Zooming through lockdown

10 September 2021

Like half the country, the ACT is back in lockdown and this means that a bunch of my IRL bookish happenings shifted to Zoom. But one that was always intended for Zoom was F*CK COVID: An Online Literary Affair, organised by the dynamic team at the ACT Writers Centre.

 

When the event was first proposed I remember thinking that online probably wasn’t necessary. Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra weren’t in lockdown — oh, how those days seem like a distant dream! But clearly the organisers are fortune tellers and this event ended up being the highlight of my locked-down weekend. Plus every time I typed ‘F*CK COVID’ it was like a fist punch of defiance.

 

The event sold out in three days. Then more tickets were released, and it quickly sold out again. I was on a panel with Mark Brandi, moderated by Nigel Featherstone, called ‘Hard truths; Risky fiction’, and what an absolute delight it was. Nigel was his usual magnificent and thoughtful self, expertly guiding the conversation, and Mark and I found so many synergies in our work and writing process.

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My ‘set’ for F*CK COVID

Mark’s The Others is an absolute cracker of a book and kept me up until the early hours of the morning. Like The Breaking, which I was there to discuss, it’s tricky to talk about without giving away key plot points! But I found our conversation so rich and thought-provoking, and I hope the audience did too! It’s always difficult post-event to remember exactly what was said, which is why Sue Terry’s incredible write-up of the panel is invaluable! I will defer to her summary of everything, except to say that I work full-time as an editor, not part-time, which makes finding time to write extra challenging, especially when you combine that with being a single parent of three children. But there are cracks in life, and I seize on them whenever I can!

Jumping now to school visits, I wanted to mention the gorgeous kids at Dawul Remote Community School which is located in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. This is where Zoom comes into its own, because how lucky was I to visit this school remotely! I shared the stage (or screen!) with DeadlyScience’s Corey Tutt. I was fortunate to edit Corey’s brilliant middle-grade book, The First Scientists (Hardie Grant, out 13 October 2021), so it was an absolute blast chatting to the kids with him. They had so many great questions about books and writing, and I came away enlivened, as I always do. My own kids are homeschooling during lockdown and were under strict instructions to keep out! Just one of the many challenges (as all parents know) of trying to simultaneously work and homeschool.

 

Next up was a pre-record for the inaugural Macgregor Primary Writers Festival — a whole week in which the school does nothing but celebrate books and writers. How blissful does that sound! They had an incredible line-up, including Andy Griffiths, Jackie French, Bronwyn Bancroft and yours truly, among others. If only I could travel back in time and be a kid at that school!

 

And finally there was my Editing Essentials presentation for SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) which covered editing the full gamut of kids books, from picture books through to YA. The SCBWI crew organised a stellar line-up and there was a lovely big crowd who had great questions. When asked which was my favourite children’s genre to edit I had to say ALL OF THEM!

These events have brightened my lockdown immeasurably. Massive thanks to all the organisers who are making sure adults and kids alike have plenty of literary goodness to sustain them in these crazy times.

Fergie reads my book!

16 July 2021

What a few weeks it has been! My latest picture book, Where the Heart Is, illustrated by Susannah Crispe, came out last month and I had no idea that it would result in possibly the greatest moment of my life. None other than the Fergie, Duchess of York, selected our humble little book to read on her Storytime channel. And it is blowing up. As I write this is has been just a little over 24 hours since it went live and already it’s had 20K views!

The reading features Paddy the dog and a complementary fruit platter that may look a bit like something other than palm trees. It’s a little wacky and a lot thrilling. And it is in fact the childhood dream that I didn’t know I had.

Paddy loving Where the Heart Is (for about two seconds)

When I was 11, like every other little English girl, I watched Princess Sarah Ferguson walk down the aisle and practically drooled over her satiny confection of a dress. Afterwards I sat on my floor and made a ‘book’ all about the wedding. I cut out pictures from magazines and wrote my best royal reportage.

Now that princess has read a real book that I wrote and it all feels completely surreal. She even pronounced my name right. All of this would have my 11-year-old self hyperventilating or screaming with joy or jumping up and down on the bed. Actually, probably all of those on rotation. Needless to say, even adult me has been riding a Fergulicious high.

