Posts in Children + Parenting

For good, not profit: Kirsten Alexander, editor, Open Field magazine

Issue 3 of Open Field is out now
Issue 3 of Open Field is out now

I first came across Open Field magazine when I was browsing through literary apps on iTunes, looking for inspiration. A philanthropic exercise, the magazine is digital-only, sources articles and art from world-renowned authors and artists, and all funds from downloads go to charity. I spoke to editor Kirsten Alexander about starting a digital magazine.

What gave you the inspiration to put together Open Field magazine?

This is a shameful story, but the truth isn’t always flattering. In September 2010, The New Yorker released a tablet version of their magazine using Adobe software. That was a big deal. Wired magazine had released their tablet version in May 2010, but it was a tricked-up and complex object, one that required an interest not only in the content but the possibilities the software and tablet format allowed — which makes perfect sense given their readership. Navigating Wired on a tablet was, for most people, hard work. The New Yorker was not. They offered a simple, clean magazine; one that was unthreatening and familiar since it so closely resembled their print version. They did something we take for granted now, which was to let the technology serve the content. What they offered was breathtaking. It’s hard to remember that only four years later.

Now, my partner Dave and I love magazines. And Dave has been working with technology and design since before he was old enough to employ. In 2010 he was running an agency that consisted of him and two staff members. (That agency, The Royals, now consists of five equal partners and about 25 staff.) So when Adobe made their tablet software available to developers he suggested we create a magazine. Here’s the shameful bit: I scoffed. He wanted to explore the software and suggested that I (with a background in editing and writing) could fill the pages. I said words were more than filler, look at The New Yorker! The print magazine space was too crowded, and they’d all be making tablet versions now! We could not compete with that! And etc. He said that if I could come up with an idea, he could make the magazine. I’d barely stomped out of the room before I thought of an idea to which I was instantly wed. The idea was Open Field.

The lesson here, if I’m in any position to offer one, is that technology will, of course, serve the big players. But it does — and I hope always will — allow almost anyone a voice. (The ‘almost’ is that you need learnable skills, time and tools.) You just have to know what you want to say.

All writers and editorial/design staff volunteer their services, and funds raised go to CARE Australia. Was the idea of a subscription-based app where funds go to charity always on the cards?

Yes. We had skills but no money. And my idea was that whatever we made had to be for good, not profit. I wanted to use this technology to show the work of talented women from across the world, and then give all the money we raised to a charity that helped women. So I decided I would work as the person who gathered people who wanted to show and share their work for the benefit of other women. When I swallowed my pride (see above) and explained this idea to Dave he said it was doable but that it was good I wasn’t running a business.

Open FieldHow did you choose the charity?

I’d seen an advertisement for CARE in which they spoke about the work they did with women in developing communities. It’d prompted me – before we discussed making a tablet magazine — to ask why they would give money to women rather than men. I’d thought people in need were people in need, gender irrelevant. I looked at CARE Australia’s website and they explain their reasoning there — it’s convincing, based on fact, and I’d urge anyone who wonders ‘why give to women’ to take a look. So, CARE was front of mind when I thought of Open Field.

You’ve released three editions of the magazine with the third just launched last week. They are themed. Why did you decide to source contributors by theme?

Content by women to raise money for women was a good, clear agenda but we knew we wanted to make three issues — a trifecta as a gift to charity — so I thought a theme would differentiate each issue. So the first theme is Change (CARE works to change lives), the second is Place (people in one place giving to those in another), and the third is Body (since women have a complicated and significant relationship with their physicality from birth). A theme is useful to the contributors, too. Being told ‘write about anything’ is not helpful …

What attracted you to the digital-only format? Did you ever consider a print version?

I love print. I’ve worked with print books and magazines, and I read print daily. But selling an iPad magazine through the iTunes stores offers easy international distribution. Whereas distributing print is a nightmare, and regularly the downfall of a great object.

Open Field really stands out because of its outstanding and high-quality content. You’ve featured the likes of Claire Messud, Anne Summers and Emma Donoghue, along with debut writers, and a range in between. How do you go about sourcing content? Do you do a lot of editing as submissions come in?

In this instance, sourcing is begging. I write to women I admire and I beg, plead with them to write for me, allow me to include their photographs, their song, their poem … And I am shameless and relentless. Tediously persistent. One contributor, when she finally agreed to write an essay, said in her email that she was doing so ‘only because you are so politely insistent’.

I have a list — an insane, blue-sky list — of women whose work I adore, from people whose every book I’ve read to people I’ve only recently discovered. I scour the internet, go to galleries, read and read. My list includes every one of the women in issues one, two and three, and all the women who declined. And I have no words for how grateful I am any time someone says yes or (amazingly!) when a talented woman offers her work.

And editing, yes, I edit. Some people are edited more than others. I love to work with words. It’s all I know how to do. So this part of the job is a delight for me.

Open Field is unusual because all its contributors are women. With the Stella Prize, women are now more in the limelight in terms of their writing. Why did you decide to go women-only?

We had a specific agenda — but good creative work can come from anyone, anywhere. It’s just that we don’t always get to see it/hear about it. The world doesn’t offer equal space under the spotlight for men and women. So prizes like the Stella, the Bailey’s, PEN prizes that focus on writers of colour … anything that brings attention to the work of people who are not straight white men is a step forward, an evolution. I enjoy work by straight white men (and I know it’s appalling to describe them as such, but for the purposes of this question I will): Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ian McEwan, a million artists, filmmakers and musicians have changed and bettered my world. But it’s limiting if these are the dominant voices. We all deserve more than that, as creators and consumers. I hope that one day women-only prizes are not required, but right now they are.

Digital magazines have often suffered because of poor design and poor readability. How did you combat this when putting together the publication?

Simplicity was our goal from the beginning. We wanted to make an accessible, open, easy-to-navigate magazine where the focus was on reading, viewing, listening. No bells and whistles. The ‘how’ part is entirely the work of talented designers and developers. They make simplicity look easy, and it’s not.

Many magazines online have been slow to take up the idea that they can not only incorporate text, but digital media elements too. One of the exciting things about Open Field is that it includes visual artists, filmmakers and interviews. How difficult is it to integrate all these elements?

There are lots of difficulties with making a magazine for iPad and iPhone. We’ve wrestled with single-issue versus subscription, with software (we moved away from Adobe), licenses, donating directly to a charity from the iTunes store, with scrolling versus not scrolling, with resolution each time a new version of the iPad came out … And here kudos is owed to The Royals who, with the designers and developers, solved every single one of these problems at their own expense while running a really busy company. Without them, there is no Open Field.

