Posts in Castlemaine

Bendigo Writers’ Festival: girls, grief, guts

On the radio oh oh

Kirsten Krauth + Jenny Valentish, Radio National's Life Matters, Bendigo Writers Festival
Kirsten Krauth + Jenny Valentish, Radio National’s Life Matters, Bendigo Writers’ Festival

The Bendigo Writers’ Festival kicked off with ABC Radio National’s live broadcast from the Banquet Room in the Capital theatre.

Fellow Castlemaine writer, editor and troublemaker Jenny Valentish joined me to talk with Natasha Mitchell (Life Matters), Michael Cathcart (Books and Arts Daily) and Fiona Parker (ABC Central Victoria) about girls growing up too fast and what it’s like to be a regional writer.

Both of us have ended up in Castlemaine via circuitous routes but she wins — Jenny’s from Slough, UK. (I vaguely remember The Office being set in Slough. Great claim to fame there.) Our novels Cherry Bomb and just_a_girl are quite eerie in their shared sensibility: teen girls moving through the world with irony, detachment and the desire for sexual conquest.

You can listen to the Radio National broadcast for more. The two-hour radio show was a real highlight, with local guests including Robyn Annear, who shared her art for shaping history into stories that come alive.

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon

Nicole Hayes, Kirsten Krauth, Jenny Valentish + convenor Julie Proudfoot, Girl You'll Be a Woman Soon, Bendigo Writers' Festival
Nicole Hayes, Kirsten Krauth, Jenny Valentish + convenor Julie Proudfoot, Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon, Bendigo Writers’ Festival

I’ll let you in on a bit of a secret. It can be quite hard to get the powers that be to take teenage girls seriously, to consider them as the smart, complex, contradictory creatures that they are.

When you talk of Coming of Age you tend to think of Catcher in the Rye, the ‘universal’ story of growing up.

But what of teen girl voices? How do they fit into fiction aimed at adults? Or male-dominated worlds like football?

In this session, Jenny Valentish, Nicole Hayes and I talked of the Coming of Age novels that influenced us most including Puberty Blues and Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? 

We spoke of writing sexuality, of our responsibility (or lack of) to readers and how our styles reflect where we come from.

Thanks to Mentone Mif who did a little summary of the session.

She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly: The Neighbour

Kirsten Krauth + Julie Proudfoot, launch The Neighbour. Thanks to Klare Lanson for this post postmodern shot.
Kirsten Krauth + Julie Proudfoot, launch The Neighbour. Thanks to Klare Lanson for this post postmodern shot.

After having wonderful writers like Emily Maguire and Angela Meyer take me in hand and launch my book, it was exciting to be asked for the first time to launch someone else’s.

Julie Proudfoot is a Bendigo writer who I’ve enjoyed getting to know over the past year.

Her award-winning novella The Neighbour is a beautifully written contemporary novel about grief, responsibility and a man gradually disintegrating under pressure while a small child looks on.

At the launch, Julie spoke about her desire to trace mental illness, why she loves to write in Bendigo, how she seems to have the keys to men’s sheds and feels comfortable there, and cruelty to animals (and what it can reveal about character).

It’s great to see publishers like Seizure taking a punt on publishing novellas because I love how the shortened form can add extra intensity.

You can find out more about Julie at her blog Passages of Writing and read a review of The Neighbour by ANZ Lit Lovers.

Watching the detectives

Angela Savage, announced in the shortlist for the 2014 Ned Kelly awards.
Angela Savage, announced in the shortlist for the 2014 Ned Kelly awards.

I’m dreaming of festival panels that mix children’s illustrators with horror writers with rural romance aficionados. Why do crime fiction writers (or other genres for that matter) always have to be lumped together in the programming as if they can’t participate with the Serious Writer Writers?

Garry Disher made this point in the highly entertaining session with Michael Robotham and my good buddy Angela Savage.

They talked of writing crime set in Asia, what it’s like to tour in Germany with an actor who goes on the road translating for you (attracting a handy crowd) and how it can be a mistake to just make things up in a police procedural.

After the session, Garry Disher and Angela Savage were named in the shortlist for this year’s Ned Kelly awards (this is Angela’s third nomination for the three in her trilogy).

Free drinks and cheese platters led to a night on the town with crimesters Andrew Nette and Michael Robotham who regaled us with stories behind his 15 ghostwritten books.

But if I tell you any more I’ll have to kill you and then he’ll have to kill me.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Bendigo Writers’ Festival continues my love affair with regional festivals. There is something about wandering along the street dipping in and out.

My only struggle was the staggered times, meaning I missed out on many sessions before and after mine. Hopefully next year events will be at the same time, with a few minutes for a coffee and chat inbetween.

Other highlights included John Van Tiggelen, Sue Woolfe, Mandy Sayer, Matt Blackwood, Jane McCredie, Natasha Mitchell and Christie Nieman.

And good onya Rosemary Sorensen for programming more local writers into this year’s events and encouraging uni students to take part in the conversation too. It meant a vibrant and energetic mix of speakers and punters.

Meet the locals: festival director Lisa D’onofrio

Lisa Donofrio teaching
Lisa Donofrio teaching

Last year, after pretty much just landing in Castlemaine, I went along to the Castlemaine Children’s Literature Festival. The kids and I saw innovative puppet shows and powerful Sudanese storytelling and song. All the sessions were booked out. Sometimes kids’ programming (at other festivals) can be lazy… so it was great to see so many hands-on sessions.

This year, the program is even more expansive. It’s a wonderful initiative, with a carefully creative program aimed directly at children from a wide range of age groups. It starts at the end of this week. For Melbournites, it’s worth a trip down to explore the options during the school hols.

I first met festival director Lisa D’Onofrio at Castlemaine Word Mine, a regular gathering of local writers here. She hosted a reading I did with Simmone Howell and Ellie Marney on adult and YA fiction, and the crossovers between them.

I spoke to Lisa about the festival, that starts this weekend, and how she ended up landing in the Maine.

