Friday, 6 December 2019

5 things no one tells you about being an author...

1. You will get sick of talking about yourself...

I didn't think this could possibly be true. I love talking! I love being asked things! But last night, totally aside from doing any book events, someone asked me how uni and work were going and I was like.... ughhh.

But remember that this is how most authors feel. Debra Adelaide, in her latest book The Innocent Reader talks about the need to put on the mask and go out there and do the talk anyway. Remember that for the people in the audience, these questions are new. Your book is new. You are new. And they are giving some of their time to you, not only to listen to you talk, but also hopefully to go home and read your book. They may have parted with their money for the privilege. You owe them the respect of giving a great talk, and answering questions with kindness, even if you do feel like a broken record.

2. You will forget what happens in your own book.

Or rather, you'll forget which versions of things appear in the book. The other day, I told a story about something that happened at home and the interviewer said 'Oh that's funny because that happens in one of your stories.' 

3. You will forget what question you have been asked half way through answering it.

I always thought this was funny when I was an audience member. Then it happened to me... 

I have found that it's useful to have talking points to call on, and these can often be adapted to tricky questions. If you're unsure of what an interviewer wants to ask, it's fine to ask them to unpack the question a little bit. The audience know you're human and if you didn't really understand the question, they probably didn't either.

4. You will struggle to write coherent and 'un-weird' messages in peoples' books while simultaneously trying to carry out charming conversations with them.

This leads to the fun situation where you ask someone if 'Laura' is spelt the traditional way and they look at you like you just ate a crayon. Last night, I lay awake for quite some time, certain that I had written the wrong name in a friend's book.

5. All hail the power of the 26 minute nap.

Book tours are tiring. They involve a lot of evening events that mean you have to drive there in peak hour traffic and then miss your usual dinner time because you're too busy signing books! (A pretty great problem to have, really.) I have found myself getting quite tired in the afternoons lately, and so when I know I have the time, if I feel myself getting sleepy, I set a timer on my phone for 26 minutes and allow myself to snooze. It's enough time to shake the cobwebs away without making me feel cranky and disoriented. 

So there you have it!  I am sure that from events to come, I will learn more things, and I am trying to be open to the process and appreciate every second of it, because as Brooke Davis told me when she was launching her novel Lost and Found, you only get one first book.  No, it hasn't really been what I expected, but when I let myself enjoy it, it's been great. I am thankful to all the wonderful libraries and bookshops who have hosted me so far and look forward to talking to more of you in 2020!

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Books of the Year 2019- A completely arbitrary list

2019 has been a good reading year for me. I've managed to surpass my reading goal of reading 105 books, and I have used my local library a lot more than in previous years, so while it might not look like it from the state of my bulging bookshelves and piles of books on the counter by the door, I have in fact curbed my book purchasing. As far as the goal of reading at least 45 of my previously purchased unread books has gone, I have lost track of the number but I believe that I got very close!  Next year I will increase that number and be somewhat more strict with myself about the number of new books I can bring into the house-- I am even considering bringing back the old rule of not being allowed a new book until I have read ten others.  As a side note, Australian writer Stella Glorie (who has just started a great Booktube channel called Thirty Books (latest video linked here), based on the idea that if everyone bought thirty Australian books a year (that's roughly $1000 or the price of a daily cup of coffee) then the Australian publishing industry would be a whole lot more sustainable, so that's something I am going to keep in mind when I decide which books to buy and which to borrow.

Enough preamble!  Without imposing any sort of order, here are the books that I loved the most in 2019.

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The Night Tiger by Yangzee Choo

A novel with a bit of everything (mystery, magic, romance, history), the story follows Ji Lin who works in a dance hall in Malaysia in the 1930s, and Ren, a houseboy who has been gifted by one doctor to another and tasked with an unusual quest at his new home.  There's lots of mythology and drama in this one, and though it's a long book, it's a quick read because you just do not want to put it down. There were a few secrets going on that the author doesn't reveal but for a savvy reader, there are a few things written between the lines for you to discover.

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett has quickly become one of my new favourite authors after reading State of Wonder for one of my bookclubs and then picking this one up on the recommendation of the Diving In Podcast (a wonderful bookish show based here in Perth!) This is the story of Sabine, who after the death of her husband, Parsifal the Magician, travels to Nebraska to learn the truth of his early life, and to better understand his later life and her own through the eyes of his family. It's moving and tender and smart and I just loved it.

Bodies of Men by Nigel Featherstone

The story of two men who knew each other as boys and reconnect in North Africa during the Second World War. The prose in this one is just stunning.