But, to your question, the magic of incorporating film, sound and text is, again, the work of talented designers and developers. What they do is amazing. We take so much of their work for granted now, and we’ve grown used to improvements coming so often and so fast, but being able to read on a tablet or phone or computer, being able to listen to music that way, view art that way, is astounding. We shouldn’t lose sight of that fact or grow blasé about it.

One of the challenges of making publications these days is getting them noticed. How do you go about marketing? And has it been effective so far?

OpenField1Well, since we have no money (everyone involved generously works for free), I’m the marketer as well as the editor. I’m not very good at it. We talk about Open Field on social media through my channels, The Royals’ channels, all of the contributors’ channels, CARE Australia’s channels, send out press releases … I apply my polite insistence with digital and print outlets. We’ve been blessed to receive coverage through ABC radio, the Daily Beast website, the Wheeler Centre, Dumbo Feather, The Big Issue, Anthill and MacWorld magazines.

It helped to win an award (MADC, Best Digital Content). Word has spread through goodwill, which is fantastic. And we’ve raised a lot of money for CARE, which was the goal, so that’s a success!

But my initial concern that the magazine space is crowded (which is a good and bad thing) remains true. Whether you’re looking at a physical shelf or the iTunes store, there are so many publications screaming for your attention. It’s hard to stand out. I wish there was a sure-fire way to do so.

You’re an editor by trade. What have been the joys for you in launching Open Field? And were there any unforeseen challenges?

It’s a joy to share the work of these contributors, designers and developers. It is a privilege to work with talented people. I am repeatedly humbled, awed.

It’s a joy to work on something we know will bring benefit to others. We love knowing we’re raising money for CARE’s programs. And we love knowing we’re showing the work of incredible women to people who may not have seen/heard of these writers and artists before.

Any challenges we’ve faced have been those anyone faces when dealing with new technologies: lack of money, juggling other jobs, that we’re spread across the globe … But none of that is insurmountable. We made three magazines. We gave money to CARE. CARE uses the money to do good.

The only thing that would be better was if CARE was no longer needed, if the world found a way to redistribute money, food and water so that the charitable goal of giving no longer made any sense … Money raised from a magazine can’t do much more than touch the sides of the problem of global inequality. Obviously.

What next?

The three issues of Open Field are about bringing a problem to people’s attention, bringing creative work to people’s attention, and raising money for charity.

But three is where we stop with this expression. I can’t ask people to be any more generous than they already have been. People have said nothing but good things about Open Field as a digital magazine and we’re thrilled with that. But we’re curious, hyperactive, insistent people so we’re thinking about what might come next under the Open Field name. We’ll stay true to the early-technology notion of doing good, and to the worth of sharing creative work, but the form that takes … well, it’s exciting to think about.

 

For more information on Open Field magazine, and details on how to download the three issues, visit the website or search for the publication in iTunes. Each issue costs $4.99 to download.

I have an article, ‘Fire in the Belly’, in the latest issue, No. 3, of Open Field — where I talk to Australian women writers about anger and how it can incite or hamper creativity. Issue 3 has just been released on iTunes.

Thanks to writers Jo Case, Angela Savage, Emily Maguire, Martine Murray, Emma Chapman, Annabel Smith, Fiona Wright, Patti Miller, Krissy Kneen, Amanda Curtin, Zena Shapter and other anonymous contributors for your candid and moving responses.

This article originally appeared in the June-July 2014 issue of Newswrite magazine for the NSW Writers’ Centre. Subscriptions to the magazine are available to Centre members.

 

Dawn Barker: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

Dawn Barker, author of Fractured
Dawn Barker, author of Fractured

In the past couple of months, I’ve started a new series — where I review someone’s book, and they review mine — and we put them up at the same time. My idea was for it to be a kind of ‘two of us’ of books/authors, where we find the connections between our work — and our lives. The first wonderful exchange was with Walter Mason (I reviewed  Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the kingdom and he took a squiz at just_a_girl).

This time, I take on Dawn Barker’s popular debut novel, Fractured.

Just from the outset, this review is going to have *Spoilers*. There is so much exciting plot happening in Dawn’s book that I don’t want to pussyfoot around it…

I recently became familiar with Dawn Barker’s work, as part of a posse of writers in WA  (Annabel Smith, Amanda Curtin, Natasha Lester, Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, to name a few) and her book featured in Friday Night Fictions (August issue). Fractured also often featured in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, where it was a hot favourite with reviewers, and Annabel Smith did an in-depth interview with Dawn.

Reading Fractured brought up all kinds of memories. Nothing prepared me for the emotional and physical onslaught of having children. Pregnancy was tough. I spent the first three months pretty much unable to stand up due to so-called ‘morning sickness’ (god, that term doesn’t do it justice) — twice! Before the second pregnancy, I engaged in some heavy-duty magical thinking and decided that if I just wished hard enough, I surely couldn’t get that sick the next time. It was worse!

I learnt the true meaning of the term ‘shit a brick’ (constipation, OMG!) and then, just as I was starting to enjoy putting on copious amounts of weight and eating carrot cake every day, I found out I had gestational diabetes, which put me on a strict and boring regime of no sweets, rice, pasta, and involved injecting myself in my wiggly stomach each night.

After I gave birth (lucky for me, quick and straightforward: knew those dancing hips were going to come in handy at some point), I had the pinks the first time. I was joyous (verging on manic I suspect). The second time, I got the blues. I thought it would be easy peasy the second time around. No troubles with breastfeeding. Relaxed. Settling and swaddling a cinch. But no. GG decided she would not sleep unless in my arms (or my husband’s). For the first three months, due to various people pleading with us not to lie in bed with her, my husband and I alternated nights of trying to sleep half-sitting up on the couch. For the first three months, I never got more than two straight hours sleep.

I fought the definition of postnatal depression at the time because I thought ANYONE would go nuts having to endure that kind of sleep deprivation for so long (this is not to dismiss the idea of postnatal depression as a serious issue, though, for many women). It got to the point that, even when I had the chance to sleep, I just couldn’t seem to work out how.

FracturedWhich brings me to Anna, the central character in Fractured. Anna doesn’t sleep either. The world leading up to getting pregnant and giving birth is shown to be one of illusion, of unrealistic expectations. Highly organised, nothing seems to go to her often rigid plan. Her birth plan is ignored. Her feelings for her baby are not the way she had hoped.

