Posts in Writers + Writing

New Oz writing: for the Santa sack

Each year, I go to the bookstore during the Christmas rush and get overwhelmed. Then I head for the first table I see and buy the same names I did last year as gifts. But Tim Winton, Alex Miller, Bill Bryson, Jamie Oliver don’t need me any more.

I asked some Oz writers about their favourite Oz reads from the past year. It was an impressive list. I’d like to share it with you, in the hope you’ll share it widely too. All these women writers have achieved remarkable things: to get published in the first place (it’s never been tougher); and to support each other and gain inspiration from reading other women’s work.

I’d love to hear if you’ve read these books. If you’ve written reviews of them, or interviewed the authors, I’d be happy to feature your words on the Wild Colonial Girl blog. I’m time-strapped (with the PhD reading and writing) but I’m hoping to get to some of them too…

 

Kirsten Krauth's list of top Oz writing 2015

Communicating the incommunicable: celebrating the work of Richard Flanagan

Through Richard Flanagan’s writing flows the destructive power of love, the lyricism of horror, the revisioning of Tasmania, and the gaps between words and action.

Australian novelist Richard Flanagan wins the Man Booker Prize in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Australian novelist Richard Flanagan wins the Man Booker Prize in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North

High school dropout. Bush labourer. Rhodes scholar. River guide. Environmental activist. Film director. Man Booker prize winner. Indigenous Literacy Foundation ambassador. Whatever way you twist it, Richard Flanagan has had an unusual career. While Flanagan has often publicly stated that he believes writers should be separated from their defining adjectives, it’s hard to divorce him from Tasmanian. Given the tidal wave of support following his Booker Prize win in 2014, and the video of US President Barack Obama buying Flanagan’s book at a bookstore, former Tasmanian premier Paul Lennon may rue the day he said, “Richard Flanagan and his fiction is not welcomed in the new Tasmania” (ABC-TV News, 2004) but in the new new Tasmania, Flanagan continues to balance his fictional agenda with deeply felt personal essays on human and environmental rights, most recently challenging the Abbott government’s treatment of Gillian Triggs (The Guardian,
26 February 2015). At the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2014 he spoke of his novels as being “beyond morality”, but his work continues to argue for the many voices not being heard.

A River Runs Through it

Richard Flanagan's debut novel, Death of a River Guide
Richard Flanagan’s debut novel, Death of a River Guide

At a recent Wheeler Centre event in Melbourne, Flanagan was asked how winning the Booker Prize had changed his life. He responded, in a typical gentle deflection, that he nearly drowned once, and that was a life-changing experience. He actually nearly drowned at least twice, probably more: with his mate Jim as he tried to kayak Bass Strait (And What Do You Do, Mr Gable?, 2011); as a river guide, leading an expedition down the Franklin, when he was wedged inside a rapid (Australian Story, ABC TV, 2008); and then there’s the story his brother Martin Flanagan tells about a childhood dare, when Martin and Tim goaded their younger brother to swim the mouth of a river.

When Richard returned, they denied seeing him doing it. So he set off again “until in the end he was just a set of nostrils and two flailing hands above the water” (The Age, 13 September 2014). Clearly it’s no surprise that the forces of nature, the tides of loss and hope and death and love, flow so clearly through his work:

I came to realise that most contemporary culture, including its literature, is made by people for whom the measure of the world is what is man-made. But the Franklin taught me this: that the measure of this world are all the things not made by man. And it was this sense that has come to inform me and all I have written since. (SMH Traveller, August 2013)

In Death of a River Guide, Harry, the father of Aljaz, shares his knowledge of the spirit of the river with his son. After a period of absence on the mainland, the river calls Aljaz back, tempting and seducing him, and he surrenders to “smelling the river, hearing it run, watching the rain mists rise from its valleys, drinking in the tea-coloured waters from his cupped hands”.

Flanagan was one of the first kayakers to go down the Franklin and there’s a rapid, Flanagan’s Surprise, named after him. In River Guide, though, there’s ambivalence. Aljaz notes the marking points of the river with disdain — Side Slip, Inception Reach, Severity Sounds — believing that to name things is a futile attempt at controlling fear, and he yearns for his early trips in the 1970s when “they experienced each day as a surprise, when people remembered the river as a whole, not as a collection of named sites that could be reduced to a series of photographs.” While the men in Flanagan’s debut novel don’t speak much, it’s the language of the river, the literacy of the landscape, that Harry and his father, and the river guides, can understand.

The Force, and Failure, of Words

Richard Flanagan + Geordie Williamson, Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival
Richard Flanagan + Geordie Williamson, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

In a conversation with Geordie Williamson at the Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2014, Flanagan speaks of the role of the writer as being “to communicate the incommunicable”. Describing himself as “a child of the Death Railway”, he experienced first-hand the after-lives of returned prisoners of war, young men dealing with trauma and wounds that didn’t heal in their lives, passing them onto the next generations, inhabiting a place where the silence “left gaps” — gaps he attempts to fill in his Booker Prize winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. What resounds is his clear compassion for those “caught up in the machinery of war”. Doing research, he met Japanese guards who wanted to ask his father for forgiveness. He called his father to relay their wishes and, from this point on, his father had no memory of the war: a blessed release. Flanagan finished Narrow Road on the day his father died.

Many of Flanagan’s central characters struggle with an inability to articulate, with their experiences and emotions — horror, despair, abandonment, grief, even joy — often greater than words will allow. In River Guide, when Harry finds his father killed by a fallen tree, expression is beyond him: “Not that Harry said any of these things or anything at all. Not that Harry even had words for what he thought. But Harry felt it and he felt it as a flame that consumed his body.” His son, Aljaz, learns from the very start about the power of words when in his early years deafness (due to pneumonia) means he can’t communicate with those around him, and his rage and confusion are palpable: “He now listened to the way in which words were used, the way one word could carry so many different meanings, how every word could be a tree full of fruit. But when he asked questions he was answered only with a quizzical shake of the head.”

This experience is mirrored in Flaganan’s own early years, his brother Martin relaying on Australian Story: “He had a serious hearing impediment early in his life and for the first six years … he was virtually deaf.” I can read this experience through all of Flanagan’s work, his ability to translate, to make us listen, his forceful prose, and his empathy for others struggling with language too. In The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Bojan swears in Italian rather than “profane his native tongue”. He carries stories from the war in Slovenia (as all the men working on the dam do), stories that he finally cannot tell. He says to Sonja, “You find a language. But I lose mine. And I never had enough words to tell people what I think, what I feel.”

