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BOOK LOVE: Am I Black Enough for You? by Anita Heiss

In Am I Black Enough for You, Anita Heiss directly tackles the belittling idea that there is only one identity to be found within a specific cultural or ethnic background. With her trademark humour and razor-sharp insight, Anita gracefully explores her identity as an Aboriginal woman, and the intersecting lines of sameness and difference to the people around her. Through her own story, Anita raises numerous questions great and small as to how we all respond to this idea of ‘otherness’, and makes a succession of hard-hitting, challenging points about the narrow-minded assumptions still embedded in western society, which affect everything from the way that history is taught in schools to assuming Anita has a natural affinity for camping (and I think it’s safe to say she doesn’t!).

Anita also talks about the well-known court case where she and eight other applicants took on Andrew Bolt, who had written an article in the Herald Sun suggesting these women had used their Aboriginality to gain professional advantage. The case was won, but that was not the end of it for Anita. When Am I Black Enough for You? came out in April, I was on lockdown trying to finish my novel, but I didn’t miss what happened next. Anita was attacked on various online sites, with racist and derogatory comments, some of which I had the misfortune to read. What struck me most was the suggestion that with this victory, Anita had somehow denied the notion of free speech, when nothing could be further from the truth. In the promotion of free speech as a universal ideal, there is now, ironically, a platform for slander and misrepresentation on a staggering scale. I’m so glad that Anita and her fellow applicants didn’t allow these assertions to go unchallenged, and that they stood up for who they are and everything they have achieved. The Australian book industry wouldn’t be the same without Anita doing all she can to close gaps of communication and understanding, and telling stories to make us think and make us smile.

Anita writes across a number of genres. To find out more visit http://www.anitaheiss.com/. You can also watch Anita on YouTube talking about Am I Black Enough for you.

 

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Seven lines from p. 7 of Shallow Breath

I’ve just been challenged by Rebecca James via FaceBook to put up 7 lines from p. 7 of my latest book. So here they are from Shallow Breath

She finishes the drink and sets it aside, then crawls back into bed. She flips over her pillow and takes out the red leather-bound book. She is going to have to return this, but she doesn’t want to yet. Most of it is boring – charts and figures, names and dates, but she loves to read her father’s observations, and study his neat, slanting writing. Why had she never been shown this, when Connor had once held this book in his hands and turned the pages, just as she does now. It is the closest she has ever felt to him, as though she can squeeze the interceding years together, reach through them and touch him. 

More soon!

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Where oh where has my reading time gone?

Not since April, when I found two brilliant books in the same month – Jasper Jones (Craig Silvey) and After the Fall (Kylie Ladd) – have I read a novel from start to finish. It’s incredibly frustrating, because I love curling up on the sofa for a regular dose of escapism, but my problem is not going away any time soon, because my two-year-old has decided she doesn’t need a nap. My lunchtime to do list has now largely moved to the evening, and all those books I’m desperate to read are piling up on my shelves.

I don’t want to start anything that’s important to me until I get a good run at it. Therefore, I’ve been getting some rather random and ill-chosen things out of the library, literary heavyweights that I start at about half past ten at night, and struggle through approximately three lines before my eyelids betray me. However, while I attempt to fix this problem and rediscover my reading time, I have been doing plenty more reading of another kind. If it’s by Mick Inkpen, Eric Hill, Lucy Cousins or Julia Donaldson, chances are not only that I’ve read it, but that I can recite it to you verbatim. And the squeals of excitement and enthusiasm they engender in my daughter make these books rather special. I’ve been asked before what books we read together, so here, in honour of my new toddler-imposed reading regime – are some of our favourites right now:

The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Schiffer. The ending makes me well up every time.

Watch Out Little Wombat by Charles Fuge. We particularly love shouting SPLAT and CROC-O-DILE!

The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Everybody’s favourite – but one of mine because I love hearing my daughter name the foods, and the cute way she says ‘pickle’ and ‘alami’ for ‘salami’, and the satisfaction on her face when she gets them all right.

Duck in the Truck by Jez Alborough. Despite it’s questionable moral ending when Duck leaves all his helpful mates completely in the s**t, my little one loves it and has great fun getting things ‘stuck in the muck’ in the back garden.

Snore by Michael Rosen and Jonathan Langley. My little girl loves to imitate the snores and animal noises.

Tiger by Nick Butterworth. The illustrations are gorgeous and make me want another kitten!

The Great Pet Sale by Mick Inkpen. We also love Kipper and Wibbley Pig, but this book is brilliant, and the quick-tongued rat makes us both laugh.

If You’re Happy and You Know It by Jane Cabrera. The illustrations are lovely and there are lots of great simple actions for little ones to sing and dance to.

Shhh Little Mouse by Pamela Allen. We do lots of finger to mouth and whispering until the cat wakes up and it all breaks loose.

Follow the Kite by Anna Nilsen and Mark Burgess. A really unusual book with a kite that you can lace through the pages as it blows up and down in the wind.

I’d love to hear your favourites too?