She feels isolated and cornered, unable to communicate with her husband, Tony. He leaves the house to go back to work pretty soon after she returns from hospital, not understanding that she is afraid, anxious, and on the verge. She doesn’t have the language to ask him to stay. Or to ask him (or anyone) to help. The amount of responsibility she takes on completely destroys her.

And on top of that, the reader gradually learns that Anna is contending with something equally serious. She is starting to hear voices, urging her on an increasingly paranoid and soul-destroying route. Her son is not yet six weeks old. But she cannot protect him from her thoughts.

I was familiar with postnatal depression but had never heard of postnatal psychosis. Dawn Barker is also a child psychiatrist so her insight into this condition (and Anna’s character development) is crucial. The book also takes us into some disturbing contemporary hospital practices, including giving Anna ECT without her permission — in a very short timeframe (when she’s in no position to contest the decision). The idea that this is possible, that a patient’s rights are systematically stripped when they enter hospital for care, is terrifying.

The book’s clever structure, that interweaves chronology, and various characters’ stories, means Fractured takes a while to reveal important moments, and there’s a real sense of doom and mystery surrounding Anna’s uncharacteristic behaviour. It’s a cliffhanger of a book, in every sense of the term.

It’s also a book about blame. Certain family members are quick to withdraw from Anna, unable to reconcile her actions with their definitions of acceptable boundaries to cross. Tony wrings himself dry, wondering at his own absence, his selfishness, his culpability in the desire to escape family for work.

Self-blame can be the most poisonous thing of all. Anna condemns herself for not living up to her own ideas of what a ‘perfect mother’ should be. In just_a_girl Margot, Layla’s mother, shares this black-and-white way of looking at the world. When looking at Layla, she sees her own failings reflected, rather than a child who deeply loves her and is desperately seeking her attention. By continuing with her blinkered thinking from when Layla is a baby, Margot misses out on all the good things, unable to see beyond her own limited view.

Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin was a big influence on Dawn Barker's novel
Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was a big influence on Dawn Barker’s novel

I was excited to read that one of the main influences for Dawn when writing her novel was Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. It taught her that a mainstream novel could take on highly emotive and harrowing topics. I read it when writing just_a_girl and found it changed my whole idea of character too. I realised that Margot didn’t have to be likeable but her way of thinking needed to be believable (if misguided). The way she perceives Layla is, from early stages of motherhood, influenced by the fact that she can’t breastfeed, she feels guilty, she is i
solated in the community, her husband is often away working, and her mother was no role model at all. She crucifies herself rather than acknowledging that it’s damn hard.

It’s also good to get a husband’s insight in Fractured. Dawn’s third-person narrative means she can fly in and out of all the characters’ lives, exposing their dreams and perceived failings. I can only imagine how hard it is, too, for the significant other like Tony who get no sleep, haul themselves off to work, feeling guilty at the sight of mum looking so exhausted and fragile (but hey, the experience is not like this for everyone, I hope!). I remember my husband leaving our house for his first day of work after my second child (at six weeks), and pleading with him to stay. Still operating on no sleep, I breastfed my daughter in tears for an hour, as my two-year-old son ran rings around us, asking for all the things he knew I couldn’t provide with a baby latched on; I had no idea how I would get through the day, and all the ones after that. In the end I called my best friend and she turned up, all action-stations, made lunch, sat me outside, told me everyone felt like that (in a sympathetic way), and those feelings drifted off for a while and I saw that I just had to get through it a bit at a time.

The death of a child remains a taboo topic. It’s not something people want to contemplate, let alone talk about. But this book opens up the subject for debate. The reader is constantly being forced to confront their own questions of morality, wavering backwards and forwards, and it’s a mark of Dawn’s skill as a writer that we can condemn and be sympathetic to Anna at the same time, asking: at just what point, is she ultimately responsible for her own behaviour?

You can read Dawn Barker’s review of just_a_girl here. I’m very curious to see what a child psychiatrist thinks of Layla!

If you’ve read Fractured, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Were you familiar with postnatal psychosis? Any other novels dealing with this issue, or postnatal depression? If you’d like to ask Dawn any questions, fire away! I’m sure she’d be keen to answer them.

Writing Mothers: Jo Case

Journalist and author Jo CaseFor a while last year, Jo Case and her book Boomer & Me seemed to be everywhere. An excerpt in the Good Weekend. An evening talk at the NSW Writers’ Centre. When I read her memoir, I was impressed, both with the story she told, and in her style of writing. It’s an unusual memoir with its pared-back, unsentimental analysis. I didn’t know much about Asperger’s when I began reading it, and I still had a lot of questions when I finished; I think one of the strengths of the book is that Jo doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.

I enjoyed, and cringed alongside, her honest and often funny appraisal of what motherhood is meant to be about, as she feels her way through it. I loved that she is not the domestic goddess type (at one point she tidies the house by throwing everything in garbage bags in a frenzy) and is happy spending whole days lying down, reading (guilty, your honour). But it intrigues me that, being messy in the home, doesn’t extend to the workplace. Both Jo and I are also editors (Jo is senior editor at the Wheeler Centre). I’ve been thinking about this. Perhaps, amidst the chaos, it’s comforting to be able to wrangle words and get them into order…

After reading Boomer & Me, I commissioned Jo to write the feature article for Newswrite (the magazine for the NSW Writers’ Centre that I edit) about revealing the self in memoir. Little did I know, that she agreed just days before being asked by The Australian to review my novel just_a_girl. So there we were, in contact regarding editorial stuff, but she had a little secret she was keeping from me. Thank god it was a decent review! The writing community in Australia does feel like a small town, sometimes.

I spoke to Jo about writing memoir, expectations to be a ‘good mother’ and what the future holds…

When you were pregnant, what were your expectations regarding having a baby and writing? Were you planning to write after the baby was born? Were you planning to write at all?

When I was pregnant, I think I was just concerned with getting through the experience and managing a baby. (I hadn’t planned my pregnancy and my relationship was precarious — I’d split from my partner a few days before I found out I was pregnant, and we got back together during my pregnancy.)

I starting writing book reviews for the trade magazine Bookseller and Publisher while I was pregnant — the first place I ever got my reviews published. And when I was pregnant, and later when my son was a few months old, I went back to uni part-time to do a Communications course, majoring in writing. So while I didn’t consciously think about it, I guess writing was both on my mind and being practiced.

What was it like in reality? Did you get any writing done in the first year after your baby was born?

