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Short fiction

Flashers (of the literary kind) unite

2 May 2018

The inaugural Flash Fiction Festival, dedicated to the shortest of literary forms, kicked off in Canberra recently. One of the nicest things about festivals is hanging out with other writers, and there was plenty of that. But there was also ‘work’ to be done. I ran an editing workshop, and spoke on what was possibly the biggest literary panel ever, with five of us talking about our writing processes.

Me with Sheryl Gwyther, Marion Halligan and Carmel Bird

In the spirit of flash fiction, there were a series of short keynotes addresses. Jackie French spoke about how writers have just seven seconds to hook an editor or a reader. ‘You can tell within seven seconds whether it’s good, or you can put it aside … And if it’s good you’ll get another seven seconds, and another and another.’ She also spoke about the importance of being edited and taking on tough feedback. ‘If you are a professional you are going to love it. A good strong editorship is wonderful. You get to work with a professional team on all the ideas from your brain to make them better.’ Not surprisingly, I heartily agree. She finished by reading a passage from Hitler’s Daughter, possibly my favourite book of hers (if you haven’t read it yet, you must) and told us to: ‘Write what matters. Use your words as spears.’

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Jackie French giving her keynote address

In her keynote, Carmel Bird was witty and erudite and just plain delightful. She read the funniest story I’ve heard/read in a long time about a cockroach on the brink of death (‘The Affair at the Ritz’). And I loved her concluding thought: ‘All fiction engages at the most mysterious level.’ That it does.

With Carmel Bird

Marion Halligan arrived with notes on the back of an envelope but was her usual eloquent self, musing on writing, publishing and punctuation. Craig Cormick had us all laughing as he delivered an anthropological analysis of the strange creature known as ‘writer’. Sheryl Gwyther spoke about setting up the 52-week Flash Fiction Challenge, now in its fifth year, and how it forced her to produce a work a week: ‘You can’t fail in front of everybody else if you set it up.’ Some of her pieces have provided the impetus for longer works. In a similar vein, Susan McCreery spoke about how her decision to write a flash a day evolved into a book.

 

There was heaps more on offer, including a range of workshops with Jack Heath, Susanne Gervay and Josh Donellan, among others. Oh, and I did my first ever bathroom book signing! (Thanks for accosting me, Susie.) At least it wasn’t pushed under the toilet door. (This has happened to at least one person I know.)

It was a wonderful event to be a part of, and congratulations must go to Suzanne Kiraly and the team. I’m keen to see how it evolves next year after getting off to such a cracking start. In the meantime there is an anthology of flash in the works, to be edited by yours truly. Stay tuned!

Thanks to Craig Cormick, Susanne Gervay, Sheryl Gwyther and Suzanne Kiraly for the pix.

Evolution of a story

7 September 2017

In 2016, at the end of a solo three-week trip through Thailand, I was sitting on this bench at Kanchanaburi station when I began scrawling down a story in my notebook. Writers are always asked where their ideas come from and it’s the most difficult question to answer because, for me at least, they have complex and elusive origins. In this particular moment the motif of the train line struck me, but that’s as much as I can explain. Where the characters and their story came from I don’t know. But as Paul Murray says, ‘When the right idea comes along, it’s like falling in love.’ That’s how I felt with this story, even though my characters are falling out of love.

As my short stories often do, this one emerged in fits and starts. I wrote a bunch of words during the noisy thrumming train ride to Krung Thep (or Bangkok), pausing to think, and watch banana palms and rice fields blur by. I wrote a bunch more words in Bangkok airport, sitting on a plastic chair drinking bad coffee. And then on the flight home, leaning on my wobbly tray table. Back in Australia the last of it came.

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I tightened and edited the piece, by now called ‘The Line’, and gave it to my short story group who made helpful comments like ‘hope you didn’t have an affair as research’. (They may also have given some more useful feedback.) I rewrote the ending more times than I can count before I felt I’d struck just the right note. And then I sent the thing off to the City of Rockingham Short Fiction Awards. I rarely enter literary competitions these days, but the brilliant short story writer Laurie Steed was judging and there was a decent cash prize on offer. Needless to say I was thrilled when ‘The Line’ won.