Why did you move to Castlemaine?

The short answer is we needed to settle somewhere fast, and Castlemaine had good schools, a train line and a rocking library. We also knew one person here!

Ajak Kwai launching last year's festival
Ajak Kwai launching last year’s festival

Why start a Children’s Literature Festival?

That’s a very good question, which I ask myself several times a day, especially in the lead up to the festival! When we first came to Australia around three and a half years ago, we did a bit of travelling. In Queensland I read about PL Travers, who wrote the Mary Poppins series, and I wanted to do something that celebrated Australian children’s literature, so it grew from there. I’ve got a background in literature/literacy development, and a long history of facilitating arts projects so it seemed a perfect fit.

The CCLF is a unique festival which focuses on children and young people as creative producers and active participants, which isn’t the usual model for festivals, where the children’s program seems like an add-on, or is purely schools-based. Selfishly, I also wanted my own kids to have access to local, cheap but quality, arts-based activities in the holidays!

What are some of the highlights of this year’s fest?

So many highlights! Most of the performers/facilitators are local, which is wonderful, and we were very lucky to have  multi-award-winning author Melina Marchetta do some pre-festival workshops.

Johnny and Evie Danger developed their show Oceanic Daredevils for the festival, which has been booked out twice over.

I’m looking forward to Monsters in my Wardrobe, a production by Mark Penzac, which has had some input from Castlemaine North primary students, and the dance/word workshop with Thais Sansom on the Saturday, which I wish I was young enough to particpate in!

Monster Mash Up Rhyme Time is an annual favourite starring Jess Saunders, our library worker extraordinaire, which is always lovely — outside under the big tree in the beautiful surrounds of Buda.

Johnny and Evie Danger coming up at the CCLF
Johnny and Evie Danger coming up at the CCLF

The Wordy Wonder Day will be a cracker, including a sound walk led by the poet Klare Lanson and Luca Sartori, who runs a cafe in town, singing Italian tunes!

You can check out the program here and book here.

Festival events will take place in Taradale, Fryerstown, Maldon and Newstead as well as Castlemaine.

 

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE BOOK AS A CHILD?

Also check out:

  • Top 5 Australian Children’s Books to Re-Read Until You Go Mad
  • Meet the Locals: Castlemaine YA Author Simmone Howell

I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame. Next?

Ms Evie rocks to just_a_girl, Castlemaine launch
Ms Evie rocks to just_a_girl, Castlemaine launch

Although my book just_a_girl was released on the first of June, it’s taken a while to move through the launches.

The Sydney launch took place upstairs at Gleebooks and was like worlds colliding (as Emily Maguire put it). As I stood up to do my speech, I could see my first boyfriend (who knew me when I was just a girl) smiling near the front, along with my current and former bosses seated near the back, and then my dad, sister and a whole line-up of family in the mix. My two best friends were there, along with writers new and old. And Sue Woolfe, my wonderful supervisor and brilliant author. Then there were old friends of my mum’s. And people I’d never met before who were intrigued by the premise.

It’s heady, this collision of people from your past and present. The word that people kept using when they approached me was ‘proud’ and I was so humbled by their support and comments. It showed people really do understand what a hard slog it is, writing and publishing a novel, full of setbacks and then the excitement of getting to print.

I asked Emily Maguire to launch the book and she came in with guns blazing. I’ve always been so inspired by Emily, as both a fiction and nonfiction writer. She is interested in teenage girls and women, how they operate, how culture defines them, how they throw off expectations. Her first book Taming the Beast was a revelation and her latest Fishing for Tigers was a winner of the SMH Best Young Australian Novelists for 2013 (that I was lucky to help judge).

In the speech, Emily spoke of her teenage years, how (like me) she was boy-crazy, and how she reconciled this with her evangelical Christian background. As she spoke, I was so excited and engrossed by what she was saying that I forgot to get nervous — now there’s a great intro! I was most touched by the following line that Emily said about my writing:

I don’t believe there’s any character she couldn’t get me to empathise with, any story she couldn’t make me care deeply about.

Emily Maguire and me, selfie
Emily Maguire and me, selfie

I always hope to write my characters with compassion and conviction (even if they aren’t always likeable) and I’m glad that Emily could see that. My clever husband Damon took a video of the launch and it’s now up on YouTube, so here’s Emily in action on the night. (You can also read a transcript of her launch speech). And if you watch Emily until the end, you can see my Academy Awards moment and a reading from just_a_girl — where Layla swears, meets a moth, and a mysterious man, on the train.

In between the launches, I visited Readings in Carlton to sign some books (and learnt the term ‘face out’ as I begged them to feature it alongside The Rosie Project), did a Q+A at Colour Box pop-up bookstore with Angela Savage in Footscray, and  my first ever radio interviews with Alicia Sometimes (3RRR) and Jan Goldsmith (3CR), where luckily I managed a velvety sexy voice because I had a virus I couldn’t shake off.

The turn-up for the Castlemaine launch was wild and woolly. As in Sydney, the weather wasn’t kind, but Castlemaniacs entered Lot 19 by the bucketloads. I asked Ms Evie and Johnny Danger (from the kids’ punk band Itchy Scabs) to sing the title song of the book (No Doubt’s Just a Girl) and they followed up with Trouble from Pink. Local kids slammed in the moshpit and through the speeches as well. My two-year-old daughter ate a whole bowl of popcorn and double dipped in every bowl on the table.

Angela Meyer managed to raise her voice above the din and again did a beautiful speech to launch just_a_girl. Angela blogs regularly at LiteraryMinded and is a wonderful fiction writer. She also taught me how to get my blog up and running. She is heading off to Scotland for months (months!) to host some panels at Edinburgh — so bon voyage, Angela!

I chose the same part of the novel to read to the Castlemaine audience (so I won’t bore you with the video again) as my son’s Lightning McQueen and various race cars whizzed past my feet. I was looking for a G-rated version to read, considering all the kids, but it wasn’t too easy to find! I had to tone down Layla’s favourite swearword, Fuckadoodle! My son said later that he liked it when everyone went quiet and my voice came out of the speakers. I guess that’s the best feedback I’ll ever get.

