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BOOK LOVE: The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

It happens quietly one August morning. As dawn’s shimmering light drenches the humid Iowa air, two families awaken to find their little girls have gone missing in the night.

Seven-year-old Calli Clark is sweet, gentle, a dreamer who suffers from selective mutism brought on by a tragedy that pulled her deep into silence as a toddler. Petra Gregory is Calli’s best friend, her soul mate and her voice. But neither Petra or Calli has been heard from since their disappearance was discovered.

Now these families are tied by the question of what happened to their children. And the answer is trapped in the silence of unspoken family secrets. (www.heathergudenkauf.com)

The Weight of Silence is a brilliant depiction of the complex and entangled lives of a small community, and how the desperate circumstances of missing children brings some people together and makes others turn on each other. Calli is a sweet character, so well drawn, and the secret that has stopped her from talking is heart-rending. I couldn’t stop reading this until I’d finished it. I’ll definitely be watching for more of Heather’s books.

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Helplessness and people power

Last night, one of the last images I saw before I went to bed was of a terrified Chinese toddler being held at knifepoint in the street by her father. The horror of that situation was not distilled by the frozen photo, the detached computer screen, or the fact I could flick away when I chose. Horrendous fear and suffering were transmitted in an instant.

I hadn’t searched this out. I wasn’t planning to read the news at that point. But it broke its boundaries and affected me. As did the Four Corners story this week, which I found out about thanks to twitter. I’m grateful I didn’t have to watch that footage, because I know it would still be haunting me. The photographs I did see were enough.

No one has taught me how to deal with these moments. I have had to teach myself, because, quite frankly, they have brought me to my knees at times. And the way I have come to terms with this is by becoming a more conscious guardian of my emotions, knowing when I can take action and when there is nothing I can do. From what I could gather (the article wasn’t clear), the little Chinese girl was rescued. Twelve hours later, the news has moved on, and I can’t even find it on the same site. I’m pretty sure I won’t ever know what happened to them.

However, with the push to ban live exports, there were at least petitions to sign. Where once upon a time I would have felt this was a fairly unremarkable gesture, I don’t any more, because of the emergence of a few amazing, energetic sites that have recorded some brilliant, measurable breakthroughs as a result of people power. Sites like Avaaz.org and getup.org.au (who ran a live exports petition), and organisations like the Wilderness Society (who send you the results of their actions) are doing a great job of bringing some critical issues to our attention. And despite the desperate, depressing news they bring to my door, they make me feel that there is something small but very important that I can do. They wouldn’t exist unless we were all choosing to add our names to causes we believe in. This weekend my family will be going to climate change rally in Perth on Sunday (there are also rallies in Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney), thanks to the information and reminders from GetUp. Our voices might be small, but they all count, and I’m buoyed by the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

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The big picture – and what’s next

I’m still pinching myself that now I have two books out in the big book-buying world. Friends keep asking me how it feels, and to be honest I’m not sure I’ve really taken it in. What with the busy promotional blitz and caring for a toddler, I’m usually doing something work or child-related from the moment I get up until I go to bed, and when my head hits the pillow it’s lights out pretty quickly! But the publication of Beneath the Shadows marks the end of my first two-book deal in Australia, and already I am thinking about what I want to do next. I have two firm ideas that seem to be developing in tandem in my head, and I’m really excited about both of them. I don’t like sharing much of my writing until I’m finished – I’m a bit secretive like that – but my overall plan is that the first will be a complicated love story set around a passion for the sea, and the second is a family mystery with photography as an underpinning theme.  

It is both daunting and exciting to be very close to moving on from projects that have consumed the last few years of my life. I can’t wait to write something new, but thinking about what I hope to achieve next has led me to some reflection on what my overall goals are in my writing. Many aspects of my writing lend themselves to lots of other books too – most of us are touching on universal themes of love, friendship, journeys, psychology, freedom, fears and longing in one form or another. But I’m very interested in examining the psychology of traumatic events, and the different ways people try to cope with what fate deals them. I want readers to grow attached to my characters – not necessarily agree with them, but certainly relate to them, and recognise aspects of them in themselves or others.

I love to tell stories through the medium of suspense, with compelling chapters and twists and turns, because it’s what I want to read –there’s nothing better than a story that grips you. All that drama! The biggest compliment you can give me is saying you couldn’t put my books down – I want to grab my readers, pull them into the world I’m creating and completely absorb them until we’re finished. I hope I’ve achieved that in my first two books, but there is still plenty more to come.

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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.

 

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Bye bye editing, hello life!