In River Guide, when Aljaz is drowning, slowly dying in the river, his visions take him to Harry in the rainforest, felling timber and about to lose his thumb. As Old Bo and Smeggsy go to amputate, Aljaz pleads:

Then he let the axe fall.
Do I have to watch the rest?
Thank god for small mercies.

But Flanagan is generally not so merciful to the reader. We do have to watch the rest as his novels unfold, hear and feel the horror of lyrical moments, impossible to forget: the maggots crawling like “coconut on lamingtons” in the POW latrine; the dead baby’s eyelids that fall off when the mother tries to close them; the amputation of Jack Rainbow’s mangled flesh. While I may try to close my eyes, Flanagan doesn’t give me the chance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, choosing to read Rainbow’s amputation in its visceral detail and there’s no escaping it in the auditorium; when he speaks it, the horror is impossible to cast off.

The inability to express things in words often takes more solid shape through the characters’ attachment to, or disengagement from, various objects: the Mae-West-like picture of a girlfriend that a soldier carries through various horrors, to get him home, only to be gutted by a phone call; the bugle that Jimmy Bigelow plays while bodies burn in the funeral pyre, sold in a garage sale for a few bucks; the tea set that Sonja, at just three, deliberately drops on the ground to smash, then spends her returning years trying to piece back together, a legacy from her father who has “survived by camping in the fragments”; the toy-sized coffins that the children make in the orphanage where Mathinna is finally abandoned.

The Power of Love

My favourite novel of recent years: Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North
My favourite novel of recent years: Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North

Talking to Geordie Williamson, Flanagan mentions that when he started writing The Narrow Road, he was terrified about embarking on a love story because “everyone recognises a bad note”. It’s a curious comment because while his latest novel deals with the mystery of love, in all its forms (as he points out) — marital, sexual, friendship and camaraderie — his earlier novels are also about love in all its ugliness, joy and confusion. In River Guide, Couta Ho (Aljaz’s girlfriend) embodies strength and desire, the couple’s love played out in a wildly original game of semaphore flags, Couta holding them aloft and signalling to Aljaz what she wants: a blue flag with a white stripe signals “I am on fire”. Later, when they meet again, it’s the death of the relationship that’s flagged, and when their baby dies at two months, they no longer have a language, coded or otherwise, to share this pain.

In Gould’s Book of Fish, our unreliable guide tells us that “ … to make a book … is to learn that the only appropriate feeling to those who live within its pages is love”. But Flanagan doesn’t make it easy. Enduring the beatings by Bojan, Nakamura and The Goanna takes a reader to the limits, the violence and cruelty appearing monstrous — but the men themselves are not so easily conveyed as monsters, rather creatures who are a product of certain times and places and systemic abuse, and histories that any of us would struggle to understand. Although Flanagan does not wrench responsibility away from them, they all come from worlds where they have never experienced true freedom.

But it’s not all horror; there are small patches of light.

In Narrow Road, Dorrigo quotes poetry at key moments, even when his lovers chide him and desire to hear his own thoughts. Talking to Amy before he leaves for war, he believes it “was if life could be shown but never explained, and words — all the words that did not say things directly — were for him the most truthful”. If you talk to Flanagan, or see him on stage, he has an extraordinary capacity for remembering and reciting others’ words (apparently his father did too) and you get the sense that he is as happy living in their company as his own.

Self-inflicted Fictions

Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish
Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish

In all of his books, Flanagan questions whether there’s more truth to be found in facts versus stories, and how we go about creating personal, historical and cultural myths. His novels attempt to uncover the fictions that Tasmanian colonials (and contemporaries) have told about themselves, about Aboriginal people, about the environment, about convict settlement. In Gould’s Book of Fish, the “known history” and “official documents” become a burden too great to bear for Gould, “hauling a sled of lies called history through wilderness”, as he attempts to escape his incarceration, saved by Twopenny Sal, who tears the pages up and throws them on a funeral pyre. Both Dorrigo and Sir John Franklin feel the weight of the fictions they have created, or that others have imposed on them. In an echo of Dorrigo, Franklin says, “There was about … his position, his own faded ambitions, the utterly unjustified reputation he carried with him as an ever-heavier burden, something intolerable and entirely absurd.” In Wanting, Charles Dickens teeters on the brink of collapse (between desire and reason), finding that “his novels were true in a way life was not” and, yet, this is countered by his wife Catherine, who sees that Dickens had “made her that boring woman of his novels; she had become his heroine in her weakness and compliance and dullness”.

Flanagan’s answer to this crazy mayhem of human endeavours is the power, resilience and beauty of nature, always encroaching, reclaiming: the smouldering ruins of the Commandant’s Great Mah-Jong Hall; the workers’ camps at the dams overpowered by rainforest; the line of the Burma railway, the cause of so many deaths, disappearing into the jungle: “Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass.”

As I traverse Flanagan’s novels and non-fiction again, there are continual pulls into the world around me. As I sit with Choi Sang-min in the final hours before his execution, it’s the day that Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan face the firing squad singing ‘Amazing Grace’. As Colonel Koto speaks of his pleasure at using the sword against a prisoner’s neck, a captured ISIS soldier on Four Courners spits out his desire to slice through a captive’s neck with a blunt knife. As The Doll goes on the run from a fraudulent charge of terrorism, I see young Muslim men condemned as guilty before proven innocent. As Flanagan’s POW veterans return to Australian shores unable to cope post-WWII, I hear Mandy in The Saturday Paper begging the Department of Veteran Affairs to help her husband, a returned soldier from Iraq, who is traumatised, violent, homeless, and unable to acclimatise to daily life.

When asked again at the Wheeler Centre about winning the Booker Prize, Flanagan is careful to point out that while he is lucky enough to have a place in the sun, for the moment, most writers spend their lives in the shadows and do their best work there. He sees his novels not as individual books but as part of one larger work, each flowing into and on from the other. Whether writing in the light or shade, Flanagan’s vision continues to resonate because of his willingness to take risks in all aspects of his writing and life, to challenge the powerful, and to use his words as tools of defiance:

Writing my novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North I came to conclude that great crimes like the Death Railway did not begin with the first beating or murder on that grim line of horror in 1943. They begin decades before with politicians, public figures and journalists promoting the idea of some people being less than people … For the idea of some people being less than people is poison to any society, and needs to be named as such in order to halt its spread before it turns the soul of a society septic. (The Guardian, 26 February 2015)

 

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 edition of Australian Author.