Angela Meyer (LiteraryMinded blog) and Mark Anstey (Lot 19)
Angela Meyer (LiteraryMinded blog) and Mark Anstey (Lot 19)

Being in the public eye for a while can be a surreal experience. The local paper had a large photo of me (in the lead up to the launch) with the accompanying title: Lolita with a webcam. I found myself last Friday sitting in my office, staring out at the frosty clothesline, talking on Radio National’s Life Matters about moving from Sydney to Castlemaine and how social media can act as an anchor when you arrive in a new place. Today I published an article on the Wheeler Centre blog about the dangers of social media for teenage girls. This Thursday (25 July) I’m doing a ‘live’ author chat at Allison Tait’s Pink Fibro Facebook book club about writing a first novel, judging literary awards and editing a magazine for writers. I hope you all can come along and join me, and ask lots of questions…

In a recent post I mentioned Susan Cain and her TED talk on introspection. She talks of her ‘Year of Talking Dangerously’. In her spirit, in the upcoming months, I have decided to say ‘yes’ to everything, and see where I end up. I’m sitting up the front on the rollercoaster.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? HAVE YOU HAD YOUR 15 MINUTES OF FAME? DID YOU ENJOY OR ENDURE IT?

Meet the locals: author Simmone Howell

Simmone Howell
Simmone Howell

Simmone Howell’s recent YA novel Girl Defective is a smart and punchy coming of age tale set on the meanstreets of St Kilda. In a record store owned by her dad, Sky negotiates love, loss and a little brother who always wears a pig mask.

Simmone’s narrative voice (in whatever character she is writing) is the kind that you long for, so strong it becomes a part of your own interior monologue, and changes how you see the world for a while. Her dialogue, description and humour are fresh and seamless. Her rapid fire delivery floors you. I’ve read a lot of YA fiction recently and this book stands out in the genre (or any genre, really).

As it happens, Simmone is also a local (for the moment, anyhow). I first saw her on stage at Castlemaine Word Mine, hosting a session with Martine Murray and Sally Rippin, and we recently did a session together (with Ellie Marney) on teen fiction. 

Here I speak to her about writing, nostalgia and folk music …

When did you move to Castlemaine? What drew you to the area?

I moved here in 2008. I wanted to try living in the country and Castlemaine had good coffee, plus a cinema and a train to Melbourne …

How does the area inspire your own writing?

I’m yet to see if the area has inspired my writing. I’m not sure that it does except for the fact that I walk a lot more than I used to and as a result have more ‘forward thoughts’ … but I also seem to have less time to write them down. And I spend a lot of time dreaming of escape.

How does a writer survive in Castlemaine? Do you do other work as well?

I do a little freelance writing stuff here and there, and I run creative workshops with Lisa D’Onofrio. I live lean and am nearly always thinking of finishing a Grad. Dip.

You seem to be drawn to YA fiction, novels with strong and humorous young female voices. Does the teen voice come naturally to you?

Yes! Even when I write an old man character he manages to sound like a 15-year-old girl. (This could be a problem …)

You’re a writing mother. How does having a family influence the way you work? Your characterisation?

Having a family means I have more resources in one way – I am constantly being pulled into the child’s perspective and I think it also makes me very nostalgic about my past and the feeling of time passing. I think being a parent has made me a nicer person. Not sure if that helps with the novelling though.

Girl DefectiveYour new novel, ‘Girl Defective’, seems to be about the importance of preservation (records, St Kilda’s iconic buildings) and an embrace of the vintage. Do you collect things? Are you drawn to record stores and op shops?

Yes and Yes. I have always been a collector and a cataloguer. I also love to throw things away and then mourn them.

‘Girl Defective’ has a wonderful sense of place. Why did you decide to set it in St Kilda?

I lived in St Kilda for a little while, and it was also the land of my teenager dreams. It always seemed like a mythical place to me – like Australia’s version of Los Angeles where everything is surface and the darkness is never far away. I love the history of St Kilda and the geography. I’m not sure if I would live there again so it was great to be able to live there vicariously through Sky.

Sky seems to be a girl coping in many ways on her own, with a lot of responsibility (her mother is absent, her dad relies on her to look after her brother). Do you think she is essentially taking on the parenting role in the narrative?

Yes. I think responsibility is one of the themes of the novel. Put baldly like that, ‘responsibility’ seems to be quite a boring theme, but when I was writing I was thinking a lot about the roles that people take on, how we can fall into them without wanting them, and then, sometimes surprisingly, be good at them.

You’re currently working on your latest novel. What’s the process? Do you research extensively? Or do you hit the ground running once you’ve found a character?

No research unless I really have to. I’ve been quite good about writing forward. With Girl Defective I remember I changed the tense about fifty billion times, re-writing the book each time … with my current manuscript I’m playing around with the voice. I’ve been writing it in 3rd person, but now I think I’d quite like it to be in 1st. Basically my process is to write something and then at a crucial point in the narrative go back to the start — this way it takes me years to finish.

Are you a writer who likes to stick to a routine, who finds comfort there, or do you embrace spontaneity?

I would love to stick to a routine, but I seem unable to. My only routine now is that I use the software Freedom which allows me to turn off the internet.

You’ve worked in other genres including an award-winning screenplay. What drew you to film, and how does writing a short film differ from narrative fiction.

I love films. I spent most of my teen years lurking at the video store slowly working through actors and genres … the short film Pity 24 came from a short story which was basically an oral biography, so in that instance there wasn’t a lot I had to change. (The film is like a fake documentary, though not a ‘mock’ documentary because no-one’s being mocked in it … I think there’s a difference.)

Actually I find screenwriting really challenging. I would love to adapt one of my books but think I might need a bravery injection first.

You’ve been successful in exporting your fiction internationally. Do Australian writers in YA stand a chance in the US market?

