Monday, 19 November 2018

Book Review: The Fragments by Toni Jordan

Text Publishing, 2018

A stunning literary mystery set between 1938 New York and 1986 Brisbane. 

Standing in line for an exhibit on the life and work of novelist, Inga Karlsson, Caddie Walker meets a woman who seems to know more than is possible to know about Karlsson’s famous lost work. Caddie begins a quest for answers- who is this woman? What is her connection to Inga? And does she know who murdered Inga and her publisher all those years ago? 

Her research leads her to Jamie Ganivet, a rare books dealer who gave up on Karlsson scholarship after a run in with Professor Philip Carmichael, who just happens to be Caddie’s ex boyfriend. 

Told in alternating chapters, including Caddie’s present and Inga’s past, The Fragments is a fascinating mystery that defies genre, and will delight book lovers everywhere. 

Toni Jordan is one of my favourite authors of all time. I remember my Mum coming home one day in 2008 (my final year of high school, and the year I began seriously 'working on my novel') and she told me that she'd heard an author interviewed on the radio. She said the book sounded interesting, and she thought I might like it. 

This is something that my Mum does, by the way. In fact, all of my family does it. Anything writing related, they tell me about it. They keep clippings from papers, and they send me links to podcasts. If it's writing related, it's sent my way, and it's really very sweet.

But that day, the book in question was Addition, the first book by Toni Jordan. She bought me a copy not long after, or perhaps I bought one for myself (but more likely she did I think), and I read it. I thought it was wonderful. It wasn't until Nine Days came out four years later, though, that Toni Jordan became one of my favourite authors. I thought to myself reading that book, here is an author who can write history. It feels real and it's not too fluffy or overly romanticised. She just gets it. 

The Fragments is Toni Jordan's fifth book, but it's a pretty close second for my favourite of all her works. It has a bit of everything I like-- the 1930s, publishing, a mystery, a missing manuscript, a bookshop or two, and a love interest with an interest in old and rare manuscripts. For the entire time that I was reading this book, I was transported. I could feel the Brisbane heat. My only complaint is that the book was not longer, but isn't that the quote? If a book is well written, it is always too short? 

I can't wait to see what Toni Jordan will turn her hand to next. I am sure it too will be surprising and delightful. 

Sunday, 28 October 2018

The Aftermath of Being Busy

Isn't it funny the way that when you're busy, you long for a free day to do nothing-- then, when that free day comes, often, you can't think of what to do with yourself. There's a particular kind of restlessness that comes with that sudden stopping of momentum. It's similar to the way you still feel like you're bobbing around in the waves, long after you've pulled yourself out of the ocean.

October has been a busy month for me, busy for all sorts of reasons, and stressful in many ways too. In the first week of October, I finished my first semester of my Masters. I am now about 1/6th of my way towards becoming a Librarian. Because I would like to get the degree done in 2.5 years instead of 3, I will be doing a unit over the summer as well. So I was looking forward to the last three quarters of October as time to write.

But the writing itself has been slow. I expect to cross the 50 000 word mark in The Turning Tide (that's the working title, as for now my characters have yet to experience much by way of actual tides) sometime today or tomorrow, but I had hoped that I would have been there already by now. Using a formula set out in Fiona McIntosh's book How to Write Your Blockbuster, I had worked out that if I wrote steadily six nights a week until the end of the year, I would only have to write about 775 words a night. That number is now considerably higher for a range of reasons. I won't make excuses. I just haven't been disciplined enough.

First drafts are notoriously hard, as are second books, and I know I am fortunate in that I am writing my second book while my first remains unpublished, therefore there is very little pressure on me to deliver or even finish the thing.

Of course we had the Australian Short Story Festival last weekend, and as I was volunteering, I was up at 7am both days and on a train to Northbridge, so very little writing got done even though I was very inspired afterwards.