Every holiday was father’s day: writing fathers + daughters at Clunes Booktown

At Clunes Booktown, I shared the stage with my dad for the first time (at my first festival) and we talked about writing fathers, writing daughters, creating unique voices (we both feature 14-year-old girls in our work), what our characters share, how we translate family stories into fiction, and whether our memories ever come at things from the same angle. It was a very moving session for both of us (perhaps more than the audience realised), a sharing of ideas, sad moments, and joys too.

Here are the edited highlights (thanks to Damon Girbon for the video and editing):

Dad (Nigel Krauth) is a writer who’s had many novels published, both for adults and YA audiences. He wrote a play Muse of Fire that was performed by the Adelaide Theatre Company and directed by Keith Gallasch (now the editor of RealTime, where I worked for many years). His first book, Matilda My Darling, won the Vogel Award, and since then his novels have gone on to win a number of awards, including the NSW Premier’s Award for JF Was Here.

Although my parents separated when I was young, I spent school hols with dad. Sleeping in his study, I saw the hard work involved in bringing fiction to life. I had no romantic ideals about being a writer. I thought it involved hard yakka, building words like bricks. My dad often seemed in a state of distraction or excitement about a breakthrough. I never really thought I would be a fiction writer, not until I was in my mid 30s and struggling with the world. A friend pointed out that I needed a creative project to survive it all. And she was right. I’m not sure dad was ever too keen on me being a writer. Perhaps one in the family is enough. Perhaps it came as a bit of a shock.

Sin Can Can: I’ve been to Bali too

SinCanCanCoverDad’s first YA book, Sin Can Can, was released when I was 14 and it was basically about me. My picture is on the front cover (have I changed that much?) riding on the back of a motorbike. Inside is a dedication to me. I was both thrilled and rolling my eyes when it was released. Dad came to boarding school (I got a scholarship, ok) and read it out to my class. I sat in the back with my head on the desk, proud and cringing at the same time. But  it was so funny and had that perfect Dolly pitch of the time. The voice is fresh, direct and dynamic, bringing to life many of my passions. I was obsessed with music, and boys of course. I loved junk food. I went to boarding school in Years 7 and 8. I found boarding school tough. A private person, I hated the open dorms where you had to sleep, the locks that didn’t work on the showers, the continual noise so I couldn’t read a book — and the rules, those bloody rules (having to wear a skirt to dinner, having to serve the older girls at dinner time). But the book reminds me of the good times and the lingo: tinned tomatoes known as ‘abortions’, the gardener who we all drooled over in his khaki shorts, the Alpines we pretended to smoke.

When research goes awry

The sequel to Sin Can Can was called I Thought You Kissed with Your Lips. It was banned in Queensland for its very erotic description of putting a condom on a cucumber. I think it was a cucumber. You don’t want teenagers learning how to put a condom on. No. Dad likes to do intense research. He’s almost like a method actor. He likes to go on location. Take on a role. Me? Not so much. I’m more into psychological studies. I begin by getting inside someone’s head. And the drama comes from there.

Nigel Krauth, serious writer shot
Nigel Krauth, serious writer shot

But one thing our books share is location; as writers (and characters) we are drawn to Surfers Paradise. It’s the contradictions that fascinate us both, and contradictions are what teenagers are all about. .

When I was researching just_a_girl, I found out more about teenage girls by listening and observing when they didn’t know it, rather than asking directly. When I was a teenager, even with liberal parents, even though I knew I wouldn’t get in trouble, I still didn’t share much. I was pretty sensible. I was the one cleaning up the vomit rather than the one paralytic. I was too hellbent on control to take drugs. I didn’t like inhaling so smoking and marijuana weren’t really my thing. I didn’t like the idea of snorting up my nose so coke was out. And injections? Not a chance in hell. Now I wonder how I can raise my kids to be like that? To be independent yet safe? But I have to admit defeat. I know I can’t really guarantee it. And it scares me. But I pretend to myself that I can find out what they’re doing on their iPads. Or whatever they’re using in ten years’ time.

There’s a fraction too much friction

Having a writer around, family members and friends need to be careful. When I was growing up, everything was ‘grist for the mill’. I knew that, but I still didn’t always welcome it. All writers collect material from everywhere, waiting for the right moment to add it to the mix – or the moment waits for us, which is how it seems to work for me. Dad is more cavalier about using other people’s stories in his own work, seeking to camouflage it in some way. When I use a story relayed by someone else, I tend to ask permission and show them the text; I feel more comfortable.

You can’t handle the truth!

just_a_girl by Kirsten KrauthOften people ask you which parts of the book are based on the truth. While this is a complex question that would take a PhD to answer, there are parts of just_a_girl where I have translated almost word for word something a family member or friend has told me. Often these are conversations I didn’t want to hear at the time, for example, my dad telling me about having a trip on hash, and wanting to strangle me when I was a baby (watch the clip).

When I was in my 20s, Dad contributed to a collection called Daughters and Fathers (edited by Carmel Bird), an essay, nonfiction. I had been happy to hide behind the disguise of fiction, but seeing myself represented in nonfiction was completely different. This felt like an expose. I was glad, this time, that dad sent me the final essay for approval before publication. Because there were things in the original that I didn’t want the world to know. As it is, it’s still pretty brutal. But through all his work I now see Dad’s drive for connection with me, his daughter. It was made clear to me at Clunes, but it’s something that I couldn’t see before.

But still, there are things I have always kept hidden from Dad, knowing he might use it one day. Perhaps Layla emerged out of that secretive side, exposing the darkness of teen life.

Fathers and daughters: shared meanings

My favourite part of the Clunes session was where Dad and I selected parts of each other’s work to read, that had transported us, represented us, made us laugh or cry.

Dad was brave for selecting the most emotional scene for him in just_a_girl, the case of the missing kittens. While I took a safer route in Sin Can Can, enjoying the comic yearnings of a teen desperate to escape her hippie parents.

And, finally, we agreed on many things throughout the conversation that surfaced at random: how writing comes from and through the body; how our work teases at power, politics and sexuality; and how choosing the right name for our characters is fundamental to getting our work going.