Definitely. There is a lot of love for Australian YA in the US. Margo Lanagan, Melina Marchetta, Jaclyn Moriarty, Marcus Zusak, John Marsden — the big names here garner a lot of respect there. Very generally speaking, I think they love the ‘direct’ Aussie voice. My writing has been called things like ‘unvarnished’ and ‘raunchy’ in the US and for some reason it feels like a compliment!

You have recently hosted a local radio show, Folkish on Tuesday mornings (currently in hiatus). What are your top 5 folk tracks (at the moment)?

Simmone’s earlier novel Notes From The Teenage Underground won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for YA Fiction and the Gold Inky in 2007. The short film Pity24 won an AWGIE for screenwriting.

A UNIQUE VOICE IS SO IMPORTANT IN FICTION … WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE WRITERS — WHO MANAGE TO CREATE A VOICE SO MESMERISING THAT YOU DON’T WANT TO LET GO?

IF YOU ENJOYED THIS, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE TO MEET LOCAL WRITERS JON BAUER AND ADAM FORD …

Do you remember the first time? Part 2: readings + The Voice

You can pre-order my book, just_a_girl. Just click on the pic.
You can pre-order my book, just_a_girl. Just click on the pic.

I’m one of those people who would rather die than get up and say a few words. I think this is in part genetic (my grandmother on my mum’s side and my grandfather on my dad’s side were both content to sit in corners and observe at social situations, and confessed their fears to me of standing up to speak) but also influenced by my experiences in primary school.

I don’t remember being self-conscious until about Grade 4. I feel like I can pinpoint the moment it began. When — as my character Layla takes up the narrative in my book — I had a teacher who decided to conduct a class experiment. Mr S told me to go outside and pick up rubbish. A strange request but I was a dutiful student (pretty much). When I returned I went to my desk as usual. Later in the day he smashed his ruler down in front of me and got me to stand up in front of the class while he accused me of hitting and hurting a small boy. This was so against my nature that I threw it off for a while, but then he got a student to go and get the little boy in question, and he lied convincingly. I felt stranded and confused. Did I actually do it? Without realising? When I sat down, my teacher revealed it was an experiment. To see how boldly I stuck to the truth. To see if I changed my story. The class all had to write about me (and the scenario). I felt completely exposed.

And recently I realised: when I stand up in front of an audience now, I feel like I’ve done something wrong — even though I haven’t. It’s a hard thing to shake off. Of course, a therapist may say I’d feel this sense of dread anyway (many writers do). So, when I finished the book, I realised I had to confront it. The public/private persona. The exposure to strangers. Writers are expected to speak and be comfortable speaking (even when this is a completely different skill to writing). I heard a saying recently, ‘hiding in plain sight’, and I relate to this well. Every day I confront it. The need to compose myself.

Harrison Craig on The Voice
Harrison Craig on The Voice

I’ve been hooked on The Voice lately. This show is my guilty pleasure. I watch all the auditions. I watch them again on the net. It’s the only TV show I get really addicted to. I love singing, and distinctive voices. But when I’m watching it’s as if I’m searching for something. For clues. And I realise I’m fascinated by that moment of connection. When the singer touches the audience (or judges). It’s about letting yourself be vulnerable. Being unique. Allowing emotion to move through your body. It is a mystery to me.

Now, singing and dancing are different from speaking. I could get up on a stage and sing and dance in musicals at school. The Wizard of Oz. Godspell. Musicals meant you could hang out with older boys (I went to a girls’ school) who played guitar. There was a freedom there. But I never auditioned for a play. I guess, people who stutter would understand this. It seems a different part of the brain handles song, as opposed to speech. When I get nervous, I go mute. Not just my voice, but my brain! I can’t access what I need when asked a question in front of people. Many times at school and university I had to leave the room. For fear of not being able to find the right words.

But recently it all came to a head. I was asked to do my first reading of the book (a preview) at the Castlemaine Word Mine with Simmone Howell and Ellie Marney. I knew that this was make or break time. That from this point on, leading up to and beyond the launch, it was only going to get harder. Or easier. Depending on how the night went. And you know what? I drove home pumping my fist at the moon and screaming ‘Fuck, yeah!’ because I got to the other side. Where it actually felt good. And here’s what I learnt.

Join a writers’ group 

Even though I’ve written my first novel, I’ve never had any group feedback. I chose a research masters to avoid classes (of course). One on one feedback I can handle. But in Castlemaine I stumbled upon the most wonderful group. All experienced writers. All willing to be both gentle and pernickety. I started to tentatively read aloud. I couldn’t look up from my page. But I started to hear my own voice.

Say yes first and panic later

Q&A with Kirsten Krauth, Ellie Marney, Simmone Howell, Castlemaine Word Mine
Q&A with Kirsten Krauth, Ellie Marney, Simmone Howell, Castlemaine Word Mine

Make a commitment to doing the talk. All writers deep down really want to share their work. While I didn’t write my book for an audience, it has ideas I want to share. Find out as much detail as you can about the event. How long will you read? Are you on with a panel? Who’s on first? Is there a Q+A? Can you get an idea of the questions?

Practise for a week

Choose an excerpt from your book that you really love, and that has strong narrative drive. As a fellow writer told me, don’t go for beautiful words. They may look good on paper (and the reader will appreciate this) but they inspire daydreaming. Take your audience on a trip; include them in the journey. Read your excerpt out loud, once a day, for a week leading up. Learn the words that you stumble on and change or eliminate them. Write down where to pause. Write down where to smile. Reminders are great. Most importantly, write yourself an intro, even if you have to write ‘Hello! I’m Kirsten Krauth’! For me, the stumble is that initial opening. Once my voice actually comes out, I’m getting there…

Good old NLP + love your toes

Neuro-linguistic programming seems odd. Replacing words and concepts with others. Too good to be true? But every time you say ‘nervous’ to yourself or friends and family, replace it with ‘excited’. I did this and it worked. Couldn’t believe it. By the time I got to the reading I was pretty fucking excited. But actually, something weird happened and the nerves seemed to evaporate as the (very long) day wore on.