With the award win I was eligible to enter the highly regarded annual anthology, Award Winning Australian Writing. I’ve never quite managed to coordinate myself to submit to the anthology before, but this year I did and was delighted to receive notification that they’d selected ‘The Line’ for their tenth anniversary edition. It launched in Melbourne recently and has just landed in my mailbox; I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it.

So there you have it, the evolution of a short story from a Kanchanaburi bench to Award Winning Australian Writing 2017.

2016 reading picks

7 January 2017

It’s that time of the year where bookish types reflect on their year’s reading list, so I thought I might as well toss my faves into the ring. In 2016, I read 68 books*, which doesn’t seem nearly enough. Looking at the stats of childless friends, I’ve noticed that they tend to fit in well over 100. Perhaps this is because their reading is not limited to evening hours after children are in bed. Sigh. I look forward to the time when I’m able to dedicate whole weekends to nothing but books and drinking tea.

In the meantime, here are some of my 2016 faves, shuffled into slightly random categories.

what-belongs-to-youClassic: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. I’ve been meaning to read this slim novel for a long time and Radio National’s African Book Club prompted me to push it to the top of the pile. It is a poignant and heart-wrenching portrait of a country undergoing great upheaval.

Queer fiction: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell. A sharply observed and beautifully written novel about desire and longing and love. An absolute cracker.

Debut: The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan. A moving portrait of a family coming undone; it is a haunting and stylistically beautiful novel. I’ll be keenly awaiting Anna’s next book.

Short fiction collection: Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh. I found the biting and quirky satire of these stories refreshing. A gem of a book.

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heat-and-lightIndigenous fiction: Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven. Another short fiction collection, and I’m late to this one (it was published in 2014). I found these stories mesmerising; Ellen is definitely one to watch.

Novella: Wisdom Tree by Nick Earls. I’m cheating a bit here because Wisdom Tree is a series of five novellas (disclaimer: I edited them), but I couldn’t possibly pick just one. One reviewer described Gotham, the first in the series, as ‘the most perfect novella in the history of the format’. Nuff said.

Picture book: Smile Cry by Tania McCartney. My whole family (even those supposedly too old for picture books) love this gorgeous flip book that so deftly allows children to explore their emotions.

rebellious-daughtersNonfiction: Under Cover: Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro. A rare and revealing behind-the-scenes look at 30 years of publishing at UQP.

Memoir: Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner. I am a fangirl. Garner is a living legend. That is all that needs to be said.

Anthology: Rebellious Daughters edited by Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman. These essays on varying forms of rebellion are delicious. I particularly loved those by Marion Halligan, Rebecca Starford, Leah Kaminsky, Eliza Henry-Jones, Jano Caro, Lee Kofman, Caroline Baum… Hell, I could list the whole damn lot.

the-writers-roomInterviews: The Writer’s Room by Charlotte Wood. I’m cheating again because this book could technically be listed under ‘nonfiction’ or ‘anthology’, but these interviews with Australian writers deserve a special mention. Each is an honest, thoughtful and insightful discussion about the writing process, and I know that I’ll take different kernels of knowledge away with me every time I return to it.

I’ve started 2017 with Peggy Frew’s stunning Hope Farm, which I devoured over two evenings (and a little sneaky daytime reading while the kids were otherwise occupied). I can only hope that the rest of the year’s books live up to this fine start. And if you feel like picking up any of my 2016 faves do try and support the Australian industry by grabbing them from your local bookstore. It makes a world of difference. Happy reading!

* This figure does not include any of the manuscripts that I edited, with the exception of Nick Earls’ novellas. Nor does it include the many literary journals that I consumed, and the countless picture books and middle grade novels that I read to my children.

Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!