 

Looking beyond the labels: Tara Moss

Tara Moss' new memoir The Fictional Woman
Tara Moss’ new memoir The Fictional Woman

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, crime fiction writer Tara Moss appeared on a panel with Irvine Welsh and Damon Young, talking about writing the body. As she held her new memoir ‘The Fictional Woman’ up to the audience, I was drawn immediately to the cover, a close up of her face, with labels written on in black: Dumb Blonde mingling with Feminist, Model with Bleeding Heart.

It started me thinking about the names I’ve been called, especially when I was a teenager, and how they’ve defined or ignored the essential parts of me – and how often they were contradictory, exposing the labels as fabrications.

Here are some that people have aimed and fired at me (friends, bosses, family, boys yelling out of cars as they drove past): Stupid Girl; Aloof; Too Nice; Passive; Aggressive; Party Animal; Desperate; Brainy; Up Yourself; Leso; Ugly Dog.

It’s a good list, isn’t it? It feels quite liberating to throw them out there. And these are just the ones that have stuck with me. What are yours?

In her memoir, Tara Moss looks beyond the surface to examine the fictions that surround her (and other women), tracing her life as a teen model then writer, and the way she sees herself versus how others perceive her. I spoke to Tara about personal fictions, public perceptions of women’s bodies and feminism’s place in contemporary culture.

This article and interview originally appeared on the Australian Women Writers blog.

*Although you have written lots of fiction, your first nonfiction book is called ‘The Fictional Woman’. Why did you decide to call it that?

‘The Fictional Woman’ centres on the stereotypes, limiting labels or ‘fictions’ that hold people back. It is an issue that has impacted a number of groups along the lines of race, class and other categorisations, but the book specifically focusses on how this reductive labelling has impacted women and men along the lines of gender. I highlight the issues using some of my own personal experiences in the book, along with other people’s stories, wide-ranging data and a look at the historical context of these experiences. As mainstream films are arguably our most dominant form of storytelling today, I also explore the way in which women in particular are fictionalised in line with archaic archetypes, and how, incredibly, of the top grossing films 91% of directors are men, 85% of writers are men, 98% of cinematographers are men and so on, shaping what stories are told and from what perspective.

*How was the writing process different from your crime fiction?

I have always been very motivated by research, statistics and data, though obviously in my crime novels I approached issues of violence and social justice through fiction. The process of writing non-fiction is very different, but as I had been writing OpEds, blogs and advocacy work for a few years, and was also working on my doctorate in social sciences, a full length non-fiction book on the issues I am passionate about seemed like a natural progression. The addition of endnotes was a necessary part of ‘The Fictional Woman’ but I needed to spend a lot of time on collating that data.

*Did you feel like an investigator looking into your own past, searching for clues, for what was concealed?

I knew my own story very well – some experiences really stay with you – so there was little research needed for the memoir components. What I did do was to send any draft chapters dealing with family to all of the people who were mentioned in those chapters. My mother’s death, for instance, was not simply my story to tell. It was my father’s story too, and my sister’s story, so I consulted with them for that section and any section dealing with my childhood. The memoir component of the book was necessary to the story I wanted to tell and the way I needed to tell it, but it only makes up about 10% of the overall book.

*The striking cover features labels written on your face like ‘Dumb Blonde’ and ‘Brainy’. How liberating was it to acknowledge and bring these labels to light?

I chose those labels or ‘fictions’ and the idea for the cover because it seemed like the most raw, honest and authentic way to represent the book between the pages. My face, my fictions. Everyone has labels that have been hung on them, and those ones on the cover are mine. Some of the terms are positive or dictionary-accurate (feminist, mother, wife) while some are blatantly false and pejorative, but all of the words are labels applied to me and all of the words bring their own baggage and assumptions. Everyone has their version of these labels – men, women and school children.

*Why have you encouraged other women (and men) to write labels on their faces too?

The idea of visually expressing labels (and then washing them off, which can feel quite liberating) came naturally. The first person to do it once ‘The Fictional Woman’ came out was book reviewer and author John Purcell. We talked for a while about what fictions had haunted him, and he had me write them on his face. (There is a video here.)

At the book launch for ‘The Fictional Woman’, makeup artists helped people to apply labels relevant to them. A Facebook page was even started and a wide range of people have taken part.

*The book moves between memoir and broader feminist issues, framed by a series of themes. Why did you decide to structure it in this way?

‘The Fictional Woman’ found its structure organically, albeit with a lot of hard work and research. I wanted to create a book that was accessible, enjoyable to read, but also had something to say. Because there are so many issues to discuss, and because I was using some memoir as a jumping off point, it made sense to structure the book in an essentially chronological way, touching on each issue in its own chapter.

*You mention a number of very personal stories in the book, including a scene where you were raped, and your experience of miscarriage. You wrote that you were initially uncertain about whether to include these stories. What made you change your mind?

It became clear to me that if I was to continue to move into the area of advocacy for women and children, as I have been doing in recent years, I could not avoid the discussion of violence against women, as it is such a prevalent and serious issue. And I could not in good faith address that issue without also sharing my own stories, because one of the arguments I make is that the stigma and silence around sexual assault and harassment is damaging to individuals and the general community. I wanted to show solidarity with others who had these experiences – sexual assault, miscarriage, and other difficult but common experiences. There are many of us. 1 in 3 women will be physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime and about a fifth to a quarter of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, so these are issues that must be discussed and issues that we need to get better at dealing with. I am not arguing that everyone needs to tell their story, and certainly not in such a public way. You need to do what you need to do to cope. But in my case, because of my advocacy work, it was a natural progression to share my own experience in the context of the much broader issues.

*The book forced me to question my own judgements, what I tend to sum-up about people after taking a cursory glance. How do you step away from such quick judgements?

We all do it, but we can lessen our biases and assumptions by simply trying. Awareness can be powerful. When we are aware of our biases and the historical contexts for them, we are more easily able to reject lazy assumptions.

*Much of the harrowing early part of the book is about your experiences as a teen model, often isolated and sometimes in real danger. Why do you think there was no system in place at the time to support and help you? Has it changed now?

