Friday, 27 March 2015

On Being Patient

  1. 1.
    the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious.
    "you can find bargains if you have the patience to sift through the rubbish"

I've never been a particularly patient person.  

I like to be early to things and I pride myself on being organised.

That's why this part of my writing journey is particularly difficult.  Because sending my book out involves a whole lot of waiting.  

Waiting for things makes me anxious, and it makes me do things like check my email four or five (hundred) times a day.  

One of my New Year's Resolutions for 2015 was to Get Rejected and to be Be Okay with It.  In the past couple of years since I started writing seriously, I almost feel like I've had more story rejections than I've actually written stories. This has fed that niggling doubt in my mind that maybe I am not supposed to be a writer.  But writing is not being published.  Writing is writing.  And every time I've decided that it's time to hang up my pen, I've unmade that decision almost straight away.  Writing is who I am, and so long as I am writing, I am happy.  As Cyril Connolly said, 

It's better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.
But being okay with rejection is easier said than done.

First of all, I'm trying to realise that a rejection of my words is not a rejection of me as a person.  And sometimes it's not even a judgement that I am a bad writer.  In fact, a lot of people have told me lately that I am a good writer and the word talented has been thrown around a little, which feels somewhat flattering.  Publishing things is as much about getting the right piece in front of the right person  at the right time as it is about that illusive thing called talent.  So the best thing to do is to push on, and work on improving my craft for my own sake.

Second of all, sometimes it's hard not to feel inadequate when people always misunderstand that published works do not a writer make.  I'm proud of the fact that I own up to being a writer.  It was something I made a conscious effort to do.  When people ask what I do, I don't say I'm a bookseller, or a I don't JUST say that.  I say I am a writer.  Unfortunately, a lot of people then follow up with the inevitable questions about where can they buy my books.  It's as if my book is not a real thing if people cannot buy it.

But those are my issues and I will deal with them.

Writing this post is a form of distracting myself, because right now I am in the process of waiting.

And I may just be waiting for more rejections, but at this high stakes, anxiety inducing level, I think I would be okay with that, because at least then I would know, and I would be able to move on to the next step.  It is easy for me to put in a short story and then forget about it... but my novel is different.  When I put my novel on the line, the wait is harder.

There are no hard and fast rules about how long agents and publishers will take to get back to me, but whatever happens I know it will be worth the wait.   If only I were capable of waiting patiently...

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Book Review: The Last Illusion

The Last Illusion
Porochista Khakpour
Bloomsbury (I own a copy)

When Zal is born, he is pale and strange looking, and his mother (who has already had several other children) finds him abhorrent, so she puts him in a birdcage on the front veranda.  For many years, he lives his life among her bird collection.  Then, his older sister visits and discovers this bizarre form of abuse; she and a friend make a documentary of Zal's rescue and he becomes famous, a kind of horrifying obsession in the news media, attracting the attention of a Dr Hendricks, an expert in child development.  Hendricks flies to Iran to adopt Zal, and brings him home to New York, where they attempt to make the rest of Zal's life as normal as possible.

But Zal is not normal, and in fact he quite likes living like a bird.  He eats insects, he cannot smile, and more than anything, he wants to fly.  This leads him to the illusionist, Bran Silber, who puts on a show about the history of flight in Las Vegas.  The two form an unlikely friendship, and their exchanges are peppered with humourous 'Silberisms', a kind of hybrid hip hop/ internet speak full of buzz words and catch phrases.  Despite this, Silber's show does not satisfy Zal's urge to fly.

This novel is set in the immediate period preceding the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, but it is not, the author has said, a 9/11 novel.  There are a number of pieces which deal with the fracturing of the western mindset before and after these terrorist attacks, including Don DeLillo's White Noise (a short story) and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but this is not one of them.  Instead, this is a novel about the symbolism that day has grown to have in the time since it happened, our loss of innocence, our fascination with spectacle, and the mythology that society gives to events of this magnitude.  It does so with great wit and a fine tuned sense of irony.  And when I say irony, I mean it: for Bran Silber's aim, in the latter half of the book, is to pull off an illusion the likes of which the world had never seen before.  Bran Silber wants to make the World Trade Centre disappear.