Moments before I stood up to read, I concentrated on my feet. They were dug into the ground. I scrunched my toes up (another tip from a friend) and thought only of them. When the time came my feet were happy to move me from A to B.

The art of performance: become your character

When I hit the stage, my only goals for the night (other than turning up) were to slow down and look up from the page once. But as I started to read the practice paid off. The words and timing seemed effortless and as I was reading in first-person, I started to play with the voice of 14-year-old Layla. I started to embody her, and she started to embody me. It turned into a performance rather than a reading. As we moved together, I actually started to enjoy it. Character acting. That’s what it was about.

Invite your friends and family

I’ve had lots of conversations about this one. Most writers agree that it’s easier to speak to a room full of strangers; and to read from a script. But as my eyes furtively darted from the page, I began to see people I know. People I like. People who had given up precious time to turn up on a cold night and listen. I saw they were smiling. They were keen. They were encouraging me to keep going. And this was an amazing help.

I wasn’t in a classroom being humiliated or attacked. Things had moved on.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU A NERVOUS (READ EXCITED) OR COURAGEOUS PUBLIC SPEAKER? ANY TIPS OR ADVICE? HAVE YOU EVER BEEN BLOWN AWAY BY SEEING A WRITER SPEAK? HAVE YOU EVER WISHED YOU COULD SINK INTO THE FLOOR?


PS And … the exciting news is that you can now pre-order  just_a_girl online (it comes out 1 June). I’m really excited about the cover. Although I originally didn’t want a girl on the cover, I was talked around. It’s dark and techie and murky — not girlie — and represents the book well, I think. If you can’t afford to buy a copy, and let’s face it, many people can’t, it would be great if you could request it at your local library. That way, they can order it in:-) Or, if you want to get a review copy for your journal or blog, let me know! It’s also available as an ebook.

Meet the locals: author Jon Bauer

Author Jon Bauer, Rocks in the Belly
Author Jon Bauer

I remember first encountering Jon Bauer in a session, with Fiona McGregor, at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on writing about mothers. As you know, this is a topic that continues to engage me (on many levels) and I was intrigued because it was unusual to have a male panellist (a refreshing change, actually), and he spoke eloquently about writing female characters.

After his debut novel, Rocks in the Belly, was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2012) and won the Indie Award for Debut Fiction (2011) it became one of the first books I downloaded onto my Kindle. A mistake, I now realise, because I want to share the damn thing with everyone!

It’s a stark and brooding novel with a mesmerising and seductive mix of young boy and adult male voices. Reading through responses on Goodreads, it’s one of those love/hate books, the kind I think I want to write. I mean, really, does anyone just want an indifferent response? If you’re willing to trust the author to take you on a dark journey, this one is beautifully structured and carefully constructed. As Jon intended, it embraces and then repels you.

Jon has written a couple of great articles for Newswrite magazine — on the author Ray Bradbury (who recently passed away); and on the art of researching the second novel — and shortly after moving here, I heard he was also heading to town, to a little village called Chewton just out of Castlemaine. I spoke to him about the move (he started off in the UK) and how he goes about writing such memorable fiction.

You’re originally from the UK and have recently moved to Chewton. What attracted you to the area?

