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Perth Writers Festival #4: Words I’ll remember

‘The book is too perfect to disappear. Bookstores are fading, but there are also bookstores surviving.’ Annie Proulx

‘Living in a flat in the city it is almost impossible to have a sense of connection to place’ Tim Flannery

‘a still–Volcano–Life’ Lyndall Gordon quoting Emily Dickinson

‘the frontiers of consciousness, where words fail, but meaning still exists’ Lyndall Gordon quoting T.S. Eliot in his essay ‘The Music of Poetry’ (1941)

‘We don’t need more intelligence, we need more empathy.’ Tim Flannery

‘Depression is the refusal to mourn.’ Dorothy Rowe

‘We have a brief period of historical co-existence [between the book and the e-book] that is almost over as we speak.’ Geordie Williamson

‘Books are how I learned to manage solitude.’ Lev Grossman

‘Gaelle learns she doesn’t have to accept the gifts that have been bequeathed to her, but the worst thing is to remain silent. “Sometimes the stories that have to be told are the hidden ones.”’ Natasha Lester, talking about her book, What is Left Over, After

‘There’s a paradoxical unity of past, present and future. They are all ghosts. The present is always abandoning us.’ Jon Bauer

‘Give oneself permission not to know where something is going, and try to find the strength in that.’ Gail Jones on writing

‘If the past is where the pain is, visiting the past is also where the healing is… healing is the hand I want to hold to walk boldly into the future.’ Jon Bauer

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Perth Writers Festival #3: Fiction discussion at its finest

To begin with, I was drawn to the writers in the session entitled ‘Reverberations from the past’ more than the topic. Natasha Lester is a friend of mine, whose beautifully crafted book, What is Left Over, After, won the TAG Hungerford in 2009, and I’ve read and heard so much about Gail Jones’ and Jon Bauer’s books that makes me want to pick them up as soon as I can. During the session, all three writers breathed fresh life into the over-analysed theme, and every audience member appeared captivated by their eloquence and their ideas. Gail Jones spoke about how other writers, including Virginia Woolf in ‘Sketches of the Past’ addressed the issue; Natasha Lester told us about the wonder tales of the French court in the 14th century and how she used them in her novel; then Jon Bauer read a piece he had written for the event, which was filled with soundbites, such as ‘The past is not a foreign country, nor is it the past. It is you, now.’ In the following discussion they each spoke of how their own experience had found different routes and resonances in their writing. Jon Bauer had used some personal challenges of his childhood; Gail Jones’ drew on the story her great-grandfather, who committed suicide in a Kalgoorlie hotel; while Natasha recently reached out to others in a creative non-fiction piece about her experiences of her daughter’s hip dysplasia (published in the WA journal Indigo). They all discussed how they looked for the subtle but resonant aspects of experience that might be used in storytelling to convey authentic feeling and reflection to greatest effect, whether representing grief in the landscape or manifesting in a character’s physical appearance.

Finally, Jon Bauer answered one audience member’s question in a way well worth noting. When asked about how to move a piece of writing forward, he said he wanted to respect the fact the writer was lost and struggling, as we all are at times in writing, and therefore he wouldn’t answer the question in order to empower the gentleman to find his own way through. Such an eloquent way of encouraging a writer to keep reaching for their own authentic, unique voice.

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Perth Writers Festival #2: The death of print?

On Sunday morning I attended a Perth Writers Festival session discussing the future of printed books in this world of rapid, almost rabid, technological change. I was completely engrossed listening to the panel of Geordie Williamson (chief literary critic of the Australian), James Bradley (novelist), Lev Grossman (novelist) and Angela Meyer (writer, Literary Minded blog) as they contributed a wealth of suggestions and observations. There were a few differences of opinion, but one thing was for certain: change is already upon us, whether we are prepared for it or not.

I came away feeling reasonably positive. James Bradley noted that, as happened with the music industry, the restructuring of the book industry would engender a new wave of creativity. Lev Grossman suggested that the new technologies need not mean the death of the old ones, but rather the advent of something ‘more complex and interesting’. And Angela Meyer proposed that the bookstores who prevail will be the ones who create a culture around themselves, such as the Readings chain in Melbourne (which I’m excited to be visiting for the first time next week). Geordie Williamson observed that we may end up seeing a more diverse industry, akin to the way things operated before conglomerate consolidation.