This is only one plotline, and it's only really one third of the book's focus.  The more important plotline, I would argue, belongs to Zal, and as an Iranian American, he occupies a strange space as a character in a book which happens around 9/11.  So too does his girlfriend, Asiya, who changes her name from Daisy MacDonald, thereby shedding her outer shell of the privileged, white, middle class New Yorker, in order to fit in with a Muslim minority when she falls for a man who is a Muslim.  She later breaks up with the man, and with Islam, but not with the name.  Asiya is a prickly, anorexic girl, an artist who reanimates dead birds using photography (but does not kill them), and she meets Zal in the street when they both bend to pick up a bird which has fallen dead on the footpath.  Their relationship is awkward and uncomfortable for both of them, with Zal finding physical and emotional milestones usual to people hard to get his head around, and Asiya finding it hard to let people get close to her.  Their relationship is complicated by Zal's feelings of attraction towards Asiya's obese, bedridden sister, and Asiya's belief that she possesses the psychic ability to see bad things coming.  As Silber's illusion begins to gather publicity, Asiya, a woman with a Muslim name, feels compelled to contact the illusionist and warn him off provoking great tragedy.

The influence of magical realism is deliciously felt in this story, which reads as easily as a bed time story, but is smart, witty and complex at the same time.  Zal's story itself is based on part of the Shanhnameh, or the Persian book of Kings.  If you love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you will love this novel.

Five stars.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Book Review: Black Light

Black Light
KA Bedford
Fremantle Press, 2015 (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

In 1920s Pelican River, eccentric science fiction novelist Ruth Black receives a visit from her aunt Julia, who brings with her a prediction that Ruth is in danger.  Julia's visions are making her ill, and while the doctors say it is epilepsy, Ruth knows that the thing that is coming for her is not of this world.  When threatening letters begin to arrive, claiming to know of a horrible secret involving Ruth's deceased husband and father, she decides to take matters into her own hands, and with the help of her friend Gordon, she sets out to solve the case herself.

KA Bedford is a two time Aurealis Award winner for excellence in science fiction writing.  This new novel is something a little bit different for the contemporary fiction scene; it is a book which is part 1920s detective novel and part foray into the supernatural realm.  Think Phryne Fisher with demons.  The writing style is evocative of an old time detective novel, told in an educated, very English first person voice.  Ruth, as narrator, is sharp-witted and observant, if not slightly cynical.  The cast of characters alongside her were a real strength of the novel, and I really enjoyed the book because of them, first and foremost.

For the uninitiated science fiction reader, Black Light is at first a gentle introduction, gathering weirdness as it gathers steam, until, in its explosive final chapters, Ruth Black leaves the realm of the normal (literally) and embarks on a futuristic chase through the next world, looking for her would-be blackmailer.  These segments, while well-written, were a departure from the rest of the novel, which managed to maintain a 1920s atmosphere which was most satisfying.  The final section of the novel would have found itself at home in a Max Barry novel, and was a little disorienting at first, although not so much as to cause the ending to be unsatisfactory.  Anything but.

I would have appreciated a little more explanation as to the relevance of the elves, however, as they seemed to come out of nowhere and serve no real purpose, other than to signify that something weird could happen.

Time travel has become a bit of a trademark of Bedford's work, one of his previous works being the humorously titled, Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait, which I admit I have not read but I would now, having been introduced to this darkly-comic and clever writer.  It features in an amusing way in this novel, but thankfully does not serve as a deus ex machina to the book's resolution.  (How Bedford DOES resolve his mystery I will leave for the reader to discover themselves.)  As far as a crime novel goes, it was more Agatha Christie than Michael Robotham, although there's nothing wrong with that.  The degree of difficulty in solving the crime was not high, but then again that was never the point, was it?  I would definitely read more supernatural crime stories featuring Ruth and Gordon.

I gave this novel three stars.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Reading Round Up: February

Well, I aimed to read ten books a month, and by the last day of February, I was on my tenth, so I'm almost there.  Not bad for a month with only 28 days!

So much of my reading in February was influenced by events; first by the Perth Writers' Festival, and then by the release and launch of Deborah Burrows' A Time of Secrets, which you can see is the second book I read in February.  Of these books, 8/9 were written by women and 6/9 were written by Australians.  I could probably come up with some other statistics for you all if you wanted, (i.e. 3/9 were historical, 2/9 referenced fairytales and only 1 was short fiction) but we're not here to talk about reading habits.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This year's Gone Girl?  I hope so!  So much more enjoyable than Gone Girl for me, partly because it explored deep issues of abuse and the characters, whilst flawed, had redeeming qualities that made me feel at least some degree of empathy for them.  

