Monday, 22 February 2016

Interview with Emma Viskic, author of Resurrection Bay

This interview was recorded at the 2016 Perth Writers Festival, but was not an official PWF event.  

Emma Viskic is a Melbourne crime writer. She has won two of Australia’s premier crime fiction short story awards: the Ned Kelly S.D. Harvey Award (2013) and the New England Thunderbolt Award (2013). She has had stories placed and shortlisted in numerous other competitions and been published in Award Winning Australian Writing.

EP: So, first of all, Caleb is an interesting twist on the hard-edged detective character because he has a disability, and we don't see a lot of characters in fiction with disabilities.  Is there something in particular that inspired him?

EV: Not so much inspired as probably was the seed, because I went to school with a girl who was profoundly deaf-- but I didn't actually set up to write him deaf.  It's been going around in my brain for many, many years, just this outsider.

EP: But so many of the plot points hinge on this, like when Caleb can't ring his friend back when he says that he is in trouble.

EV: That was a gift!  That was a gift because phones are so , they're everywhere, and as a crime writer modern technology, is a real pain.

EP: Writing about text messages and Facebook conversations, I don't know about you, but when I do it it feels really twee and horrible.

EV: It really does, yeah.  Occasionally television or film does it really well, something like Sherlock does it really well, but in a book it's really hard not to just take you out of what's happening, so when I was first starting to play around with the level of his deafness I thought, "Well a lot of deaf people can talk on the phone", I mean one of the detectives says 'Oh you know my Nan speaks on the phone.' But when I decided, no he's really very deaf I thought: "This is excellent! This is really going to be helpful to me... not so great for him but, you know.

EP: And then of course there's that moment where he's with his brother Anton and Anton plays the voicemail message, and Caleb just assumes he's telling the truth but later one of the other characters says 'Until you hear that message for yourself, you don't know what it actually said', so it makes it really nice to play with, that you take away a whole sense that he and the reader would normally use to make sense of the world.

EV: It was good because when I first went into it, I thought him being deaf would make it so hard for me as a writer but actually in many ways, once I conquered the technical problems, it actually made it so much easier-- because as you say it's got that 'What's happening?' element to it.

EP: Did you actually go and learn AUSLAN?

EV: Yeah, absolutely, I'm still learning. It's fantastic, I love it so much.  I'm really bad at it, I'm almost Frankie level.

EP: Which crime writers have influenced you the most?

EV: That's a really interesting question.  [Points] One of them is sitting right over there! Garry Disher, definitely his stuff.  Back in my teen years and that, Sarah Paretsky and Sue Grafton.  They're the ones I really got stuck into, and I sort of assumed I would write a female protagonist, but that didn't happen.  Then in Australia we've got Pam Newtown and Malla Nun and people like that.  You've got the classics, Chandler, and James Ellroy and people.  

EP: What kind of research did you get into?

EV: Well I learned AUSLAN... (laughs)

EP: Other than that?  You didn't go and shoot someone through the neck just to see what it felt like?

EV: Not that we can talk about, my lawyers have said no. (Laughs)  I spoke to a lot of people.  I got most of the book down and then I talked to a lot of people in the deaf and hard of hearing community. I did a lot of reading of biographies and things.  Spoke a little bit to a cop friend of mine as well.  I wanted to steer away from that real procedural sort of side of things anyway, and Caleb's not involved in that, so I did steer away from that.

EP: What does your typical writing day look like?

EV: There is no typical writing day. (Laughs)

EP: A good day, then.

EV: A good day... A day when I'd be totally by myself with no one talking to me and I can just sit down and write and every now and then get up and go for a walk.  So every now and then I take myself away from my family, and book myself into a place for a day or four days or something and all I do is write and read.  On a normal week, I'll grab half an hour here, a couple of hours there, I often wait 'til everyone goes to sleep at night and write then, so it's all over the place, really. 

EP: What books are at the top of your TBR pile right now?

EV: [Pulls book from bag] Oh! This one! The Night Guest by a fantastic writer called Fiona McFarlane who writes fantastic short stories so I am really, really excited about this. And Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett, so funnily enough neither of them are crime novels, but both festival novels.  And I do have pretty eclectic tastes.