The truth is, now that I finally have a completely free day, I am exhausted, and all I want to do is curl up with a book.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

2018 Australian Short Story Festival- Perth

This weekend, short story writers from around Australia descended on Aberdeen Street in Northbridge for the third annual Australian Short Story Festival. The brain child of Margaret River Press and Midnight Sun Publishing, the festival has previously presented the likes of Cate Kennedy, Tony Birch, Ryan O'Neill, Melanie Cheng and many more. This year's festival was opened by David Malouf, who spoke at Gallery Central on Friday night, musing on the nature of creativity, and the interconnectedness of his body of work. He had many pearls of wisdom to share with the audience, such as the idea that the ending to a short story is inevitable, because the groundwork for it has already been laid in the existing words; the idea that you have set up for an ending that you have not even decided on yet is comforting to me, as endings have always been the part of writing that I have struggled with the most! David's generosity in sharing his thoughts with the audience continued into question time, where he invited responses to his work. His ability to turn any question into an opportunity to think about writing and ideas and craft made this section of the evening perhaps even more enjoyable than his opening address, no mean feat, as the open section of any literary event is often a mixed bag. I was introduced to David by my dear writer friend, Louise Allan, after the event-- (though I did not tell him that I had studied his books for upper high school and that they had been widely despised by everyone in my class!  I have since reread Fly Away Peter as an adult and loved it, and wonder if perhaps its depths are lost on sixteen year olds.)

Day two began bright and early, as I headed to the Alex Hotel for my first shift as a festival volunteer. The Alex is a beautiful venue and it was a great privilege to be able to use their stunning terrace as a location for two sessions this year. The first, called Three Writers Walk into a Bar was a conversation between talented local writer and interviewer, Annabel Smith, and visiting authors, Yvonne Fein, Anthony Macris and Laura Elvery. With a stunning vista surrounding them, these authors conducted an intimate chat, complete with readings.

From there, it was back to base, the stunning and newly renovated Centre for Stories at 100 Aberdeen Street in Northbridge. Transformed into festival central, the centre played host to two session rooms as well as the courtyard sessions, festival bookshop and green room.  It was there that I was able to make my way into a session with visiting author and poet, Maria Takolander in a session called Maria Takolander is Not Afraid. Maria spoke about the hilarity of this title choice, saying that one of the reasons that she writes is actually because she is afraid of everything, and that writing about something is a way of taking back control. I loved this session and took copious notes-- I even asked a question at the end, something I never do! I can't wait to get stuck into reading Maria's book The Double

On day three, it was back to the Alex Hotel to check tickets for the session Are You Sitting Comfortably? This session featured two writers, Sandi Parsons and Hossein Bouazar, who told their stories of bravery and survival, accompanied by balladeer Greg McNeill on guitar. I was not prepared for how powerful and moving this session would be, particularly first thing in the morning.

Volunteering done with, it was back to the Centre for Stories to put on my Festival Guest pass and take part in a panel. Chaired by Amy Lin, the panel was called Why Do You Write? and featured myself, Brooke Dunnell and Hannah van Didden. We spoke about where our ideas came from, whether we were plotters or plungers, how we edited our work etc, and there was a really lovely collegiate vibe in the room. I had thought I would be nervous, but instead, it was just fun and made me feel like going home to write. Alas, there would be time for that later, but immediately afterward, it was out into the briefly sunny courtyard to read at the Westerly Readings session, where poets and writers were showcasing their pieces from Westerly 63.1 and 63.2, which has yet to be released. We made it through half of the readers before it started to pour!

I wish that I had been able to go to a few more of the sessions and I was particularly disappointed not to get the chance to hear Jennifer Down speak about her collection Pulse Points, which just recently won the Readings Prize. Until the next time the festival comes to Perth, or perhaps if I make it over to Melbourne for next year or Adelaide the year after that, I will just have to make do with reading as many short stories and short story collections as I possibly can!

Saturday, 6 October 2018

The business of selling a novel...

I wanted to write a post about how to get yourself an agent for your book, but if I'm being really honest, I don't know the first thing about it.  Ask my writer friends.  I bet they're all getting fairly sick of my emails and text messages second guessing myself about query emails and how to follow up when you don't hear back.