One question raised was whether the enhanced e-book is a good or bad thing – or indeed if it is possible to authentically translate all books into standard or enhanced e-formats.  I loved Lev Grossman’s statement that ‘just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should’ (something that sprang to mind again as I looked longingly at the scones in my local cafe this morning). Geordie Williamson’s related comment, that in our excitement we may begin to see technology as a virtue in itself instead of a tool, also rang bells with me – because my fiction books are written with the aim that I want you to lose yourself in them. I don’t want you to pause to click on words to find out their meaning unless you absolutely have to. I don’t want your e-reader battery life to run out just before the final chapter. I don’t want you to accidentally press the wrong button and find yourself reading a random page. I guess in some ways my novels (and, heaven forbid, me?!) are a little bit old school, so I’m happy I am writing at a time when I can see them in print.

I got home that night and saw on Twitter that the publishers of the Oxford dictionary have conceded there is no point in publishing the printed version any more. From now on it will be online only. I thought of my enormous dictionary in the study, which I frequently don’t bother to haul out, since I can look up a word much faster on the internet. And yet… to flick through page after page of minuscule text and find random words you never knew existed … to be able to feel the English language as a weight in your hands… The loss may not be registered by future generations, but at that moment I began to feel it.

However, on the panel, James Bradley told us that Socrates apparently deplored the coming of the written text as he said we’d no longer have to remember things. It’s a reminder that many fears prove unfounded, and that change, loss and adaptation are part and parcel of life. So while I may get nostalgic for the vanishing worlds of this wonderful business, I’m also looking ahead with optimism and excitement at what may come next, and enjoying being part of it all.

GUEST BLOG: NICOLE ALEXANDER, author of A Changing Land

I’m delighted to welcome Nicole Alexander, author of the bestselling debut novel The Bark Cutters (Bantam 2010), which I had the  true privilege of reading before it was published. Her travel, poetry & genealogy articles have been published in Australia, America and Singapore and her first volume of poetry, Divertissements-Love·War·Society (Kre8 Publishing) was published in 2008. Nicole is the business manager on her family’s rural holding north west of Moree and is a regular contributor to New England Country Living Magazine. A Changing Land, her second novel, has just been published, and is already climbing the charts. Over to Nicole to tell us more:

When I signed my contract with Random House for my rural novel, The Bark Cutters, I hadn’t planned on writing a sequel. I was still getting over the excitement of landing a major publishing contract when the publisher said they would like one. However as the initial contract was for two books I excitedly wrote a one page synopsis and sent it off. Then reality set in. I had twelve months to write it. Twelve months less the editorial process involved in turning The Bark Cutters from manuscript to novel form, twelve months less a month touring for the first novel, less my normal work commitments on the property where I live 110km northwest of Moree in north western NSW.

While the concept of bringing two novels out in quick succession in order to cement your reading audience makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective, from the author’s perspective suddenly your days are measured in terms of how many words you put down on paper: In an hour, a day, a week. Eventually I wrote A Changing Land in eight months. Along the way I suspect I wrote and deleted approximately thirty thousand words, suffered from cramping in my fingers and right hand, developed a healthy fondness for merlot and became acutely conscious of how much faith a publisher must place in a new fiction writer. Publishers invest many hours and thousands of dollars in establishing new authors and I’m sure Random House were holding their collective breaths hoping I wasn’t a one book wonder. So was I!

Luckily they liked A Changing Land. The writing of this novel was made easier as I already knew the world my story was set in. I knew my environment. I can still mentally wander the landscape that is Wangallon and I can draw a mud map in the dirt as to the exact location of the Wangallon homestead, creek, aboriginal camp and river. I could envisualise my characters talking to each other and through them the plot gradually unfolded, a natural progression of the original story. The environment was so real to me I could smell it and I realised how important it is to know your created world even better than your real one, for otherwise how can you make it believeable?

For those of you who have not read The Bark Cutters, A Changing Land is a stand-alone work. You can certainly pick it up and be thrust into the continuing legacy of the Gordons. So for a brief story rundown it is about four generations of a rural family, the Gordons. The work has an interweaving narrative with the story split between 1909 and 1990.

It’s 1909 and Hamish Gordon has a large rural holding built on stock theft. Determined not to bow to his wife Claire’s genteel need for respectability, he embarks on a final stage of land acquisition. His ruthless plan, triggered by an antagonistic English neighbour nearly destroys Wangallon and has serious repercussions eighty years on.