I wrote a couple of short stories and some uni essays, as well as some book reviews for Bookseller and Publisher. I got a part-time job one day a week writing annotations of books for DW Thorpe (now Thorpe Bowker), the company that publishes Bookseller and Publisher. My son’s father and I broke up when my son was nine months old, so I wasn’t really doing any of that more personal project-based writing. It was mostly work or study-based.

As a working mother, do you find it difficult to sit down and write? Or is it the opposite? Are you more creative, as you have less time, and have to be super-disciplined?

I do find it hard to find the time to sit down and write — though actually, it’s less about making time (which I can do) than about making the headspace to start something new. When I was writing my book, I was able to immerse myself in it and write. Starting it was hard; I think I was held back by an anxiety about creating something bad. But once I was into it, I could slip in and out of the writing, and was more at ease (if not entirely) with the idea that what I wrote would, at first, not be terribly good. I am lucky in that my son, who is now 14, is pretty good at entertaining himself. I was often concerned about ignoring my family to write, but I’ve come to the stage where, if I follow my son into his room to spend time with him, he gently (or not so gently) suggests I go find something to do. Which is strangely freeing.

At what point, did you start thinking about shaping the life around you into Boomer & Me?

Jo Case, Boomer and MeMy publisher, Rose Michael, approached me after reading an essay I had written in the Age about my son, football and Asperger’s — and a couple of opinion pieces I’d written about motherhood. She asked me if I had ever thought about writing a book on these themes. As it turned out, I had, but I had never quite had the confidence to believe that my desire to shape my life into a book was anything other than narcissistic .(Doesn’t everyone think they can write a book?) I had started to think about writing a book soon after my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s. I kept a personal blog on an almost daily basis, at times, and I had written a lot about my experiences. I had also looked for memoirs by other parents and people with Asperger’s, and not found much that really spoke to me, so I suspected that there was a readership there. But Rose gave me the confidence to actually do something about my suspicion.

Was it always going to be memoir? Did you ever think it might be easier to write a novel?

It was always going to be a memoir. That was how it would be most useful, I thought, to others who were looking for companionship or insight into the experience of having a child diagnosed with Asperger’s, or struggling to be a ‘good enough’ mother and never feeling quite like they’d hit the mark.

Did you have a diary or journal where you noted down things in your life, or were you able to recall events as you started writing?

I was lucky: I had diaries, a blog and many, many emails back and forth to people in my life. All of these things made it much easier to reconstruct and reflect on the past, and to find details to make it come to life and give it texture. I’m especially lucky that I am a magpie for dialogue — I like to write down what people say.

With your book, a memoir of motherhood, it’s quite different to tackling a novel (in some ways it’s the same). How did you draw the line — in terms of what to write about, and what to keep to yourself?

I did what I call ‘write hot, edit cold’. In other words, I didn’t really censor myself as I wrote, but I thought carefully about what to leave in and what to take out when I redrafted and edited the book. I wasn’t too worried about what to write about myself; my main concern was protecting the confidences of others in my life. I drew the line at reporting conversations in a doctor’s office that went inside my son’s head, or revealing other people’s secrets. That said, I also made sure, before I agreed to write the book, that I would reveal my own flaws and insecurities. I don’t believe it’s worth writing a memoir if you’re not prepared to reveal what goes on under the surface of your life, or to take some risks. The trick is to make sure that the risks are ones you can l
ive with.

The book really moved me, in the sense that it’s about you as a mother trying to meet (often unrealistic) expectations, and often you feel you have come up short. This balancing act, and tension it creates, is deftly managed in the writing. How difficult is it to be honest about motherhood, when you feel like you don’t live up to what’s expected?

It’s really hard to be honest about my own failings as a mother — well, it’s hard, but it was also a relief. By laying out all the things I felt held me back from being a ‘proper’ mother, I came to the realisation that the most important thing is that I’m there for my son in terms of emotional support, making sure he’s fed, clothed and housed, and that I nurture the person he really is. I show him he is loved, that I value my time with him, and I take an interest in what he’s interested in. I still feel guilty that I don’t cook every night, that the house is often messy, and that I don’t make the easy connections to other mothers that I see happen in the schoolyard, but I know at heart that it’s better to fail at these things than at the things I actually do well. Writing the book helped me to come to this conclusion.

Some of your dealings with other mothers bring about the most painful (and, at times, excruciatingly funny) moments in the book. Do you think that things have shifted these days and there’s too much pressure to be ‘appropriate’?

I suspect there’s always been pressure to be ‘appropriate’ — when I was growing up, there were probably higher expectations than there are now. And I think mothers have always judged each other. I think what’s changed, perhaps, is that there are so many different versions of what a ‘good mother’ looks like, and the different camps fiercely patrol and defend their own territory. Because if being a good mother can look nothing like you, what does that mean? Does it mean YOU’RE the bad mother? I think we all need to learn to be more tolerant of people who parent differently to us, and accept there are lots of ways to do it ‘right’.

One of the key aspects of the book is your son’s (and possibly your) diagnosis as being on the Asperger’s spectrum. Like you, as a reader, I felt torn between the desire to label behaviour, and the desire to seek joy in things just the way they are. Since writing the book, has knowing the diagnosis changed your lives in a substantial way? Or has it in the end just involved more questioning?

It’s hard to say. Sometimes I do worry whether the label is limiting — and you need to be vigilant against letting it impose limits, or make it easy to give up, because your Asperger’s means that’s something you don’t do well. But it can also be an explanation why certain things don’t come naturally, and a reminder to work on those things. It’s also been a passport to a community of like-minded souls. And understanding Asperger’s has helped with self-knowledge, which is always valuable. You can’t decide to change, evolve, or stay the same without knowing that there is a choice and what that choice means. There is always questioning, too. But I think anyone who is Asperger’s, or has Asperger’s traits, will question pretty much everything anyway.

I love the intimacy of the relationship that you recreate with your son: the way you watch Simpsons on the couch, read and discuss books, the toilet humour, the half-cooked cakes you bake for his birthday. As a mother who likes nothing better than lying on a couch all day and reading, I really enjoyed how you negotiate these spaces together happily (even though you forget to pick him up from school one day because you are engrossed in a book, but even that made me laugh with delight — oops). You mention early in the book that many of the problems your son encounters happen outside the home. Do you think your mothering style is just naturally aligned with him, and that teachers/schools could be more flexible to accommodate?