2 November 2016

‘If you’re writing a book in Australia then you need to buy books by Australian authors from Australian bookshops. I’m really hardline on this.’ So said Deb Stevens, Allen & Unwin sales rep and literary dynamo, on a panel about bookselling, ‘The Bookshop Coalface’, at Hardcopy.*

I couldn’t agree more. The majority of readers are completely unaware of the tight margins in publishing and the woeful earnings authors make from book sales. (Read Annabel Smith’s honest account of her income for a good snapshot.) A couple of years ago, Jo Case tweeted a stark example of why buying locally makes a difference. Purchasing a copy of Case’s memoir, Boomer and Me, from an Australian bookshop meant she received $2.50 in royalties, but buying it via Book Depository UK meant only three cents in royalties.

So in the spirit of supporting Australian authors and booksellers, I asked my local booksellers for their pick of the year, giving the final word to Muse’s Nikki Anderson who makes some important observations about how readers can best support the writers they love.

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I didn’t specify any particular genre and, to my delight, these recommendations cover a broad range. So whether your interest lies in literary fiction, commercial fiction, crime, picture books, short stories, or biography there is something on this list for you.

I was also interested to note that the majority of books selected are by female authors. As many of you will no doubt be aware, despite the fact that women make up approximately two-thirds of Australian authors, all publications review more men than women (see the 2015 Stella Count for the stats). Women are also far less likely to win literary awards (hence the establishment of the Stella Prize), or appear on school curriculums, and so on. As a culture, we preference the white, male voice. And yet according to Canberra’s booksellers the majority of 2016’s best books are by women.

So, let’s dive in…

Deb Stevens, sales rep
Goodwood by Holly Throsby
goodwood
I read this debut novel months before publication and have been singing its praises ever since.

In the space of a week two very different people go missing from the township of Goodwood. There is mystery and tension combined with a gentle coming of age story.

I fell in love with the book and the glorious characters living in the township of Goodwood. As a reader I cared for many of them, and long after finishing the book I genuinely missed them. Several other readers have told me they want to meet them again. Soon!

As I read there were times I wanted to grab a highlighter to save phrases that moved or thrilled or delighted me. Holly writes with a deceptively easy style that belies great depth.  I’m sure her life as a singer/songwriter has prepared her well for the writing life. Goodwood is a novel that ‘nails’ Australia. And Goodwood the township will be a real place in the hearts and minds of its readers.

slaughter-parkSue Champion (Book Passion)
Slaughter Park by Barry Maitland
Barry Maitland’s conclusion to his Belltree Trilogy, Slaughter Park, has been the best book I’ve read this year by an Australian author. I was hoping so badly that it would be brilliant, that I was almost scared to open it. Silly me, I should have had more faith — Barry ties up all the loose ends satisfyingly, in a book of vicious intelligence.  He writes with quiet power and a visual descriptiveness that has the scenes running through your head, complete with casting. Aaron Pedersen what are you doing now?

If the ABC don’t film this trilogy…

the-snow-wombatJames Redden (Harry Hartog, Woden)
Snow Wombat by Sussanah Chambers
This gorgeously illustrated picture book captures the fun and playful experiences of a wombat that calls the Australian Snowy Mountains home. The rhymes are cute and fun and compliment the illustrations perfectly. It’s always great as a bookseller to have a book such as this on the shelf, as there are always parents looking for picture books with illustrations of the local area, and especially ones with native animals in a feature role.

Debbie Hackett (Dymocks Tuggeranong)
Beyond the Orchard by Anna Romer
beyond-the-orchard
Lucy Briar returns to her life in Australia after being overseas for several years. Her father begs her to go to the family guesthouse ‘Bitterwood’ to find a photo album for him. Not only does Lucy have to deal with her own haunting memories, but she must also piece together the family secrets and puzzles of a time long gone and finally put the ghosts to rest .

This is an absolutely beautiful read by one of my favourite Australian authors. I cannot recommend it highly enough.  It’s my number one read for 2016 — 11 out of 10!

Alison Kay (Dymocks, Canberra)
I couldn’t decide on one book, there has been so much excellent Australian writing this year.

the-dry1) The Dry by Jane Harper. A brilliant debut thriller set in country Victoria. Her writing creates an atmosphere of heat, dust and tension that grips you from page one. I love reading crime and this book with its Australian setting made it so much more relevant and real for local readers.

2) Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley. Our wonderful Canberra author in a follow-up to The Rook has written an even better novel. His world of supernatural spies and espionage is brilliantly written, very imaginative and funny. This book is totally absorbing — we all loved it.

3) Sisters Saint-Claire by Carlie Gibson. A charming rhyming tale of five French mice. Again by a Canberra author, this book is beautifully presented and a perfect gift for little girls.

There are plenty of other books I have really enjoyed this year, including Goodwood by Holly Throsby, The Good People by Hannah Kent, Working Class Boy by Jimmy Barnes, Where the Trees Were by Inge Simpson, and Celeste by Roland Perry. As I said we are so lucky with our Australian authors and their excellent writing.

Nikki Anderson (Muse, Kingston)
Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh
A top pick of the year is a near impossibility which I think says good things about the local industry. It’s funny talking about the local industry, as I think non-publishing folk don’t necessarily take all that much notice of which authors are Australian or not, and then certainly not the importance of buying local from local. That is, buying Australian books from Australian stores. And fair enough in some ways — it’s ultimately about the quality of the read, and often the price. However (big intake of breath) it does matter. Supporting local booksellers in turn supports local authors, allowing them a bit of a wage (more of a wage if you buy books at full price!) and the ability to keep writing. And often what they write reflects our culture. Not in a ‘kangaroos and koalas’ kind of way (although that’s fine too of course!) but stories that have at their core our experience, place, culture and land.

Charlotte Wood put the relationships between bookseller and author really well in a speech at the Indie Book Awards in March this year, detailing the sustained, personal and geportable-curiositiesnerous support of local booksellers for her and other Australian writers’ works. She went on to compare independent, local booksellers with a Norwegian seed vault, collecting seed samples from across the world for posterity. ‘A few years ago, the outlook for our independent bookselling scene looked gloomy. But like those seeds packed into the cold mountain in Norway, you have survived, you are thriving and because of your noticing and care, your love of words and determination to flourish, you have kept Australian literature and our culture alive and thriving too.’

Anyway, onto my pick, if I have to narrow it down! A book I raced through with delight was Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh (UQP). I love a good short story — that capacity to create a world and deliver a punchy narrative in a short space. Julie Koh’s stories are deceptive, shadowy, like some of her characters — they set up worlds we feel we know, but startling differences creep in — ghosts and third eyes and murderous food culture, life and parenting as competitive sport. All to poke fun at and make us question our contemporary world. They are arch, satirical and very funny. It’s a slim volume to devour, and then read again slowly.

So now all you need to do is head into your local bookshop and pick up one or all of these books (or indeed any book by an Australian author).

* Having assessed manuscripts for the Hardcopy program — with Robyn Cadwallader, Craig Cormick and Mark Henshaw — I was invited to sit in on panel sessions. This one was a beauty, and showcased voices not usually heard at these kind of events. Understanding bookselling is so important for authors. Excellent programming from Nigel Featherstone.

Bits and pieces

15 April 2015

Irma Gold signing books at Avid ReaderI haven’t blogged for some time but there’s been lots happening so I thought I’d post a quick newsy update about literary travels, events, a new editorial role, and the publication of a couple of new short stories.

Megumi and the Bear is still getting out and about, with two events in Brisbane earlier this year, including my first chance to visit Avid Reader Bookshop which has the best vibe and the loveliest staff. My reading was in the gorgeous outdoor area with perfectly balmy weather. The kids ate bear cupcakes and drank babycinos from the café, and then sat on a rug for the reading. I just loved watching their little mouths slowly falling open as they listened so intently. It was all just too cute.

Then came a reading at Harry Hartogs, a new independent bookshop in Woden. Canberra has recently seen the closure of two bookshops, Electric Shadows and Smith’s Alternative, leaving us with just two independents. It’s a sad sign of the times because Canberrans are serious literature lovers. I do hope our community can support more than just two independents. I’d love to see a bookshop pop up in New Acton, my favourite place in Canberra because it’s full of so much artistic goodness. One can only hope.