In 1990 after the death of her grandfather and family patriarch Angus, fourth generation Sarah Gordon now runs Wangallon with her fiancé, Anthony. Their relationship begins to deteriorate when a power struggle develops between them, Sarah’s problems escalating with the arrival of her Scottish half-brother. Jim Macken is intent on receiving the thirty percent share of Wangallon bequeathed to him by Angus. Stunned by her grandfather’s will which effectively destroys the family legacy of a strong succession plan, Sarah discovers that Anthony has embarked on a project that will ultimately change the face of the property forever. Unable to buy Jim out and with the possibility of losing one third of Wangallon, Sarah finds herself fighting the law, her half-brother and her beloved Anthony.

Sarah knows she must continue in her forefathers’ footsteps, however has she the same unescapable Gordon qualities that will ensure both her and Wangallon’s survival.

I’m touring NSW/QLD to chat about A Changing Land during March & May (while trying to write book 3!) so please visit www.nicolealexander.com.au for details or contact me through my site. Enjoy!

Thanks for popping by, Nicole, and wishing you the best of luck with your novels.

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Perth Writers Festival #1: Going… going…

I’ve attended the Perth Writers Festival every year since I arrived in WA back in 2004, and I always seem to forget just how damn inspiring it is – that is, until I’m back in the auditoriums, listening to beautiful, radical, compelling and disturbing ideas, whereupon it all comes rushing back to me. Last year I was caught up with the fact that I had events of my own to participate in – a particularly daunting affair as they were my first public speaking engagements as a ‘published novelist’. Therefore, this weekend it was lovely to sit among the audience and try to take in as much as possible by osmosis – as well as scribbling quotes and thoughts in my notebook too.

I was particularly interested in sessions concerning the natural world. I have found myself becoming increasingly drawn to and protective of untouched landscapes, and I’m fascinated and terrified by the commentary of some front-line thinkers and researchers on the state of the planet. In a session on landscape, Annie Proulx talked about how her surroundings inspire her, saying, ‘there’s something about striding out and looking at far distances that sets the mind on fire’, while Tim Flannery gave the best description of climate change I have ever heard, and I think most others agreed, as he got a major round of applause in the packed Octagon Theatre. In essence he explained that the earth goes through a predictable 100,000-year warming/cooling cycle, but what is happening now is a warming spike caused by man rather than the normal pattern of nature. As a result, the seas are predicted to rise one metre in the next ninety years. If they rise just half of that, then we can expect to see major events such as flooding, which have so far occurred approximately every hundred years, happening every month or up to ten times a month. I repeat: ten times a month. If that isn’t an impetus to look carefully at what we are doing at all levels from superstructure to personal, I don’t know what is.

Later in the day I listened to Tim again, this time with Dorothy Rowe, someone I’ve always admired for her ability to examine and explain the more difficult and disturbing sides of human nature. Her latest book, Why We Lie, looks at why we hide from unpalatable truths, such as the scale of climate change we could be facing. She was marvellous to listen to, and I was very moved by her comment on mourning and grief being the great themes of human literature. ‘If you love other people you will suffer loss. And if you want to avoid loss you will be lonely. To be a human being is to choose between these two.’ It could have been demoralising, but these speakers all talked with open minds, passion, and a brilliant sense of humour, and what came across most in the sessions is that while we can be ambushed by our fears and our feelings of helplessness in the magnitude of the problems we’re faced with, the irrepressible spirit of Hope keeps on finding a way through.

I’ll be writing more about the diverse range of PWF events later in the week, but tomorrow I am delighted to welcome Nicole Alexander, who visits my blog to talk about her new book, A Changing Land.

Beneath the Shadows in Sunday Telegraph fiction bestseller list for 2 weeks running

I was thrilled to discover that Beneath the Shadows had made it into the Sunday Telegraph’s bestselling fiction list, debuting at No. 5 on 20 Feb, and even climbing to No. 4 on 27 Feb. To Kill a Mockingbird and Kim Edwards’ Lake of Dreams took the top two spots, and another Random House book, A Little Coffee Shop in Kabul, featured both weeks too. I have everything crossed that readers keep enjoying the book and the word of mouth continues!