EP: What was the journey to publication like for you, and how was it working with Echo Publishing?

EV: It was I think probably a slightly odd journey in that I got my contract through twitter. So I was getting to the stage where I was thinking I'd probably start to send my manuscript out in three months-- or never, three months or never-- and Angela Meyer who is commissioning editor at Echo put out a little tweet saying 'What are you working on guys?'  I spent a day crafting a little pitch, and she emailed and said she'd like to read a few chapters, and it all sort of went quickly from there.  Echo have been a dream to work with, really fantastic.

EP: They're just starting to build their list, so you were one of the first with fiction.

EV: That's right, I think it may have been their second book, maybe the third one.  The second book that Angela commissioned.  All very new, although they've all been in the publishing industry forever, whereas it's totally new to me.  I went into it knowing nothing.

EP: Who were you most excited to see at this year's festival?

EV: Oh, that's a really interesting question.  Leah Kaminsky who wrote The Waiting Room, who I know a little bit, and I'm on a panel tomorrow with Lindsay Tanner and Alec Patric, which should be really interesting-- we've got the ex-federal minister for finance and Alec Patric, whose book I really love, so that will be fascinating.  

EP: What is your go to book recommendation and is there one book you think every writer should have to read?

EV: Oh, no... but I've got a list of about a hundred, and for some reason-- oh well I know exactly why I'm going to say To Kill A Mockingbird, that's in the forefront of my mind at the moment.  I think it's such a great portrayal of people on a small level that has deeper meaning, and I do like to have deeper meaning in a book that I read.  I'm all for entertainment but there's got to be something behind it.  

EP: How do you balance writing with having to be an author on social media?

EV: It's really hard actually, we've been talking about that recently.  I've been on twitter for a couple of years and it's been fantastic-- I've got my mentor through it, my publisher through it, some great friends.  Facebook I'm very new at.  I find them both, now, extremely distracting, in that if I'm struggling with a first draft, it's just there... so for the first time in my life I've downloaded a bump myself off the internet app, Freedom.  It stops that flicking without even realising you're flicking.  

EP: I think twitter's the really big one for writers, because it's like mini-blog posts, and you're sort of expected to be on there but it's not 'This is the sandwich that I ate three hours ago.'

EV: Oh no, I think that's what I love about twitter is you actually have really interesting conversations, and that might be part of the main problem, in that, it's fantastic, it's really good, but you've got to get off it and do the writing.  The other thing is that if you've been tweeting all day, the writing part of your brain thinks you've been writing.  I've just started an internet free day a week, which is good because it resets your brain....

Emma Viskic's book Resurrection Bay is available now, it's fantastic and I highly encourage you all to check it out.  Thanks so much to Emma and the team at Echo publishing for the interview.  

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The End of the Festival

The Perth Writers Festival is over for another year, and it was an especially wonderful year for me.  This year I was lucky enough to be allowed to chair a few sessions.  I was absolutely overjoyed that they would let me do this, and after I got over the initial anxiety about having to talk to wonderful, talented writers in front of a crowd, I really enjoyed myself.

I chaired two sessions, the first a panel the Friday afternoon with Catherine Lacey, Laura van den Berg and Miles Allinson during which we discussed introspective narrators, and the second a one on one interview with Lauren Groff.  Lauren's most recent novel is called Fates and Furies and it is really truly excellent.  I have since bought a copy of all of her other books-- or at least those that I could find.  My Friday session was extra special, because as I entered the venue, I surveyed the crowd and discovered my grandfather sitting in the audience.  If he's reading this, and I know that he is, it really meant a lot to me to have him there, and it meant even more to me to hear later that he was proud.

I have grabbed some of these photos off of people who tweeted after the event, so to all of those people, thank you!

Aside from this busywork, there was also the usual fare of attending sessions, staking out the good coffee (the cart near the Dolphin Theatre, if you are wondering!) taking notes, talking to writers and being immensely inspired.  A few sessions that were real highlights included:

Breaking the Mould
A session with Guinevere Glasfurd, Helen Ellis and Charlotte Wood chaired by Amanda Curtin in which we discussed novels by women, featuring unconventional and powerful women as characters.  Charlotte Wood's book The Natural Way of Things was a highlight of my reading year last year, and Guinevere Glasfurd's The Words in My Hand has been a highlight of this one.

