Sunday, 15 July 2018

Book Review: The Coves

The Coves
David Whish-Wilson
Fremantle Press, 2018

David Whish-Wilson is a respected name in Australian Crime Fiction, and his trio of novels Line of Sight, Zero at the Bone  and Old Scores shine a light on the possibilities of a seedy Perth underbelly in times of recent memory.  In his fourth novel, The Coves, just recently published by Fremantle Press, he takes a slightly different angle with a foray into the genre of historical crime.  The Coves is the story of twelve year old Samuel Bellamy, who makes his way to San Francisco aboard a ship full of convicts during 1849 with the intention of finding his mother, whom he believes to be among the Australians living there. 

Drawing from the historical record, Whish Wilson vividly recreates the 'Australian quarter' of San Francisco, a town run by the Sydney Coves, or the Sydney Ducks as they were sometimes called.  The novel is peopled with murderers, drunks, prostitutes and scoundrels, and all are seen through Sam's keen eyes, helping the reader to go beyond these labels and understand that people are not always who they appear on the surface, though it may be a matter of survival for them to appear this way.  From the prostitute who becomes like a surrogate older sister to Sam when he is alone in this new place to the lawmakers who serve their own interest, the cast of characters in The Coves is almost Dickensian, but with a tough, Aussie Larrikin twist here and there.  No wonder the early praise for this novel has been garnering comparisons to Oliver Twist.

For me, the novel more strongly evoked echoes of Peter Carey, with strong literary writing that sometimes required deep focus to get at the heart of what was really being said.  It takes great skill to write characters who are wise beyond their years, but with Sam, David Whish Wilson has achieved just that.  He is not as innocent as perhaps a twelve year old may be today, instead streetwise and savvy through necessity, yet his perspective on the world is not yet jaded like some of his older counterparts, and his capacity to still believe in the possibilities of love, happy endings, reunions and so forth drive the story forward.  This is the story of a young man who could turn to crime because of the childhood he has had, but instead tries to do the right thing always (at least from a moral point of view if not a legal standpoint); a young man who is loyal, observant and loves his dog. 

If you're interested in hearing David Whish Wilson talk about this book, you can still get tickets to hear him speaking to Tim from Dymocks Subiaco this Wednesday night at BARK on Hay Street.  Follow this link for more.  

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

How My Writing Process Has Changed Over Time (Part Two)

If you haven't read part one of this series, you can find it here.

In early 2018, I finished writing the eleventy-billionth draft of a novel-length project that I had been working on, on and off, for about a decade.  Okay.  So it was the eleventh draft.  But it felt like a lot more.

Something felt different about finishing the story this time.  Wiser writers than me have said before that when something is finished, you know.  There is a severing of the cord that binds you to it.  And while I know that if my book is picked up for publication I will likely have to work on it a few more times, the sense that I have right now is that I have taken it as far as I could have.

I learnt a lot writing this particular book, and I had a lot of great milestones whilst working on it too.  I have always prided myself on having a great memory, but funnily enough, when I began writing about the process of working on this book, I realised that I can't remember the whole process in order.  There are things that stand out to me, like the ten days I spend revising while on a residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre in Greenmount, or the time I was asked to do a presentation on writing historical fiction at the History Teacher's Association Conference at St Hilda's.  But I don't think about these things as a timeline.  They are more like a montage.  Picture me, hunched over a desk, standing at a lectern with a powerpoint presentation, drinking tea, all the while 'Eye of the Tiger' plays in the background.  Maybe, in the end, that is what writing is like.  There's no one way to do it.  You can't follow the instructions step by step.  Sometimes, you do things out of order (like research... but I'll get to that.) . Sometimes, you repeat things that you thought you'd only have to do once.

There are things that I can take away from the last decade of calling myself a writer that hopefully will serve me well for the next one.  Things like, first of all, calling myself a writer.  I think I've mastered that, thanks in no small part to great teachers like Natasha Lester, who gave me the skills I needed to concisely explain what I write-- as that is the inevitable follow up question when you tell strangers you write books.  I've made some great connections too, in bookselling and publishing. 

