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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 dance between character and place in fiction

11 March 2020

Place is so important in fiction writing. It is more than just setting, more than just a space that characters inhabit. The way each of us views a place is different, filtered through our subjective experiences. And the way characters interact with the space around them can reveal so much about their interior lives. So, for me at least, place is intrinsic to story.

Usually the characters and their setting arrive in my imagination in tandem. They are already entwined. But occasionally the characters arrive in search of a home. Before I travelled to South Africa, I had a trio of characters playing in my head who I knew were destined for a short story. And on a trip to Boulders Beach, near Cape Point, I found the perfect space for them — a place that offered echoes for the things my characters were wrestling with.

My brother and I took the train from Cape Town to Simon’s Town. It was the most glorious ride and the footage below gives you a glimpse of why.

 

From Simon’s Town we walked to Boulders Beach, which was swarming with tourists and penguins. I’m not a fan of tourist traps but it was worth battling through selfie sticks to see these cute little guys. African penguins look very similar to Magellanic penguins from South America, who feature in my next kids book, Where the Heart Is (June 2021), so it was extra special to see them sunning and squawking and swimming. We also smelt them, oh how we smelt them.

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But back to the short story, which is called ‘Pole pole’. The way each of my characters experiences this particular place in South Africa is specific to them, with all their worries and joys and frailties. It is not my experience, or my brother’s, or anyone else’s for that matter. It belongs only to Dexter and Adelaide and Lix. The title is a Swahili saying (pronounced ‘polay polay’) which means ‘slowly slowly’. You’ll have to read the story to find out the significance of this saying, and how the characters and the setting (with its tuxedoed inhabitants) interact. It’s in issue 7 of StylusLit and you can find the full story online. I do hope you enjoy it.

And if you’re interested in reading more about how place informs writers’ work, Angela Meyer, Angela Savage and Leah Kaminsky wrote some wonderful words about their literary travels previously for this blog.

Literary adventures abroad

26 March 2019

Irma working with rescued elephants in Thailand

As my novel set in Thailand is currently out with publishers, I wait. It is, in short, excruciating. In the meantime I am working on a new novel, which is the best antidote, and of course continuing with my usual editing work on other writers’ books. But still I can’t help my thoughts returning to my debut novel, taking fledgling steps out into the world, hoping that it finds a good home. There are many joys and challenges in writing a novel set overseas, and so I asked three fellow writers — Angela Meyer, Angela Savage and Leah Kaminsky — to share their experiences. I could relate to so many aspects of each of their stories. I hope you enjoy them too.

Angela Meyer
I don’t have any personal connection to Scotland. My ancestors are Dutch and Norwegian. But when I first stepped off the train in Edinburgh I fell in love. I’ve been to Scotland four times now, and for extended periods of time. I’ve been all over the Highlands and islands. And when I am there something just feels right — I feel at home, while also feeling the excitement and stimulation of difference. After all, it is the exact opposite environment of the temperate beach town I grew up in. When I am not there, I do long for the place, the way you might long for a person. I don’t have any explanation for it. I also love Scottish people. My partner is half-Scottish. My ex-boyfriend was half-Scottish. This just seems to happen! My partner’s grandmother told me that she can tell, from my temperament, how I would fit in well in Scotland.

Angela Meyer on top of Beinn Eighe, Torridon Hills (Wester Ross), Scotland

When I first realised I wanted to set a book there I was of course nervous about getting everything wrong. And I questioned my desire to do so, when there are so many great Scottish writers writing about Scotland. But the desire would not go away, and I knew that the lens I was applying would be Australian — my character, Jeff. Once I knew I was going to at least have a go of it I did a ton of research — both in Scotland and via books and online. After I’d drafted the manuscript I went back to Scotland and put myself in the same conditions as my characters (isolated, no electricity, in nature) so I could even get the feel of it right. I was in correspondence with the museum in the area my character Leonora is from, and I bothered them often, as well as going back over all the photos I took in the museum.

One of the hardest decisions was whether or not to have Scots dialect. When I am in Scotland, I do not have any trouble understanding the accent. I can easily think in a Scottish accent, and so when I was writing the draft, I let some of the dialogue come out how I heard it. I also used a Scots dictionary online to add some words in dialect (particularly for the nineteenth-century dialogue). Recently I have been going over this with my UK publisher, who is Scottish, and I have been greatly relieved that I haven’t made any major stuff ups. The fact a Scottish publisher wants to publish it in fact has been a dream come true. I can’t wait to go back!

