Sunday, 21 April 2019

Book Review: Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany

This review originally appeared on the AU review, March 27th 2019.

Exploded View
Carrie Tiffany
Text Publishing, 2019

The unnamed protagonist of Carrie Tiffany’s new novel, Exploded View, lets us into her life by increments. Immediately, as readers, we are welcomed into her interior world– a place where the only things that make sense are cars, and engines. It is the late 1970’s, and the girl and her brother watch things like Hogan’s Heroes on the TV, careful to place a tub of ice cream on the top of the television with enough time for it to cool before their mother or the ‘father man’ can discover that they’ve been using it. Money is tight.
Father man– not, in fact, the girl’s real father, nor the romantic hero from the pages of the novels her mother is always reading– makes his money repairing cars. The girl helps, and learns, reading from the Holden manual and studying the exploded views of the engines, in which even the spaces between things have reason and function. The girl does not speak. At night, she drives the cars that Father man repairs, and sometimes, she hurts them.
During a road trip across Australia, this protagonist’s unique viewpoint will turn the reader’s way of thinking upside down. Her clarity of vision, and the matter of fact philosophy that comes naturally to her, make this short book a poetic experience, and while at first glance, it seems like Exploded View does not have much going on in terms of plot, like the diagrams in the manuals, it is the spaces between the text that help make the whole of the book make sense.
Despite this book being set largely in a masculine space– the world of cars, and the father being the dominant figure in the house (he locks the doors at night, and the girl knows that if there were to be a fire, they would all perish in the flames rather than wake him up to let them out), the text contains a lot of subtle and not so subtle references to the female body and the autonomy of it. From the images of small hands being made to fit inside the parts of a car, to the silent handing over of money from mother to daughter to allow her to purchase sanitary napkins at a truck stop, references to the ownership and understanding of female bodies, and the maintenance and protection required to keep them safe and healthy run throughout this text. The true mastery is the way that this ongoing metaphor, the female body as a car in a mechanic’s garage, works to turn the idea of cars and engines as a masculine space on its head.
This is a short, intensely literary novel, more focussed on ideas and characterisation than plot, or even emotional connection. The character, unnamed, undescribed, and unspeaking, is always kept at a distance from the reader, though we know the inner workings of her mind (right down to her sexual fantasy) in great detail. Carrie Tiffany was the inaugural winner of the Stella Prize for her novel Mateship with Birds, and I would be unsurprised to see this book on prize lists in the coming months.
If you’re looking for an entertaining read, something to read quickly and get lost in, perhaps give this one a miss, but if you’re prepared to participate in the slow contemplation of ideas in this unique coming of age novel, then it comes highly recommended, with even a quote from Helen Garner on the cover which reads “Superbly controlled, like dark, secret music rising from an abyss.” If you’re a fan of Australian Literature, this one is not to be missed.

Friday, 12 April 2019

5 Thoughts on Dealing with Deadlines

Like Douglas Adams, I also love deadlines.

Deadlines keep me accountable, and keep me from prioritising binge-watching the entire new series of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina instead of working on my book.

Because that's the thing about writing-- sometimes, it's the only thing you want to be doing, and other times, you will literally think of any excuse to get out of it.

Up until now, a lot of the deadlines that I have been working with have been self-imposed.  Things like doing Nanowrimo, or entering competitions have provided the external deadlines, but no one has been waiting for me to enter those things. I chose to.  Now, I have a manuscript to deliver to a publisher, and while that's a big exciting step, it's also a lot of pressure. I want to make sure that the book I hand over in a few weeks time is the best book it could possibly be, and that means making some hard decisions.

In this post, I thought I would outline for you a few of the things I do to keep myself on track, and give myself the best possible chance of meeting my deadlines-- although the irony of my writing this post when I could be working on the book is not lost on me!