But of course, there are a few things that I've learned NOT to do, as well.  Things like:

- Not sending the book out before it's ready.  Not to beta readers, not to friends and family and CERTAINLY NOT to publishers.

- Not to take criticism personally.  You waste a lot of time and emotions feeling like everyone who dislikes your book also dislikes you.

- Not to seek the kind of intense feedback this work requires from close family and friends

And finally...

- Not to feel like there is a prescribed way to research. 

I write historical fiction, and getting history right is important to me.  One of things I am encountering writing The Turning Tide (working title for book two) is that I don't yet fully know the time and place I am writing about.  I know roughly when it is set, but I haven't yet settled on a suburb.  Between the Sleepers was set in Fremantle, and it's tempting to go back there... but I'm also wondering about setting the book in the suburb where I live now, and taking myself on long walks, imagining the past and my characters a bit closer to home. 

If I were to set myself the impossible goal of getting all the facts right the first time around, I would never start writing.  There are always going to be things I don't know.  And if I wanted to just write facts, I would have become an historian.  History and Historical Fiction are different.  They have different purposes.  What interests me about historical fiction is the way that writers use it to help me connect with the past through characters, and feel empathy for people who died before I was born.  I can read historical fiction for hours, whereas non-fictional accounts are more suited to short bursts of reading, at a desk with a notebook and pen.  I did history and writing for undergrad, and the biggest appeal of the history degree was fodder for stories, so I think that tells you all you need to know.

Sometimes, I need to give myself permission to just write.  To get facts wrong.  To have people wearing clothes with zippers before they were invented, to have the drinking age wrong.  Those things will be fixed later.  And if the historical facts make the scene impossible, maybe somewhere down the track it gets thrown out.  Some of my favourite darlings have been killed this way. 

This is the stumbling block I keep hitting with the newest book.  I start to write and then I am suddenly confronted by the gaps in my knowledge.  I'm trying to remind myself that it's okay to get things wrong, but the part of me that just spent a few years fixing those sorts of mistakes keeps piping up.

So I'm researching the way I like best-- reading stories set at the time, watching films, reading old newspapers online.  It's immersive research.  I'm not taking notes at this stage unless something really great stands out to me and I jot it down for a scene idea.  The heavy lifting-- the fact checking and getting all the dates right-- that bit comes later. 

First drafts are shit but they can also be fun.  If I let myself get back into that first draft mode (and forget I've done this all before) I know I'll be in for a treat. 

Monday, 25 June 2018

How My Writing Process Has Changed Over Time (Part One)

Writing a second novel is a little bit like learning to write all over again.

I'm in that frustrated space right now, where my enthusiasm for the idea exceeds my knowledge of the topics and time periods I want to write about, and my brain is thinking of scenes and new characters faster than I can work out where they need to go.  I keep thinking to myself 'I don't know how to do this anymore.  I don't remember how I did it the first time.'  They say much of writing is an act of faith that things will come together in the end, and I am certainly putting that to the test now.

When I began writing Between the Sleepers, I was still in high school, though only just.  I'd written 'novels' before.  Not to go into too much embarrassing detail, but I'd written one novella length YA story called "Quoting Shakespeare" which I printed off and put into a folder and felt very proud of, and one urban fantasy 'novel' (probably about 50 000 words) called "Invisible Girl" which I actually had the gall to send off to a local publisher in the hopes that they would publish it.  I've always liked having a project.  It's the same with reading books.  When you finish one, you need to move straight on to the next one.  Not being in the middle of a book, or not being currently immersed in a project feels to me like that dream where you turn up at school and realise that you've forgotten pants.  It's incomplete. 