Undermajordomo Minor
Annabel Smith interviewed Patrick deWitt, who was funny and laid back and charming, and they had such a rapport going that it was a real delight to watch.  I have also recently finished Undermajordomo Minor and I'm now keen to read deWitt's Man Booker listed novel The Sisters' Brothers.  I'm also told that he was in the audience when I chaired my first panel, which I'm sort of glad I did not know until after!!

A Novel Form
Laurie Steed, short fiction expert, interviewed Fiona McFarlane, Laura van den Berg and Gregory Day about working with different forms, and there were some real pearls of wisdom shared in this session.  What was most useful to me was when Fiona McFarlane stressed the importance of patience-- that the work needs to be separate from the age you wish to publish it at.  For someone who declared on her blog she wanted to publish a book by age 20 and at 24 still hasn't done it, this rang very true!

A session chaired by Ian Reid with Lucy Treloar, Shirley Barrett and Guinevere Glasfurd about writing historical fiction-- this was very useful to me, because the book I am currently working on features a historical narrative about a real person.  I found some of the ways these women approached their work very interesting and I have a lot of notes to go from!

Trade Secrets
I didn't mean to go to this session, but I found myself with time to kill, and so I went along to see John Harman interview Ann Turner, Aoife Clifford and Peter May about how to write compelling fiction.  This session unlocked something in my mind because I kept thinking of things to do to my project!  I also now really want to read Aoife's and Ann's books... Ann's in particular because it stars an archaeologist and I find that area of study fascinating.

Finally, this afternoon I did a course on historical fiction with Guinevere Glasfurd called History's Fragments, Fiction's Treasures.  It was incredibly useful-- Guinevere used examples from her own novel, as well as quotes from other well known writers to teach us about ways to approach writing between the gaps of the written record.  She said one of the most important things, which was 'Don't libel the dead' and I hope that I can manage to keep this at the front of my mind as I write my own project.

All in all, this was a fabulous weekend and I hope that I will be asked to chair sessions again in future years.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Story Behind the Story: A Thousand Words

This week, for the very first time, I became a published author.

That sounds very dramatic, but I must include the following detail-- that the publication I am speaking of was a short story which was included in the collection (Re)sisters, published by the lovely people at For Books' Sake in the UK.  I'm very humbled to have been selected for the collection, which is a collection aimed at Young Adult readers, encompassing stories of female empowerment and coming of age.  It's got a fabulous cover, and I cannot wait until my copy (finally) arrives down under.  Fingers crossed for next week.

I thought I would write a blog post today about the story I have in this collection, which is called A Thousand Words.  It's not actually a thousand words long, it's closer to three thousand, which is fairly typical for my short stories, and for short story competitions in general.  It's about a girl who goes on a road trip with two friends she's known since high school, and one of them decides to invite a girl he has a crush on to come with them.

Inspiration for short stories can come from a lot of places.  For me, sometimes its a conflation of random events; a photo I've seen, a news story on the nightly news, and something a customer says to me in passing.  Bang.  They become plaited together in my mind and it seems so obvious I cannot believe no one has ever related the random things to one another before.  Sometimes, too, I draw from things that happen to me, and things that happen to other people I know.  I take details from the real events and I relate them on a universal scale.  This is hardly original, I think a lot of writers do it.  In the case of A Thousand Words, something that happened to me revealed a larger truth about the nature of friendship and growing up.  The thing that I learned niggled at me until I wrote it down.  Writing about this sad thing that happened, and working out the kinks of it all on paper in a way I hadn't been able to do in real life was a way of moving on from it, and in doing that I also realised that the thing that happened to me must have happened to a lot of people before and was going to happen to a lot of people again in the future.  I'm talking about the moment that you realise a friendship isn't as solid as you thought it was.