1. Social Media is a time-suck...

I keep seeing other writers going on Social Media hiatuses in order to focus on their writing, and this is one way to combat this issue. Personally, I find that it doesn't work for me. I'm like a dog without a bone. I keep looking for that little hit of endorphins I get from scrolling through posts, only to find it gone, and then I feel a little lost. Obviously I'm not the type who can go cold turkey, so instead I am focussing on winding back my phone dependence. I'm limiting how long I am allowed on social media each day, using one of the settings in the most recent iPhone update (Screen Time), and when I get comfortable with that amount, I wind it back a bit more.  I'm hoping I can have my daily screen time down to a very small number of minutes by later in the year.

By the same token, as writers, more and more of the marketing of our upcoming books needs to be done by us, and that means that we need to cultivate social media presences on more than one platform if we can. Therefore, I can't cut SM out of my life entirely, but I need to be more strategic about the ways that I use it.

Bit of a conundrum, really!

2. Writing begets writing

A few times this year I have had the alarming thought that my need to write was waning. There's this idea that if you can be happy doing anything else other than writing or making art, then you should do that, and this year I have been extremely happy studying to become a librarian, but I also still love writing-- why can't I do both? The challenge is to make sure that I am finding time for both passions, and with writing, as with many creative pursuits, the more you practice it, the more you create a sense of flow. Going to my monthly Write Nights sessions at the Centre for Stories has definitely helped me to feel connected to writing, as has talking to other writers, and making time for me to sit down with my book and just work.

3. Lists are your friend

When there are lots of things to get done, it's normal to feel completely overwhelmed, as I was feeling earlier this afternoon. Writing a list of everything that I need to get done, and breaking the bigger tasks into their component parts, is something I find particularly helpful. I can see at a glance what I need to do, I can prioritise what needs to be done first and what things can wait until after deadlines have been met, and I know that I am not going to forget something important. When I was doing my honours year, I had an entire notebook devoted to these to do lists because an electronic one just doesn't have the same effect when it comes to focussing me on the task and sticking all of my obligations into my brain. I might start this notebook up again now!

4. Use a calendar

When I am particularly busy, I lose all sense of how close things are together until... disaster! I find myself with a week where everything is on at once and I let myself get run down. Using a desk calendar has really helped me in this regard. I keep it by my keyboard so I can see at a glance when assignments are due, when appointments are, and most importantly, when I have free time!

5. You have to prioritise self care

There is nothing that you can do to totally relieve the pressure that comes with a deadline. You wouldn't want to. That pressure makes your work that little bit better a lot of the time, and focusses you on your work in a way that you just don't get to do when you feel like you have all the time in the world. I have been neglecting exercise in my routine of late, and this is bad because I just feel tired and sluggish and I just can't sit at my desk and work for as long. For other writers, it's sleep that falls through the cracks, or eating properly. I'm not saying break out the face masks and nail polish every single night, but I think it's important to do things that help you take care of yourself as a matter of habit, whether that's going to Yoga, or reading a book before bed at night, or making sure that you're visiting your Mum enough.

With all this in mind, it's back to the editing for me-- let me know in the comments if there is anything else you do to help you feel organised and in control when you're working on a big project or you have a deadline, and I'll hopefully be back with another post sooner rather than later... though that all depends on how deep into the work I get!

Happy writing.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Q and A with Natasha Lester, author of The French Photographer

Inspired by the incredible true story of Lee Miller, Vogue model turned one of the first female war photojournalists, this is the new novel by the bestselling author of The Paris Seamstress.
Manhattan, Paris, 1942: When Jessica May's successful modelling career is abruptly cut short, she is assigned to the war in Europe as a photojournalist for Vogue. But when she arrives the army men make her life as difficult as possible. Three friendships change that: journalist Martha Gellhorn encourages Jess to bend the rules, paratrooper Dan Hallworth takes her to places to shoot pictures and write stories that matter, and a little girl, Victorine, who has grown up in a field hospital, shows her love. But success comes at a price.

