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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.

words and wanderlust

28 April 2017

I have a small problem. I am a travel junkie and a voracious reader. Combine the two and the result is an endless itch to jump on a plane.

I recently read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and was overtaken once again with the desire to visit India that first gripped me after reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Not because I want to join the violent Mumbai underworld that Roberts explores of course, but because the writing so vividly evoked the place and its people. It brought alive the sounds and smells and vibrancy and colour of a country. It made me want to explore it for myself.

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For me, fiction does this better than any other form. On the Road by Jack Kerouac is perhaps the most well-known travel novel, but I have also been to Nigeria with Teju Cole (Every Day is for the Thief), to Indonesia with Madelaine Dickie (Troppo), to Spain with Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), to Cambodia with Laura Jean Mckay (Holiday in Cambodia), and to Columbia with Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). The list is long, and I could go on and on, but you see what I mean. Books can be grand adventures.

Later this year I’m headed to South Africa, and not just through the pages of a book. As the birthplace of my father, it has long held a fascination. I explored Tanzania and Kenya in my early twenties, but it has taken me more than two decades to finally make it to South Africa. Let’s just say anticipation levels are pretty high. I’m hoping that I will find the spark of a novel there, but at the very least I know I’ll find a short story or two.

For me, travel is always entwined with reading and writing. In 2015, an artsACT grant sent me to Thailand as research for a children’s picture book. I returned not just with a finished manuscript, Seree’s Story (forthcoming from Walker Books), but also the seed of an adult novel. In early 2016, this time thanks to a CAPO grant, I returned to Thailand to undertake the research for that book. While in Kanchanaburi I read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, based on the Thai–Burma death railway, perhaps standing on the very spot where characters in his novel died, where real men died. Needless to say, it was a profound experience. After my return to Australia, I spent the rest of last year writing the first draft of my novel. Hopefully it will soon be ready to go on its own adventure out into the world.

But back to South Africa, my next stop on this planet. I first fell in love with the country through fiction, as a teenager. I started with The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, which has since sold over eight million copies. To my adult sensibility it is an idealistic, romanticised and overly sentimental representation of the struggles of apartheid, but at the time I fell in love with the hero, Peekay, and felt righteous indignation about the situation still facing Africans at that time. It led me to read my way through nonfiction about Mandela and Biko and Sobukwe. To fiction by Doris Lessing and J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer.

Last year I finally read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country which had been on my To Read list for far too long. The novel subtly explores the tensions and issues that gave rise to apartheid. It reveals deep truths and creates empathy for multiple perspectives. This is what fiction has over nonfiction. We can walk around in characters’ shoes and see what they see, feel what they feel.

Now I intend to explore the fiction of South Africa in greater depth. I picked up the Granta Book of the African Short Story as a starting point and have discovered a new generation of writers whose novels I am rounding up. I’m travelling into the complexities of the place, while curled up in bed with a cup of tea. But come September I’ll be avoiding tourist trails and attempting to go beneath the surface, hoping to connect with the heart of the place and its people.

Like pretty much every writer except J.K. Rowling, I am not flush with cash. This means I must ration my travel. But while my feet remain firmly in Australia, there are novels to transport me. Even if they make me want to scratch that itch harder.

This post first appeared on Noted Festival’s blog here.

12 curly questions

11 July 2013

Kids’ Book Review recently interviewed me for their 12 Curly Questions series. I had a lot of fun, and revealed a few secrets along the way.

1. Tell us something hardly anyone knows about you.
When I was 14 and on tour with a children’s choir in Los Angeles, I was in a house fire. I was staying with a billet who left me and a fellow chorister for dead. We escaped past exploding doors. It was like something out of an action flick.

2. What is your nickname?
Cheebles was my Dad’s favourite when I was young (no clue why). These days Irms is the more appropriate but terribly boring nickname of choice.

3. What is your greatest fear?
Heights. You could offer me a million dollars to jump out of a plane and I wouldn’t do it. Seriously.

4. Describe your writing style in ten words. 
I’m all about stories with heart, rhythm, and lyrical sentences.

5. Tell us five positive words that describe you as a writer.
Creative, sloooow, determined, joyous, diligent-deadline-meeter (what? that’s not a word? you’re kidding me?)

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6. What book character would you be, and why?
Silky in the Magic Faraway Tree. As a child I was convinced that Enid Blyton’s tree really existed, and one day I would find it.

Our late friend Hanafi Hayes' impression of the debacle

Our late friend Hanafi Hayes’ impression of the debacle

7. If you could time travel, what year would you go to and why?
I’d go back to 1995, when I was living in England with my then boyfriend (now husband), and tuck my British passport into my suitcase. For his birthday I surprised him with a weekend trip to Paris. Only in my absent-mindedness I packed my Australian passport. The real surprise was that we spent the night in a detention centre lock-up in Dover because they had nowhere else to put us. Not quite what I had in mind.

8. What would your ten-year-old self say to you now?
Damn it, you never figured out how to fly. But how the hell did you become a published writer? That seemed more impossible than flight.

9. Who is your greatest influence?
My parents. They taught me to believe in myself, discover what I loved, and chase it. So here I am. Chasing.

