Posts in Tree Change

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!

Writing Mothers: Allison Tait

Allison Tait, blogger at Life in a Pink Fibro
Allison Tait, blogger at Life in a Pink Fibro

One of the first bloggers I discovered as I was searching for writings on motherhood and rural life was Life in a Pink Fibro (see Top 5 Rural Blogs), Allison Tait’s wonderfully poetic look at family life. I fell in love with the design and her clarity of expression, and her ability to turn everyday moments into memorable prose. I learnt a lot about blogging from reading her carefully managed posts.

Allison also manages to write fiction (at night) with a novel to be published in 2013, and has co-authored the book Career Mums for Penguin. I chatted to her about balancing a busy writing career with raising children.

When did you start blogging? Was it before or after you had children?

I started my blog, Life in a Pink Fibro, in January 2010. My boys were six and three when I started. Read More

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.

Of poor but honest parents…

Theatre Royal, Castlemaine
Castlemaine's Theatre Royal is the oldest continually operating theatre on the Australian mainland.

Jack Doolan may have been born in Castlemaine, but we’re moving there. After years struggling to keep up with Sydney — too fast, too fast — we have finally made the decision. It’s a tree-change for us.

I’m a freelance writer and editor so I can take my job with me. My husband runs his own film production company so it’s harder for him. But one of the reasons we have chosen Castlemaine, after much agonising over other towns in the area (Daylesford, Bendigo, Woodford), is that it’s on a train line. We’re only an hour and a half from Melbourne, for the occasional commute.

But that’s not the intention. We’d like to stick around town. Most artists dream of a space, ‘a room of one’s own’ as Virginia Woolf so tenderly puts it, where they have a chance to create. Castlemaine offers this opportunity. The more experience I get with writing, the more I want to be immersed in it. I’m trying to get my first novel published. I have ideas sprouting out of my head for the second one. It’s a time thing (and a financial one).

I’m looking forward to a town full of wide streets and large blocks. A farmers’ market stocked with local produce. A centre with the oldest longest-running cinema on the mainland, the Theatre Royal, and great cafes. I’ve heard rumours that musicians, writers, artists, are flocking to the region in droves. There’s a great looking writers’ group, Castlemaine Word Mine, that meets every month. There’s an arts festival every two years, and a celebration of second hand books in nearby Clunes.

It’s time to start packing those boxes. We’ll be there in June.