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Launching the Lakeside Literary Lounge with Nigel FeatherstoneBut in good news for local literature I launched the new Lakeside Literary Lounge series at Tuggeranong Arts Centre this month. I’ve lived in this part of town for 17 years now and it’s been a rarity to have a literary event in my own backyard, so to speak. What a novelty it was to jump in my car and drive just five minutes to launch this new Meet the Author series. First up was one of our local literary lights, the wonderful Nigel Featherstone, talking about his cracking third novella, The Beach Volcano. The newly refurbished space was cosy, quirky and intimate. There’s a bar (very important!) and the space encouraged intelligent and thoughtful conversation between the audience and author. It was all bloody marvellous and I can’t wait for the next in the series. There’ll be one event for each season, so if you’re in Canberra do make sure you catch the winter outing on 4 June. I hear Kaaron Warren will be plunging us into places dark and brutal.

IMG_1789 copySpeaking of brutal, last month an artsACT grant took me to Elephant Nature Park (ENP), an elephant sanctuary in Thailand for rescued elephants, to do research for my next picture book. The trip wasn’t brutal, in fact it was hands down one of the most incredible experiences of my life. But before the elephants arrive at the sanctuary they have experienced a lifetime of brutality. If you want to know more, this article provides a very good summary of why we should never ride an elephant, buy an elephant painting or watch an elephant show. I’m now hard at work on my manuscript and so excited about the potential of getting into schools and talking to kids. I took a gazillion photos of those beautiful elephants (you can see a few over at my Facebook page). This is one of me with the six-year-old elephant Faa Mai and Lek, founder of ENP and one of the most remarkable people I’ve had the good fortunate to meet.

no storyFrom works in progress to the publication of finished works, a new short story of mine, called ‘Bus 864F’, is out in the April issue of Mascara Literary Review (have a read here). And I’ve got another new story in Review of Australian Fiction (RAF), called ‘No Story’ (you can read that one here). It’s worth mentioning a bit more about RAF because they’ve developed a brilliant model. They publish two stories every two weeks from wonderful writers like Christos Tsiolkas, Paddy O’Reilly, Frank Moorhouse, Marion Halligan, Alex Miller, James Bradley and the aforementioned Nigel Featherstone, among many others, so I’m honoured to be in their company. One of things I love about RAF is that they have no word limit. Most journals favour stories that sit around the 3000-word mark, but being commissioned to write a story of any length was freeing, and I’m really pleased with what emerged. The other thing I love is that RAF pairs an established writer with an emerging writer. And the former gets to pick the latter. So it was a real pleasure to be able to select Matthia Dempsey as my RAF partner in crime. I’ve known Matthia since I emigrated to Australia at age nine. Back then we climbed blossom trees together and dreamed of being Anne of Green Gables. We had no idea that we’d both end up as writers and editors. And as you’ll see from her story, ‘Saudade’, Matthia is an extremely fine writer. You can read both our stories for less than the price of a cup of coffee here, or, better yet, since ours is the first in a new volume it’s the perfect time to subscribe.

And finally, to editing. Although I tend to focus on my writing on this site, I’ve just taken on a new role as Editor at Inkerman & Blunt. It’s a new publisher, led by powerhouse Donna Ward, that is producing very handsome and intelligent books. I’m working on lots of exciting projects, so stay tuned.

tea-and-sugar-christmasAnd I also want to mention Tea and Sugar Christmasby Jane Jolly and Robert Ingpen, published by the National Library of Australia, which has just been shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA). This picture book was such a pleasure to edit, and I’m particularly delighted at the recognition it’s receiving because it is the story of a young Indigenous girl, two categories that make sales and marketing teams nervous. ‘Girls’ because, as we are always told, boys don’t want to read female protagonists. And ‘Indigenous’ because, as you may have noticed, picture books have predominantly Anglo-Saxon characters. We need more publishers willing to take the ‘risk’ of publishing culturally diverse characters, so kudos to the National Library for doing just that. And I’m thrilled that it has paid off, with Tea and Sugar Christmas selling strongly and now receiving an ABIA nod. Fingers crossed it comes out the winner!

Well that’s it from me for now! Keep in touch over at Facebook and Twitter.