I think living in rural England. Australia is home now (Melbourne for the last 11 years) but I was always going to need some nature and space around me. Castlemaine isn’t far from Melbourne, but far enough that it has its own vibrant community. A garden and veggies and animal life, and a full view of sky makes me happy in a way that lattes and hipsters don’t.
Do you find living here has helped your writing?
Nope. Yes. Sort of. I’m busier here, where I thought I’d be ensconced in privacy. But knowing I can retreat whenever I want gives me a lot of comfort. I’m writing a lot right now though because I’m coming to the end of my second novel and can’t keep my hands off it.
Jon Bauer, Rocks in the BellyHow did you come up with the idea for ‘Rocks in the Belly’? Was it shaped by your own family at all?
Rocks is based on a picture I saw on a mantelpiece years ago. The image was of a young foster child with an intellectual disability. She had died, and the family who took her in really missed her.
I kept that image in my mind for years and it bubbled up again one morning while I was lying in bed looking up at clouds. In terms of the shape of my own family, I suppose Rocks has an emotional authenticity, in that I was completely befuddled by the family I found myself in, and very aware that I was bottom of their list of priorities. Do you hear violins? But otherwise, it is that fictional weave of authenticity and invention.
There are many confronting moments in the book where the reader wants to look away, step back. How did it feel going to those dark places, entering into moments of violence, brutality, cruelty, misogyny (and pain)?
At times my hands were shaking as I typed. But I felt purged afterwards. I think, early on, I wanted to punish the reader. The book softened a great deal though as I redrafted it. People are so multi-faceted, and all too often characters are polarised in films and in literature. It’s important to me to write the essence into my characters that we are all capable of almost everything. How else would murder, war, rape and brutality transcend time, geography, and culture?
As for misogyny, that was something I watched extremely closely in the book. It is important for me to go to the places in society that are unacceptable. I am writing about child abuse now, among other themes. What mattered to me with Rocks, is that it was not a misogynistic novel. Which I steadfastly believe it is not. Chauvinist characters, evil characters, racist characters, they’re all okay in my book, and can sometimes do more to highlight injustice and bigotry than writing an idealised character. But there are writers who write chauvinistic books, and racist books, and don’t even realise they’re doing it.
You mentioned that when you were writing the novel, you did an acting course where you were encouraged to improvise. How did finding your voice and experimenting with it here affect the way you were developing characters?
That is a big part of why the protagonist is less likeable than he might be. That acting course (Meisner) was a permissive space where I could explore my darker side. There was a moment in the writing where the protagonist did something small, like drop a piece of litter. But feeling anxious of keeping the reader sweet, I sent him back to pick it up. Then I thought, bugger it, drop the litter. It sounds small, and the moment isn’t even in the book anymore, but it was a turning point.
I wrote Rocks to walk a tricky line between compelling and repelling the reader. It’s a heady mix, kind of like doing the splits. I won’t have got the balance right for all readers.
‘Rocks in the Belly’ mixes the voices of a young boy and his adult self beautifully. How did you conjure up these two versions? Who emerged first?
Rocks is based on a short story I wrote, so the adult came first, but at times in the story, you can hear his voice lapse into younger language as he recounts the past. When I was coming to write the novel, I knew I had to try the younger voice. I wasn’t confident I could do it, but once I started it poured out. Kids are easy to write, I think. Just bring out your most narcissistic and associative side.
The book is essentially about vulnerability masked as something else — all the characters (and all of us) share these traits to some degree. Do you find as a writer you are stripping off the mask in some way?
Fiction is a safe place, so there’s no unmasking. But I am shining a light on the fact we’re multi-faceted, as I said. And that ultimately, most violence and anger comes from pain and woundedness. Also that childhood is brutal, no matter how happy you think yours was.
People don’t like you to talk negatively about the halcyon world of childhood, but it’s important to normalise the ambiguity and complexity of all spaces: religion, parenting, family, marriage, love, childhood, sex … We like to simplify things, and usually for the better. But they aren’t simple. Ambiguity is a larger place, and allows a lot more freedom in life, and in story.
You’re currently immersed in your new novel. What’s the process? Do you research extensively? Or do you hit the ground running once you’ve found a character?
Both. This novel took a long time to find the story. I knew I wanted to write about a man. Then he became a man going blind. That led to a period of research, which was long and interesting, and confronting, but ultimately inspiring. Then just writing the words. Lots of them. It ended up being 160,000. I’m now stripping it back and shaping and grooming it. Down to 116,000, but I want it lower, if it’ll let me.
Are you a writer who likes to stick to a routine, who finds comfort there, or do you embrace spontaneity?
Routine shmootine.
We’ve talked in the past about the importance of play. Is this something you incorporate into your writing process?
Creativity IS play. Certainly initially. If you aren’t largely enjoying it, you’re doing something wrong.
You seem to be always drawn to the psychology of young boys? What is your interest in psychology and this particular age group?
The more I write the more I see themes. The key ones, I think, are that I write children (of both genders) as brutalised heroes. I tend to write the elderly as vulnerable, and the adults as flawed and negligent. That seems to be the over-simplified gist. And children make great narrators, and compelling protagonists. Who can’t cheer on a child character?!
In a ‘Newswrite’ article (‘Writer on Writer’) you wrote of how you were inspired by Ray Bradbury. What other writers do you go to for inspiration?
Susan Sontag described writing best when she said that, ‘It feels like leading and following at the same time.’ I try to live life like that too. Otherwise, I’m a buffet reader — dipping in and out of many writers. Mostly, I read non-fiction: psychology and ontology. I think I’ll be a therapist one day, and am hellbent on gathering more and more information on that unassailable thing — life. Fiction is a good place to do that, both writing it and reading, but I devour books on how to live betterer.
HAVE YOU READ ROCKS IN THE BELLY? OR ANY OTHER FICTION THAT IS BOTH REPELLING AND COMPELLING? WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like to meet another local writer: Adam Ford. As Castlemaine has such a vibrant artistic community I’ll be doing more of these interviews in the coming year.

30 kangaroos, 12 alpacas, 5 magpies, two shetlands and a chook

Creswick Wool Mill alpacas
Creswick Wool Mill alpacas

Every morning we are waking to a winter wonderland. The longer nights mean better sleep-ins (it still seems like midnight at 7am) but at 9am the ground is still covered in sparkling, crunchy frost that steams in the weak sun.

I brave the cold with GG in her pram. Even in zero-degree weather she insists on taking her socks off so we wrestle with each other on the stroll. Each day I head in a different direction down a dirt track, first right, first left. I never get very far because I’m usually stopped by something that catches my breath. The first day we strolled up past the Kickback Corral. Yep, pardners, an old sign bearing the name swings broken from a tree. Just around the corner, pram wheels spinning in the deep and rutted gravel, there are horses. A Shetland pony nibbles grass, fat, not hungry enough to come to the fence to check us out. No carrots.

The next day we head right and it’s even colder. My hands ache. My feet crackle. I’ve been to the opshop to find more clothes. Coming from Sydney (originally Melbourne) I couldn’t imagine a real winter. I have seven layers on. And I haven’t even got to my coat. I waddle along. I need fingerless gloves and a funny hat. A lot of people in Castlemaine wear funny hats. The ones with the dangly bits that keep your ears warm. I couldn’t ever see the point. But now I want one — the more outrageous the better. We have been battling with McCool for months now about wearing a coat. But even he’s given up and is wearing the warmest he can find. The other day I drove him to child care and the car declared ‘minus 1.5 degrees’. I couldn’t believe it. Can humans exist in such temperatures?

Funny woollen hatBut back to the travels. GG and I turned a corner and a mob of 30 kangaroos froze in the pale light. They stayed still as if playing a game of hide and seek. We stood frozen too; it felt like trespassing to walk through them. Ten minutes we stayed like that, hushed. Finally a large roo started to hop and they all bounded a short distance away, then resumed their stance. Eventually a few heads went down to nibble at the grass. I want to go all Instagramy now and show you some shimmery sepia photos but I didn’t have my camera, and my phone is crap.

At the local farmers’ market beautiful freckled chooks were for sale. Twenty bucks. One had happily laid an egg in her cage, and I wanted to take her straight home. The owner took a dainty hen out and gave her to a small boy. She relaxed completely in his arms, posing for a photo for the local paper; the photographer seemed desperate to find something happening. McCool stroked the chooks gently, enjoying their warmth. I chomped my way through a spinach and cheese burek.