My main character in the story, Amy, is a lot tougher than me, and she's a lot more disciplined.  When the three friends all go off to different Universities, she thinks that she's going to be able to keep the old group together if she works at it hard enough, but the thing she's not admitting to herself is that she has a lot at stake because she hasn't made any new friends, whereas the two boys she's close to have.  What I wanted to do with Amy was explore some things that I had been anxious about in that particular time of my life.  First of all there was the anxiety about trying new things and being out of her comfort zone.  The story takes place at a big music festival in a rural town she's never been to before, so she's nervous about getting lost, or left behind, or having her things stolen.  She's also been the one to organise the whole thing, so when stuff starts to go wrong, she feels like the others are going to turn around and blame her.  On top of that, she's nineteen years old and she's starting to notice that everyone around her is falling in love.  And she's not.  The only two boys in her life are these two friends.

So this is the background to A Thousand Words, a story which took me several years and several drafts to get into the hands of an editor who loved it.  It spent a lot of time in a drafts folder not being worked on, and every so often I would take it out and change things-- that was interesting too, going back as a twenty-four or twenty-three year old writer and looking at the way nineteen year old me wrote and thought.

If you want to see the outcome of these efforts, (Re)sisters is now available from the For Books' Sake website and fingers crossed I will also soon have an Australian supplier sorted out!

If you've made it this far through the post, you might also like to consider supporting writing on a more local scale and donating to Westerly magazine, which lost funding this year in the recent arts cuts!

Friday, 5 February 2016

Book Review: The Words in my Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

The Words in my Hand
Guinevere Glasfurd
Two Roads Press 2016 (my copy courtesy the publisher)

Helena Jans is a maid, living in Amsterdam in the 17th century.  She is employed by Mr Sergeant, an English bookseller who is a far kinder employer than Helena expected, particularly considering that she is able to write.  This is a skill far above her station, but it is also the thing which makes Helena interesting to Mr Sergeant and therefore begins her adventure.

Helena prepares the guest quarters for an important lodger, the philosopher Rene Descartes, whose presence at the bookseller's house causes a stir.  Along with his valet, known as Limousin, Descartes disrupts life at Helena's home and changes her life forever.  Determined to master the quill, Helena has been practising, using ink made from beetroots and paper made of whatever she can find-- thinly baked pastry, the tabletop and even her own skin.  Naturally, Helena and Descartes are fascinated by one another, or else this wouldn't be much of a story.

The rest of this review may contain spoilers.

I love this kind of historical narrative-- something plucked from the obscurity of the archives and turned into a compelling story that makes the reader want to know more.  I know very little about Descartes (in fact, nothing), but the complex portrait of him in the novel made me want to find out more.  Helena Jans was a real person, and the events of the novel are largely based on real life, though I am sure that some elements of the plot are based on either rumours from the time or invention.  There are simply things that cannot have been recorded or known and were a novel simply to follow recorded fact then it wouldn't be worth reading in my opinion, for what the historical novel gives us is a measure of emotional truth which links past and present.  While Descartes is anything but a romantic hero, Helena is anything but the helpless victim, the poor little maid waiting to have her Cinderella moment.  She is something of an early feminist, helping her neighbour Betje gain literacy while fighting to keep a measure of autonomy by practising her own letter and eventually even writing her own children's book though she is told that no one will buy it if they know it was written by a woman.  Yet she is also human, and suffers horribly under the circumstances prescribed on her relationship with Descartes.  No one may know that they are a couple, yet Descartes still desires Helena as his sexual partner, putting her at risk of unwanted pregnancy (even this she eventually gains some semblance of control over, though as we know, this is an inexact science.)

As with most narratives of this kind, the ending is dictated by what really happened, and while the novel was no fairy tale, I was quite satisfied by the conclusion that was given to Helena-- for it was her story that really mattered, and her voice being restored.  For me, this book was like The Miniaturist meets The Other Boleyn Girl.  It was a novel of many layers, and the deeper the reader cares to think about it, the more they will get out of it.

I gave it 5 stars.