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But before that came another high in the form of our book launch. We managed to sneak it in just before mandatory masks were brought in, and Dymocks Civic did the most amazing job of dressing up the shop in Where the Heart Is paraphernalia. We had a great crowd of small and big people – as Susannah said, we couldn’t have fit another person in.

 

It was such a joy to share this story, and I suppose I should tell you what it’s about! It’s based on a true story about a man named Joao who rescued a penguin, who he named Dindim, from an oil spill, just off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They developed such a close bond that since his rescue, Dindim has spent eight months of every year with Joao, leaving in February for the Patagonia coasts of Argentina and Chile, and returning in June. The trip back to Joao is an extraordinary 8,000 kilometres. Scientists have never seen anything like it. So you can see why this heartwarming true story inspired me to write Where the Heart Is!

 

If you want to get your hands on a copy it’s available in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, US and Canada, in stores and online.

Where the Heart Is backstory

17 June 2021

Some time ago now (I’m a bit hazy on the details) I read a newspaper article about a man named Joao who rescued a penguin, who he named Dindim, from an oil spill. The chick washed up on an island village beach just outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, near Joao’s shanty home. They developed such a close bond that since his rescue, Dindim has spent eight months of every year with Joao, leaving in February for the Patagonia coasts of Argentina and Chile, and returning in June. The trip back to Joao is an extraordinary 8,000 kilometres. Nothing of its kind has ever before been witnessed.

After reading this incredible story I immediately felt the spark of a picture book arrive. The bond between human and animals (wild or domesticated) can be so special and I’ve experienced this myself with elephants in Thailand (I am an Ambassador for the Save Elephant Foundation). I’m also passionate about wild animals remaining in the wild, but this can only happen if humans do not destroy their habitats. In this case, the oil spill that threatened Dindim’s life. But we are also losing many penguin colonies to climate change. That is, perhaps, a story for another day, but it’s been wonderful to hear that early readers are already using the book to spark conversations around conservation and caring for animals and our environment.

Where the Heart Is officially hit stores yesterday. And it’s the very first book baby for illustrator Susannah Crispe who has so beautifully brought this story to life. I’m a sucker for endpapers, and she has created the most adorable and funniest endpapers ever (I might be a wee bit biased, but readers reactions confirm it!). Susannah has her own backstory about Where the Heart Is, and when I heard it I knew she was the perfect fit for this book. The synergies with the story I had written were like a sign!

So here’s Susannah talking about her experiences:

About 10 years ago, I spent several months travelling in South America. I relived that time a lot while working on Where the Heart Is, having spent time on Brazilian islands, including Joao’s island, and seeing Magellanic penguins like Dindim in the wild in Chile.

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Time in Brazil influenced the illustrations. Photo: Susannah Crispe

The Island of Chiloé, just off the coast of Chile, is a truly magical place filled with incredible birdlife. I had heard about a penguin colony on a tiny island nearby, but at the time I was travelling there weren’t any options for tourists to visit it. I negotiated with a taxi driver to drive along the coast (sometimes along the beaches themselves) to the bay opposite the Islotes de Peñihuil. There he negotiated with local fishermen to take me to the island to see the penguins.

I had been learning Spanish for a few months at his stage, but it turned out the fishermen only knew a handful of Spanish words, speaking one of the many indigenous languages instead. Despite this, they tried valiantly to point out various bird species to me. As we pulled up close to Peñihuil in their tiny battered boat, several small black and white heads popped up from burrows in the grass. Magellanic penguins were happily going about their day, in amongst Humboldt penguins, ducks, gulls, shags and terns.

Seals in Chile who inspired the illustrations. Photo: Susannah Crispe

It was an incredible experience, not least because of the beautiful and generous fishermen, and made even more special by the very friendly sea lions and otters who came to say hello.

Joao, the old man from Where the Heart Is, lives on the other side of the continent on an actual island paradise. I spent several weeks exploring and lounging on Brazilian beaches and islands, and Ilha Grande — Joao’s home — was by far my favourite place. There were no cars or roads on the island, just walking tracks leading from the port and town up and over mountains thick with jungle to a seemingly infinite number of pristine beaches.