44789215The Trespassers by Meg Mundell

A strange tale peopled with compelling characters that busts all expectations of genre.  I loved it way more than I thought I would, particularly the interplay between the three narrators.

The Jackson Brodie series by Kate Atkinson

Is it cheating to put a whole series on here? I don't think so and anyway it's my website. 2019 has been, above all else, the year of Kate Atkinson. I have read at least four of her novels in the course of this year and I am in awe of the diversity of styles and genres she can work in. This series is no exception. They aren't your average crime novels (thank goodness for that, my least favourite genre) and I love the way each novel calls back to its predecessors.

Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard

I've been lucky enough to interview Holden twice this year at local libraries, and what makes this book even more special is how generous Holden is with his readers. The story of three young men who are growing up gay in a small West Australian town, the novel is heartbreaking but also funny and smart and rebellious and it is just so incredibly important. One that will bear many re-reads I think. Holden, if you're reading this, I'm so proud of you, you deserve all the success that this novel is bringing.

45020087. sy475 A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop

Inspired by her own family's experience during the Black Saturday bushfires, A Constant Hum is a series of short stories and flash fictions about fire, peril, family, loss, trauma and healing, and it is incredible reading. Particularly poignant given the devastating bushfires that have happened recently. Perhaps a copy should be sent to Kirribilli House this Christmas.

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls

I've long loved David Nicholls for his Thomas Hardy adaptations but now I love him for this novel. It's dripping with nostalgia for long hot summers, and explores the curious nature of friendships forged between cast members rehearsing a Shakespeare play, which brought back many memories for me. I got to see David speak at the Subiaco Library this year and it was superb.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

As I was reading this one, I was struck by the sense that it could be happening alongside an older favourite of mine, Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. Gilbert has taken a real deviation from her earlier novels with this one but she's created a sumptuous world and a main character you can't help but want to cheer on.

40635416. sy475 House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

A little known one here, but beautifully gothic in an almost Daphne DuMaurier like way. I enjoyed this immensely and will now be seeking out more by this author. It's got a link to the war, a crumbling old house, a mysterious inheritance, and a young woman with osteogenesis imperfecta, who has been sheltered from the world for far too long. Just lovely.

The Huntress by Kate Quinn

For anyone who has ever wanted to learn Russian swearwords.

No, but in all seriousness, while I still prefer Kate's previous novel The Alice Network, this novel was a fascinating story about the Russian Night Witches, elite female pilots who were at work during World War Two. It has moments of real humour but the real strength is the relationships on the page.

You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian

Yep, it's the book by the author of 'Cat Person', the short story which went viral last year after it was published online.  And if you thought that story was confronting, be prepared, because it's one of the tamest in the book. This one surprised me, because due to the reviews and the fact of my not really liking many American short stories, I'd expected to find it so-so, but it was fabulous.

Here Until August by Josephine Rowe

As a lover of short fiction, my top read of the year in that genre would have to be Josephine Rowe’s incredible collection Here Until August which is a shining example of what Australian short fiction can do and be. From her intense characterisation to her tight control of language, this collection is near perfect and cements Rowe as one of my favourite Australian writers. 

43514383. sy475 Fled by Meg Keneally

Meg Keneally’s fictionalised version of the life of Mary Bryant, her novel Fled saw her step out of the shadow of her literary giant father and announce her arrival as a writer of historical fiction to be reckoned with. I loved this tender portrait of life at the bottom edge of the world for this woman convict so much that I’ve recommended it to everyone I know, and now have a new found respect for stories of this era of Australian history— a period I had previously thought too dull for good historical novels. 

So there we have it. And the reading year isn't even over-- it's not even December yet! (One more day, and then, yes I will be putting the Christmas tree up.) . I'm looking forward to long warm days on the outdoor sofa with a book in my hands-- if you've read anything great this year, do let me know in the comments.

Monday, 18 November 2019

5 things that inspired Well-Behaved Women

The writing of Well-Behaved Women did not start out as the writing of a collection. Rather, the book pulls together stories written over the span of ten years of work. That they all seem to reflect on the theme of contemporary womanhood, and the way that women exist in society, was a coincidence born out of the fact that a consideration of what it means to be female in today's world is something that takes up a lot of my thinking time and has done for some years.

Inspiration is a funny thing. If you're actively looking for it, most of the time it is nowhere to be found. The things that set you off can be completely random-- a news article, a piece of rubbish on a verge collection, the refrain in a song on the radio. This is how it has been for me, for the most part.