Angela Meyer’s writing has been widely published, including in Best Australian Stories, Island, The Big Issue, The Australian, The Lifted Brow and Killings. She has worked in bookstores, as a reviewer, in a whisky bar, and for the past few years has published a range of Australian authors for Echo Publishing. A Superior Spectre is her debut novel. literaryminded.com.au/

Angela Savage
My relationship with Asia started more than 30 years ago when, after working in France for a year as an au pair, I flew home to Melbourne via Bangkok. I thought I’d reached peak awe after Europe, but Bangkok blew me away. By the time I left France, I could pass for a local; however, that was never going to be the case in Thailand. Then as now, I was intrigued by the question of how to get by in a place where blending in isn’t an option.

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I ended up living in South-East Asia for most of the 1990s. When I returned to Australia, intent on becoming a published author, I turned to Asia for creative inspiration. Writing fiction set in Thailand provided both a means to process my experiences and an outlet for the travel stories nobody would listen to.

Angela Savage in Krabi, Thailand, suffering for her art

Ironically, an early rejection of what later became my first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, suggested there weren’t enough ‘sights, smells and sounds of Thailand’ in the manuscript. I realised I was too close to the experience, writing so soon after returning to Australia. I had to take a step back and reconnect with the sense of curiosity and wonder I first had — and still have — on visiting Thailand. To remember the details that make the place unique.

One of the great joys of setting novels outside Australia is doing fieldwork in order to gather those details. As part of the research for my forthcoming novel Mother of Pearl, I visited Thailand in December 2015 in search of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and texture that give a setting what James Bradley calls, ‘the imaginative thickness it needs’. Some examples that found their way into the novel include the flayed frogs, legs still kicking, in metal dishes at the morning market in Sisaket; the blast of cold air at the entrances to Bangkok’s plazas; and the smell of brine and barbeque at Bang Saen Beach. The landscape seemed to offer up ways of ‘showing, not telling’ — signs on Bangkok’s Skytrain asking passengers to Please offer this seat to monks, for example — while physically moving through the settings that I imagined my characters to inhabit also helped bring them to life.

The greatest challenge in setting novels outside Australia, and specifically in Asia, is to avoid Orientalism and stereotyping. As a non-Asian Australian writer, I am acutely aware that Western writing about Thailand still trades largely in erotic and exotic stereotypes — and when I look at ‘bestsellers’ set in Thailand, I wonder if that’s what readers want.

I also wonder if there’s a market for books set in Asia written by non-Asian Australians, or if readers prefer Own Voices writing — in this case, stories set in Asia by writers with an Asian background. For my own part, I enjoy perspectives that both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ bring to fiction.

Being transported by reading is one of life’s great pleasures for me. I hope that my own writing brings readers some of this same pleasure.

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing and currently works as Director of Writers Victoria. angelasavage.wordpress.com/ @angsavage

Leah Kaminsky
‘To travel far, there is no better ship than a book.’ Emily Dickinson

In my debut novel, The Waiting Room, the coastal town of Haifa plays the role of character. More than just a particular place, it is evocative of an era in time where a palpable sense of dread accompanies the protagonist, Dina, as she walks through the market or drops her child at school. Set in 2001, during a turbulent spate of terror attacks in the Middle East, the setting explores the dichotomy of living in a war-torn country which is a vibrant and pulsing locale populated with a colourful community of people as they go about their ordinary, daily lives. I worked as a doctor in this region during that time, so the images, smells and sounds of street life were embedded in memory, waiting in the wings for me to conjure them up on the page.

Landscapes shape people. A strong sense of place in a novel can demand a huge amount of research so that every detail resonates with the reader. In my second novel, The Hollow Bones, I pinned the narrative around true but distant events. My protagonist, Ernst Schäfer, was born in 1910 and grew up in a small village in Germany, spending afternoons playing in the forests of Thuringia. By 1930 he had become a zoologist and adventurer, travelling to Philadelphia to partake in a joint American–German team on two expeditions to China and Tibet. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler ordered his return to Germany, to lead a group of German scientists into the foothills of the Himalayas, on a hare-brained mission in search of the ‘true’ origins of the Aryan race. Questions of landscape moved to the forefront of my novel as my characters negotiated the changing mood on the streets of 1930s Berlin. Later, Schäfer treks through the ‘mystical’ terrain of Tibet. The demands of the narrative insisted the need to capture these places as they changed over time, framed against the backdrop of turbulent world events.

Setting can be the bedrock of atmosphere in a novel. When I first came across the story of Ernst Schäfer and the German Tibet Expedition of 1938 I tried to find a way to fund a huge research trip, but finances and time were against me. At that stage I almost gave up on writing the book, but then the words of my wonderful friend and mentor, the late painter Yosl Bergner, came back to haunt me. ‘I never want to visit any place that I have painted through my imagination. It ruins the magic for me.’ I suddenly realised that the settings I had started writing about no longer existed — they were impossible to travel to physically. Berlin and Lhasa of the 1930s had completely vanished.