I think that my son and I are very much alike, and so we naturally suit each other. We can go to a café and read magazines or newspapers together in silence and be very happy, or watch a 30 Rock marathon for hours. But there are other factors. School is an institutional environment built to suit the average, whereas home is an intimate environment built to suit the individuals in it. Schools can be more flexible (and my son’s high school is) in helping to provide time out for when Aspie kids lose their tempers or have emotional meltdowns, and similar measures. I think schools are getting better as they learn more about Aspergers. But not all of them.

I feel like I need an update: of what happens to you and your son during the teen years. Are you interested in writing more about your lives in the future? Or fiction perhaps?

I won’t be writing about my son in the context of Aspergers again: I’m finished with that. It was a positive thing to do, but emotionally wrenching too. If I include him in personal writing again, it would be on the margins, and I won’t go beneath the surface of him as a character. He’s a teenager; he needs his privacy. Fiction is a possibility I’m toying with, though not quite about us.

WANT TO WIN A SIGNED COPY OF JO CASE’S BOOMER & ME? ENTER MY JUST_A_GIRL BOOK-HAMPER COMPETITION

HAVE YOU READ JO CASE’S BOOK? OR OTHER MEMOIRS ON MOTHERHOOD THAT YOU HAVE ENJOYED? WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS…

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to check out other interviews in my Writing Mothers series (including Anna Funder, Kirsten Tranter and Annabel Smith)…

Writing Mothers: Annabel Smith

Author Annabel Smith
Author Annabel Smith

Novelist Annabel Smith is a writer who kind of slipped by me. I’m not sure how this happened (but she has blogged extensively on it).

I read her first novel A New Map of the Universe earlier this year as if I was in a fever. The language is at times extraordinary. The opening scene where the lovers trace maps of stars on each other’s bodies is *sigh* so erotic, in the best shape of the word, that I felt like I might dissolve. It’s a book about abandonment (something that, as a writer, I identify with strongly), and about mothers who disappear (slowly, slowly). It’s a daring and transcendent debut, packed with emotion and punch.

I read her second novel pretty much immediately, intrigued by her ability to manipulate me as a reader (in a good way) and pluck at my tender bits and vulnerabilities.  Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot is also assured but completely different in tone, a signal to me that Smith is quite an exceptional writer in the Australian cultural landscape. With this book, I think she deserves to be considered on the international stage (many Australian writers other than Peter Carey should be there). Beautifully structured, pared back in style, it’s a contemporary novel about technique as much as plot, about how words are shaped. As a family negotiates feelings around a brother (or son) in a coma (you can throw away all the cliches too), Smith negotiates how memories are formed and relationships battered by seemingly small misunderstandings — miscommunications and withdrawals — that grow into obstacles almost too big to crawl over.

Annabel Smith, A New Map of the UniverseI’ve got to know Annabel (virtually) in the past year. Her debut novel was published by UWA Publishing, like my own. And since just_a_girl was published she has been quick to review it and give feedback, helping me over initial hurdles. She invited me to contribute to her Which Writer For a Day collective blog (with other WA writers) and to think about my favourite book for her ‘Friday Faves’ series. She taught me the importance of writerly communities, and helping each other out online in innovative ways. I was also fascinated by her latest project, The Ark, a digital narrative that pushes the boundaries of fiction — I look forward to seeing it in final form.

Here I speak to Annabel about motherhood, writing, and writing mother characters in her fiction.

When you were pregnant, what were your expectations regarding having a baby and writing? Were you planning to write after the baby was born?

I prepared for pregnancy as I prepare for most things — by reading about it. What I read led me to believe that my baby would usually have 3 naps a day, adding up to 3 or 4 hours in total. Based on this information, I expected I might be able to spend perhaps an hour a day writing.

What was it like in reality? Did you get any writing done in the first year after your baby was born?

My son was colicky and difficult to settle. He had an abnormally short sleep cycle (only 25 minutes as opposed to the average 45 minutes), and never napped for more than 1 cycle. The time it took to settle him was often longer than the duration of his nap and was horribly stressful. I felt that getting him to sleep was one of my primary functions as a mother and I was failing horribly at it. Often by the time he fell asleep I was completely strung out, and there were a million things to do around the home, so writing didn’t get a look in. I didn’t write a word for the first six months after he was born and I felt incredibly frustrated and resentful about this. Eventually, we worked out a routine where my husband would look after him for half a day each weekend and I would spend a few hours at the library working on my book.

Did you find it difficult to sit down and write? Or was it the opposite? Were you more creative, as you had less time, and had to be super disciplined?

I was amazingly productive. My writing time was so precious, I didn’t waste a minute. I would sit down at the desk and barely look up for three hours.

Did you find the experience of motherhood starting to seep into your characters? Into the way you portray people?

Annabel Smith, Whisky, Charlie, FoxtrotI was writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot then. After my son was born I wrote a scene in which my protagonist Charlie goes to see his mother, and talks to her about his feeling that his brother was her favourite child. She reveals that it was in fact the opposite, and shares her guilt about this feeling. Parental guilt is something you can’t imagine if you haven’t had children. I’d heard people speak about the feeling that they were constantly doing something wrong, or letting their children down in some way and I’d think, just let it go, stop beating yourself up about it. Then I became a parent and I experienced it for myself and I understood how it gets hold of you. So I wouldn’t have thought of writing that scene unless I had experienced that.

Did having a child mean you had to go back and rewrite or change characterisation (of mothers or other characters) in any ways?

Not that I remember, although having a baby also affected my memory really badly so it’s hard to be sure!

In your novels, mothers are often seen as difficult to reach or disappearing slowly out of grasp. Is this a common thread in your work?

It isn’t always easy to see the threads in your own work because often they seem to be driven by unconscious impulses. My first two novels both focus on the idea of communication in families — things that need to be said and aren’t, things that shouldn’t be said but are. All sorts of the relationships are fractured, not just those between mothers and children. But when I think about it more carefully, in my third novel The Ark (to be published in 2014) I have a character called Ava, who has a nervous breakdown, and worries about the impact of this on her 8-year-old daughter. And my current work-in-progress centres on a cult built around a woman known as ‘la madre’ which means ‘mother’ in Spanish. So perhaps it is an idea I feel a need to keep exploring in different forms, but it is not deliberate.

Mothering can involve managing many conflicting emotions. To what extent do these emotions transform or play a part in your writing?