The idea for BTS came from an album.  It was an album by a small independent band I'd discovered through (of all places) MySpace, whose music I had needed to track down when my family took a trip to Japan because it wasn't available in Australia.  When I listened to that CD, I heard a story.  It was like each song on that album was a chapter, and I wrote down the 'synopsis' of that story and that was my first plan.  It was a plan I quickly deviated from.  I wrote without really knowing where my story was taking me, knowing only that I needed to go with these characters I had dreamt up.  And I knew where the story was going to end, roughly.  (As a side note, that ending stayed the ending until the most recent draft, when my clever mentor dared me to try out a different ending just to see what it was like.  Of course, her way was better.)

So I wrote the first draft.  I remember coming home from school and doing my homework and then sitting at my desk, which was in the corner of my room squished in next to my bed.  I had a clip on lamp that attached to the bookshelves above me and it cast this warm yellow light over my workspace.  I still associate that sort of light with working until I get too tired to keep my head up.  I wrote that draft, and then I finished it and I printed it off and I gave it to some people to read.  Those people-- my mum and my grandparents-- gave me feedback.  I think I probably cried to hear that I hadn't written a bestseller in one go without really knowing what I was doing.  It wouldn't have been the last time I cried over book feedback.  But even if at the time I thought to myself 'I can't do this, I need to start thinking about a real job,' inevitably I ended up back at that desk.

I am going to skip over the parts where I put my work aside for months at a time to let it breathe, but between each finished draft, there were times where I worked on other projects like the currently sidelined Alan Turing project, or my recently rediscovered (and not half bad) Nanowrimo novel 'The River.'  I also wrote a lot of short stories.

I like to use a method of editing that I have heard Anthony Marra call re-typing.  I print out the manuscript and I open a fresh Word document.  I type out the story to myself as I read as if I am reading it for the first time, fixing, changing and deleting things as I go.  I think with BTS, I may have done this process ten times.  Each time I finished a draft, I went to someone I trusted for feedback.  At one point, I was working at a job that required me to leave the house extremely early to beat traffic and get to the other side of town.  During that time, I hand wrote parts of the novel out to myself and I would type those sections up when I got home.  I got feedback from bosses, family members, friends-- and then I found a writing group.

The first time my writing group read my novel, they didn't get it.  On the night it was my turn to hear feedback, I sat at that table in the cafe listening to them raise questions about my character's motivation and I felt personally attacked, even though they were given their feedback as gently as they could and being constructive.  But I'd never been in a good critiquing group before.  Any writing group I had been in previously had been one where I was the person who took the task of writing most seriously.  And when the rest of the group doesn't take things seriously, 'That was good, I really liked it' is the brunt of the feedback you'll get.  Yes, I did go home from writing group and announce that I didn't want to go back, and yes I did lie on my bed in the dark with tears in my eyes, but you know what?  In the morning, I had realised that there was still work to do and I had found people who knew how to help me get it done.  Kristen, Louise and Glen, I will always be grateful to you for being tough but fair!  I can now take fair criticism of my work on the chin... most of the time. 

Like most writing groups, ours ran its course.  Work and family schedules changed and it became harder to meet.  Some of us met new people whose writing we clicked with.  Along with my friend Belinda, I began a regular writing group called Write Nights, where the aim became not getting feedback from other writers, but actually making sure I put my bum on a chair and wrote something at least once a fortnight.

Slowly, slowly, the words eked out. 

Each time I had finished a draft, I had thought it finished, but the most recent draft was like a severing.  It was like the mental cord that bound me to the story had been cut.  I was satisfied.  I used to think about my characters, wondering what they would have been doing during certain events or how they felt about things, but after this draft, I stopped wondering because I knew that they were okay.

Then there was blankness, where I didn't think of any new ideas.  I began to worry that I would never have a new idea ever again and my journal entries became exercises in futility.

But then, several months ago, a scene came to me.  From that scene, I had my character and my set up.  There were a few 'research obsessions' I had been pursuing.  I suddenly realised that they were for my book, this book, the one I had been working on in the back of my mind without realising.

I began to write...


Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Lily and the Rose by Jackie French

The Lily and the Rose
Jackie French
Angus and Robertson Publishing, 2018

If you haven't read the previous book in this series, you can read my review here.