The weird paradox about writing is the whole time that you're writing your book, you need to strive for self-improvement, and you need to be really humble and absorb as many lessons as you can along the way.  I think this is why a lot of writers are really hard on themselves and set these impossible goals that they later feel terrible for not having met.  (No?  Just me?)  Then, when it actually comes to the whole business of trying to 'sell' your book, you have to do a complete 180 and become like a used car salesman.  See this here book, it's a really beauty, only one owner, complete introvert, pretty much worked on it every night to the detriment of her social life and her studies and her sleep.  Comes with a great social media presence, practically publishes itself.  That part doesn't come naturally to a lot of people.  Writers, we're great at singing each others' praises, but we're not all that keen on talking about ourselves unless it's to be self deprecating a lot of the time.  And for some of us (again, this could just be me), the difficult thing is that even if we do feel like we've written the best book since... I don't know, Life After Life or The Husband's Secret or something else that sold a million copies is beloved by book clubs... we feel like we are not allowed to say that we think it's good.

What's that Flannery O'Connor quote?  Something about writers who think they can write usually not being that great, and the ones who think they're the worst being geniuses?  Or was that a made up quote trotted out in my Undergraduate degree to scare us all?  O'Connor certainly has a lot of interesting thoughts on writing, but this particular sound bite escapes me at the moment.  For now, if you're interested, here's a list where she throws a lot of shade at Ayn Rand. 

So, the process of seeking an agent or seeking a publisher.  Is there even a process?  Perhaps it is different for everyone.  Regardless, there's something nerve wracking about needing to condense down all the best things about you and your book into a single email, and sending it winging off into the internet black hole, then waiting for a response.  It produces the kind of anxiety that, in this day and age, has most of us checking our email nine hundred times a day, or until our phone battery wears out, whichever comes first. 

There are a few things I have learned, and while these things might not help you with your agent-seeking, I hope that they might help you in some way. 

1. Write something else.  

You're going to be waiting a long time, probably a month at minimum, for any kind of meaningful response.  So get your submission package together, send it off, have the full manuscript ready to go, but then forget about it.  No one is expecting you to be ready to hit send on that full manuscript within seconds of receiving the request.  So send your book off and be ready by all means, but don't wait by the phone or the computer.  If you can, work on something else.  If not a new book, maybe a short story, or a screen play, or some poetry, or a scarf or a cake or a painting... and so on and so forth.  Let the response, when it comes, be a pleasant surprise.

2.  Don't expect acknowledgement of your email.

A few times, I've been tempted to follow up my pitches early because I haven't had any indication that my email even reached the person I wanted it to.  But if you've checked that you spelled the email address correctly and you know that the email has left your outbox, then they probably got it.  Agents are busy people.  In a recent episode of an excellent podcast called The First Time, hosts Kate and Katherine talked to agent Jacinta di Mase, who outlined how many unsolicited pitches she was getting a day even when the website stated that she was closed for submissions.  You're just one writer, and yeah, it can sting a little to not even get a response, but try not to take it personally.  It's not personal.  It's business. 

3. Know that you are not the first person that this has happened to and you will not be the last.

While there are lots of ways to get published these days, there are also lots of ways to not get published.  Lately, I've really been getting a lot of comfort and joy out of reading a few literary memoirs-- in particular Nell Stevens' two books, Bleaker House and Mrs Gaskell and Me.  Reading these has helped me remember that I do the work because I love it, and that getting the book published would be gravy, rather than the whole meal.  Other books that may help-- even if it's just to make you laugh at the industry, or feel a little more like you understand it, include My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff or The Wife by Meg Wolitzer.  You could even do what I did recently and binge watch Younger, which, while being largely ridiculous and far fetched, has a lot of great inside jokes for anyone who has worked in writing, publishing, bookselling etc.  Plus, Nico Tortorella. 

At the end of the day, the writers who get published are the ones who don't stop writing.  There's no giant hourglass somewhere with time running out, and no one is going to say oh, the sand has all gone into the bottom now, guess you better become an accountant.  Perhaps a better Flannery O'Connor quote to think of here is this one:

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.  I'm always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality.  It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system.

