my writing life so comfortably. Jarrah’s appearance caused us both (me and the main character Hannah) much consternation and surprise. I think Jarrah and his owner, Gabriel, arrived at the same time and I just went with it. But Gabriel has a function as the laconic Australian romantic interest, whereas Jarrah gads about, reclining under kitchen tables, rebuking Hannah, making friends with her sister and generally behaving better than most people in the novel.

2 Gabriel. I chose the name in honour of one of my literary heroes, Farmer Gabriel Oak from Far From The Madding Crowd. ‘My’ Gabriel is a woodworker (which is probably why he has a dog called Jarrah) and volunteer firefighter, a good Aussie salt-of-the-earth type, whose straightforward thinking confuses Hannah, who can’t fathom why he’s so cheerful and confident. Hannah doesn’t have much to be cheerful about. Here’s the first time Gabriel appears in the novel.

Bent over a large plastic bag filled with sawdust and wood shavings, hands and arms plunged into its depths, he muttered small curses and agitated the dust that settled on him like brown snowflakes.

I watched from the door as he straightened up holding a small round object and said, ‘Gotcha little bugger.’ Then, his right hand over his eyes to peer at me, he sneezed loudly again and said, ‘Oh heck. How long have you been there? Come in please. I’d lost a router bit in there somewhere.’

He stamped his feet, whacked his chest with his hands and came towards me, trailing curls of wood and smelling of smoke, a tall man with green eyes and laughter in his voice.

‘What can I do you for?’ He offered me a warm, dusty hand and gripped mine firmly in exchange.

Easy to see why Hannah falls in love with him, right?

Version 2

Speaking at the New Norcia Writers’ Festival, 2016

 

The Historian’s Daughter will be in bookstores in September
Visit Rashida’s website
Find out more at UWA Publishing

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2, 2 and 2: Michelle Michau-Crawford talks about Leaving Elvis and Other Stories

MichelleLR-3I’m delighted that the first post for 2016 in my 2, 2 and 2 series, which highlights writers with new books, is Michelle Michau-Crawford and her debut short story collection Leaving Elvis and Other Stories (UWA Publishing). Michelle was one of the ‘next wave’ women writers featured on the blog in 2014, and I also had the great pleasure of editing this remarkable collection.

If the name of the author or the title story sounds familiar, you might be recalling that Michelle won the prestigious ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize in 2013 for the story ‘Leaving Elvis’, which was subsequently published in ABR.

Michelle has worked as a university lecturer, speechwriter, researcher and public relations officer, and lives in Perth with her menagerie in a house surrounded by vegetable gardens and fruit trees.

Here is the blurb for Leaving Elvis:

We’re travelling light, without excess, into our future. Gran had been rough as she uncurled my hands from their position, gripped around the open car doorframe, and shoved me into the passenger seat.

A man returns from World War II and struggles to come to terms with what has happened in his absence. Almost seventy years later, his middle-aged granddaughter packs up her late grandmother’s home and discovers more than she had bargained for. These two stories book-end thirteen closely linked stories of one family and the rippling of consequences across three generations, played out against the backdrop of a changing Australia.

A debut collection—as powerful as it is tender—from the winner of the 2013 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize.

And now over to Michelle…

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2 things that inspired my book

1 This collection started as a sort of side-project to take me away from the novel I thought I should be finishing. In a roundabout way, a gentle rejection was the inspiration for finally letting go of something that had ceased to bring me any real satisfaction in order to focus on something that was bringing me satisfaction. By the time I’d completed one story and some first drafts of several more short stories, I had grown to resent sitting down to work on the novel. I had basically killed that work by overwriting and overthinking it. But somewhere along the way I had convinced myself that without seeing it through to publication, I was a phoney, and that once it was done I could put it aside and ‘write more short stories’. One day I braved up enough to share the manuscript with a publisher for feedback, and when we met to discuss it she identified what I already knew. We suggested putting the manuscript aside for a while. I was so relieved that I may have jumped up from my chair and given her a hug and said something along the lines of ‘Thank goodness, now I can go to work on what I really want to be doing.’ I seem to recall that I then proceeded to babble on about the closely linked stories I was working on.

That publisher was Terri-ann White from UWA Publishing, so the rejection story had a very happy ending for me!

2 For as long as I can remember I have had a fascination with abandoned and lost children. I was born just six months before the Beaumont children disappeared in January 1966, and from early childhood always knew that children could simply cease to exist in the blink of an eye. In 2005 I began what would amount to eight years’ work (not full-time, I might add) on what eventually became the short story ‘Leaving Elvis’. I was researching for an Honours project at the time, looking at memory and trauma in Australian literature. My particular interest at that point was in intergenerational trauma and patterns of behaviour, and abandonment, in all its various forms, of children by adults. I came across Peter Pierce’s The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety (1999). In his book Pierce describes the way that the theme of abandonment has flowed through non-Indigenous Australian literature since white settlement, and contemplates the contemporary ‘lost child’ as a victim of white society itself. Where early writings centred on fears about a hostile and unforgiving land, writing changed direction around the 1950s, a period generally recognised as a time when there was a loss of innocence in white Australian culture. Without intending to, and certainly without realising it until well into the writing of the collection, I appear to have continued this pattern and written a book that explores, in part, the lost child as victim of society itself, along with intergenerational patterns of behaviour in a period commencing around the 1950s.