The modelling industry is an industry – a business. It is essentially about making money and as such the industry in general is not particularly concerned with the health and wellbeing of those working in the industry. Thankfully there are many individual people and individual businesses with high ethical standards, but a model does not generally work for a single business, but rather for a different client on practically every job, and often in different countries, so standards vary enormously. Notably, there is no modelling union I am aware of. There wasn’t at the time I was modelling and I am not aware of one now. Without collective bargaining there is little hope that working conditions will improve significantly across territories. Working conditions, particularly for underage models, need to be addressed more effectively.

*Your statistics outlined in the book and arguments reveal a world where the fight for equal rights still has a long way to go. What are the crucial next steps along this path, as you see them?

Activism and awareness are needed on many fronts, including but not limited to prevention of violence against women and domestic violence, creating more equal pay, preventing discrimination in the work place, addressing problems in superannuation and savings for older women, childcare, valuing unpaid care (which is extremely important for the community and is disproportionately performed by women), allowing women greater access to positions of power without stigma and allowing men to engage in flexible work and unpaid care without stigma.

*Your chapter on mothering and childbirth had particular resonance for me (I also went the CalmBirth way!). Why do you think women are increasingly afraid of childbirth?

There needs to be a better balance between quality, accessible specialist medical care where needed, quality midwifery care, and informed choice. Many experts working in maternity have expressed concern about the balance as it stands. The studies I drew on in that chapter pointed to the culture within a given health care system as being a significant factor in both health outcomes and what is known as ‘extreme’ birth fear, along with popular media portrayals that naturally focus on the worst possible scenarios for dramatic reasons. That conclusion seems to bear out in the different attitudes encountered in different countries. People’s birth experiences vary enormously, the subject can be a very sensitive one, people can find themselves judged viciously, and unfortunately the remaining taboos around birth make it difficult to get a balanced view.

*Women’s bodies can be seen as public property. This is often particularly the case for young women and pregnant women, where strangers approach and sometimes feel they have the right to touch. What can women do in these situations to assert themselves?

One of the most important moments in my life was when I realised that I cared more for my own dignity and sense of self than I did trying to please everyone all the time. That meant that I didn’t care if it upset someone to be told that they could not touch me, or that I did not accept their point of view. There has unfortunately been a history of women’s bodies literally being the property of others, and bodily autonomy remains a battle in some ways. It may not always be easy, but it is always worth it.

*I’m interested in the grey area between what girls/women would like to say and what they end up saying and doing in the moment. How do you think we can bring up girls to be more assertive, to express their sexuality confidently, and to move beyond the surface impressions?

There are still some negative stereotypes, or ‘fictions’ about assertive girls and women. We need to reject the idea that girls who simply want to participate in life are ‘bossy’ or leaders are ‘dragon ladies’ or ‘ice queens’ simply for being women and doing their jobs. There is a cultural shift still happening and cultural attitudes often lag behind actual changes in the law. For instance, women in Australia had the right to vote and stand for office 22 years before any woman actually did enter federal parliament, the longest lag of any western country, and incredibly, this right to vote was not extended to Indigenous women until 1962 (see Australian Women in Politics). We need to realise that just because something is, doesn’t mean it is right. We can challenge our own assumptions about what is possible, and challenge the assumptions of others.

That is part of what ‘The Fictional Woman’ is about, creating change by starting from within, challenging our own assumptions and refusing to participate in the limiting and damaging stereotyping of women and girls, and others.

~

Australian Women Writers founder, Elizabeth Lhuede, would like to acknowledge Tara Moss as the inspiration for the creation of the AWW challenge. Without Tara’s original blog post in 2011 wrapping up the Sisters in Crime conference — and the outrage it generated — the AWW challenge and blog wouldn’t exist.

Bendigo Writers’ Festival: girls, grief, guts

On the radio oh oh

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

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

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

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

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

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching the detectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *  *  *  *

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Shyness is nice: the beauty of inarticulation

An autobiography of Christos Tsiolkas
A biography of Christos Tsiolkas

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, David Marr did a wonderfully incisive interview with Christos Tsiolkas, author of Dead Europe, The Slap and, most recently, Barracuda. Throughout the session, in response to Marr’s questions, Tsiolkas took many minutes to speak, occasionally with his head in his hands as if trying to squeeze out the answers. The loud silence filled the room. But when he finally was able to seize the words, his ideas were rich in detail, nuanced, worth waiting for. Marr quipped that ‘he writes loudly and speaks quietly’.

As I waited patiently for Tsiolkas to frame himself, I realised how rare this was: the chance to see a writer composing, having the courage to be uncertain, to not reach for the quick answer, to feel, as Tsiolkas said, a ‘real sense of responsibility … to what language means’. While Tsiolkas initially saw his writing as an effective way to channel rage (against himself, against others), he also wanted to fight off the ‘bad habit’ of being nice. Marr responded: ‘But you are nice, aren’t you!’ Being a writer, and performing in public, is so often about trying to reconcile these contradictory forces.

In her memoir Shy, Sian Prior uses this perceived dualism as a literary device. She intertwines the thoughts of Shy Sian (the interior monologue of a woman whose hands shake at parties, who’s always on the periphery, who runs for cover when things get too rough) with Professional Sian (the radio announcer and interviewer; the teacher; the activist; confident in front of crowds). When Prior takes to the stage or the street, she’s always anxious her shy version will seep through, but Ms Professional usually comes to the rescue. The whole book is searching for what Prior is really afraid of. Rejection? Grief? Being alone? Vulnerabilty?

If you’re feeling shy, you’re worried about something. If you’re a persistent worrier, you’re anxious. If you’re anxious, your mind enters into a pact with your body, sending it into the world with an armoury of self-protective physical responses. Danger! The adrenaline, the sweating, the rapid breathing, all preparing your body to run. Ensuring your hands will shake but your legs will move faster when you need to take off.

Except that you’re never sure why you needed to take off so fast in the first place.

Shy is the first book by Sian Prior
Shy is the first book by Sian Prior

What Tsiolkas does, in those long moments of public hesitation, is let us in, share some hidden part of him. These days, there is much pressure on writers to be perfectionists in all aspects of their lives. Not only on the page but under the spotlight too. To have the right answers. To be funny. To give the audience what they want. To be entertaining. But vulnerability can be a powerful thing.