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Interview with Boomerang Books blogger Aimee Burton

I really enjoyed being interviewed by Aimee Burton last week, and you can check out our chat here. (Make sure you’ve clicked through to this story by clicking on the headline first in order to access the link).

The month that was… February 2011

DURING FEBRUARY I’VE BEEN…

BUSY WITH… Promotion for Beneath the Shadows. So far I have visited three gorgeous independent bookshops and four libraries proudly supported by Dymocks, and met lots of lovely people. I have only noticed one person nod off briefly during my talks (FTW!), and I think I managed to speak fairly coherently to a brilliant turn-out of 80 at one of my local libraries, Joondalup, on Tuesday night.

THINKING ABOUT… Natural disasters – surely everyone is due for a break right now. My heart goes out to those who has been affected this past month, whether by fires and storms in Perth or the earthquake in Christchurch. I first saw the terrible news from New Zealand on twitter, and it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t a good idea to watch streaming coverage. I’ve been very interested in the subsequent debate about how the media should/shouldn’t report such events, I think it’s a really important issue but a difficult one to resolve. If you are interested, check out these two articles by Jonathan Green on ABC’s The Drum, and the response from Lyndal Curtis on the same site.

READING… I am alternating between Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step (I’m a big fan of the Buddhist monk/Zen master genre!). I’m also desperate to get back to The Distant Hours by Kate Morton.

WRITING… I’ve been working on an article about London-inspired books and films for the holiday goddess travel book that will be out later this year (www.holidaygoddess.com). It’s been a wonderful piece to research, and as a result I now have an extra-long list of books to read and films to watch.

PLAYING… I’ve been building a lot of towers in my spare time, with an array of multi-coloured blocks. I’m busy trying to teach my daughter to understand that ‘per-pol’ is not the default colour of everything, and loving all the new words she comes out with every day.

GUEST BLOG: FLEUR MCDONALD, author of Blue Skies and Red Dust

I’m very excited to introduce Fleur McDonald, a fellow West Australian, as my guest blogger today. Fleur has written two brilliant books, Red Dust and Blue Skies, and is currently busy working on a third, called Purple Roads. Please check out her fantastic website and blog at www.fleurmcdonald.com. Over to Fleur: 

I love thunderstorms. To me they represent unbridled power and helplessness all in one. The power they produce, we humans can’t harness, which makes us at the mercy of the storm, therefore the power/helplessness.

Thunderstorms always seem – well on the coast, anyway, to be in layers. First of all there is the high, white strips of cloud that streak, in wisps, across the sky. As the storm starts to stream in over the hill, huge indigo coloured rollers make us stop and watch. I’m often unable to tear my eyes away from what is about to happen. Lastly, and this does really only seem to happen on the coast, the cold, scuddy, murky grey clouds seem to come up from the sea and lay across the menacing clouds, giving the storm three sections.

And then as these clouds roll through, we wait. The sky darkens, the atmosphere, the humans and stock all tense in anticipation.

At the first crack of thunder we all jump, even though it’s expected, the lightning sheets across the sky or forks and hits the ground. Again we hold our breath, watching for fires, but when the rains start, we laugh and lift our faces to the heavens. No fires, nothing destructive, just life-giving rain.

Creating a book is much like this, believe it or not! The book holds the all the power and, as the writer, I feel helpless, until the setting and characters emerge and introduce themselves to me. It starts in layers, the first one being the setting, like the high clouds, it doesn’t do much, but it creates the atmosphere. For me, as both a reader and a writer, I want to be immersed in the place that the story is being told. I want to breathe the air my characters are and see the things they do.

The second layer is the plot. The very thing that gives the book the control to draw the reader in.

The third layer is the characters. They are what makes the book – who they are, how does their setting effect them, make them the people they are and have the relationships they have. Now my issue is getting it all to mesh together, weaving the suspense and action into normal peoples lives. It takes time and it can be frustrating, but as it all comes together, then comes the anticipation – what is going to happen next, we’re all waiting…

Bang! A thunder clap – or a pivotal point in the book.

Lightning strike – gasp, hold your breath! Is there going to be a ‘fire’?

Then the rain is the ending, we’re happy to see it because now we know what is going to happen, why it did and how we got to the finish line.

So to me, writing a book is a lot like a thunderstorm; a rollercoaster of emotion, plots, characters and settings. Although sometimes frustrating,  I love every minute of it!

I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for visiting, Fleur!