Finally, after six long weeks of work, I have finished the structural edit of Beneath the Shadows. It’s lovely to put my head up again, as I’ve literally been working morning, noon and night, around my toddler’s waking hours, to get everything done. I am already thinking of things that need changing or tweaking, but I will get another chance to do that when the copy-editing begins. I have a little bit of a love-hate relationship with this side of the editing process, which is ironic since I’ve been a book editor for the last ten years. But editing someone else’s work is fun. Editing my own novels seems to be much more gruelling, since I find myself continually re-examining every aspect of plot, characters and writing, and coming up with more and more problems or weaknesses that need fixing. However, I thrive on the challenge, and so far I’ve had two great editors who have really pushed me to make my books stronger.

So, while I’ve been taking a break, I’ve been dabbling with my bookshelf on goodreads.com.  I now have an author profile, which I’m still working on, and you’ll find my latest book reviews on there as well as on this website. You’ll notice they all tend to be rather positive, but I often don’t finish books I’m not enjoying, and as a result I don’t feel entirely qualified to comment on them! I’m currently reading and loving Water for Elephants, so you can expect another positive review soon!

Lately, quite a few aspiring authors have asked me for advice on what to do when you feel your novel is ready to go out into the world. So, while I have some downtime, I’ll shortly put up a blog or two with some general advice and information. Good luck to you all. Book publishing is a tough world, but it’s a very exciting and fulfilling one too, and I love being part of it.

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About

A LITTLE BIT ABOUT ME

I live in Perth, Western Australia, with my husband and two young daughters.

Before I was a writer I worked as a book editor, at first in-house at HarperCollins UK and then freelance. I’ve edited and proofread well over 100 books, fiction and non-fiction, including novels by Paullina Simons, Kathryn Fox and Liane Moriarty.

My favourite authors include Maggie O’Farrell, Toni Morrison, Nicci French, Sara Gruen, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Wendy James, Kate Morton, Liane Moriarty and Jodi Picoult.

My favourite books include The Secret River by Kate Grenville, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton, and After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell. The list goes on and on.

My favourite poetry collection is The Self-Completing Tree by Dorothy Livesay.

I was one of the original editors of the Kids’ Night In book series, which has been raising money for War Child since 2003.

I’m very lucky to belong to a writers’ group that includes Amanda Curtin, Natasha Lester, Annabel Smith, Yvette Walker, Dawn Barker and Emma Chapman.

I’m a huge fan of dystopian fiction, and I’m studying the genre for my PhD at Curtin University. My favourites include The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, and Pure by Julianna Baggott.

As a kid, in addition to devouring Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton books,  I loved the Sue Barton nurse stories and Gerald Durrell’s animal adventures. Later on I read everything written by the Brontes, and devoured the dark thrillers of Lois Duncan and Christopher Pike.

I was born and raised in England, but I’ve always had family connections to Australia, and we visited the east coast a few times during my childhood. My introduction to Australian literature was reading All the Rivers Run by Nancy Cato, and after that I wanted to be Delie Gordon for quite a while. In 1999 I made sure I got to stand at the wheel of the Philadelphia paddle steamer  when we visited the Murray River region.

My first pop concert, aged 12, was a Stock Aitken and Waterman event featuring my first love Jason Donovan. I was on a high for weeks afterwards. Little did I know that twenty years later I would end up editing his autobiography.

I love marine animals, and in the past (before children!) I have been a keen scuba diver. I’ve played with baby sea lions, penguins and marine iguanas in the Galapagos and scuba dived with Galapagos reef sharks and hammerhead sharks. I’ve glided with manta rays in Coral Bay (WA) and the Similan Islands in Thailand, encountered huge potato cod and graceful minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef, and swum with the mighty whale sharks of Ningaloo. I have experienced the absolute joy of being surrounded by wild dolphins in New Zealand and WA waters, and had the very special experience of a dolphin ‘buzzing’ me while I was pregnant (using concentrated echolocation to ‘see’ the baby).

In 2011 I went to Japan while researching Shallow Breath, and visited Taiji, the town famous for its horrific dolphin drives. I was only there for two days, and I didn’t have to witness the brutal hunt up close, although I watched the banger boats drive the dolphins in from a distance. However, I did encounter the dolphins in captivity in the sea pens, being broken and starved while trained for human entertainment. Those images will stay with me forever.

I met my husband Matt when I was nineteen. We both love to travel, and we tend to pick places where we can pursue our passions for animal encounters and the natural world. Our highlights include four months in South-East Asia, including chartering a tiny vessel to Komodo Island and staying amongst the dragons. We got engaged on an island full of monkeys in Halong Bay, Vietnam, and  for our honeymoon we visited Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls, the Galapagos Islands, and travelled into the heart of the Manu Biosphere of the Amazon to see everything from capybaras to caimans. Now our two girls are getting older, we are excited about planning our next adventures.