This was strangely liberating, and I started reading widely. I did visit the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia while I was on book tour in the US for my previous novel. There, in the archives, I came across a wealth of information for my research — field diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, photos and film footage from the expedition — including a taxidermied panda encased in a diorama that Schäfer had brought back from Tibet in 1931. Eventually, the museum ended up becoming an unusual part of the setting the book as well.

Books are the fastest and cheapest way of travelling; imagination has always been the terrain of a writer, and as a novelist I feel I act as a trusty tour guide for my readers, sharing magical and reinvented geographies.

Leah Kaminsky is a physician and award-winning writer. Her debut novel, The Waiting Room, won the prestigious Voss Literary Prize. She conceived and edited Writer MD, a collection of prominent physician–writers, which starred on Booklist and is co-author of Cracking the Code, with the Damiani family. She holds an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. leahkaminsky.com

To go in the draw to win a book pack of A Superior Spectre, The Dying Beach (signed) and The Hollow Bones (signed) simply subscribe to Irma’s newsletter before 5 pm, Monday 22 April. Sign-up box is on the right-hand side of this page (or down the bottom in mobile view).

Soweto love

19 February 2019

I have recently returned from an incredible trip to South Africa with my brother. We spent most of our time in Soweto, in particular in the informal settlement of Kliptown, where we met so many incredible people.

Photos by the wonderful Ilan Ossendryver

We were fortunate to work with Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY), founded by Bob Nameng, which aims to address some of the community’s challenges.

Meeting Bob Nameng, Founder of SKY, for the first time at his home in Kliptown

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Kliptown is what is called an ‘informal settlement’, where shacks have been erected from a patchwork of materials. There is no sewerage system (portaloos service the community and are emptied twice a week) or electricity (illegal electricity, with all its many dangers, has been rigged up). Communal taps are used for washing, cooking and cleaning.

Top: The generator which services this part of Kliptown, with illegal cables patched into it. Bottom: Electricity cables lying on the ground. Right: Ducking under cables (with exposed wire) at head height.

Kliptown also has 73 per cent unemployment. So educating the next generation is key to helping them escape poverty. On our first day we happened to meet these three young men who have come through SKY. They are now respectively studying engineering, social work and architecture. Poster boys, indeed, for the success of SKY’s programs. They even shared their breakfast with me, a sweet, pink porridge called morvitte.

A highlight of the trip was delivering a suitcase full of new books to the SKY kids. Before I left I asked a few of my author friends if they’d like to donate books to the SKY library. The response was so overwhelming that I received over 100 books, and had to turn down offers of more as my luggage was pretty much books and a toothbrush! Thankfully Qantas came on board to sponsor extra luggage.

Left: Before I left with the donated tower of books. Right: In SKY’s library with some of the donated books held by two of my favourite SKY kids and the librarian and teacher extraordinaire, Amokelani Khosa.

Watching the kids’ excitement as they opened the suitcase was wonderful (below left), but what happened next was even more wonderful. They all quickly found a spot and settled in to read. The bliss of new books!

My thanks again to all the authors who so generously sent me books. (What a delight it was to receive parcel after parcel in the mail every day in the lead up to my departure.) And to James Redden at Harry Hartog for donating much-needed dictionaries.

Another highlight was taking the SKY kids to the swimming pool (not hard to spot my brother in the pic below). They only get an outing like this one or twice a year, so it was wonderful to be able to give them this experience. Some of them didn’t leave the water for five hours! Much joy and excitement and fun was had.

I was also invited to run a writing workshop and it was nothing like any other workshop I have given. The pencils had been stolen the previous day, so it started with us walking arm in arm to the shops with a bunch of kids to buy new pencils. They thought this was great fun (which indeed it was).

As you can see from the photo below, there was no electricity so we were in the dark. It actually got darker than this when a storm rolled in, and the kids were writing with their faces right up against the paper. It got to a point where I couldn’t even read what they were sharing with me and pulled out my phone to use the torch. And yet, it was amazing. The kids wrote in whatever language they felt most comfortable, though some of them chose to write in English. Fortunately we had the wonderful librarian, sister Amo, on hand to translate so that I was able to understand all the stories. They came up with amazing stuff.

Left: The SKY kids singing to farewell us on our last day. Right: Workshopping in the dark.

On our last day in Kliptown it blew my mind to discover that the place where we’d been staying once had an underground hideout used by Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu and many other freedom fighters. My introduction to South Africa was as a 15 year old, reading about Biko, and then obsessively reading books on Mandela, Sobukwe and so on. So for me this was real goosebumps stuff.