The jungle there was an incredible place, filled with howler monkeys, marmosets, squirrels and birds. It was quite different to the Amazon jungle where the air’s thick with humidity and insects, and the wildlife makes so much noise you can’t think. On Ilha Grande, the jungle animals seemed almost as calm and relaxed as the people. I remember hiking to a waterfall one morning with a banana left over from breakfast in my bag. The instant I split the skin to open it, a dozen small furry faces materialised from the trees. As I finished the last bite, the tiny monkeys faded back between the vines as if they were figments of my imagination.

Honestly, I completely understand why Dindim returns to the island every year. I would too if I could!

It was pretty special being able to use my own source photos to develop the characters and landscapes in Where the Heart Is. Despite my truly rubbish photos, the memory of this day is still so vivid, and working on Dindim’s story feels like a tribute to this trip and the people who made it so memorable.

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Where the Heart Is has been simultaneously released in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, US and Canada. If you happen to be in Canberra on Saturday 26 June we’re launching at Dymocks in the Canberra Centre. Susannah has created a stunning window display, and if you come along at 11am there’ll be a book reading, craft and cupcakes. Hope to see some of you there!

 

Behind the book tour

8 April 2021

My debut novel, The Breaking, has now been out in the world for five weeks. That sounds like such a long time but it has zipped by in an absolute blur. I’m aware that the crucial first six weeks of a book’s life are almost over, and yet I feel like I haven’t had time to really process any of it yet. Every day brings a new email or tweet or Instagram post from a reader saying such beautiful things about my book that I almost can’t believe they are true. Did I really do this? I think. It’s all a bit surreal.

A few days ago I woke to an MP tweeting about my novel, followed by an email from one of Australia’s finest writers who said all the beautiful things about The Breaking and then concluded that she was ‘a little bit envious’ of what I’d achieved. That just blows my mind. Imposter syndrome has a way of making none of it truly stick. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

 

Then there was the two-week book tour which was insanely wonderful and insanely exhausting. I flew into Brisbane (yes, I got on a plane!) where I collected my trusted hire car (aka Booktourmobile) and did an event at the gorgeous Avid Reader before spending the next two weeks travelling down the east coast. I visited 60 bookshops, had the most glorious conversations with booksellers and signed a gazillion books. Okay, maybe not a gazillion, but my signing pen certainly got a workout. I ended in Melbourne with an event for the equally gorgeous Readings.

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As I posted on the socials and people commented how exciting and glamorous it all looked, I made a point of recording the reality. I don’t sleep well in hotels, and there was a new one every night. Some days I was in four different locations. People would always ask me, ‘Where are you headed tomorrow?’ And I would smile apologetically and say, ‘I don’t know! I have to check my schedule.’ Which I did every night, because I could only hold one day at a time in my head.

I love a solo road trip. I listen to audiobooks, I blast music and sing till my lungs feel like they might tear. But I ate way too much chocolate and chips to keep myself alert. And I missed my long daily walks – my body felt jumpy. In one hotel, there were no knives so I used my finger to spread my breakfast toast with peanut butter. (I am not proud.) In the evenings I caught up with friends in various cities (wonderful) or worked till late catching up on emails (necessary), but both left me without time to pause. I often felt like my head was in 10 places at once. One day on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland I woke to a friend messaging me to say that a big fat rave review had appeared in the paper, but my schedule was so tight that I didn’t have time to even read it until 3 pm that day, in Lismore, NSW.

 

When my publisher organised the tour, I imagined hours off spent on the beach. Gold Coast, here I come! I packed three bikinis, which was foolishly optimistic. As it turned out I wore only one, on a perfect day in Coffs Harbour. I had a Sunday afternoon off and I walked for three delicious hours along the coastline, thinking that surely there were more days like this to come. But then the floods hit and I was just one step ahead of the worst of it, pulling the rain behind me as I headed south, watching all that destruction on the news, in places where I had just stood.