France, 2005: Australian curator D'Arcy Hallworth arrives at a beautiful chateau to manage a famous collection of photographs. What begins as just another job becomes far more disquieting as D'Arcy uncovers the true identity of the mysterious photographer -- and realises that she is connected to D'Arcy's own mother, Victorine.

Crossing a war-torn Europe from Italy to France, THE FRENCH PHOTOGRAPHER is a story of courage, family and forgiveness.

I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to take part in the Blog Tour for The French Photographer which meant I got to read an advanced copy of this wonderful novel, and think up some questions for WA author, Natasha Lester, about the writing of the book, the characters, and the history behind it all. Here is what Natasha had to say... 

    EP:  The French Photographer sees you returning to the dual-timeline narrative, something that you also did in your previous novel, The Paris Seamstress. We’re now at a point in time where, if your characters historically are alive during the Second World War, the other timeline has to be somewhere around the early 2000s—what were some of the challenges you came up against when you were writing about 2004, with regard to the availability of technology and so on, and were these harder or easier to write through than the challenges of writing about the 1940s?

NL: The main issue was actually trying to recall the technology limitations of 2004! As my character does need to do a bit of internet searching in her quest for answers, I had to remember that there was no wifi and she would need to plug her laptop into a modem and that phones didn’t generally do anything more than make calls. But those were relatively easy to address; I would definitely say that writing about the 1940s was harder because I had to question every word and phrase - would a character really say this back then, when was this particular word first used etc.

EP: There have been a number of heroines in your books who have been somehow involved in fashion and the arts—first Leo with her cosmetics company in Her Mother’s Secret, then Estella in The Paris Seamstress and now Jessica in your new book, The French Photographer. Where does your interest in this area come from?

NL: I think art just naturally inspires other art. I find fashion to be beautiful and as artistic as any painting. It refills my creative well. Equally, other art forms do the same; I love everything from ballet to sculpture so I draw on those things when I’m writing. I have always been interested in the arts, even as a child. I was a terrible athlete so thankfully I found something else to engage me!

EP: You also have an art handler in your most recent book, D’Arcy, whose job it is to escort some photographs that have been offered to an Australian gallery safely back from France. Do you see your role as a writer of history as a little bit like that of an exhibition curator, in terms of the need to order and frame historical events in order to tell a meaningful story about the past?

NL: I guess, for me, it’s more instinctive than that. I was warned years ago, by a very clever person, to not think about theme too much and focus instead on story. So that means I just throw myself into the characters and the story. But then I usually find so many things in the research that outrage me, as I did when writing The French Photographer. It’s that outrage, a strong need to show everyone what happened to women in history and how they fought against it and sometimes won and sometimes lost, that drives me. The important thing for me is that the frame then be applied to contemporary life so we can see, not just how far we’ve come, but how far we still have to go.

EP: All of your main characters have been women who fight against the constraints put upon their sex by the conventions of their time, and this is especially so for Jess as she is uniquely placed as a female war correspondent to see through the patriotic narrative about men and war, and notice the rampant sexual harassment at play—is it difficult to write a character like Jess who is still of her time, without giving her too much insight into what comes after in the real world?

NL: I didn’t find it hard with Jess because she was, as I say in the back of the book, a rare gift from the writing muse. She really did come to me almost fully formed and didn’t require the same amount of effort to get onto the page as other characters did. This was just as well, because plenty of other parts of the book took all that effort! So, because I really felt like I was inside her when I was writing, I was always seeing through her eyes and hearing her voice, which was different to my voice and different to my eyes. I think that perhaps helped with not giving her too much foresight.

EP; I think the most powerful historical fiction gives us parallels to today that make us see things more clearly—what connections do you see between the sexism Jessica May faces in the book and the world of today?  Do you think that your writing of this book was in any way spurred on by the events of the last few years surrounding women’s struggles for equality in professional fields, and speaking out about sexual harassment and discrimination?