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Child marrage, fracking, dolphins, and some big questions

I usually have to brace myself to read the latest news and events of the world, so much of it shocking and senseless. Yesterday I learned about child marriage in northern India, girls who are wedded by their early teens, and have their pregnancies explained to them at the onset of labour. I also came across ‘fracking’, a new method of obtaining natural gas which turns tap water into explosive. And then there are the 25 dolphins that swam free days ago, and are now bound for the entertainment industry on Sentosa Island, Singapore, where the few who survive will be oohed and aahed at by visitors while they adjust to life in their swimming pool prison.

And I wonder, if you want to effect real change, how do you ask people to open up, past their fears, prejudices, beliefs, traditions, sense of selves embedded far deeper than vital organs, and re-examine their lives? To ask them to turn over each heavy stone of truth and see what it might really be made of? For a society to do this successfully, doesn’t it have to happen within each individual too? And if we ask this of others, shouldn’t we first ask it of ourselves? What might our own stones reveal, if we have the willingness to recognise them and the courage to examine their foundations?

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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 #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: 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!

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That sinking feeling…and yet…

It doesn’t seem like a very good time to be part of the book publishing business. The industry is in a parlous state of flux – publishers and agents appear stressed and depressed, and many bookshops are struggling. In my local area I have watched two lovely independent bookshops open, flounder, and close in the past couple of years. And as of today, industry knowledge has become public knowledge: Borders and Angus & Robertson are in big trouble too.

E-books are on the up, and they have risen so quickly that when we were negotiating my first publishing deal the e-book portion of it proved a little bit tricky, because we were all still getting to grips with the ramifications of the format. Traditional book formats are expensive at RRP – and many of my readers are happy to tell me they got my book out of the library. I don’t mind this at all (I get some books out of the library too), and writers do earn a little bit from library borrowings. Nevertheless, I made more in my final year of editing than I have done in my last three years of writing combined, and soon I will probably need to supplement my writing with another source of income. 

It seems that for everyone in the book business it’s time to adapt in order to survive. I hope as many as possible make it through to the other side, and that diverse, original, independent booksellers can tough it out against the big discounters. And I hope that all writers, published and those to be published, can ignore this horrible blip in the business and pursue their ideas wholeheartedly, because surely, at some stage, things will settle down, and earning a living this way might get a little easier. In the meantime it’s a pleasure to be part of the book-business community, because I’ve met (or cyber-met) so many superb, supportive people in the last couple of years: booksellers, authors, readers, agents, journalists, salespeople, librarians, editors and publishers. Good luck to every one of you, and here’s to a brighter day tomorrow.

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The Reading Revolution

I am currently reading one of the longest, most talked about books of last year on my smallest new device. Jonathan Frantzen’s Freedom is over two thousand pages long on my iPhone, and it is the first book I have ever downloaded to it. The writing is way too small, and with a wayward swish of the finger I sometimes find myself back on the title page. However, over the last few weeks it has been easy to snatch reading time on car journeys, while waiting in queues for changing rooms, and in the darkness of an aeroplane with a sleeping toddler lying across my lap. And when we all shared a hotel room, hubby and child could go to sleep, and I could still carry on reading in the dark. Hurray!

Since I always want more time to read, it has been great to have such a flexible and portable way of accessing a book. But the rise of the e-book has brought with it some very serious concerns. Bookstores are struggling to maintain a viable market share; publishers are worried about maintaining control of rights; and authors are concerned about impacts on sales and royalty rates. Meanwhile, what is happening to the art of reading itself? Because that cold, hard little phone screen doesn’t encourage me to savour each word in the same way a softly turning page might give me pause. With an e-book you no longer hold a complete work in your hands (does this make the story itself less tangible?). Instead, you can simply switch your book off – or, when you are in the middle of a particularly moving passage, a message pops up over the top reminding you that your battery is dying.  

No, I might venture into e-books now and again, but I desperately need their printed older brothers and sisters to survive too. Let’s hope they can eventually be friends and work together.

Watching the King’s Speech last week served as a great reminder of how quickly things change. All those nervous comments about broadcasting being rather dangerous and distasteful seem so innocent now. And yet, back then, how long would it have taken to get word out about the terrible flooding in Queensland, and all the help needed? In fact, technology has been an incredible ally in the past week, and it’s been inspiring to watch everyone supporting each other.

I’d love to hear what other people think about the rise of e-books. In the meantime, happy reading everybody, in whatever form it takes!

To donate to the Queensland flood appeal, go to http://www.qld.gov.au/floods/donate.html, or check out some fantastic fundraising initiatives set up by writers:

Authors for Queensland: http://authorsforqueensland.wordpress.com/ Signed copies of Come Back to Me and Beneath the Shadows are on there, as well as a fantastic array of signed books, and other writing and reading related services and ideas. You can even bid to get a character named after you in upcoming novels!

Writers on Rafts – Rebecca Sparrow and the Queensland Writers Centre are putting this together, offering more chances to win an amazing host of writing/reading prizes for a small entry fee. Details to follow soon, but you can read about it now on Rebecca’s blog.

PS Look out for the lovely Natasha Lester, my very first guest blogger and author of the fabulous What is Left Over, After, who’ll be featured here next week.