What a great question. But also a difficult one to answer. I have certainly had many conflicting emotions as a mother and perhaps more extremes of emotion too. I had post-natal depression so some of the lowest times of my life have been since the birth of my son. The silver lining of this, for me, is having more compassion for others, especially people suffering with mental illnesses. I think if a writer has compassion for their characters, the reader is more likely to as well, even the difficult characters. So I hope that my experience with depression has helped me to write characters with more depth, and characters who readers might be able to feel sympathy for, even if they are behaving in ways that are hard to understand.

Both your books challenge the idea that motherhood and nurturing come naturally. Your characters struggle with grief and detachment. Do you think these are feelings many women negotiate but feel uncomfortable talking about?

Undoubtedly. I think there’s a terribly repressive culture which perpetuates the myth that all women are natural mothers and that motherhood is the most wonderful thing that can ever happen to us, and this culture makes it difficult for women to express their true feelings about motherhood which are often ambivalent and complex. I think this culture is changing, which is great to see, but it still has a long way to go.

Annabel Smith’s novel Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot has been nominated for the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award, to be announced at the Wheeler Centre tomorrow night. Good luck, Annabel, and I’ll keep you posted.

THIS POST IS PART OF THE WRITING MOTHERS SERIES: You can also read interviews with Anna Funder, Debra Adelaide, Susan Johnson, Kirsten Tranter, and many other wonderful writers

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU A WRITING MOTHER – OR IN THE PROCESS OF WRITING MOTHER CHARACTERS? HOW DO YOU HANDLE IT?

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

The lure of introversion: QUIET by Susan Cain

Quiet_Power_of_introverts_Susan_CainI’m having a pyjama day today. I’ve had a couple lately. Every now and then the world gets too busy, I get run-down and I jump into bed (I try not to take my laptop – too often). The kids are at child care so I can luxuriate in nothingness. Sleep. Read. Try not to think too much. Recuperate. When I was a teenager I used to need pyjama days a lot. Each year in high school, I’d take one day, and it would turn into a week. I would lie on the couch and watch morning TV, then the soap operas, then vegetate. I’ve always loved my mum for understanding that I needed to do this. As a kid I put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn’t need parental expectations, I had enough of my own. I was a hard worker, a passionate student and wanted to excel. This downtime kept me going. There’s a reason people call them ‘mental health days’. But I wonder, does everyone need them?

I’ve recently read a book that has changed my perspective on the world, and given me real insight into the way I approach things. Susan Cain’s QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (she also does a great session on TED). It’s become my Bible that I want to carry around and refer to all the time. It’s certainly explained a lot of my behaviour for the past 41 years. Cain focuses on introversion not as a form of shyness, but how we respond to external stimulation. Most introverts prefer, and get off on, quiet environments. They prefer one-on-one conversations over group activities, usually D&Ms (deep & meaningfuls), not social chitchat. They enjoy time alone. They like working in spaces where they have their own office (and can shut the door), where they can focus right in, without distractions. All of this is so familiar to me.

But problems can arise because these days there is great pressure to be an extrovert (especially when you’re a writer, an often introverted profession), to be a great public speaker, to work the room at events. While I don’t think Australia is quite at the level of the US (where it’s almost seen as a stigma to be introverted), many grow up thinking that to be successful they need to be a ‘people person’. It makes me laugh thinking back to my first job interviews as a teenager, as I always said this about myself knowing it to be key, but even then I felt like it was a deceit.

Susan Cain talks about the power of introspection at TED
Susan Cain talks at TED

As I grew older, I put more pressure on myself to take on roles that involved a public life (information officer, marketing) but in the end it was exhausting. What I really wanted was to be an editor or writer, to work on projects, to be thorough and demanding and immersed. And as a freelancer working from home, I’ve created that space. The digital world has opened that up to me.

When I worked in the public service, offices were being removed, everyone was going open plan, all staff were being trained to be trainers, brainstorming was the ‘in’ thing, the constant noise was deafening, and no-one ever got any work done. Cain systematically goes through many of these ideas (open plan, brainstorming, group activities at school) and argues that often the end result is not the best outcome (either for introverts or extroverts).

There is also a great deal of pressure on parents to have social children who fit in easily and make lots of friends. Even at kinder level, my son is doing talks to the group. Many parents enrol their kids in whirlwinds of extra activities after school like dancing, soccer and music. But what about the child who would rather stay at home and lie on the couch, reading? In the school holidays I used to take a stack of books, wherever I was, and find a comfy corner. We’re going to the beach! Swimming! The sun’s shining outside! It was very hard to drag me out…But I was passionate about words. And I was completely, blissfully, happy exploring those worlds. And still am.

Now, somehow my introverted husband and I have managed to raise two extroverted kids (there’s another story in itself – it really helps at parties when your son know all the kids’ and parent’s names) but the important main point of QUIET is that introverts should be left alone (in many senses), not forced to change, and can even teach others in their own ways. Without introverts, we’d be missing out on many writers, artists, researchers and scientists who step back and look at the world from a different angle.

Social media is an interesting space because it is an easy way for introverts to become extroverts. It’s much easier to approach others, to comment, to be part of the conversation, to self-promote. But it can be too easy too. When I opened my Twitter yesterday I saw a tweet that I don’t remember sending. I thought I had been hacked! Kirsten Krauth read a book by Kirsten Krauth. It had gone out to everyone! It really brings solipsism to a whole new level, doesn’t it? But what had happened was that I had marked my own novel  in Goodreads (ie I had ‘read’ it) and Goodreads sent that tweet off via Twitter without me realising. The ludicrous nature of that tweet really brought it home. As Cain points out, there is a point when I need to stop talking. And I’ll be ironic and use my blog to say that.

It’s time to get back down under the doona and start on the pile of novels I’ve got beside the bed.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU AN EXTROVERT OR INTROVERT? DO YOU NEED DOWNTIME? HOW DO YOU MANAGE IT ALL?

Top 5 Australian children’s picture books: to re-read until you go mad

Mem Fox + Judy Horacek, Where is the Green Sheep?
Mem Fox + Judy Horacek, Where is the Green Sheep?

Having two children has taught me a lot about narrative.

With the first child (my boy, McCool, now almost four), we did everything by the book, so to speak. We settled on a bedtime routine quickly, milk and three books. He was read up to ten books a day (and still is). He is fascinated by story, able to sit still and focus on the words, the detail. He is usually reluctant to read a new book, preferring to have one on endless repeat until he has memorised it and can read it himself.

With the second child (my girl, GG, now 18 months), the routine flew out the window from day one. She has absorbed the books, as part of us reading to McCool. She now sits on her own for a long time, looking at them in the corner. She brings favourites over to me at all times of the day. She still gets at least ten books but usually in bursts of passion (mine and hers). She is more interested in turning the pages, in noises and flaps, in dashing to the last page to see what happens. The only way I can get her to lie still when I change her nappy is to give her a choice of books.