The local wool mill at Creswick had a ‘cutest cria competition’. Crias are baby alpacas and they jostled with each other as we decided which one deserved our vote. McCool quickly points out Scout, the tiniest, a jet black rascal with the softest fuzzy head. I’m not usually one for the shops they place at the start of the building to entice you along the way but this was full of delectable soft things to snuggle up into, alpaca throws and sheepskin rugs. At prices in the hundreds of dollars but you can always cop a feel, anyway, free of charge.

Driving around the region it feels like you’re on holiday, that you’ve grabbed a long weekend and are exploring with the kids. But the best part is you don’t have those ‘we’ve gotta return to the city’ Sunday night blues. We wake up again here on Monday morning. It’s a good move. I can feel it in my waters.

Beyond the Mummy-Dictator

Disciplining your children, dictator-style.

They say that moving house rates up there with divorce or the death of a loved one in terms of anxiety stakes. I always thought this was a bit much. I’ve moved many times and it’s just a case of chucking everything in boxes, right?

But this time was different. And it seemed to integrate all of the above. There was both the grief (from saying goodbye to close friends) and the conflict (near-divorce at any rate: we all have different notions on how to pack a box). Moving interstate to regional Victoria with two little kids was tough going. For starters, we made decisions last minute. VERY last minute. We didn’t really anticipate a whole backyard of things that we didn’t want to keep — still on the lawn before the final house inspection. On our last day in Sydney we drove one hour to Campbelltown to stay overnight at a motel, just to feel we had at least started the journey.

No matter how many times I read Buddhism for Mothers, at times of tough-going I revert to Mummy-Dictator instead: you will do as you’re told. And helpful parenting tips like putting my hands over my ears and repeating ‘I can’t hear you’ in a mantra (I swore I would never do that). McCool (at three and a half) has decided the best option to get what he wants is just to scream at a very high pitch for a long time and not to eat anything at the dinner table unless he is spoon fed. Luckily GG (at 14 months) is gurglingly happy no matter where she eats or sleeps and just fills the days with delight. She is just taking a few steps at a time.

Sarah Napthali, Buddhism For MothersBut we have safely landed in Castlemaine. The house has a view from every room that doesn’t feature human-made structures. You can do a bushwalk up the dirt track at the end of the street to Poverty Gully (the writer’s life?). Big rabbits play in the backyard and we suspect a wombat or two. It’s cold but cosy. McCool can do a circuit around the backyard on his wheelie. He’s started child care right away where they serve hot vegetarian meals (good luck to them with that). He keeps saying, ‘This is my last day at child care’ and ‘When are we going back to my Sydney home?’ but he’ll get there. He sneaks into bed beside me every night (each night it gets earlier), his fingers like iceblocks. There’s a gently emerging humour. The other day in the shower he said, ‘Are you washing your turkeys?’ I couldn’t work out which body part he meant (probably best not to know) but I think it’s the first time we have both ended up in hysterics at one of his jokes.

I love the peace of the place already. The vibrant community that I hope to join (shyly). Facebook makes it so much easier for people like me. The Castlemania Group offers the chance to ask any question about local life and be swamped with friendly responses. There’s music playgroup. A lunch each week that welcomes locals. Nude drawing classes. Lots of yoga. And, most importantly, great places to eat. I look forward to slowly getting to know the town and finding the space to do more writing too.

HOW DO YOU GET CLOSER TO BUDDHA THAN DICTATOR AT TIMES OF STRESS? ANY TIPS APPRECIATED…

If you enjoyed this, you may also like:

Wild Colonial Girl now has her own page on Facebook. If you could LIKE I would really LOVE!

Word miner: Adam Ford

Poet and novelist, Adam Ford
Poet and novelist, Adam Ford

As the trees start to shed in Earlwood, we are counting the days until we head to Castlemaine on 12 June. The dogs have gone ahead to Melbourne. The boxes are gradually starting to rise to the ceiling, threatening to kill the baby GG as she teeters on tiptoes swinging around them. Like the inner west of Sydney, negotiating childcare in Castlemaine has been a delicate balancing act, but McCool has two days at the community child care centre, which looks great, and even has vegetarian food at lunchtime. Seeing as his vegies are limited to potato stix, and mushrooms on Lebanese pizza, this should be a challenge. Look I’ve tried and tried and tried. But they say that if kids see other kids enjoying food, they just tuck in.

I always like going to new places. I like the space in the mind as new worlds are conjured up. It’s a gut feeling but I think the place will be good for us. We’ve been harried trying to do creative things while paying the rent in Sydney (that we have never really been able to afford). We’ve found a place to rent. It has four bedrooms (three for us + an office to share between me and WCM — that’s Wild Colonial Man). It has a backyard as big as a cricket pitch with established trees (we can just take the dogs for a walk in the yard), a verandah and a modern kitchen and bathroom. There’s a local farmers’ market that we can head down to each weekend.

Apart from a town for foodies, Castlemaine also has a vibrant arts and writing scene. Castlemaine Word Mine is an organisation supporting local writers in the region, and holds regular poetry nights and workshops. I spoke to poet Adam Ford (coordinator) about writing and local culture.

You grew up in Ballarat? Why did you decide to return to the region to live?

Castlemaine isn’t actually in the Ballarat area. This is an important point for me, because I don’t think that I could return to live in an area in which I grew up. It just feels regressive somehow.

No, Castlemaine is in the BENDIGO region. Bendigo shares an enduring Springfield/Shelbyville relationship with Ballarat due to both their similarities and differences (and we won’t go into who is Shelbyville in this scenario), so in some ways I’ve crossed the floor.

My wife and I moved to the area because of the appeal of Castlemaine as a town to live in: it had a significant artistic life, there was some good food to be had and the landscape was beautiful. Plus houses were really cheap. I grew up outside Melbourne and my wife grew up in far-eastern Melbourne, which honestly speaking was more bush than Ballarat, so both of us were familiar with what the lifestyle would involve. Plus we were thinking to start a family and the appeal of non-metro child rearing was strong. Our move was made easier by having some friends who’d made the same move in the years previous, so they could introduce us to people and show us around as we became acclimatised.

How does the area inspire your own writing?

