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Writers Ask Writers: early inspirations

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It’s been a while since the Writers Ask Writers group has posted, but we couldn’t let the opportunity to celebrate two new releases go by! The main characters in those new novels—Georgia in Sara Foster’s All That is Lost Between Us, and Evie in Natasha Lester’s A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald—are young women who are inspired to pursue big dreams. Georgia dreams of being a champion fell-runner, and her flight through the Lake District becomes a matter of life and death, while Evie dares to believe she can study medicine when social conventions say otherwise. So the topic we’ve chosen this time is: books we read as young women that were early influences on our own pursuits.

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Links to the posts from Dawn Barker, Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, Natasha Lester, Annabel Smith and Yvette Walker follow mine.

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There are probably many books I read as a girl and as a young woman that contributed to what I would eventually choose to do with my life, but it isn’t always easy to draw a direct line between cause and effect, especially when (as in my case) the journey has been a circuitous one.

Novels as diverse as Catcher in the Rye, Little Women and Great Expectations made lasting impressions on my literary sensibility, and in that sense were early inspirations. But on reflection, I’m surprised to find that I also owe a debt to a popular historical/romance novelist for scattering a few seeds—some that grew into a love of history; others into a vague dissatisfaction with who and what seemed ‘worthy’ subjects of history and historical fiction.

English writer Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert (d. 1993), writing under the pseudonyms Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, achieved sales of more than 56 million books during her writing life. In my late primary school years, I devoured the Jean Plaidy catalogue, jumping from series to series—the Queens of England, the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Georgians, the Plantagenets, Isabella and Ferdinand, the Medicis, the Borgias…

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These novels were enchanting, easy reads, and they took History—previously a dry subject consisting of dates and places and names and lists—and turned it into page-turner stories. I can trace the simple thread connecting the schoolgirl I was, eager to read about people rather than facts, to the writer I became.

But I also remember being curious about what went on in the margins of those stories. Fascinating though the lives of royalty and the powerful and the high-born were—not to mention the array of aspirants and pretenders and scheming mistresses—I would wonder about people who were not destined for a life at court or in other theatres of power. What did it feel like to be an ordinary person in such a society? What gave their lives value? Was life without status no life at all? Was the equation really that simple? It is only now that I can trace this other thread between the schoolgirl and the writer, and see that the debt I owe to ‘Jean Plaidy’ was part inspiration and part challenge.

As for those 56 million sales, I salute you, Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert! And I thank you for playing a part in sending me on the circuitous route that led me to convicts and gutting girls.

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Yvette Walker tells us why Graham Greene was the greatest influence on her young writing life.

Annabel Smith writes about her ‘beloved and much-underlined copy’ of Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home.

Natasha Lester was inspired by Jane Eyre, and through this book her ‘love of the epic novel, the love story…was born.’

Sara Foster recalls two very different novels that she says continue to influence her today.

Emma Chapman tells a beautiful story of a former employer who taught her that anything is possible.

Dawn Barker concedes her favourite was an ‘uncomfortable read’ but knows it helped her to realise ‘the power of words and stories.’

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Writers ask writers: writing in the digital age

Today the Writers Ask Writers group is celebrating twice over. First, a new book from one of our members is being launched today—a very special publication, and one that I have had the great pleasure of reading in successive drafts almost from its genesis.

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Annabel Smith’s The Ark was, as she describes it, ‘born digital’—a novel conceived, written and designed to be read as an interactive digital experience and that takes on the imaginative and ambitious task of inventing systems of communication for a dystopian future. It is also a character-driven novel—the hallmark of all of Annabel’s work—and a study of human behaviour under the extreme pressures of isolation, manipulation and fear. I’m delighted to be featuring Annabel as my next 2, 2 and 2 guest.

The topic of today’s blog, writing in the digital age, is in honour of The Ark on this auspicious occasion, and in celebration of Annabel’s stellar achievement in not only writing a brilliant work of speculative fiction but in mastering, through research and collaboration, the various technologies required to bring it into the world in the way she has.

Congratulations, Annabel!

YvetteWalker01We’re also celebrating the addition of a new Writers Ask Writers member: Yvette Walker, whose stunning debut novel, Letters to the End of Love, was shortlisted for the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and has recently been shortlisted for the WA Emerging Writers Award in the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Yvette also works at one of our fabulous local indie bookstores, Collins Booksellers Cottesloe. A big welcome to Yvette!

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When I try to imagine what my writing life would be like without the internet for research, the view becomes cloudy. I don’t think I can imagine that.

Online research complements all the other kinds of research I do, and sometimes makes the impossible possible. My studio is full of images and maps I have found online, and I have archive boxes of information I could never have laid my hands on in a non-digital world.

Among the most valuable resources for me as a writer of historical fiction are the newspapers of the time and place I am writing about. When researching colonial Western Australia for The Sinkings, reading newspapers of the 1860s–1880s meant driving in to the Battye Library in Perth, searching subjects via card and microfiche indexes, lacing up microfilm readers and laboriously trawling up and down the columns of blurry broadsheets, continually having to adjust the focus manually. Oh, and also taking extensive notes, because obtaining photocopies of any page I wanted required taking the film to another machine (after queueing for a long time), lacing it up, trying to align the part I wanted to copy, calling for help from busy librarians because invariably I’d get it wrong or the machine wouldn’t be working, and, finally, staring in dismay at an illegible photocopy and realising I’d have to start the process again.

A few years into my research for Elemental, the National Library of Australia’s Trove resource came online. All Australian newspapers from 1803 to 1954 are available via the Trove website, and the database is fully searchable. You can print pages, and there’s even a transcript (electronically translated, and sometimes inaccurate, even comical, in its optical rendering) of the article shown on the screen—in case you don’t want to scroll up and down the columns of the newspaper page.

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The first time I tried Trove, I was almost speechless. Many times since I’ve blessed those far-sighted library and IT visionaries who brought us this truly amazing online source, this well-named trove of history delivered, in a few keystrokes, to our homes and offices.

Digital age? When it comes to research, I’m sold. How about you?

You can read what my writer friends have to say about writing in the digital age via these links:

Annabel Smith
Sara Foster
Natasha Lester
Emma Chapman
Dawn Barker
Yvette Walker

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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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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.

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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

PWFC author collage

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