But there’s no doubt that, regardless of their very different personalities, they both are drawn again and again to the same books. Sometimes books I’m truly in love with (the classics: Where the Wild Things Are; The Very Hungry Caterpillar); sometimes books I wish I never had to lay eyes on again (most of the mass-marketed Wiggles variations).

We’re lucky in Australia to have access to such a wide range of wonderful children’s book writers and illustrators (and publishers willing to look after them). My favourite thing is emptying the children’s piggy banks and being left to my own devices in the picture book section of a bookstore like Gleebooks in Sydney to wander and browse.

Here are the top 5 books in our household that have stood the test of time — for both the kids and me. These are the ones where I’m still able (after hundreds of readings) to truly enjoy turning the pages, to discover something new each time I read it.

WHERE IS THE GREEN SHEEP?

Mem Fox and Judy Horacek’s book is a masterpiece of narrative. I’ve learnt that children love Q+A. As I read ‘But where is the green sheep?’ my daughter answers ‘Mmmmm’ each time, enjoying the to and fro between us. The simple images give lots of chance for singing and acting the fool (the clown sheep, the sheep swinging around a lamp-post) and build in momentum to a climax, a page with a riot of sheep — Ned Kelly, Carmen Miranda, the ‘narcissist’ sheep — offering me the chance to branch off into all kinds of other narratives, before I start to whisper, and we find the little green sheep, sleeping and peaceful. The publishers, in all their marketing glory, decided to sell a soft toy of the green sheep, but my kids would never touch it. I always like to think they preferred the green sheep to be lost, missing, in their imaginations; they didn’t want to see it on their shelves.

Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes
Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

TEN LITTLE FINGERS AND TEN LITTLE TOES

Mem Fox (she has contributed to so many wonderful books) and Helen Oxenbury’s tale of inclusion holds absolute delight for babies and toddlers. GG’s favourite word of the moment is ‘baby’ and in this book she sees herself reflected on every page, especially when there are actual illustrations of hands, fingers, feet, toes that she can measure her own against. The repetition gives her a chance to learn, and also the opportunity to see kids from different cultures to her own (she loves the image of the child with the penguin in the snow; and the child with the chicken in the heat). The personal link at the end where the mother kisses her baby three times on the ‘tip of its nose’ gives me lots of opportunities to kiss and tickle too.

Sonya Hartnett & Lucia Masciullo, The Boy and the Toy
Sonya Hartnett & Lucia Masciullo, The Boy and the Toy

THE BOY AND THE TOY

Sonya Hartnett’s foray into children’s picture books is, like everything else she does, unusual, with beautiful illustrations by Lucia Masciullo. It’s a melancholy tale of a boy on his own (his mum not mentioned, his dad away at sea). His father is an inventor and invents a toy for him, but this toy is jealous and starts destroying the boy’s world. The boy soon figures out there’s something not quite right and works out a way to trick the toy, creating a model of himself as a decoy. McCool has always loved this tale. He’s an independent boy, too, looking for answers, and this book elicits loads of questions: What is the toy doing? Where has the dad gone? What’s an inventor?

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight CatJOHN BROWN, ROSE AND THE MIDNIGHT CAT

This is my favourite children’s picture book of all time. I’ve no doubt handed down my passion, but both the kids love it. Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks’ narrative proves once and for all that the dark and mysterious have a place in children’s books, even those for very young kids. The glorious illustrations and the apparently simple narrative (that is, in the end, about approaching death) of friendship and loyalty means the book can be savoured on many levels. Just the opening page before the story begins is full of wonderful possibilities: the outside toilet (McCool is fascinated by this idea), the chicken coop, the tyre swing, the old car in the garage that doesn’t get driven, the black cat that’s always lurking. I have to hold back tears nearly every time I get to the page where John Brown, the sheepdog, is lying with Rose’s slippers, wondering why she won’t get up. It’s a lesson in pared-back, taut and controlled writing. Magnificent!

WHO SANK THE BOAT?

Pamela Allen, like Mem Fox, writes and illustrates classic after classic: the list is remarkable (others that we call favourites include the Mr McGee series, Black Dog, Shhh! Little MouseWaddle Giggle Gargle, Inside Mary Elizabeth’s House) and she makes it look easy (it isn’t, I’ve tried). Who Sank the Boat? again focuses on repetition and refrain, asking a question so that the kids can answer. All kids seem to be drawn to the tiny in narrative (the small creature, the speck of dust, the littlest battling against the biggest [us adults]) and the idea that it is the smallest of all (the mouse rather than the donkey) who causes the commotion, who sinks the boat, is a clever trick and source of wonderment that never seems to grow stale.

Pamela Allen, Who Sank the Boat?
Pamela Allen, Who Sank the Boat?

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE AUSTRALIAN CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOKS? OR THE ONES YOUR KIDS LOVE?

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Writing Mothers: Wendy James

Author Wendy James
Author Wendy James

One of the great things about writing a blog is the comments you get from readers, introducing you to new writers working in similar areas. Wendy James is a writer who, somehow, had flown under the radar for me. Short stories. Novels. She’s produced an impressive amount of work including Out of the Silence, which won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel. But I’d never heard of her. When I started immersing myself in her books, I realised it may have been a cover issue. I judge books by their covers. If a book looks too saccharine or girlie, I tend to shy away. If it looks like a family saga, I get nervous.

Wendy (as she explains later) has been punished by the publishers when it comes to covers. Her covers and titles are misleading. Rich, energetic and punchy, her text is intricate and soars off the page; the covers don’t reflect this. Reading her books has taught me about my own prejudices when it comes to reading and genre. Read More

Get lost, ya moll! Puberty Blues hits TV

Brenna Harding + Ashleigh Cummings, Puberty Blues
Brenna Harding + Ashleigh Cummings, Puberty Blues

I’m in a bedroom. I’m 10 years old (give or take). There’s a group of us girls. I’m the youngest. The others are family and friends. They’re handing around a book carefully, gingerly, as if it has germs. But they’re reading it hungrily. I’m at the end of the line, keen to see what’s inside. One of the girls (who I don’t know), says: She can’t have it, she’s too young. But I’m family (through the stepkid line). My wonderful 14-year-old rel says, Don’t worry, she’s alright. I get the nod of approval. I feel so honoured. I’m in the in-crowd. I’m handed the copy of Puberty Blues.