In Brene Brown’s very popular TED talk (over 15 million hits) on vulnerabilty, she interprets shame as the ‘fear of disconnection’. While Prior in her memoir may be keen to do all the research and categorisation (shyness vs introversion vs social anxiety), the residue of her writing, the success of her book, is when she meditates on loneliness and what it means to feel ashamed, to wear a mask in public — and how she tries, often unsuccessfully, to get beyond the ‘I’m not good enough’ to build relationships with others.

It’s something I’m all too familiar with. A year ago, my first novel was released. It’s about a 14-year-old girl caught between the private and public worlds. It’s about characters who fail to connect. But most of all, it’s about the grey area: those gaps between what the characters want to do and say, and what they actually manage. As the time came for the book to be released, there was the slow dawn of dread: that I would have to stand up in public and articulate. In the past I had quit jobs, taken to my bed, manipulated and evaded, to avoid exposing myself. I had stayed in my comfort zone. Behind words. A computer screen. Like Prior I had run from a party in my teens, a panic attack in the car, paralysed. I had called on Professional Kirsten many a time, to various degrees of success. But I had never stood up for myself.

Tara Moss's memoir The Fictional Woman covers some of the same ground as Sian
Tara Moss’s memoir The Fictional Woman covers some of the same ground as Sian Prior’s Shy

It wasn’t looking good. The first call came out for radio interviews, appearances at bookshops, public readings. The fear in my guts started to bleed out. My brain quickly sought angles and innovative ways to say no. Like Prior, I was a master of the what ifs. But then it finally came to me. If I couldn’t stand up and talk about my own book, where could I go? I know! I could be cultivated as mysterious, hermit-like, Patrick White. Who was I kidding? A debut author can’t do that these days. Perhaps that was the problem. Like Prior, I was shy and mysterious — even to myself. I gave myself a pep talk. I had chosen this career as a writer. I had been lucky to be able to do it. The process, and the result, was a joy to me. It was something to share. And in the end it came down to six very small and extraordinarily powerful words: ‘Whatever I do is good enough.’ No what ifs. No buts. No calling in sick. Leave it at that.

Tara Moss’s memoir, The Fictional Woman, is a good companion piece to Shy, and shares some of Prior’s themes: how pain is written in and on the body; how others’ perceptions can be elevated above your own; how beauty can be worn as a shield; and how science, stats and semi-truths can be interweaved to make a compelling narrative. But in both these books, what it all comes down to is sharp writing. While Moss’s book is themed around common (mis)conceptions, Prior uses wonderful sleight-of-hand to draw me in and push me away: lists, short chapters, vivid description, strong characterisation, positing herself as the unreliable narrator, juxtaposing the two Sians in interviews, bold statements, wry humour, and the charm (and betrayal) of falling in and out of love:

On the computer screen we could be nutty, nuanced, nonchalant. Nothing seemed to be at stake, nothing required except to entertain each other with words. We told each other stories from our past, we compared our reactions to novels we’d read, we even offered tidbits of regret about past relationships. Writing to Tom, I felt weightless.

 And in one of those early emails, when I confessed to being shy, he simply replied: As Morrissey says, shyness is nice.

 I felt like I’d been found.

A year on from releasing just_a_girl, a piece of my identity has clicked into place too. The Land of Writers is where I feel I belong. Writers are weird, shy, crazy, eloquent, bumbling, provocative, curious, fringe dwellers — and often drink too much. Just like everyone else I like, really. As I challenge myself on the festival circuit, many writers have come up to me, confessed their own fears, keen for guidance. They’re shy. They’d rather be looking on. It doesn’t come naturally to them. They want to run. I feel their pain. But I can now point to Tsiolkas and Prior and Moss. Do I think any less of them (as writers, as people?) now I see their vulnerable side? Do I judge them critically, knowing what I do? In reality, it’s exactly the opposite. What remains is enormous respect — and a desire to know more about them (as writers, as people). Just read any blog about how to cope with mental illness, how to move through grief, how to come out as an introvert (via Susan Cain), and go to the comments section. People want to see the inarticulate, the not-so-slick, the grasping for meaning; it’s what generates passion and compassion in the reader.

Sian Prior’s memoir may not be a how-to or reveal-all, but it does connect. It dares me to challenge my own perceptions, see beneath the surface, and come out the other end, shyness intact. She has a talk on shyness coming up at the Wheeler Centre tonight. I hope it’s Shy Sian rather than Professional Sian who turns up on the night.

 

A version of this article originally appeared at the Wheeler Centre’s daily blog.

I have a Facebook page too. If you could LIKE I would surely LOVE.

 

 

 

Pushing your own cart: marketing, social media and author platforms

Kirsten Krauth, Darrell Pitt + Kate Forsyth, Forest for the Trees seminar, Sydney Writers' Festival
Kirsten Krauth, Darrell Pitt + Kate Forsyth, Forest for the Trees seminar, Sydney Writers’ Festival

The second session I did at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (after Here and Now) was part of the NSW Writers’ Centre’s Forest for the Trees day-long seminar, where I spoke about being a published author with a small press, and how I’ve marketed just_a_girl since its release.

The audience was diverse: from those who had never used Twitter to those creating their own films for YouTube. You can hear the entire session here (and many others from the day including an interview with Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction winner Eimear McBride).

Nicola O’Shea from ebookedit.com.au did a great summary of the session I did with renowned author Kate Forsyth and indie-turned-book-deal star Darrell Pitt.

MARKETING + PROMOTION STRATEGIES FOR INDIE AUTHORS

On 22 May, I attended NSW Writers’ Centre’s The Forest for the Trees event at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. All the sessions were excellent, but the one I found most useful for indie authors was Pushing Your Own Cart, about how authors promote their books and the tools they use.

The panel comprised Kate Forsyth (The Witches of Eileanan series, Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl, Dancing on Knives), representing the established, internationally published author; Kirsten Krauth (just_a_girl), representing the debut novelist published by a small press; and Darrell Pitt (The Firebird Mystery, Diary of a Teenage Superhero, The Doomsday Device) as the self-published author – whose success at selling his own books has led to an 8-book publishing deal with a traditional publisher.

Here are some of the strategies the panellists shared.

ESTABLISH AN ONLINE PRESENCE/AUTHOR PLATFORM 

Although Kate Forsyth, Kirsten Krauth and Darrell Pitt have had quite different publishing experiences, they all agreed on the crucial importance of establishing an online presence: ‘an author platform’ as Kirsten called it, so readers can find out more about the authors whose books they love. An online presence might take the form of an author website or a blog; or authors can connect with readers through social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or Wattpad.