Sophie Higgs, heiress to the Higgs Corned Beef Empire was a Rose of No Man's Land during the First World War.  She set up and ran successful field hospitals, and even found herself dashing across occupied France in an attempt to stop an attack of mushroom gas against soldiers in Ypres.  Now, the war is over, and Sophie must find a way to return to her normal life-- if life for Sophie can ever be anything like normal again, that is.  When she receives word from Germany that her friend Hannelore, the Prinzessin von Arnenberg and a fellow graduate of Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies, may be in trouble, she resolves to rescue her and take the former Prinzessin, now without lands or income, home with her to Australia.  Accompanied by the wife of an English aristocrat who has a penchant for violence, as well as two of the servants whom she met and befriended at Shillings while living with Miss Lily, Sophie dashes into a Germany which has been irreparably changed by the war, before heading home to Australia to convince her father that she is ready to take over the family business, despite her gender. 

I enjoyed reading the next chapter of Sophie's adventures, but at times, the plot of this second novel was a little all over the place.  Rather than being one grand narrative, the sequel follows a number of smaller episodes, and covers themes such as domestic assault, the rise of the labor movement in Australia, women in politics and business, the plight of returned soldiers, and the rise of a new order in Germany.  It's a lot to take in.  I read this novel quickly and eagerly, but did not feel quite the same way as I did when I finished book one.  I think in the future I would be inclined to reread the first book but would perhaps not go on to reread further than that. 

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Things I Have Been Reading Lately

I haven't been much in the mood for blogging lately-- this time of year has been extremely busy, and when I get home from work, all I want to do is either read or watch television.  My programs of choice lately have been 'Sweetbitter' and 'Silicon Valley', and maybe this tells you a lot about my state of mind, but all I have wanted to do is watch episode after episode until I fall asleep.  Sadly, even in this age of binge-watching and Netflix, shows run out of episodes eventually.

But outside of TV time, I have been reading some excellent books lately, so in lieu of a proper review, I thought I'd let you know what's been on my nightstand lately, and give you a quick little update of what I thought.

Trick of the Light by Laura Elvery

I met Laura a year ago on a panel at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival.  She'd just won the Margaret River Short Story Competition, and so we were book mates in Joiner Bay and Other Stories, Laura having written Joiner Bay.  She did tell us then that she had a full length collection in the pipes, and in March this year that collection was released by UQP.  It is quite an interesting collection, encompassing stories that use a few different approaches to the form, including some magical realism and some historical pieces.  No surprises there that my favourite pieces were 'Trick of the Light", about women working in a watch factory, painting the radium on watch dials in the early 20th Century, and 'Brushed Bright Bones', about reincarnation and Richard the Third.  These stories do tend to favour the 'moment in the life of' style, and don't necessarily offer closure or enlightenment, but if that's your cup of tea, you will be delighted because Laura has a way with words.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

After saying that I loved Melanie Benjamin's books and being really excited about her new book, this one was a bit of a disappointment.  It wasn't one I was tempted to devour in a single sitting like this author's previous books and I found some of the writing really clumsy and overblown.  Perhaps it was because I'd just come off such a literary book and I was making unnecessary comparisons.  If you're new to Melanie Benjamin, maybe start with Alice I Have Been instead.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I love this book so much, I love its turns of phrase, I love its portrayal of a marriage tested, I love the statement that it makes about the racial politics of America and I just love it, so go read it.  Thanks to Amy from my Book Club for picking it for this month.

Redemption Point by Candice Fox

I've been waiting for this sequel since reading Crimson Lake last year.  I don't usually read crime, but I really like these.  Maybe it's the fact that the main character has pet geese?

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

My first Meg Wolitzer book but it won't be my last.  This was the book that I needed, when I needed it.  It's about a young woman who meets a feminist icon when she's at college and has been going through a tough time, and the trajectory that this meeting sets her on, and the way that it prompts her and the people around her to make changes and enrich their own lives.  It's also a cautionary tale about hero worship.  It's bloody good.



So that's me over the last month or so... what about you-- what have you all been reading?

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