At the time it hits me like a tonne of bricks. The language. The brutality of the boys (and girls). The fights with fists. The relentless talk of and desire for sex (even when it seems painful and pointless). The need to conform at any cost. I am seduced and repelled by it. I want to escape this kind of world. I don’t want to go to high school. I escape in a sense (to a girls’ boarding school) for a few years. When I meet boys in their early teens, they may not be surfies but things haven’t moved on (we’re in the 80s now). They communicate with their tongues and their insults. I struggle to remain visible. I want to burst out. My brain’s in here, I want to cry. Can we talk? There’s one boy. I use the word impersonate. He looks at me, dumbstruck. He hops on his BMX and rides off. I decide to keep words to less than two syllables from then on. It’s a habit (dumbing down) that I’ve struggled to overcome ever since.

Years later, and I’m writing my first novel. It has a strong and lively character in the name of Layla. Hers is a voice I inhabit easily. She’s 14 years old. She struts across the page and, as she swans, I remember this earlier, unforgettable voice, from Puberty Blues, and how it has formed and shaped me. Layla goes to school in Western Sydney. She is obsessed with boys. She is desperate to please. She inhabits Facebook and watches video on her mobile, but she’s essentially the same as those girls, the ‘molls’ living on Sydney’s shire fringe.

Puberty Blues, the film
Puberty Blues, the film

I remember the first film version as being true to the book, but perhaps too much so, a flat narrative that failed to penetrate the landscape. The new version, now screening on TEN, is a series, offering time for some character development and in particular a deeper analysis of the parents and where they fit in. I don’t remember the parents in the book. Perhaps I tossed those pages aside at the time, eager just to get to the good bits. But like all great narratives, Puberty Blues charts more than the lives of the teenagers (and the series explores this beautifully). It inhabits a decade where everything seems possible, where society is undergoing rapid change, where immigration is starting to have an impact (on the ‘white’ cultural values in Cronulla) and where feminism is starting to mean changes for some women (see Susie Porter and Dan Wyllie let it all hang out as The Knights) while leaving others behind.

Glendyn Ivin directed one of the most evocative short films I’ve seen, Cracker Bag (which went on to win the top prize for shorts at Cannes), and his first feature, Last Ride, was a wonderful exploration of childhood in peril (see my RealTime review). He seems to have been the perfect choice as director to launch this ripe mix of teen angst and 70s culture. And unlike Channel 9’s Howzat, this isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, a chance to wear funny moustaches and parade around in harry high pants, but a serious take on where we’ve come from and where we’re at.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? HAVE YOU READ PUBERTY BLUES OR SEEN THE RECENT SERIES? WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Birds and the bees, shooting the breeze

Peter Mayles, Where Did I Come From?
Peter Mayles, Where Did I Come From?

My son McCool is three years old. He has a baby in his tummy. The baby is coming out through his belly button one day soon. It is a little boy. And he’s excited to see him. And wants to share this excitement with me. We’re reading a bedtime story called There’s a House Inside My Mummy. We read it a lot when I was pregnant with GG. I’ve noticed McCool always chooses his reading material according to who is reading. It’s a clever tactic to keep the grown ups interested. I get John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat a lot (because it’s my favourite). Poor grandma gets The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (because she has the patience to read it). We fight over who won’t read Horton Hears a Who! ‘It’s too long’, we moan, ‘we need some more VOOOOM’. Who would have thought us literary types would try desperately to avoid Dr Seuss. But we’re all happy when we land Walter the Farting Dog.

I try to tell him that only women can have babies (even if this isn’t exactly correct) but he doesn’t want to listen. He likes the idea of a little one sprouting from his belly. He’s been asking a lot of questions about babies in bellies. He has a little cousin arriving soon.

I think that perhaps it’s time. To talk about sex. But, really, where do you start? I always thought it would be fairly straightforward. Just answer the questions down the line. But the questions are so curly. And the answers aren’t much easier. And now I realise the dilemma. McCool still finds it hard to distinguish between the real and the fantasy. At what point does cold hard reality have to come slamming down? Can’t we keep the boundaries blurred for just a little while longer?

My parents (hippies I used to say) believed in being direct. I can remember the first time I found out where babies came from. Even though I would have read hundreds of stories on my mother’s lap, it is this book I remember most clearly. I was around the age my son is now, I guess. 1976. Something about the tone, the conversation, must have set it apart. Important. To be remembered. I remember the delicate, almost technical, illustrations of a child inside a mother’s womb. The anatomy. I remember the precise wording of the pages. There was no passion. This was scientific. No room for questions.

It’s grade 2 and I’m in the school yard. I’m swinging on the monkey bars (we had those in the playground then). I’ve been talking to my best friend Christina for an hour. About sex. About who does what. And how it works. What goes where. She hasn’t said a word. I have her undivided attention. I feel like I’m an expert. I say it all in a matter-of-fact voice. As if it’s no big deal.

There's a House Inside My Mummy
There’s a House Inside My Mummy

The next day Christina’s big sister comes up to me in the playground. She’s in grade 6. She says that I shouldn’t talk that way. The way I talked yesterday. That it’s dirty. And disgusting. She says I’m too young to know things like that. And, as she leaves, she says, Oh, and my parents don’t want you playing with Christina any more.

I don’t know why but I feel ashamed. As if I need to be washed. As if I’m rubbing off on people. There’s a collision between the message I’m getting (from my mother) and the message I’m getting (from my peers). For some reason, it’s the children around me who have greater impact. I’m left confused. I don’t talk about this with my mum. I learn quickly that bodies, what they do, how they express themselves, should be hidden, that sex is something to keep secret.

But mum perseveres. Later in primary school we move on to Peter Mayles’ hilarious What’s Happening to Me? and Where Did I Come From?, two classics that answered all the key questions in a comic tone. Just seeing the illustrations again now makes me giggle. I remember my mother and I laughing at the page that had all different shapes of breasts and arguing over which ones would be best: the pendulous; the throw-over-your-shoulder; the pert and neat.

I wonder now if there are any new books that I can read to McCool. Has sex education moved into the digital sphere (there’s probably an App available somewhere they can stroke with their fingers)? Or do we still return to the classics?

LET ME KNOW. HOW DID YOU ANSWER YOUR KIDS’ CURLY QUESTIONS ABOUT WHERE BABIES COME FROM? AND WHAT AGE DO YOU THINK IS IDEAL TO START TALKING TO THEM?

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