AUTHOR BLOG

Kirsten started writing her blog a long time before her novel came out and used it to establish and practise her writing voice and to build a community. Even though her original intention wasn’t to promote her book, she found that when the book came out, her blog followers were keen to buy and read it because they already had a connection with her. Kirsten also has a regular post called Friday Night Fictions where she interviews debut Australian novelists (traditionally published and self-published).

Kate uses her blog to ‘connect with kindred spirits’ – people who love reading and stories as much as she does – and tries to give them something through her blog rather than using it only as a promotional tool for her own books. She writes reviews of the books she reads each month, and if she particularly loves a book she’ll contact the author and do an interview with them on her blog.

Darrell has an author website, but he doesn’t have a blog. While he agrees that it’s important for authors to connect with their readers, he believes it’s even more important that authors spend the majority of their time writing books. He gave the example of a reader loving a writer’s work and going online to find more books by the same author; but if that author’s too busy self-promoting instead of writing, there aren’t any more books for the reader to buy. This ties in with the advice from many successful indie authors that volume is important for discoverability. It can be more effective to write several books in a series before you publish the first one, so you can offer readers follow-up titles in a short time frame, rather than whetting their appetite with one book and then keeping them waiting for more.

Kate also uses her blog to survey readers about what they like and dislike about her blog, and asks for suggestions about how to make it a better experience for them. She often makes changes based on her readers’ feedback. Some indie authors push this idea further still, asking blog followers for feedback on extracts from their books in progress and then incorporating that feedback into their work. That kind of to-and-fro communication between author and readers creates a strong sense of community, and has a greater chance of translating into sales once the book is published.

The blog tour is another fairly recent promotional activity, and one that’s used by traditional publishers as well as indie authors. Kate did a month-long blog tour for The Wild Girl, which required her to write 31 posts, which were then published one per day on a range of international blogs all with thousands of followers. It’s a great way of getting global coverage without the expense of a physical tour. If you’re an indie author writing in a particular genre, you’re probably already aware of bloggers who write or review in that genre; ask them if you can write a guest post about something related to the subject of your book, or the writing process, or the self-publishing process – again, it’s about sharing useful information rather than simply self-promoting. It’s hard work creating fresh content for a blog so most bloggers are likely to respond positively to your request, as long as it’s a good fit with their blog and readers.

USING SOCIAL MEDIA 

All three authors agreed that it’s important to find a happy balance between promoting your books and connecting with readers in a more general way: e.g. with writing tips, sharing information about other writers and their books, and even writing about unrelated topics that interest you. The same rule applies to Twitter; as Darrell said, ‘No one wants to be constantly sold to’.

Kirsten loves the immediacy of Twitter, and also the way it notifies you of mentions of your Twitter handle – that allows her to reply personally to anyone who tweets about her book. Kate uses Twitter to engage with her readers directly too, and also to tell them about courses she might be teaching or appearances at schools or in bookstores. She said she aims to get 20 new followers a week, by giving readers something or sharing information with them.

Kirsten Krauth's just_a_girl experiment on Pinterest
Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl experiment on Pinterest

Kate is a big fan of Pinterest, and uses it to share covers of her books from different countries. Kirsten set up a Pinterest page for the main character in just_a_girl, and likened using Pinterest to making a scrapbook or journal related to your books, their characters and landscapes.

Darrell talked about his experiences with Wattpad, which is a site where authors can upload their writing and get feedback from other writers and readers. Wattpad is especially good for YA fiction as its reading demographic is mainly teenagers. Darrell put his first two novels up on Wattpad for free and had over 50,000 readers per book, many of whom went on to buy his other books, proving the theory that offering some free material can be a good way to general follow-on sales.

A writer in the audience asked whether the three panellists used YouTube to engage with readers (YouTube is the second-most popular networking site after Facebook), which led to a discussion of book trailers: short video clips to promote the book, like a film trailer but usually much simpler – often using images and music to create atmosphere, and sometimes with a voiceover or a short interview with the author. Kate’s publishers produce trailers for her books and she uses them at schools talks and other events; while Darrell told us he’d made a trailer for his first self-published book, The Steampunk Detective. Kirsten asked the writer in the audience how she uses YouTube to promote her books, and she said she’s experimenting with some short videos of herself giving writing tips, with the aim of encouraging viewers to click through to her website and her books.

GOODREADS

GoodReads is a networking site where people share information and reviews about books they’ve read or want to read, which, as Kirsten said, makes it the perfect place for writers to connect with other people who love reading. Kirsten finds GoodReads useful for getting honest feedback about her book and also connecting with her readers.

PROMOTION IN THE REAL WORLD/OFFLINE PROMOTION

Kate’s publishers send out free advance reading copies of her books to booksellers and reviewers; and Kate often goes on book tours around Australia and also overseas, talking at festivals, other book-related events and schools.

Kirsten had already established contacts in the media through reviewing books for newspapers so was able to draw on those contacts when it came to getting her own book reviewed. Kirsten has also given talks at libraries and festivals, and commented on how important it is to say yes to all opportunities – and also not to prejudge your audience. She gave the example of a recent talk to an audience of older women: she thought they wouldn’t be all that interested in her book as it’s aimed at younger readers, but afterwards most of the women bought a copy, telling her they wanted to understand their granddaughters better and her book would help them do that.

For indie authors who might not have media contacts, it’s a good idea to start local: contact your local newspaper to let them know you’ve published a novel; talk to your library to see if they host author talks; if your book is for children or YA readers, ask around the schools in your area to see if there’s an opportunity to give a talk to their students.

Darrell recommended Toastmasters as a way of improving your public speaking skills before you stand up in front of an audience to talk about your book.

COVER, TITLE + PRICE

Before you start the marketing/promotion process, of course, you need a great product. Authors who are traditionally published often have minimal input into the final cover design but the cover is professionally produced and at no cost to the author. Kate said that she has a lot of input into her Australian covers, but not so much for the editions of her books published internationally and in translation.

I asked Kirsten about her cover experience after the session and she said she found it a wonderful process: ‘I gave the publisher heaps of ideas, and examples of covers I liked, and their designer read the book and sent five examples to choose from. It was a really smooth and fun creative process.’ Kirsten even took printouts of the two ideas she liked most to a bookstore and ‘put them on top of the piles of books to see how they compared with others. This was an interesting exercise as they looked different when part of a large group.’