Sitting on the spot where the underground hideout once was, with SKY’s Amo

We also spent six days in Joburg where we ate and drank a lot (which felt almost obscene after Soweto), and I did some research at Wits University for a novel that I’m working on (feel free to take a moment to laugh at microscope me). While we were there we had the pleasure of joining an African book club for one night only, run by the wonderful Lungile. We had such an invigorating discussion about books, and the issues they raised, and I subsequently bought a bunch of books as a result of various recommendations. Wish I could teleport myself over there every month!

I learned so much during our time in Soweto and made so many wonderful friends that it was very difficult to leave. Soweto is an incredible place that I would encourage you to visit if you get the chance. Forget any media beat-up you’ve heard about the place being dangerous etcetera. It’s one of my favourite places in the world.

Some of the people we’ll miss. Particularly the incomparable Z (above).

A year between pages

15 December 2017

It’s that time of year where writerly types reflect on their 2017 reading highlights, but I have one small problem. A few weeks ago I upgraded my phone and lost the note in which I have been carefully recording every book I’ve read for the past three years. I didn’t lose any other notes, just that one. Random fail.

So I certainly won’t be giving you comprehensive stats like Jane Rawson (seriously, check this out). Instead expect a hazily recollected and likely inaccurate (was that 2016, or 2017?) offering.

One thing I know for sure, this year I read a ton of novels set in other countries. As a travel addict I love to explore new countries on the page, even if it usually increases my wanderlust to explore them on foot. India was a particular focus, probably because it’s high on my bucket list. I started the year with Gregory David Roberts’ epic novel Shantaram and went on to read The Permanent Resident, a short story collection by Perth author Roanna Gonsalves. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness followed, Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited follow-up to The God of Small Things, which blew my mind when I read it as a creative writing student all those years ago. Perhaps because of that, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness didn’t quite measure up. I enjoyed it, and Roy skilfully breaks several key writing ‘rules’ which was interesting, but I didn’t fall madly in love with Ministry. My favourite Indian novel was The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. It’s told by a village boy called Balram Halwai and follows his struggle to transcend the ‘Darkness’ of his lowly caste. The novel delves into India’s underbelly and is full of dark humour and suspense. I found it utterly captivating.

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The other country to feature even more heavily in my reading was South Africa. With a trip there in September, I read both fiction and nonfiction before leaving, and I am still following that literary trail. I loved Daman Galgut’s brilliant The Imposter and discovered Sowetan author Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog. I pored over photographic books like Peter Magubane’s Soweto: Portrait of a City and Jodi Bieber’s Soweto. (Are you sensing a theme?) I read Doing Life with Mandela by Christo Brand after picking it up at the gift shop on Robben Island, the place Nelson Mandela was notoriously incarcerated for 18 of his 27 years, about the relationship that developed between a prison warden and his most famous prisoner. I won’t bore you with my full South African reading list — it was long, and it’s growing longer by the week — but I’ve had rich and thought-provoking travels of both body and mind through this complex and fascinating country.

I also read books set in Indonesia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, New Zealand, Nigeria, Kenya, America, England, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Greece, Norway, Antarctica, and probably a bunch of others that I am forgetting. However, the majority of my reading tends to be by Australian authors, predominantly female authors. Two standouts this year were The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose and Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar.

The Museum of Modern Love seems to have resonated with artists everywhere because it speaks to the challenges of the creative process, and the transformative ability of art. The book pivots around Marina Abramovic and her performance at New York’s MoMA, but really it is a meditation on art and life. I love this quote from the book: ‘Artists are stubborn. They have to be. Even when nothing is happening, the only way through is to work and work.’ And knowing that Rose wrestled this book into being over 11 long years makes this statement even more potent.

Incidentally The Museum of Modern Love won the Stella Prize which is my favourite Australian prize, of course because of what it stands for (‘to raise the profile of women writers and address their underrepresentation in the literary world’), but also because every winner has been among my favourite books of that year (with the exception of Clare Wright’s 2014-winning book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which I haven’t yet read).

Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek also won a bunch of awards and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most prestigious literary award. And rightly so. I came to it a bit late (it was published in 2015) but it’s a stunning debut that takes us into the unforgiving landscape of colonial Australia and the devastation of Indigenous displacement. It’s a beautiful and unflinching book that should be on every high school reading list. But fair warning: it’s a real heartbreaker.

Non-Aussie favourites this year included English (but, incidentally, Johannesburg-born) author Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Scottish author Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Interestingly, both these books inhabit the lives of quirky characters, and both have strong and distinctly unique voices. Highly recommended if you need a new read.

Well that’s my somewhat sketchy wrap for the year. Let’s hope technology doesn’t fail me again in 2018.