NL: It’s interesting isn’t it? #metoo really began in October 2017 and I submitted this book to my publisher in November 2017, so I had written it all before #metoo began. Then as #metoo unfolded, I couldn’t help but see all the parallels between what Jess faced and what women still face nearly eighty years later. It was maddening and saddening to see that so much hasn’t changed. I think, as a woman, I’ve experienced enough discrimination and harassment in my working life, having worked in accounting firms, engineering firms and advertising agencies, that these types of issues were already ideas that I wanted to explore in fiction.

EP: In this novel you were working with real figures—not only with Lee Miller, who was the inspiration for Jessica May, but also with people you used as characters such as Martha Gellhorn. Was this the first time you had worked with characters who had really lived? What were some of the challenges associated with this?

NL: I have always had a few characters in my novels who are real people. Elizabeth Hawes and Harry Thaw in The Paris Seamstress, for example, but I used real people much more in The French Photographer than I have done in the past. And that was primarily because, as I read about each of these brilliant female correspondents, what they faced and how they fought, I wanted desperately to write about each one of them because they were all so inspiring. In terms of challenges, real people aren’t always where you need them to be at the right time, so that was the main issue, especially as I was constructing a narrative where time needed to both move on and make sense. So, sometimes I would find myself not being able to include a character in a particular scene because it just wouldn’t have fitted with what happened. If I do fudge the facts of history, which I try not to do very often, I note this in the back of the book so readers can see what is real and what isn’t.

EP:  Can you tell me a little bit about what you discovered about the American Paratroopers and what they did in the Second World War during your research?

NL: They were amazing men and I loved writing Dan Hallworth’s character in the book as one of these men. WWII was the first time paratroopers had been used by the US Army and they were a group of specially trained men who were sent in to enemy territory first to secure strategic points, which would then help an incoming invasion force. So the men would jump out of planes over enemy territory and drop to the ground carrying 80kg of equipment - some of the younger men didn’t even weigh that much. And planes aren’t quiet things so they were often shot at in the sky as they were coming down, many of them dying before they’d even seen battle. If they did make it to the ground, they’d have to find the rest of their company, and then accomplish their mission, all the while knowing that if they didn’t, the huge invasion fleet coming in behind them would fail. In their hands lay the fate of the free world in June 1944 as they were dropped all over Normandy in the early hours of the morning on D Day before the troopships arrived.

EP: Your second main character, D’Arcy, has a love of vintage clothes—how does this relate to your own project, My Year of Vintage?

NL: She just struck me as the kind of person who would wear vintage fashion, and it allowed me to indulge my passion for vintage clothes, so it was lots of fun to write!

EP: They say that you should always try to write the kinds of books you most like to read—the dual historical narrative is a style that brings to mind writers like Kate Morton, but who else is a must-read historical fiction author for you?

NL: I do love Kate Morton, and also Hilary Mantel, Amor Towles, Paula McLain, Barbara Kingsolver, Kate Quinn and Elizabeth Gilbert. Margaret Atwood in historical fiction mode is brilliant too.

EP: Will you be returning to France in your next novel? And would you ever write a novel about Australian history?

NL: Yes, back to France for The Dior Legacy, my next book. This one does have an Australian history backstory woven in, to do with Dior, as he actually had quite a strong connection with Australia, which I hope readers will enjoy.

Thank you very much to Natasha Lester for taking the time to answer these questions, which I hope have whetted your appetites to rush out and track down a copy of The French Photographer.  It's in all good bookstores this week. 

Monday, 11 March 2019

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen
Alison Weir
Headline Book, 2018 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher.)

Portrayals of Jane Seymour don't differ much in popular culture-- she is usually golden and demure, and King Henry the Eighth seemed to have genuine affection for her, which is no doubt aided by the fact that she gave him his sole male heir and then promptly died before she could disappoint him like his previous wives had. Her marriage to Henry, and her time as his mistress preceding it, have always seemed short compared to the years of his marriages to both Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, and the King's Great Matter which came between them. In this novel, the third in Weir's Six Tudor Queens series, Henry's third wife becomes the subject-- and though her time as his queen is often not given equal attention in other portrayals, here she is also given the same treatment as her predecessors, in that the book is about 500 pages long.