For indie authors, creating your book’s cover is a more personal process, but one thing all successful authors agree on is the importance of a high-quality cover that suits your book’s genre and market.

The title is equally crucial: it has to be engaging while also giving readers an indication of the book’s content and genre. Again, indie authors have more control over this process than traditionally published authors. When I worked in-house at a large publishing company it was quite common for book titles to change from the author’s original choice, based on how the marketing team planned to promote and sell the book. It’s important to find a title that suits the widest readership possible.

Indie authors definitely have much more control over pricing strategies for their books than traditionally published authors do; and, of course, they usually receive a higher percentage of that price each time they sell a book. Darrell talked about the benefits of volume when it comes to price: e.g. when you release a new book, you can offer previous titles at a lower price so readers are encouraged to buy more than just the new release. Or you might offer your new release at a special discount price for the first month, for example. Being your own publisher means you can be as flexible as you like with pricing strategies.

MORE MARKETING/PROMOTION TIPS

Another session I attended was called To Market, To Market, and these are the tips I picked up there:

The most-shared and retweeted blog posts are Top-Ten-list-style posts: e.g. Top Ten Tips for Self-Promoting Your Book.

Consider writing a monthly or bimonthly newsletter that contains useful information for writers, background history to your books, anything you think readers might find interesting. Add a sign-up option to your author website so readers can provide you with their email address to receive the newsletter.

Run competitions through your website to collect names/email addresses for your mailing list: e.g. give away a copy of your latest book to the first 20 people that sign up to receive your newsletter.

Consider purchasing advertising space in other successful e-newsletters. (Traditional publishers are doing this and finding they get an excellent return from such ads.)

 

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT MAKES YOU PICK UP A BOOK? HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT MARKETING? ANY TIPS TO SHARE?

 

Renovating and housekeeping

I'm your number one fan: getting Frog Music signed by Emma Donogue - LOVED Room.
I’m your number one fan: getting Frog Music signed by Emma Donogue – LOVED Room. Photo: Bette Mifsud.

I’ve been having a few teething problems since moving Wild Colonial Girl blog to her new home. All the content was sorted and then subscribers got left behind! So, apologies, and hope you are with me now… If the blog is emailed to you, it might now be coming from the very official sounding KirstenKrauth.com rather than Wild Colonial Girl, but I need to get that worked out too.

Just a quick update on what’s been happening the past couple of weeks.

I was thrilled to be guest-blogger at the Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival and covered the following sessions:

I’ve also decided, in a bid to focus on my next writing projects (in limited time), that Friday Night Fictions will have a rest. But please still send me info about any new books, as I’ll continue doing profiles of debut authors.

And who says that blogging doesn’t pay? Many might remember my personal take on Tim Ferguson’s memoir. Soon afterward, he invited me for coffee and cake in Glebe. My 18-year-old self could never have envisaged this happening: the power of social media! And he was as provocative and smart (and funny of course) as I had imagined. Oh, and DAAS have decided to announce that they’re touring. While I’ll miss the dynamic with Richard Fidler (Flacco is now on board), I’d still like to see them on stage again. Canberra was a success and Sydney shows announced. Hopefully more out my way …

Happy writing, and please comment, so I know you’re all still there. Promote your latest book! I don’t mind.

“Hell is a half-filled auditorium”: Richard Flanagan at Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

Richard Flanagan + Geordie Williamson, Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival
Richard Flanagan + Geordie Williamson, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.

Richard Flanagan started his session quoting Robert Frost, while peering out to see the Carrington packed to the rafters. After watching him again down Sydney Theatre-way, I doubt he’ll ever have to worry about empty seats again.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is my favourite book of recent years. Its scope, its compassion, its use of poetry, its melding of the Australian/Japanese view, its horror and love, its strange and cyclical stucture: I have it by my bed to dip into, trying to learn its secrets, as it helps me start on my second novel.

Taking part in writer sessions recently has helped me realise the importance of choosing a good interviewer. Geordie Williamson is always sensitive and assured, and I love how he challenges Flanagan with wordy flights and interpretations. Flanagan begins with a reading, and I’m surprised to find it’s the passage that some might say is the spoiler. I like the daring of this: bringing up the novel’s central dilemma — as Dorrigo Evans walks, he sees his lover after a lifetime without her: will he stop (will she?) or will he walk on by (will she?).

The beauty of the novel comes from the bringing together of hope and horror, inflicting us with obscenities, and then asking us to rise above them. Flanagan laughs when he says he was terrified to write a love story and that he put it off for five novels: that ‘everyone recognises a bad note’. In my own writing I know this to be the case; the ugly, the disturbing, the conflict, is much more seductive, but I’m hoping to move on too.

My favourite novel of recent years: Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North
My favourite novel of recent years: Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North

In many ways, Flanagan’s power comes from the personal. A ‘child of the death railway’, the impact on him was all-encompassing. Many audience members who stood up to ask questions echoed this. The young men who returned with severe trauma didn’t heal in their own lives, while their wounds were passed on to following generations. Many of us with tight-lipped grandfathers, the ones who would only loosen up after sinking a dozen on ANZAC day, understand this well, the ‘gaps between the silence of men’. Flanagan questioned the current infatuation with the ANZAC legend as based on contested ground, leading towards a ‘perverted and dangerous national festival … an insult to those who died … a vindication of chauvinism’.

He sees writing a novel as a ‘journey into your own soul’, his latest book an attempt to translate ‘the small acts of extraordinary kindness we show each other’, along with the gore and the filth of POW camps. Most clear is his sympathy for those caught up in the machinery of war. He met Japanese and Korean guards (The Lizard) in Japan, and ultimately sees war as demanding evil of innocent people.

When Geordie asked him about the ethical dilemmas of taking fictional liberties with the ‘literature of witness’ (he includes Levi here), Flanagan says that ‘writing can’t have ethics … it’s beyond morality’. He sees the role of the writer as ‘an idea of someone whose task it is to communicate the incommunicable’. What was most important to Flanagan was not to cause offence to his father, his dad’s mates, and the people who stumbled and fell along the line.

The novel took over a decade to write. He finished the book on the day his father died.

And through it all is Flanagan’s wicked humour. After humbling himself — ‘the things that are the best of me are in each book’ — he adds, ‘the rest of me is an added disappointment’.