2 places connected with my book

1 The small ‘home’ town that features in a number of stories appears to be somewhere in or near the Western Australian wheat belt. However, I have intentionally left the location unspecific so that by changing a few minor details it could be just about any small town or outer suburb in Australia where people have somehow found themselves living. It is the sort of place where, with no real aspirations or ambition to spend a whole life there, several generations of one family now reside, doing the best they can. Some of the people in these stories are prone to plotting or dreaming about escaping to that mythical ‘somewhere else’ where they can leave their past behind and live a more fulfilling life. Ultimately, when it comes down to it, wherever they may find themselves living, this is the only place they have to come back to in order to feel some sense of connection and belonging to a physical environment.

2 The sky is a place that is significant in Louise’s adult life. In her years in Europe, it is the thought of the specific colours and expansiveness of the Australian sky that increases both her longing for home and her sense of isolation. At one point, she has a fling with an English artist who’d tried to paint the Australian sky just so she’d have an opportunity to be able to talk about home and the sky with him. Many years later, in another story, she realises that she has to return to Australia, to her home town, while looking up at the sky of the northern hemisphere with it’s ‘skew-whiff shades’ that will never be right.

2 favourite moments in the book

1 In the story The Light, there is a moment where Natalie, having reached rock-bottom, and with every reason not to feel good about anything at that particular time in her life, sits in an isolated place in nature and feels a few fleeting moments of calm. ‘She’s never had religion, but there’s something soothing and spiritual-like about being here, and she feels close to relaxed, sitting there with the sun disappearing while the immense orange sky turns purple and grey.’ Often the people in these stories struggle to feel they belong and maintain connections, Natalie perhaps more so than others. But that passing moment of recognition that there is something bigger than her and her problems is enough.

2 I’m interested in those vulnerable moments in childhood and adolescence where there is an understanding in the young that there is something going on within their bodies and minds, but still an inability to fully understand or articulate those changes. There is a moment in the story ‘Rendezvous’ where this occurs. Louise reflects on being about eleven years old when she’d stood in front of her friend Leslie Mulligan: ‘pulling petals off a daisy one at a time, she’d stared him in the face, he loves me, he loves me not.’ Watching her friend grow pink and embarrassed, she’d run off laughing, knowing that she had ‘some sort of mysterious power over him, but not yet knowing how or when to use it.’  Confused by both his and her reaction to the experience, she hides until Leslie finally gives up searching for her and goes home.

 

Leaving Elvis and Other Stories will be available in bookshops in February 2016
Find out more at UWA Publishing
Visit Michelle’s website or connect via her Facebook page
Michelle will be a guest of the Perth Writers Festival 2016

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An invitation to writers…

As many of you will already know, UWA Publishing recently announced the establishment of the Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. The award, supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund and 720 ABC Perth, offers a cash prize of $10,000 and a publishing contract with UWA Publishing. It’s open to established and emerging writers whose manuscript has a connection to Western Australia (landscape, people, history, residence/birth of the author). Submissions are open now and close on 4 September 2015.

To celebrate the inauguration of the award, UWA Publishing and 720 ABC Perth are hosting a Writers Forum on 13 August, 5.45 for a 6pm start, at the ABC Studios at 30 Fielder Street, East Perth. The forum will give writers the opportunity to gain greater insight into literary awards, the publishing process, and the Western Australian writing scene in general. Bookings are essential.

The panel will consist of Afternoons presenter Gillian O’Shaughnessy, UWA Publishing Director Terri-ann White, and me.

UWA Publishing will be live tweeting from the event, so if you’re not based in WA or can’t attend, tweet them in advance with any questions you’d like to ask—make sure you use the tag @uwapublishing.

This new award honours the life and spectacular career of the late Dorothy Hewett, one of Western Australia’s most prolific writers and best-known radical thinkers. To quote from UWA Publishing’s website:

Hewett (1923–2002) is considered one of Australia’s leading writers whose work captures and disrupts ideas of normalcy in twentieth-century Australian culture. As a staunch feminist and, for a long time, communist, Hewett gave voice to the marginalised. In 1986 Dorothy Hewett was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her services to literature. It is important to note that Hewett won the Western Australian Premier’s Poetry Award in 1994 and 1995 for her collections Peninsula and Collected Poems: 1940–1995.

I hope to see you there!

Dorothy_Hewett_w_quote_large

 

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The next wave: update

Congratulations to two writers featured last year in my series The Next Wave. MichelleLR-2 Michelle Michau-Crawford has signed a contract with UWA Publishing, and her short story collection ‘Leaving Elvis and other stories’ will be published early in 2016. DSC00729 Rashida Murphy’s unpublished novel ‘The Historian’s Daughter’ has been shortlisted along with nine other manuscripts for the Dundee International Book Prize. The winner will be announced in October. I couldn’t be more thrilled for Rashida and Michelle!

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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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