 

But all of that is incidental because oh, the booksellers! That’s what this trip was really about. And I met so many of them and had so many wonderful conversations about books and writing and reading. They made gorgeous displays of my books in windows, on front counters, display stands and at the very front of the shop (I had a tendency to walk straight past them, oblivious). Their support of The Breaking was humbling and just plain bloody wonderful. Booksellers are truly the best people in all of the world.

I’m going to finish this post with what was the beginning, my book launch at The Street Theatre in Canberra, because it was the moment when I got to send The Breaking out into the world. Karen Viggers launched the book so eloquently and said all the gorgeous things about me and the book. I am so glad that she handed me her speech notes afterwards, otherwise I would recall nothing of what she said. These events are always like that. But I do remember standing on that stage, looking out to my friends, family and fellow writers, and just feeling so grateful. It was a moment of joy, plain and simple.

I have used far too many adjectives in this post and the editor in me wants to strike them all out. But I have left them in because they actually aren’t enough to express how much happiness I feel. So let me finish by saying a massive, heartfelt thank you to every person who has bought The Breaking, or recommended it to a friend, or posted something lovely about it. To see it hit some bookshop bestseller lists has been a thrill (among many thrills), and that wouldn’t have happened without readers deciding to spend their dollars on my little novel. So, again, THANK YOU!

I have a copy of The Breaking to give away, thanks to my publisher. To go in the draw sign up to my monthly newsletter full of bookishly good stuff (sign-up box on this page) before 15 April, 5 pm.

The debut release storm

27 February 2021

I have started trying to write this post so many times but pre-publicity for The Breaking has me feeling like I’m in the middle of a storm. A tropical storm, perhaps (I love the tropics), but a storm nevertheless.

I had the best of intentions. Over the Christmas holiday period I knew I would have a couple of manuscripts to edit but that there would be plenty of time to write a bunch of guest blog posts and Q&A interviews. My plan was to get ahead on everything so that come release day I wouldn’t be overwhelmed.

There was one small problem that I hadn’t accounted for. Christmas slow mode. It happens every year, and yet every year I forget about it. My family came up from Melbourne (extra wonderful after all their months in lockdown) and I stopped working. I never stop working. One of the dangers of working freelance is that evenings and weekends are just extra work days, so I never really stop. And then when I do, it’s like someone switched my motor off. I didn’t want to go near my email, or even think about anything other than just being with friends and family and enjoying the summer. Then I took the kids north for a week (bliss), and then it was still school holidays. It took me a long while to get back into gear. And needless to say, instead of being ahead, I was then behind.

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I did manage to get some new author photos done. I’d been putting it off for so long because I loathe being in front of the camera, but I actually surprised myself by enjoying the shoot. All credit to the fabulous Karleen Minney who directed my awkward body into better photographic shapes. Well, except for this outake. I was at saturation point here and couldn’t figure out what to do with my hands (seriously, hands are the worst on a shoot).

Since then I’ve been doing interviews for print and podcast, writing more Q&As, signing stock that arrived early to some of my local bookstores, and working with my publicist to plan a book tour, which is super exciting. I was also on a panel with superstar combo Karen Viggers and Zoya Patel talking about the representation of women in contemporary writing, which was so much fun. And The Breaking was allowed to break its embargo for its first outing.

After launching in Canberra next Thursday 4 March I’ll be heading to Brisbane for an event at Avid Reader on Thursday 11 March and then spending two weeks visiting bookshops all down the east coast, ending in Melbourne with an event for Readings at The Collective on Tuesday 23 March. If you’re in one of these cities, I’d love to see you at these events!

It is a nerve-wracking thing releasing a book into the world. And although I’ve published a collection of short fiction and some children’s books, because this is my debut novel it almost feels like the first time again. Feedback from people who’ve read early copies of the book has filled me with such joy, especially from those I know whose opinions I respect enormously. And it is so happy-making to receive all the photos of readers’ pre-ordered copies arriving.

The book is officially in bookshops today, and on the weekend there was a lovely big spread in the paper ahead of its release. So this thing is on, the book’s out there, and I’m going to ride that wild storm to the end.