So then, today's post is something a little different-- a list of things, people, songs and books that have served in some way as inspiration for the book.

Reading from Well-Behaved Women at the official launch on November 13th, 2019.

1. Margaret Atwood

I first discovered Margaret Atwood as an undergraduate. In the library at Murdoch Uni one day, I discovered that as well as musty smelling books on literary criticism from the 1970s, our humanities collection also housed a rather spectacular selection of novels. Among these was a big beautiful book with a vintage, 1940s style illustration of a woman on the front cover. The book was The Blind Assassin, and I spent the remainder of my weekend in bed reading the book from cover to cover.

Since then, I've read many more of Atwood's novels, short stories and poems, and I am constantly amazed by her prowess at telling women's stories. Of course you all know my thoughts on The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments, but I think that it is The Blind Assassin that has had the most influence on my style as a writer. That book is the one book I wish I had written, and I aspire to one day write a book of its calibre.

Also it is Margaret Atwood's 80th birthday today, so if by some chance she is reading this, Happy Birthday, Margaret!

2. David Bowie

I've written about this in one of my posts as Guest Blogger over at the Margaret River Press blog, but in case you haven't read that, I like to write with Bowie hits playing. Bowie was more than just a musician-- the fact that his artistry was elevated to the level of having characters, of his albums telling stories, completely captures my imagination. I remember an occasion listening to 'Space Oddity' in my Dad's car as we drove through the city on the Freeway, the music turned up loud (as it usually is in Dad's car), I felt isolated and frightened by both the melody and the lyrics. That a song which includes 'Here am I sitting in my tin-can' can do that... that's the magic of Bowie. My favourite Bowie song though would have to be 'Modern Love.'

3. The disappearance of Natalia Molchanova

In 2015, I read an article (it may well have been this one) about the disappearance of the world's greatest free diver, a woman named Natalia Molchanova. Something about it hooked me. First of all, I have always had a deep reverence for the power of the ocean. Yes, it is beautiful, but it's also vast and dangerous and completely unknowable. You have to respect the ocean because it can embrace you but it can also steal you away. This is what I tried to capture in my story, 'The Sea Also Waits' which was the first piece I ever had published in Australia and the second thing I had published in print. I was fascinated by the idea that a person who has essentially 'mastered' the ocean by being able to hold her breath for so long and dive to the depths without an oxygen tank could disappear on a routine, casual swim, not even out to break a world record. The other thing about the article that struck me was that free diving seemed to be in their blood, as Natalia's son Alexey is also a champion free diver-- and so my story became one about mothers and sons and passion and the danger of the ocean. That story has always felt magical to me and I am so happy that it's the opening piece in my book.

4. Picnic at Hanging Rock

One of the greatest Australian novels of all time. When I was doing my Honours year back in 2012, I was thinking a lot about girls in white dresses versus the mysteries in the Australian bush, though I was looking at it through the lens of the death of Laura Wishart in Jasper Jones by WA writer, Craig Silvey. This led me to the artwork of Frederick McCubbin and to the classic Australian novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I learned at the time does have a final chapter which explains what happened to the girls and their teacher.  Having read that lost final chapter I can safely say that the book is better because it is never fully resolved, and for anyone who has read my stories, you'll see that this kind of wilful authorial intervention in denying my readers neatly tied up endings has entered my own personal style-- sorry, Felicity, I know you wanted a more satisfying ending to 'The Settlement!' My story 'Picnic at Greens Pool' is a direct response to Joan Lindsay's novel but I flipped the image on it's head and made it very West Australian. Instead of girls in white dresses going missing on a mountain, I have a young woman in black bikini who goes missing on a beach. Any other similarities? You'll just have to read it and find out.

5. My own jealousy!

The final story in the collection is called 'The Woman in the Writers Festival'. It's about a writer named Peggy who hasn't had much success with her own career, and instead of getting on with things, she's slowly ruining her own life by projecting this onto another writer who is enjoying her fifteen minutes of fame. I used the story as an opportunity to poke a bit of fun at the green-eyed monster, and I hope other readers will enjoy Peggy as much as I enjoy her... she's completely un-self aware and a bit ridiculous, but she's also razor sharp in some of her observations. My favourite analogy about writing is this:  Writing is not like a pie-- if someone else is enjoying success, that doesn't mean there will be less left for you. I had to learn this, and I think Peggy needs to as well! It was a fun story to write and I like that it rounds out the collection. At an event recently I was asked whether it was inspired by a particular person that I have felt jealous of, and the answer is no, it's not!  I have felt jealous of so many people over my years of going to literary events... it would be impossible to single any one person out!