10. What/who made you start writing?
I’ve been writing ever since I can remember. My most prolific year was possibly aged seven. Among other works of literary genius, I recall researching, writing and illustrating The Big Book of Birds, savaging my mum’s magazines to produce expositions on British royalty, and writing a derivative fairy book with too many chapters because I couldn’t work out how to end the damn thing.

11. What is your favourite word and why?
As a teenager I read the dictionary cover to cover and recorded words I loved for future use. (Yes, I was a total nerd.) I became obsessed with the word ululation because of its onomatopoeic quality and a misplaced belief that it made me sound intelligent and poetic. I managed to find a way to slip it into pretty much everything I wrote. Consequently it is now a word that makes me shudder. A favourite word gone bad.

12. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life, what would it be?
That’s too depressing to even contemplate. My idea of torture.

This interview was first published on Kids’ Book Review here.

Sing, and Don’t Cry

30 May 2013

In the middle of the Serengeti the scrubby land is flat, stretching into the unbroken distance on all sides. We set up camp — a motley group of Americans, Germans, Brits and Aussies — and begin preparing the evening meal. The area is seemingly uninhabited, but suddenly children are emerging from everywhere. We peel vegetables, cut off the unwanted sections, and remove the fat from a pile of chicken. Discard the bits we don’t want. The children can’t believe how wasteful we are, are wide-eyed over it. We bag up our ‘rubbish’ — feeling a mix of emotions, the most prominent being multi-layered guilt — and hand it to the children, along with a bunch of much-coveted pens. They will take these stubs of carrot and onion and chicken fat to their mothers who will no doubt cook it into stews and laugh about the crazy foreigners who throw good food away. The following morning they will return with a branch of bananas and sticks of sugar cane as thanks for our generosity. The guilt is never-ending.

Kenya_Meanjin blog postI am remembering this moment reading Cate Kennedy’s travelogue, Sing, and Don’t Cry, about her two years in Mexico. A different culture with the same Third World problems. For eight years I have wanted to read this book. When it was first released I stood in Borders and read the first paragraph of the first chapter:

Our plane descends into Mexico City and we are ejected from it like goldfish out of a bowl, our mouths opening and closing as we try to gulp in enough oxygen in the high-altitude air. Stumbling jetlagged from the airport, we’re still trying to breathe as we take a taxi into a city where, legend has it, the pollution is so bad sparrows fall dead from the air.

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I was hooked. I stood there, holding its embossed cover in my hands, agonising over whether I could afford to buy it. I couldn’t. At the time we were — by First World standards — totally broke. I put it back, picked it up again. Could our budget stretch by thirty dollars just this once? I debated with myself. I placed it back, left the shop, returned. A ridiculous dance I hoped no one was observing. Eventually I left again, empty-handed.

Years later I regretted my decision when, no longer broke, I couldn’t find the book anywhere, even online where it seemed to be permanently out of stock. Every now and again, in my trawling of second-hand bookstores, I’d search for it without any luck. Until recently when I was in my local independent and asked, on the off-chance, if they had it in stock. No, they didn’t, but they could order it in. Bingo! Why hadn’t I done this before?

In Sing, and Don’t Cry Cate writes about the poverty and beauty of Mexico so vividly. She finds herself in this particular place, assisting with a rural microcredit project, after signing up for Australian Volunteers Abroad. Like all Cate’s writing (disclosure: I am a massive fan) Sing, and Don’t Cry is evocative and beautifully crafted. Every sentence is a pleasure to read.

But if you’re looking for a conventional travel account, this is not it. Sing, and Don’t Cry is as much, if not more, about Cate’s interior landscape as it is about the Mexican landscape, a place where her privileged Western value system is called into question. We are prompted to ponder ‘who is truly poor’ and, on her return to Australia, we witness Cate’s frustration and disillusionment with the superficiality of her own society.

Perhaps it seems odd that a book about Mexico has made me yearn for Africa — a place I fell desperately in love with many years ago — but I felt an affinity with her interior experience. As in Cate’s Mexico, in the two African countries I spent time in people had little but never complained, were always laughing. Every day I experienced the true meaning of the phrase joie de vivre. As much as I love my home, I can’t say the same about life in Australia. Cate reflects on the ugly self-absorption of our resource-rich Western world where we feel justified in complaining about the smallest of irritations. First World Problems, we say, and laugh, recognising how ridiculous we are. And yet we continue.

I remember returning from Tanzania to London, where I was living at the time. The complete disorientation of it. A country where people have everything and yet laugh sparingly. Where even the weather is incapable of enjoying itself. On my second day back I went into a corner shop and handed the woman behind the counter a 33p chocolate bar. Before I caught myself, I tried to barter the price down. An instinctive habit. ‘Sorry,’ I said, laughing. ‘I’m just back from Tanzania.’ She frowned, said nothing.

And so you unravel. At first you feel you will never again take what you have for granted, complain about matters of inconsequence. But you slip — slowly, barely noticing, until you forget. You moan about a delayed train or a lukewarm coffee or the lack of shopping trolleys with unbroken child restraints.

Sing, and Don’t Cry reminded me. It was discomforting, and I am grateful.

This post was first published by Meanjin here as part of its What I’m Reading series.