The book begins with Jane at her family home Wulfhall, where she thinks that perhaps it may be her calling to become a nun. Weir notes in her author's note at the end of the book that very little is actually known about Jane Seymour, though her religious faith was often noted upon, and it is not so much a stretch of imagination to believe that this might have been an idea she toyed with, though we cannot know for sure. Her family is rocked by scandal as it is outed that her father has been having an affair with her older brother Edward's wife Catherine. While Catherine is disinherited by her family and put in a nunnery by her husband, Jane's father's part in the scandal is hushed for the good of the family, but Jane grows up wary of adultery as she has seen the affect that it has had on her mother. 

When she is brought to court to work as one of Queen Katherine's ladies, she finds in the Queen a lot to admire, and becomes a staunch supporter of her and her daughter the Princess Mary, even as they begin to fall out of favour. Here the novel overlaps with the two previous books, as Jane is one of the people who notices that Anne Boleyn has started to absent herself from her duties and to be unkind to her mistress, all the while spending time with the King. This portrayal of Anne Boleyn is a much more familiar one than the portrait painted in the previous book, Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession, and there is some suggestion that Jane played a small part in Anne's down fall, although in the novel, when she is given an opportunity to corroborate the evidence presented by Cromwell that Anne is unfaithful to the King, she stays silent. The haunting of which the title speaks seems to refer to the guilt that Jane feels knowing that Anne and her co-accused were killed to clear the way for her marriage. Weir suggests that Jane had no choice in the matter, with the political machinations of her family at work at first, and then the blossoming of a kind of love between herself and the king, leading to the possibility that Jane may have been pregnant when they were wed-- and the fact of this pregnancy making up the King's mind about Anne's fate. 

Again, like in the previous novel, there was a bit towards the latter half of the book where the plot did drag, as Jane was pregnant again and again and lost the children. However, the pinning together of all sorts of historical tidbits to create this sort of conjecture is fascinating, and while the end result in this novel is not a new perspective on Jane Seymour, it does raise her up a little in terms of her historical impact. 

I gave this book four stars and eagerly await the next installment, on Anne of Kleves, which is due out in May. 

Jane Seymour the Haunted Queen is available now in paperback. 

Thursday, 28 February 2019

2019 Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist Predictions

This coming Monday (March 4th) will see the announcement of the 2019 Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist, and around the internet, I have seen quite a few videos and blog posts in which people are attempting to guess what will be on there! Usually there are 16 books on the longlist, and past winners of the prize have included Madeline Miller, Ali Smith, Kamila Shamsie, Barbara Kingsolver, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rose Tremain, Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and loads of other amazing women writers.  The prize has had many iterations in terms of its name, with the naming rights having previously gone to the major sponsor (The Orange Prize, The Baileys Prize), but is now called The Women's Prize. It recognises a novel written originally in English by a writer identifying as female, and must have been published in the UK between April last year and March this year. (I think!) If you'd like to know more about the prize or see a full list of past winners, their website is linked here.

Without too much more preamble, here are a few books that I think we'll be seeing or that I would like to see on Monday's list..


Circe by Madeline Miller

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan


Normal People by Sally Rooney

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer


Transcription by Kate Atkinson

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite


The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker


The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai


The Incendiaries by R O Kwon


Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver


Milkman by Anna Burns 


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones


The Friend by Sigrid Nunez


House of Glass by Susan Fletcher


The Mere Wife by Maria Davhana Headley 

What do you think? Are there any novels you think will be on the list that I haven't included here? Only a few days until we find out, and hopefully it will mean a chance to discover some amazing books I haven't even heard of yet.