It's about two weeks to go now until Well-Behaved Women appears in stores!  If you can't wait to get your hands on a copy, you can order it now from Margaret River Press or your favourite indie bookshop. 

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Book Review: The Burnt Country by Joy Rhoades

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Two years ago, I reviewed a book called The Woolgrower's Companion which told the story of Kate Dowd, a young woman who had to take control of her destiny and begin running her family property during the turmoil of 1945. It remains one of my favourite Australian debut novels (and if you want to know why, you should check out that review.) Imagine my delight to discover that a sequel was due to be published this year.  
The Burnt Country is Kate's story three years later. The war is over, and Kate has been separated from her husband Jack for some time, but that doesn't mean he's leaving her alone. Jack, aware that there is money to be had from Kate and her property Amiens, offers his estranged wife a deal-- pay him ten thousand pounds and he'll let her be the wronged party in their divorce proceedings. But if Kate can't pay, he'll petition for the divorce himself and he'll name her as an adulterer. 

Things are already tough for Kate. Many of her neighbours resent her success, and as a woman alone running a sheep farm, she's subject to all kinds of scrutiny. What's more, Kate publicly acknowledges a young Aboriginal girl, Pearl as her half-sister, as it was discovered in the events of The Woolgrower's Companion that her father Ralph had gotten their domestic, Daisy, pregnant. In order to protect Daisy and Pearl from the attention of the Aborigines Welfare Board, Kate needs to keep her head down. And this means she can't afford people to talk about her and Luca Canali.

In the midst of all this, a bushfire starts on the boundary of Kate's property and her horrible neighbour, John Fleming's property, Longhope Downs.  In the aftermath, and the tribunal that follows, Kate will be forced to take steps to protect the people she loves, even if it means denying herself the great love of her life.

It was wonderful to be back in the company of Kate Dowd, and really interesting to see life after the love story in the first book.  The Burnt Country focusses on Kate, and what life was like for women in the post-war world, whereas in the previous book, there was as much focus on her father's decline and on the love story that developed with Luca as anything else. Kate's struggle to be taken seriously was mirrored by the introduction of a new character, Enid Morrisson, who is also a woman in a man's job.

What Joy Rhoades does incredibly well is explore the relationships between people, and evoke the loyalties that form in complicated ways. There are nasty characters in this book, sure, but there are also kind people like the Riley family and Luca, and Harry's grandmother Mrs Grimes. At times, I found myself thinking about Rosalie Ham's novel The Dressmaker as I was reading this book, as the complexity of a small community played out against the gender politics of the setting. There is much subtle historical detail throughout the book, and the time and place feel real and alive to the reader.

This was a wonderful book and a wonderful companion to The Woolgrower's Companion although I wouldn't read the second one without having read the first.

I gave The Burnt Country four out of five stars.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

On 'The Testaments'...

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Last night, I stayed up late finishing The Testaments  by Margaret Atwood.

Earlier this year, when it was announced, I wasn't that excited by the prospect of a Handmaid's Tale sequel. I had vague memories of having read the first book and not being blown away by it. I would have been about 17 when I read it, and I didn't realise how important a book it was. I remember thinking 'This is speculative fiction and it's too far removed from real life.'

I think that book must have come into my life at the wrong time. I have led a very privileged life, and my reaction to The Handmaid's Tale certainly shows that.

Over the course of the past year, particularly in the re-writing of stories for Well-Behaved Women, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a woman. I know that the viewpoints in my short story collection by no means encompass what it's like to be every woman. I can only show quite a limited set of points of view. My characters are all from my own cultural background, though I have experimented with putting them in different positions in terms of their class and age. The more I thought about what it means to be a woman today, and the more I watched what was going on in the world around me-- particularly in relation to what is going on in the United States-- the more I began to feel uneasy.

Did you know that everything that happens in The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments has a precedent in human history?

I didn't, until last night when I read the author's note at the back of the new book.

The Testaments is a powerful book, and though at times it's horrifying, it also seems to have a message of hope. After I finished reading it, I wanted to hug it to my chest and cry. People have been calling Margaret Atwood a prophet. Perhaps that's a little bit extreme, but she's certainly a very strong, very intelligent woman, and she's living by her own words, that a word after a word after a word is power. I'm going to go back and re-read The Handmaid's Tale now, hoping that I am ready to appreciate it. Ready to learn.

As it says in The Testaments, 'History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. '