You can read my review here.

A Time of Secrets by Deborah Burrows

A novel about wartime, secrecy and love, with a fantastic lead character and a great, well researched plot.  This writer gets better with every book.  

You can read my review here.

The Break by Deb Fitzpatrick

This novel is based on the Gracetown Cliff Collapse tragedy of the early '90s, and provides an interesting meditation on the things we take for granted as modernity catches up on us.  It has an amazing opening line that sucks you right in.

You can read my review here.

The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

A hard one to summarise without giving too much away, but this is a multiple narrative story about a retired French police inspector, a morally questionable Japanese novelist, and the young daughters they gained and lost, and how.

You can read my review here.

Mothers Grimm by Danielle Wood

A Perth Writers' Festival attendee, Danielle Wood's book of novellas is an interesting expose unpacking the expectations we've put onto mothers over time, through the lens of the modern fairytale.  BYO pumpkin carriage.

You can read my review here.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

Easily one of the best books I've ever read, this book is romantic, sensory, thrilling and weighty, and nigh on impossible to put down.  Kate Forsyth never disappoints.  This novel tells the story of Dortchen Wild who grew up next door to the Grimm family and from a very young age was in love with Wilhelm, the younger of the Brothers Grimm writing duo.  But it wasn't until they were in their late 30s that they married.  What kept them apart?  And what role did young village women have in the creation of the iconic collection of folk tales?  And what the heck does Napoleon have to do with all this?  Forsyth tells a story of love, but also of two brothers and their efforts to resist French cultural imperialism, as Napoleon marched across Europe, destroying everything in his way.  A fundamentally feminist interpretation, Forsyth gives agency to the young women who played an integral role in this but have been largely unattributed throughout history, most notably Dortchen Wild.  This book has been created through extensive research and the author writes a fascinating note on her interpretation in the acknowledgements.  This book was a 5/5 read.

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

A short story collection that has been receiving a lot of media attention lately.  This collection won the Victorian Premier's Award for an unpublished manuscript, and thank heavens for that, because by all accounts, otherwise no one would have published it perhaps.  It is politically charged and incorporates the voices of disenfranchised and pissed off migrants and people of colour from all around the world in authentic voices.  The author employs the use of dialect, which can sometimes be hard to understand but is part of the overall effect of the piece.  Two short pieces which have a lingering effect are The Sukiyaki Book Club and Gaps in the Hickory.  

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

A different kind of mystery novel, this book is told from the point of view of Maud, who is losing her short term memory because she has dementia.   Due to a series of notes which she leaves herself, she knows her friend Elizabeth is missing and keeps trying to look for her, but this seems to make the people around her annoyed.  She's also started to remember things about an event that happened long ago, but is she mixing up the two disappearances, that of Elizabeth and that of her sister Suki?  A great deal of skill has gone into keeping control of this narrative, and it's a very entertaining read, if a little less complex than perhaps a mystery should be.  A case of character quirks overriding the plot perhaps?  I gave it three stars.

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

The book Elizabeth Gilbert was raving about!  This is a novel which is set in 1255, and takes place largely in an anchorhold, a room nine paces by seven paces attached to a church.  Inside lives Sarah, a seventeen year old girl who has committed to being an Anchoress, a holy woman who goes through a kind of living death.  But for a book about a woman who cannot leave her cell, a heck of a lot goes on.  We discover much about Sarah, and her reasons for choosing this life, a lot of it through her interactions with the village women she counsels and the two maids she employs, but also through her memories and her visions.  This was a stunning novel.  Four and a half stars.  

Well!  That's all the books I completed in February!  Studies are emerging now that say people who read are less likely to be stressed, perhaps because reading is a form of avoiding thinking about the things that stress us out, but I don't think these statistics take into account the mental states of people who also WRITE books.  Sure, take my heart rate while reading a lovely book, but take it again after I've been staring at a blinking cursor for an hour and forty five minutes and you might get a different story.  Still, I think one of the reading themes I have uncovered this month is the value of a good story, whether is be one that is told to us, or one that we read ourselves.  Narrative structure can be comforting, and it helps us make sense of the things that happen to us.  This is why fairy tales often have moral themes to them, such as the good get what they want, and the wicked are punished- these messages encourage children to lead the kinds of lives their parents and elders want for them, and stay out of trouble.  As we grow older, stories also teach us compassion, and how to walk in the shoes of others.  They teach us that nothing is black and white, and readers will identify differently across the same story simply because of the unique experiences they bring to a book.  This, I believe, is a form of magic in itself. 

Happy reading!

Monday, 2 March 2015

Perth Writers' Festival 2015

The Perth Writers' Festival took place this month, between the 19th and the 22nd of February, and boasted such guests as Dr Bob Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, DBC Pierre and Liane Moriarty.  Over three full days and four nights, the UWA campus was transformed into a hub of ideas.  44 000 writers, readers, families, publishers and other interested patrons swarmed in and out of lecture theatres to listen to panels on diverse topics such as grief, movie adaptations and even the influence of fairy tales on our storytelling culture.  As always, this was an enriching experience, and the Festival organisers truly outdid themselves.

Now, one week on, I sit to write this post and I reflect on what the festival means to me, what it provided.  The most obvious answer is inspiration.  The second most obvious answer is books.

On Friday, I took in a number of fantastic sessions, beginning with a session all about Fairy Tales.  The session panel consisted of Kate Forsyth, who is the author of an enormous number of books across several genres, and Danielle Wood, who won the Vogel Award in 2002.  I have been a fan of Kate's work since The Starthorn Tree was published, and losing my copy of that book when we moved house was possibly one of the most traumatic things about leaving my childhood home.  (Okay, so I've led a pretty good life...)  Recently, I have read two of the three adult novels that Kate Forsyth has published, Bitter Greens, which is a historical novel exploring the origins of the Rapunzel story, and The Wild Girl, a novel which celebrates the creation of the Grimm's Fairy Tales, and the young women who helped with the collection of the stories, most notably Dortchen Wild who would later marry Wilhelm Grimm.  Both of these novels are beautiful, and impossible to put down.  They celebrate real women whose voices have been silenced, and the roles they played in creating the fairy tales that children still love today.  (In Bitter Greens, the storyteller is Charlotte Rose De La Force, who was banished from the court of the Sun King, Louis XIIIV).  Kate's next book, The Beast's Garden, should be out this year some time, and I know I will be buying a copy for sure.

Kate's work and Danielle's work, though very different, were extremely complementary, as both writers had studied the traditional fairy tales and their themes at some length whilst working on their projects, and had revisited the themes many times before,  Danielle's book, Mother's Grimm was reviewed here earlier in February.

What I think is remarkable is the way that fairy tales have meant different things at different times in different places and to different people, yet they continue to stay relevant to our lives, and give us an overarching sense of meaning to interpret what happens to us.  The influence of fairy tales is a powerful motif, and I think I would like to explore using fairy tales in my own work, as well as read the original Grimm's fairy tales, dark as they may be.  This session was a highlight of my weekend.

Another highlight of the Friday sessions was seeing John Marsden speak about his new book for adults, South of Darkness.  While I'm not particularly interested in Australian colonial history, I am interested in John, and I have to say, his tale of a young orphan transported to NSW is a fantastic read.  I have been a fan of John Marsden since 2002, when I picked up a copy of Tomorrow, When the War Began at what was then the Angus and Robertson store in the High Street Mall, in Fremantle.  While we were shopping, I remember we ran into my netball coach, who was skeptical about my ability as an 11 year old to read the book, considering her own daughter was studying the book for year 9.  But I read it, and I loved it, and I remember a lot of my close friends were reading it too.  Perhaps I took up the book just to keep up with them (it was a time of some social unrest in my friendship group), but whatever the reason, I loved it, and this weekend, as I sat in Winthrop Hall, listening to John Marsden speak about his philosophies of writing and teaching, and the importance of taking risks and experiencing things, I felt myself brimming with tears and thinking, "This man is the reason why I write."  I saw John speak again on the Sunday morning, in conversation with Rohan Wilson about ways of writing about the convict era, and I was so glad I decided to do that.  I will definitely be picking up some of Rohan's books to read in the future.  I may even already own one!

The other sessions that I went to on Friday included a talk by Porochista Khakpour about writing her novel The Last Illusion (TBR) and one by Inga Simpson and Emily Bitto about writing about memory.  I loved Emily Bitto's book The Strays, which I read whilst on writing retreat, and Inga Simpson's two books, Nest and Mr Wigg are beautiful blends of nature writing and fiction.  As for Khakpour?  I think I may have something of a crush on that woman's mind, and I can't wait to read her book.

That night, I went home and for the first time in a few weeks, I wrote something new.  It was like having a big metal clamp lifted from between my shoulder blades, and the anxiety I had been carrying with me for weeks seemed to melt away.  Writing truly is better than therapy.  I spent the rest of that night reading Elizabeth is Missing, by another PWF guest, Emma Healey, whom I did not get to see speak.  Sadly there were a lot of timetable clashes to contend with and I also missed out on seeing DBC Pierre.

Saturday morning was taken up by a breakfast presentation put on by the wonderful people at Fremantle Press, at which we were given a teaser about what's to come in 2015.  From there, I went on to a session sponsored by the Stella Prize, entitled Domestic Double Standards, all about correcting inherent gender (and other) biases in Australian fiction.  Fortuitously, all the panellists have been longlisted for this year's Stella Prize, and I have to say that I would not want to be the one having to make that choice, as all the books are wonderful.  This panel was chaired by Stella Prize pioneer Aviva Tuffield, and consisted of Maxine Beneba Clarke, Alice Pung and Ceridwen Dovey.  All three women are smart and witty and this made for a delightful, though provoking session, at which a lot of fun was poked at the writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose long memoir novels featured as a symbol of cultural gender bias.  Dovey has written an article about her issues with what the cultural celebration of these books means for The Monthly which you can read here.  She levelled a statement to the audience, stating that if a woman had written Knausgaard's books, would she be labelled selfish, or unkind the way that Helen Garner had been criticised for her unorthodox and perhaps 'unwomanly' treatment of her dying friend in The Spare Room.  

I also went to a session that day about the different types of short fiction currently making a resurgence in Australian literature.  This panel was chaired by Laurie Steed, who is currently the writer in residence at KSP.  Laurie is an award winning short fiction writer and teaches workshops that I am desperate to get along to, but the timing never seems right.  It was great to see him lead this panel.  He was joined by flash fiction writer, Angela Meyer, short story writer and teacher Susan Midalia, David Unaipon Award Winner Ellen van Neerven, and slam poet/ short fiction writer Maxine Beneba Clarke.  All four writers have demonstrated a great degree of flair in the short form of writing, and do not view short fiction as a stepping stone to getting a book published, the way some writers do.  They discussed the increasing willingness of publishers to embrace short fiction and the benefits that this has for readers and writers.  As someone who writes (albeit quite poor) short fiction, I found this session fantastic.  Oddly enough, during question time, a woman did put her hand up to tell a story about how she'd accidentally bought a book of short stories that morning, thinking it was a new novel by Hilary Mantel, and her disappointment.  Considering she'd just sat through a session where the panellists dispelled the idea that short stories are the novels' poorer cousin, I sort of wondered what she was getting at there.  Oh well.  As some of you may be aware, the comment disguised as a question is standard fare at Writers' Festivals.  

I ended my weekend by taking in a session called Drawing From History, which was incredibly packed given that it took place at 4pm on the last day of the festival.  Chaired by Natasha Lester, this session was all about books which use a historical starting point for their creation, and it featured four panellists who worked in quite different genres, beginning with Joe Abercrombie whose novels Half the World and Half A King are set in a fantasy world based on the Viking era.  I've never read any of Joe's books, I'm sorry to say, but he did make them sound funny and exciting and quite realistic in terms of world building.  His main character in this series appears to be a young king with a disability trying to make his way in a warrior culture, which sounds like a damn good premise to me.  The other panellists were Kate Forsyth, who I mentioned earlier, Juliet Marillier, local author of a great number of historical novels featuring magic and folklore, and Robyn Cadwallader, author of The Anchoress.  This session was rowdy, and funny, and Kate kindly informed us all about women's toilet habits in the court of the Sun King, as well as the fact that Napoleon's ... er... member.... was cut off after his autopsy and handed down through generations as a kind of trophy.  This session was a really nice way to end a great weekend, and kudos must go to Natasha Lester for doing such an amazing job facilitating it.

Sadly, the Writers' Festival is over for another year, and I must spend my time thinking back fondly on it, and wishing, and perhaps also reading some of those books that I bought.  A round of applause to the organisers and writers who participated.  

If you are a huge fan of events like the Perth Writers' Festival, you may be dismayed to hear that the WA State Government has cut $65 000 worth of funding to the WA Premier's Book Awards, and changed it to a biannual format.  A petition has been set up in an effort to show the Premier that this is not okay with the WA writing community.  Please consider signing.  You can also tweet using the hashtag #savethewapremiersawards