In the most literal sense, I’ve written a poem about a particular geological curiosity that’s signposted on the main street of Castlemaine. It’s called the Anticlinal Fold — also known as a saddle reef. It’s a geological indicator of the presence of gold, apparently. I was just fascinated by the desire to direct people to something like that: “Post office this way, art gallery that way, anticlinal fold that way.” The poem’s not finished, but I have hopes it will be soon.

In a more oblique way, now that I live in Castlemaine I spend more time travelling (I work in Melbourne three days a week): cycling, walking and catching trains, which does give me more contemplative time to either write or read or edit things in my head.

Are there any books set in the area?

Fiction? Not that I know of, which is unforgiveable of me. There probably are — I’ll have to look into that. I have read a few local histories, and know of some others that are about. I have also read and heard a number of poems about the area, but nothing specifically set up as “poems about Castlemaine”.

What’s Castlemaine Word Mine? Why was it set up?

I came along post-establishment, but the brief version is that it’s a group of writers who’ve set up a non-profit organisation to promote writing and reading in the area. We run a monthly reading series and are starting to offer a few writing workshops as well. We have worked and are developing plans to work more in partnership with other writing and reading organisations in the area, like the local library, local art festivals, local independent journalism websites and the like. We were set up around mid-2011, so it’s early days for us yet. Interested folk can check us out here.

What are some events coming up for local writers?

There’s the monthly CWM readings, on the last Wednesday of every month — check our blog for details. There’s also another regular reading series on Sunday afternoons that’s been running a long time, featuring both local writers and visiting writers. It’s been at a few different venues over the years — currently it’s based at The Comma, in Castlemaine. We have a gig guide on our blog that lists events in the area, including Bendigo-based events, so if people need to know what’s on that’s where they should go.

Is there a writers’ festival in the region?

There are a number of festivals in the area, which feature varying levels of literary events. There’s the Children’s Literature Festival, which is aimed at children and families, and is really excellent. There’s also the Castlemaine State Festival and the accompanying Fringe Festival: both are on every two years and often feature literary events. So yeah, there’s a bit about.

Adam Ford's novel, Man Bites DogYou work in a number of genres. What do you enjoy writing most?

Fantastic writing probably comes to me the easiest — I write about superheroes and robots a lot, and I have a deep from-childhood love of the inherent spectacle and ridiculousness of superhero and B-movie tropes. I like writing realism too, but I think the most fun I have is when I try to combine fantasy and realism. It’s not a novel approach — many have done it before me — but I like exploring the tension between the two.

How do you go about writing a Twitter novel?

140 characters at a time. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) Seriously, though, I just kind of barrel through it. I had a rough idea what it’d be about when I started, but the deal was that I wasn’t supposed to overthink it too much, just keep writing regularly and maintain a steady pace. It hasn’t quite worked out that way — I have sometimes gone months without posting anything — but it’s still ticking along and I’m still happy with it. Interested folk can check it out.

How does a freelance writer survive in Castlemaine?

Well, you can freelance from anywhere, but I think you probably have to catch the train down to Melbourne a little bit for meetings and networking and such. This isn’t really a question for me, though — I have a full-time job as a web editor, so my days of freelancing are kind of behind me. My wife works freelance as a reviewer and arts journalist, and based on my own past freelance experience it doesn’t seem like being in Castlemaine is any obstacle to freelance writing.

HAVE YOU COME ACROSS ANY FICTION, POETRY OR MEMOIR THAT FEATURES CASTLEMAINE? OR ARE YOU A WRITER LIVING IN THE REGION? Please leave a comment. Would love to hear from you…

Top 5 blogs: going rural

As I start getting ready to head down south, frantically spreadsheeting all the things I need to do before we leave (child care, rental property, unpack the computer in time for editorial deadlines), I thought the best way to experience a move to a country town first-hand would be to read blogs by those who’ve been there done that. I needed some tips.

I came across many just like me: writers, usually women, trying to balance family life with work in a new town or rural retreat, and looking for the space to be able to write (or make art and craft) creatively; a day or two a week will do.

Some highlights…

Life in a Pink Fibro blog LIFE IN A PINK FIBRO

A beautifully designed site, Allison Tait effortlessly lures you into her world of whimsy. Her posts range from the handy tip variety (how to develop a rhinoceros hide when you’re a freelancer) to the meditative (the importance of silence when you are overloaded with information). She has interviews (a recent one with Joel Naoum from Momentum is useful for writers swerving into the digital fast lane) and also details the frustrations and joys of trying to juggle a home business with raising children (when your kid is sick and you have to meet a deadline). Light and airy, it’s a blog I read with relish.

 THE ART OF LIVING

Artist Jodie Ferguson-Batte moved from Sydney to Daylesford (a town not far from Castlemaine where we are headed). She details the setting up of her small business (a loose leaf tea), the paintings she does, her burgeoning love and appreciation for local wines, and how to settle into a local community (first stop: the pub).

 FERAL007’S BLOG – COUNTRY LIFE

A single mum talks about her kids, her cat and a vegetarian, farting, dog. Feral’s writing is dynamic, extremely funny and takes a mischievous take on the well-worn idea that a tree-change is going to be easy. She has a great sense of drama and pace; and can make any subject interesting. A terrific read!

 House of Humble blogHOUSE OF HUMBLE

Beautiful photography and winsome words offer an enchanting glimpse into the lives of a young couple in Bendigo. From the beauty of rain to the misery of renovating, the site is like the visual equivalent of Julia and Angus Stone’s music: calm, curious, sweet. Their most popular post is ‘On being a man who knits’.

 THE SIMPLE LIFE: Miffy in the Middle of Nowhere

The blogger moved from Kangaroo Valley to a spot in rural Victoria she describes as the ‘middle of nowhere’. She details the excitement of living in such an isolated place that she has to ferry her girls across rough water by boat to school, sometimes in strong winds, heart in mouth.

Do you write a blog on moving to a regional community? Have you come across one that’s brilliant? Please let me know and I’ll mention it in an upcoming post.