Monday, 1 February 2016

January Reading Wrap-Up

2016 Perth Writers Festival 

I read quite a few books this month, some of them in preparation for the 2016 Perth Writers Festival which kicks off at UWA in a few weeks time.  You may or may not know that I will be chairing two sessions at the festival.  The first one is called 'Coming into Focus' and features Miles Allinson, Laura van den Berg and Catherine Lacey, who are all going to discuss introspective narrators with me.  Miles Allinson's book Fever of Animals is a stream of consciousness narrative which follows a character who is also named Miles as he searches for clues to the mystery of the disappearance of surrealist painter Emil Bafdescue.  Meanwhile he is also recovering from the death of his father and the end of his relationship with a woman named Alice.  Laura van den Berg's novel Find Me is about a character named Joy who is part of a medical research project dedicated to finding a cure for a new disease which has wiped out a large part of the population.  The disease attacks the sufferer's memories and strips them of what makes them human.  Joy wants to remember, and more than that, she wants to find her birth mother, so she sets off on a journey in the outside world.  Finally, Catherine Lacey's Nobody is Ever Missing is the story of Elyria, who leaves her husband in New York to go hitch hiking across New Zealand, after seemingly having a nervous breakdown.  This one had elements of stream of consciousness too.

The second session is a one on one interview with Lauren Groff called 'Happily Ever After'.  For those of you who have not read (or even heard of) Lauren Groff's latest novel Fates and Furies, the novel is about the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde, and is told in two parts, Fates (Lotto) and Furies (Mathilde).  It's a very layered and complex novel, and Obama called it his favourite read of 2015 which just proves he has exceptional taste.  I would highly recommend all of the books that I was set to read for the festival, even though they are all very different from each other, and this just indicates that it's going to be a brilliant festival this year.  You can find out more about my sessions, and others, by visiting the Perth Writers Festival website.  Check out the Human Library that is being run in collaboration with the Empathy Museum (UK)!

Book Club

This month for book club, I read Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson.  While I found the writing style clunky and a little overdone, the story was compelling enough to have me whizz through it in a couple of sittings.  I won't be following the rest of the series at this stage however.  At the beginning of the month, I also read High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, which I thought was really excellent though I have to agree with the rest of the group when they say that the main character is a real loser and causes a lot of the problems for himself.  Rob (the narrator) has a compelling, endearing voice and the book is funny and peopled with great characters, so I really enjoyed starting the year off this way.  This was January's book but we had rather a large gap between the December and January book clubs.

Non-Festival Reading....

This month I also read:

All That is Lost Between Us by Sara Foster and you can read my review here.

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North and you can read my review here.

The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox (unreviewed)
        This is the story of John Wonder, a man so boring it's remarkable-- yet somehow the world's most boring man manages to have three wives and three sets of children on different continents, and he spends his time equally between them.  Interspersed with the ins and outs of this, we see John doing his job as an authenticator for the Guinness book of world records, and it's while authenticating the continued alive-ness of the world's oldest woman that he falls in love for a fourth time.  This wasn't really my cup of tea but there were some interesting ideas explored in the novel.

The Words in my Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd (Review to come)
        The story of Helena, who is a maid to the English bookseller, Mr Sargeant when the philosopher Rene Descartes stays at his home in Amsterdam.  Helena is unusual for a woman of her station because she can write and this brings her to the attention of Descartes.  A stunning historical novel for fans of The Miniaturist and The Other Boleyn Girl.

The Women's Pages by Debra Adelaide
       I got this one for Christmas and was really excited to see that it was a musing on the lasting impact of Wuthering Heights, which is one of my favourite books.  It's a dual narrative, first of Dove who is a woman in the present day, writing a novel and clearing up after the death of her adoptive mother Jane.  The second narrative is Ellis, who is the character in her novel, a woman of the late 1960s whose story is a kind of parable for the experience of a lot of women at that point in time.  This novel manages to be a musing on creativity, motherhood, writing, femaleness, and Wuthering Heights all at once, and while the style is a little dry at times, I think I will be thinking about what the novel said to me for a long time.  I haven't decided if I will review it at length yet.  There are going to be a lot of  'Bronte novels' over the next twelve months and I'm fully prepared for some of them to be terrible.  I might have to give WH another read...

Books read this month = 11
(1 more than montly target!)