She talks about writing here, but I think it's the stuff around the writing that's more of a shock, that's more damaging to the soul.

If you've got a great story to share about your experience with agents and publishers, feel free to send it through in the comments. 

Thanks for reading, and happy writing to you all. 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Some Great Historical Fiction Reading Horizons

September is a week from over and I haven't written a single blog post all month. I've been writing, generally sticking to six days a week and have finally had a break through about how to structure my novel-- too bad that it has come 40 000 words in to the first draft!  For those writers among you, I'm sure you know the excitement that comes with finally thinking of a way to pull all those errant words together.  And yes, I'm sure you know that those moments usually happen while you're in the shower, driving, or almost asleep and therefore unable to stop and write everything down right away. 

I thought I would tell you all a little about what I have been reading by updating you on some amazing historical fiction reads that I have been loving lately, and to borrow a term from The Readers Podcast, to do some reading 'horizons.'

Currently reading: The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

Anna Mazzola has a new book out this year, and I first came across her on Twitter when someone I follow retweeted her.  I had the funniest feeling that I knew the name from somewhere, but looking at the blurb of her first book, decided that I definitely had not already read it.  But I wanted to, and so I requested it from the library.  It's sort of a Burial Rites type of plot, but set in 1830s England and has all sort of lovely gothic Jack the Ripper, bodysnatching vibes.  I am enjoying it very much so far and I am looking forward to Anna Mazzola's new book, The Story Keeper.  

The Unseeing is told from two points of view, that of Edmund Fleetwood, a lawyer who seems to have more of a moral compass than most of his profession, and Sarah Gale, imprisoned at Newgate for her role in a horrific murder where a young woman was dismembered and her body parts scattered around the city.  The atmosphere in this book is just perfect and I can't wait to see where the plot is going because I think more than one character is keeping a secret!

Just finished: The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton

I love Kate Morton.  I love every single book of hers.  I practically ran down to my local bookshop on the day that this one came out and planned to spend that whole night reading but... homework etc.  Instead, I read it this week while I had the house to myself and read the whole thing in just under three days.  It's different to what I expected, but in a very good way.  Kate Morton's books usually have two timelines which plait together to reveal a secret from the past, where someone in the future is shedding light on something that happened long ago, and that still happens in The Clockmaker's Daughter, except instead of being two timelines, there are about five.  Only a really skilled storyteller could make it work.  I was left with a few lingering questions that I don't feel got answered, but ultimately, I put the book down with that happy, satisfied glow that comes from reading a transporting novel. 

Also, how stunning is the Australian cover?  I was mad that the new Kate Morton covers don't match the originals until I saw this. 

What I am going to read next:

There are a few historical novels on my radar for the future, many of them World War One themed for research into my own novel.  I'm also still very interested in the Wars of the Roses although the mania from last month has subsided and I think I will be able to make it safely to the next Philippa Gregory novel... that being said, one of the options for what I might read next is Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir, the third in her series about Henry the Eighth's six queens.  There's very little in my retinue by way of knowledge about Jane, other than that she was the only wife to give Henry a living son, and that she died not long after.  There are some portrayals that suggest she may be the only wife Henry married for love, but I'm not sure if we can ever know that for sure.  If anyone can get to the heart of it, though, it's Alison Weir. 

Another option is the new novel by Paula McLain, Love and Ruin which returns to familiar territory from The Paris Wife, as it follows the story of another of Hemingway's marriage, this time to journalist Martha Gellhorn.  I don't know much about it other than that I loved The Paris Wife and I am excited to get stuck in.

Finally, I hope to get to Imogen Hermes Gowar's novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock very soon... I have had this on my list of things to read since February and the novel has been sitting on my bedside table since March.  Not sure why I have put it off!  Again set in the 1800s, it is the story of a man who comes across a specimen that is said to be that of a 'mermaid', and I've seen reviews raving about this debut novel all year long in the wake of its being longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction.