Posts tagged australian women writers

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

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.

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.

 

Friday Night Fictions: author profile Laura Jean Mckay

Friday Night Fictions debut author: Laura Jean McKay
Friday Night Fictions debut author: Laura Jean McKay

I first came across Laura Jean McKay’s collection of short stories Holiday in Cambodia when I was researching new books set in the region, inspired by Walter Mason’s Destination Cambodia. After a brief trip there in 2005, it’s a country I have remained fascinated with. I wrote voraciously about it at the time (must fossick for that notebook!) and remember, at the end of each day travelling, being exhilarated and exhausted by the conflicting imagery — the gut-wrenching violence of the Killing Fields tour; the joy on the face of a girl as she gave me a tarantula to eat — and the sudden awareness of the richness of my life, in all senses of the word (see Laura’s reflections on this later).

So I was thrilled when Laura sent in her book to be featured in November’s Friday Night Fictions club for debut authors. Her collection is harrowing, gutsy and makes you squirm at times. She takes on a variety of perspectives, all confidently characterised, including the dreams of local Cambodians — a young prostitute; a woman who works in a factory — interspersed with the more familiar terrain (for Australians) of the tourist abroad.

The writing is straight, finely tuned and never sentimental. And while I don’t think shorts exist merely as a lead-in to longer work (see my recent review in The Australian of The Great Unknown and Sleepers Almanac), it’s a sign for me of the writer’s potential if I’m left at the end of a short story desperate to know more.

When I interviewed Laura, I was particularly interested to hear that her dad was a writer — as my father is too. I’ve often wondered whether people can have a ‘writer gene’, where they are born to write, as it often feels like this when I do it. I still think it’s pretty much all about hard work and resilience but, comparing my books with my dad’s, there’s a similar voice that emerges, a style that we seem to share. I also love her comments about shyness and eccentricity (as I’ve unearthed ideas about this on the blog along the way).

And I’m very grateful that she chose to ignore those people who told her not to bother with a short story collection, because ‘people won’t read it’. We need more of them published! You can hear Laura reading one of her short stories ‘The Expatriate’ if you fancy a taste.

Do you remember the moment when you decided you wanted to be a writer?

Laura Jean McKay's debut collection of short stories, Holiday in Cambodia
Laura Jean McKay’s debut collection of short stories, Holiday in Cambodia

I don’t think there was a moment where I thought ‘I will be a writer’ but there was definitely a point when I started writing. My dad, who was a poet, died before I was born. Mum and some of his friends published his poems in a book that was always around the house when I was little. When I was 11 or 12 I found a suitcase of all his drafts — those scraps of paper and notebooks that most writers have. I think seeing that process, a whole suitcase filled with process, and knowing about the final product of the book had a big influence on me. I started writing poetry using sort of the language he used. So there was this kid poetry — often written in texta — with this adult man imagery. It makes for pretty strange and interesting reading. I guess poetry taught me how to look at the world — and then I found prose.

Your book is a collection of short stories set in Cambodia. Did you set about from the start to publish a collection of short stories? Or did you write one story at a time and start to see the connections?

I actually started off writing an historical novel about the 60s surf rock music scene that was rocking Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge. I wrote about ten or twenty thousand words of it and realised I couldn’t fit all I wanted into that structure. I naturally default to writing short stories — I think I always will — and so as well as struggling through the novel I’d been bashing out these stories about modern Cambodia. After a while I realised that I was working on a collection and that this was the only structure that would allow me to say what I wanted to say. The novel is in there though! It’s a story called ‘Breakfast’ and I reckon I wrote a whole novella’s worth to get to the final 5000 words. I don’t know why it was so hard — maybe because it was carrying the weight of the novel or maybe because so much was lost when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in April ’75. It’s not a sad story but I found it incredibly hard to write because I was writing about a lost time, a time not without problems, but when Cambodia was independent and thriving.

A lot of people told me not to write a short story collection, that it wouldn’t be published and that people didn’t read them. I thought, ‘Well, I can either write a novel that I know isn’t going to be what I want it to be, or a short story collection that will.’ My partner says I’m dogged that way …

Why Cambodia? Did it start off as a holiday?

I first went to Cambodia as a volunteer aid worker in 2007. Phnom Penh, and Cambodia, was really doing pretty well by then — a lot of people had adjusted to independence from the UN and there were facilities in place, roads and mobile phone services, cafes etc. Cambodian people were reviving traditions and doing incredible things with education. I got a job working up in the remote north and expats told me stories about how all the aid workers used to meet every Friday night as a rule so that they would know everyone was still alive and not lost or shot somewhere out in the jungle. Still, I was completely bowled over by the levels of poverty, the lack of infrastructure, the corruption and the violence. I saw a man using his chin to cross a busy road in Phnom Penh because that was what he had left to use. I knew that behind the polite and smiling exterior that most tourists experience on a holiday, the levels of domestic violence were (and possibly still are) astronomical. The tourist/expat scene of which I was a part, completely shocked me as well. I was repulsed by the things I said and the assumptions I made and the way I acted. My perception of what ‘rich’ is completely changed as I realised that money in the bank was one thing, living in a country that will care for you if you’re old, young, physically or mentally disabled, a single parent etc, is another. I realised I was billionaire-rich because I was from a location in the world and of a race and had a passport that meant I would probably be looked after. This all makes for a lot to write about …

Why did you choose the Dead Kennedys song as your title (other than that it’s catchy!)?

The title for the book came very late in the piece, after I’d completely rewritten the first draft and I was about to send it out to publishers. I used to hang out in the 90s punk scene in Brisbane, where my contribution was having blue hair and attending a lot of gigs, and I remember hearing ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ on a CD for the first time and thinking that the Dead Kennedys really knew about everything. I think I was singing the song to myself in 2012 when I was taking a break from writing and realised that the lyrics of that song (written in 1980) still applied, that I had experienced a version of what Jello Biafra was describing, and that Holiday in Cambodia was the title for my book. If there is a central question to the collection, I guess it’s: how can you have a holiday in Cambodia? It’s like having a holiday in Rwanda, or Syria.

Recently Jello Biafra’s agent wrote asking for a few copies of the book …

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Rm-Fu8rBms&w=560&h=315]

What is it that you love most about writing?

Everything and nothing. I love the first image that I see so clearly it’s as though it has happened, and I know there might be a story there. I love when I’m writing absolute shit and it’s impossible and it’s only the fear and guilt that’s driving me on (fear that I won’t finish it, guilt that I’ve given up everything else to do it) and the shitness builds and builds like a bubble and then pop I’m through it — I know what I’m writing and that it will be okay. I love that every time I write I have to solve a series of problems and if I do that I can handle most things. I love getting something to the point where it’s as good as I’m physically and mentally and emotionally capable of producing and knowing that, with a good editor, I’ll be able to take it even further. I love being inside a story — where I’m not thinking about it but I’m so in it that it takes up my everything, even when I’m not working on it. You know?

How did you go about getting the book published?

It wasn’t as hard people said it would be but it wasn’t as easy as some publishing tales I’ve heard either. I sent it to one publisher before it was ready and that was a mistake. I imagined they would see what I envisioned for it and instead they, understandably, saw what I gave them. I got some truly lovely feedback and only one shitty rejection. Most people wanted to see ‘my novel’. It didn’t take too long before I had a great meeting with Black Inc. who said they liked the work and wanted it. I admired the hell out of their books already so it was exciting but also it felt just right.

I wrote two novel manuscripts in my 20s so I knew how to write longer works but I didn’t know how to take them to the next stage. I thought the process was: write the first draft, ‘edit’ it to make the sentences nicer, proof read, send to your favourite publisher. I didn’t understand how the process of rewriting 50 per cent of the book until it’s almost unrecognisable could bring it to a stage where a publisher could see it as a book. Now I’m writing a novel and I’m working on getting the story out and the characters and voice right without being too particular, knowing that in the next draft I’ll kick its arse.

You set yourself the challenging goal of writing from many character perspectives, both Cambodian and traveller. How did you research the Cambodian characters in particular? And how did you check that the writing seemed true?

I didn’t set out to write from a lot of different perspectives. I think every short story (or every piece of writing) needs to be treated as unique, something with its own needs that might be vastly different from the previous story I wrote. That’s probably where the different perspectives come from. Often I would write a story from one perspective and change it in the next draft. With the story ‘Like no one is watching’, I originally wrote the whole thing from the perspective of a Cambodian woman. It’s about acid throwing in Cambodia, which used to happen quite a bit as a ‘crime of passion’. Someone would get jealous about a real or perceived affair and would buy acid from the market for a few dollars and throw it on the face of their partner or the person they thought their partner was with. Often it doesn’t kill the person but maims them horribly — it’s incredibly painful and damaging. I realised that I needed to tell it from a Western perspective because not only is it an awful situation but it’s so culturally scary. I wanted to juxtapose that with the culturally awful things that Westerners do.

I did a Masters degree researching stories written about Cambodia by Cambodian and non-Cambodian writers. I also used my experiences, showed some stories to friends in Cambodia and generally sought advice. I worked with a great writing group in Phnom Penh who were so encouraging and inspiring. Although I don’t speak Khmer I was really influenced by the stories that I was told or that were published in English — both by contemporary and older Cambodian writers. One of the stories I wrote was published in Nou Hach literary journal in Phnom Penh — that felt really good.

I had a book launch of Holiday in Cambodia in Phnom Penh and Chakriya Phou — a writer whose work I love — launched it. Her take on the stories was so incredible — I learnt things about Cambodia from her speech that I wouldn’t have been able to access if we weren’t in touch through writing. Having said that, the stories are fiction. They’re not true. I would be very surprised if some people didn’t find them inaccurate and sometimes offensive. I don’t think you can escape that as a fiction writer, especially one writing about a different country and culture. I guess that’s another reason I called it Holiday in Cambodia, to make it clear that I am always a tourist in the places I write about.

Do you have a writing community where you live? Do you like the company of other writers when working on drafts, or are you someone who prefers to go it alone?

Janet Frame's short stories were a great influence on Laura Jean McKay's work
Janet Frame’s short stories were a great influence on Laura Jean McKay’s work

My partner, Tom Doig, is also a writer and last year we started our PhDs and moved to Portarlington, a bay-side town on the Bellarine Peninsula. We did that so we could write and to write we needed to be in a place where we knew no one. I have actively resisted making friends here. Before that we were living in a unit in Brunswick overlooking our concrete car space and we were pathologically social. We had spaces in an awesome writers’ studio and met with friends every other day and there were festivals and parties and I said yes to everything. Sometimes I think I was drawn to short stories because I could get one out in a couple of writing sessions and still go to the thing I had on that night. But I also want to write novels and a quiet town with the bay out the window is the company I need at the moment.

Now my writing community is more formal. I see people at writers’ festivals and meet up with a writing group every six weeks or so where we rip each other’s stories to shreds and drink tea. I miss my friends and family, though, and go into the city to hug them when I can.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned in the process of writing your first book, that you wish you knew at the beginning?

Because I’d tested out a lot of my awful behaviour and mistakes on my first manuscripts, I felt that the creation of this one went pretty well, in that I had some terrific readers to go through the first draft and tell me all the things that needed to be done. I knew how much work I’d need to do to make it publishable. I wasn’t under any illusions about some magical muse who would take me away or that I would be discovered. In retrospect, with the first manuscripts, I had some incredible opportunities presented to me that I either didn’t recognise or was too shy to take up. I was so shy. People don’t think so because I like performing and being on stage. I’ve learnt that eccentricity is more productive than shyness so have settled for that.

Which authors have been instrumental to your own reading and writing?

I don’t love all of one author’s work and I think that’s a good thing. It shows that they’ve changed and developed and challenged themselves, trying new things that appeal to different readers. I adore almost every Janet Frame short story I’ve read, for example, but can’t read her novels. Same with Lorrie Moore. Gritty realist literary fiction with a dystopian edge is probably the book shelf I would gravitate towards in the ultimate bookshop!

Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things changed Laura's perception of the novel
Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things changed Laura’s perception of the novel

When I was younger, poets like William Blake, Sylvia Plath and Leonard Cohen (I didn’t know that Cohen was a singer for a very long time) influenced me. I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things when I was 20 and it changed my idea of how a novel could be. Janet Frame’s The Lagoon and Other Stories and JD Salinger’s To Esme with Love and Squalor are short story collections that I have read over and over again — they are so perfect and flawed: the best combination. I really love Raymond Carver’s work. I resist reading novels by Russian writers (translated) because I love them too much and I can’t do anything else while I’m reading them – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are my favourites. Knowing writers like Romy Ash and Anna Krien and seeing their work develop and their books come out has been amazing. I saw how hard they worked and how great that work was and thought, shit, I’d better work about three times harder than I do now!

Living out in the country means more time to read and in the last year I have read such brilliant books by Australian authors: Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, Jessie Cole’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish are three that have recently blown my mind. I’m just starting Charlotte Wood’s Animal People and Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. This list could change completely tomorrow. This is what has influenced me today.

The wonderful Angela Savage, who writes detective novels set in Bangkok, has written a terrific review of Holiday in Cambodia.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? HAVE YOU READ ANY BOOKS ABOUT CAMBODIA, OR OTHER COUNTRIES IN ASIA? HAVE YOU TRIED TO WRITE ONE?

If you are working on your first novel or short story collection, you can find out more about Friday Night Fictions here or read profiles of other debut authors Tracy Farr, Michael Adams and Nina Smith.

Author Kirsten Krauth aka Wild Colonial Girl is on Facebook. If you could LIKE I would surely LOVE.

Friday Night Fictions: February 2014

Michele Forbes, Ghost Moth
Our FNF debut author of the month is Michele Forbes. I look forward to reading Ghost Moth and talking to her about it…

Welcome back to another year of Friday Night Fictions, for debut authors (novelists, short story writers) in all genres and formats (self-published and digital-only welcome!). Over the break, I did a wonderful interview with Tracy Farr, author of the lyrical and memorable The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. I also met a number of other writers featured here (at the Victorian Premiers Literary Awards, all pomp and ceremony) including Kate Belle (The Yearning, in the August edition) and Laura Jean McKay, who you will meet soon, talking about her short story collection, Holiday in Cambodia (November edition).

This year I’ve decided to make FNF a three-monthly event, rather than monthly, and I hope it continues to grow in 2014 and recognise new talent.

I’ve found myself a tad time-poor lately and I’m keen to return on the blog to writing about issues burning within me — like the transformation of Matthew McConaughey in True Detectives and Dallas Buyers’ Club. If you haven’t seen this TV series and film, his performances are extraordinary. I’d like to wrestle with that at some point.

I’ve got a busy year coming up. I’ve finally broken the festival barrier (more of that to come), I’m busily seeking an office in the Maine, I’ve started to apply for grants so I can actually afford to write, and I’ve just begun researching my next book (oh, how I LOVE libraries). In the meantime, I continue to look into ways to market and promote just_a_girl, I’m enjoying all the reviews and ‘best of’ lists that happened over the Christmas period, and I hope all you debut authors are enjoying success too.

If you are a writer keen to promote your debut novel published in 2013 or 2014 (or know someone who is), please read the guidelines before submitting your book to FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS. Australian and international authors all welcome. You can also check out previous editions too. The next soiree will be at the end of May…

Here’s the selection for February: as usual, a brilliantly eclectic mix… happy reading, everyone! And this month I’ve plucked the debut author Michele Forbes to be featured in an upcoming interview. I look forward to reading her novel set in Northern Ireland, Ghost Moth, and talking about it in upcoming months.

WARREN CRAIG SHAN, Abandoned

Abandoned, Warren ShanA girl of approximately two years of age is found abandoned on a park bench in Glasgow, Scotland in 1979.

Named Emily, by the Scottish welfare system, she is discovered to be fundamentally different.

Five narrators recount their experience when their lives cross with this extraordinary girl/woman as she journeys through the various stages of her life.

Genre: Mystery/thriller/science fiction

The book is available for sale via the folllowing outlets:

Amazon.com.au

Kobo

MICHELE FORBES, Ghost Moth

GhostMothA stunning new voice reminiscent of Maggie O’Farrell, which has been acclaimed by John Banville, Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright. Unabridged edition, written and read by Michele Forbes.

GHOST MOTH will transport you to two hot summers, 20 years apart.

Northern Ireland, 1949. Katherine must choose between George Bedford — solid, reliable, devoted George — and Tom McKinley, who makes her feel alive. The reverberations of that summer — of the passions that were spilled, the lies that were told and the bargains that were made — still clamour to be heard in 1969. Northern Ireland has become a tinderbox but tragedy also lurks closer to home. As Katherine and George struggle to save their marriage and silence the ghosts of the past, their family and city stand on the brink of collapse…

Surprising, mesmerising and astonishingly written, GHOST MOTH will show you the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Meet Michele at her blog

Buy the book at Amazon

ISABELLA HARGREAVES, The Persuasion of Miss Jane Brody

The Persuasion of Miss Jane Brody, Isabelle HargreavesThe Persuasion of Miss Jane Brody is set in Regency England. Jane Brody is a passionate follower of Mary Wollstonecraft’s beliefs in the rights of women. She campaigns for better education and employment opportunities for girls so they can be independent of men.

Jonathan Everslie, Marquis of Dalton, needs a wife and heir, but can’t find a woman who doesn’t bore him. Then he meets Jane Brody. He finds her attractive, but her politics dangerous.

After Jane’s father dies, she is left to raise her younger siblings. Her efforts to support them by running a girls’ school fail because Society decries her beliefs.

The conservative Marquis of Dalton wants her, but can Jane overcome her fears and put aside her beliefs to marry him to save her family? Will Dalton risk his political career to win Jane’s love and persuade her that they belong together?

Buy the book

Read an extract


LISA KNIGHT, The View From Here

The View From Here, Lisa KnightMillie has decided that this will be her year for a relationship and when she meets sexy plumber Adam things start to look up, until he dumps her after what she thought was a fabulous date.

Unknown to Millie, Adam is only trying to keep her out of harm’s way from the rather villainous Stan, who’s out to collect on a gambling debt.

It takes a bit of stalking and an accidental back kick to bring down the bad guy, leaving the path wide open for Millie and Adam to really get to know each other.

Buy the book

Read an extract

KIRSTEN KRAUTH, just_a_girl

Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girlLayla is only 14. She cruises online. She catches trains to meet strangers. Her mother, Margot, never suspects. Even when Layla brings a man into their home.

Margot’s caught in her own web: an evangelical church and a charismatic pastor. Meanwhile, downtown, a man opens a suitcase and tenderly places his young lover inside.

just_a_girl tears into the fabric of contemporary culture, a Puberty Blues for the digital age, a Lolita with a webcam, it’s what happens when young girls are forced to grow up too fast. Or never get the chance to grow up at all.

““Krauth’s debut is alive with ideas about isolation and connection in the digital age, particularly the way the internet raises the stakes of teenage rebellion.” – Jo Case, The Australian

Read an extract

Buy the printed version at ReadingsBooktopia or Amazon

The ebook is available at Amazon.com.au and iBooks.

See reviews of just_a_girl here.

Contact Kirsten at Goodreads, her blog (Wild Colonial Girl), Facebook and Twitter.

GABRIELLE TOZER, The Intern

The Intern, Gabrielle Tozer“Melons. The girls. Gazongas. I could rattle off every nickname in the world for my boobs — oops, nearly forgot jubblies — but it didn’t change the fact they were small. Embarrassingly small. Think grapes over melons, fun-size bags over fun bags, shot glasses over jugs.

Which was why I shouldn’t have been surprised when my boobs were the catalyst for squeals of laughter from my younger sister, Kat, on the eve of an important day. A Very Important Day.

‘Geez, put those puppies away,’ Kat smirked from my bedroom doorway. ‘Some of us haven’t had lunch yet and I’d hate to lose my appetite.’

I paused from rifling through piles of crumpled clothes on my bed. ‘What? I don’t know what you —’

‘Just look down,’ said Kat, tossing her jet-black ponytail. I hated when she did that.

Following her instructions, I looked down and saw my left nipple peeking out of my bra.”

Visit Gabrielle at her blog, Facebook and Twitter for more information

Available to buy in all good bookstores and online, via BooktopiaBoomerang Books and Book Depository.

ROWENA WISEMAN, Searching for Von Honningsbergs

Searching for Von Honnigsbergs, Rowena WisemanLawson is sent overseas to retrieve three paintings for a Kurt Von Honningsberg exhibition.

He has a thorny love affair with an anorexic Russian Latvian firetwirler, does a deal with two shady characters in Brazil and runs for his life from a madman in Beijing.

When Lawson discovers that he has actually become involved in an art world scam, he begins to question the true value of art.

Read an extract on Goodreads

Available as an ebook from Screwpulp

Contact Rowena via her blog or Twitter

Debut author profile: Tracy Farr

Author Tracey Farr, photo: Liane McGee
Author Tracy Farr, photo: Liane McGee

Tracy Farr’s debut novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt featured in the October soiree of Friday Night Fictions. Dame Lena Gaunt is in her 80s. She takes gentle doses of heroin, she swings between men and women as lovers and confidantes, she moves with the times via Perth, Sydney, various parts of Asia and New Zealand, all the while dreaming of her electrified passion: the theremin (see Clara Rockmore playing it).

As Lena raises her fingers and moves her body, Farr’s lyrical and elegant prose places us in the picture — an audience for memories and music — as Lena negotiates a documentary crew keen to capture a look-back at her life. The idea of documentary sets up a dynamic tension between what Lena wants to reveal, and what actually happened to her. She occasionally hides behind the persona of a vague elderly lady, all the while sorting out just who she can trust.

I’m always drawn to writers who pack an emotional punch by holding things back. Jon Bauer does it well. Jo Case and Annabel Smith too. It’s something I aim for in my writing: to not tell readers what to feel, but to hope they feel it deeply anyway.

It’s exciting to read a debut novelist as exciting as Farr, as she has a career set in writing novels. Her fiction is strong and unique. She is about to head (from Wellington in NZ) to Perth for the writers’ festival. I spoke to her about how to capture a long life in fiction.

Do you remember the moment when you decided you wanted to be a writer?

I don’t remember one moment. The ‘want’ was there from a young age. I wrote mostly songs and narrative poems when I was a kid, and I always kept journals and notebooks for scribbling and sketching. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started trying to write stories, though. Even then, I was tentative and unsure about my abilities. I was slow to come out of the author-closet and declare myself even a wanna-be writer.

What inspired you to set out on the long road to writing a novel?

The Life and Loves of Lena GauntThere are several unfinished novels in the bottom drawer; Lena wasn’t my first attempt at writing a novel, just the first one that was worth finishing. When I first started trying to write fiction, it was writing a novel that I had in mind — or a novella, in the vein of Brenda Walker’s Crush and One More River. But I just didn’t have the staying power — I’d get ten or twenty thousand words in, even forty thousand, then hit a big wall. I pulled back; I wondered if I could somehow develop my writing muscles by writing short stories, and that seemed to work for me. The novel and short story are very different forms, but I needed to learn how to write by learning to write short stories. Once I had the idea for Lena Gaunt, I realised I could trick myself into writing that novel by thinking of it as a series of related short stories. I’ve learnt enough through the process of writing this novel that I haven’t felt the need to trick myself into the next novel in the same way.

What is it that you love most about writing?

Moving words around until they start to sing; inventing other lives; surprising myself; shutting myself away and (literally or metaphorically) curving my arm around the page to write and write and write and perfect before letting the words out to the world.

I love what comes after the writing, too; that once my novel is out in the world, what I intended as its meaning is irrelevant — it comes down to what the text says to a reader, and how the reader receives it. I love the idea that there are readings of the book that I haven’t foreseen (or consciously invited, or intended), and that it has a life beyond and without me.

What do you put off doing when you sit down at your desk?

Housework (happily). Gardening (wistfully). Socialising (guiltily). Television/DVDs (smugly). Reading (mournfully).

How did you go about getting the book published?

It was a long, long road. When I finished the first polished draft of the novel, I didn’t  — I still don’t — have an agent and I knew that, without one, I needed to rely on my contacts, and/or submit it to the few publishers that will still accept unsolicited manuscripts directly from authors. Several of the publishers I fancied fell within that set, so I thought I’d give it a go without an agent.

So I sent that finished, but early, draft of the novel to a New Zealand publisher who I’d been in touch with over the years, and who’d been keen to see a novel from me. They knocked it back. I was devastated, even though I’d been pretty sure that the novel I’d written wasn’t the novel they were looking for from me, and even though I knew the novel needed more work, and wasn’t yet the best it could be. In that devastated, desolate, rejected state, I fired the MS off in a mad hurry — as it was, still needing work — to the slush pile of an Australian publisher. That rejection, when it came, hurt less. I pulled my head in, paused, took a breath.

I worked for a solid six months on a major revision, overhauled the MS, took in comments from my wonderful early readers, then sent the much-improved MS, unsolicited, to Fremantle Press. Fremantle Press was always in my sights as a natural home for the novel, particularly because the story was so strongly grounded in place, and that place was Cottesloe Beach, near where I grew up in Perth. It was nearly six months after sending them the MS that I received the news that they were keen, but thought it still needed work; would I consider working with them to revise the MS? Yes, I would. We worked back and forth for nearly eighteen months — slowly, but as fast as their schedule and mine allowed — on the MS before, in June 2012, we signed the contract to publish.

Your writing moves between Perth, Sydney, New Zealand, and various parts of Asia. How did you go about researching and recreating these very different parts of the world?

I’m originally from Perth, I lived there until I was nearly 30. I left Perth in 1991, the year the contemporary part of the novel is set, so Perth in 1991 is very real, very specific to me, sort of set in amber — a time before mobile phones and the internet, before we were all connected. When I started writing the novel I was living for a month in Perth, up in the hills at Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers’ Centre as Writer in Residence, and I’d catch the bus and the train and the bus to Cottesloe and walk around and breathe the air, watch the light, listen to the streets, when I needed to remind myself of the setting.

I’ve spent time in most of the places the novel is set in. The sections of the novel that are set in Sydney I originally set in New York, where the theremin was actually invented in the 1920s. But I only knew New York from movies and, more importantly, I wanted to move firmly away from the ‘real’ characters — Leon Theremin, Clara Rockmore — who had inspired my characters and their story, and move them closer to what was home for Lena. It was only when I started rewriting scenes from their New York setting that I realised the gift that a move to Sydney in the timeframe of that section would give me: Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction. I layered research on Sydney in the 1920s and early 1930s with my own memories of a long summer spent in Sydney at the age of 16 (about Lena’s age when she arrives there).

I had fantastic resources to draw on for the sections of the novel set in (and travelling to) Singapore and Malacca. My paternal grandmother shares with the fictional Lena Gaunt a birth place and year (Singapore, 1910), childhood in Singapore and Malacca, and jaunts back to boarding school in Perth, and in writing Lena’s story I leaned heavily on stories my grandmother told me over the years, as well as written resources from her father, my great-grandfather. I was able to overlay their experience of South-East Asia early in the twentieth century with mine of the same places sixty or seventy years later.

In all of these very specific settings, though, I wasn’t aiming for strict historical realism. I was seeking to create a version of each time and place that was intensely believable within the context of the novel, yet was — filtered through Lena’s eyes and experiences — slightly off-true, off-kilter.

The novel shifts from historical to contemporary fiction as you trace Lena’s life. How difficult was it to structure this so it moves seamlessly?

That was one of the biggest challenges in the revision process. I wrote the contemporary sections quite separately from the historical sections, and I wrote each of those historical sections quite separately from the other historical sections. There was also a whole other part of the novel in earlier drafts — it didn’t make it in the final cut — in the voice of the filmmaker character, Mo Patterson, and stretching forward in time to the 2010s. I worked hard, through revisions, on the relative weights (in word length as well as emotional weight) of the sections, and on where and how to interleave the contemporary sections with the historical sections. I found it really interesting that in the final structural revision — a really fantastic process of tightening and fine-tuning, and the murder of a few darlings — some of the most effective changes were those that shifted a paragraph or even a whole chapter, say from the end of one section to the start of the next; it was unpicking the endpoints that were artefacts from my writing process. Working collegially with my editors was a really pleasant and unexpectedly energising part of the publishing process; I had great editors, and I always felt as if my book and I were in safe hands.

With your lyrical prose, you beautifully capture the magic of the theremin. When did you come up with the idea of Lena playing this mesmerising instrument and was the character based on an existing figure?

Lucie Rosen and the theremin, Caramoor Centre for Music and the Arts
Lucie Rosen and the theremin, Caramoor Centre for Music and the Arts

I’d first seen the theremin played live when I went to see the band Pere Ubu in Vancouver in the mid-90s. Mesmerising is just the word; I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was more than ten years later that I watched the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. The film — a history of this bizarre musical instrument and its inventor, Lev Termen (usually anglicised as Leon Theremin) — was where I encountered Clara Rockmore, the first virtuoso player of the theremin. About that time, I’d started writing notes, circling around a character I wanted to write about, a musician. I knew, when I watched that film, that I’d found Lena’s instrument — an instrument you play without touching was perfect. But I knew I didn’t want to base my character, Lena, strictly on Clara, so I more or less stopped my research then and there. Film and still images of Clara — from a young girl to an old woman — in the documentary gave me some really strong visual cues for Lena. I started with a lot of notes based on my recollection of the film, then as I developed the character, I aimed to distance myself and Lena from the film and from real life events. Clara Rockmore was a starting point for Lena, rather than a model.

Do you have a writing community where you live? Do you like the company of other writers when working on drafts, or are you someone who prefers to go it alone?

Wellington has a really strong community of writers and people who care about writing and books. We have the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, and writing courses at Whitireia and Massey University; New Zealand Book Council is based in Wellington, and we have an active local branch of the NZ Society of Authors. There’s always something happening.

That said, my tendency is to be a loner; but there are times when the input and company of others has been hugely helpful. I’ve been part of writing groups at various times, mostly arising from workshops or classes I’ve taken. Being able to sit in that classroom or living room or cafe, to swap writing, to give and take criticism and comment, is a great thing. But I do find that the more my time is squeezed and limited and precious, the more likely I am to just shut the door on everyone else and write, by myself. It’s much later in the process that I seek the company of others.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned in the process of writing your first novel, that you wish you knew at the beginning?

Be patient. The process takes a long time. Don’t rush. Find a great editor/editors, and trust her/them.

Which authors have been instrumental to your own reading and writing?

My first loves were my parents’ books from their childhoods: A.A. Milne in my dad’s precious editions from the 1940s; Enid Blyton from Mum. As a teenager, I read widely — I spent a lot of time in the school and public libraries — but developed obsessions with authors who I’d focus in on at different times: science fiction writers (Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury); the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie (after an earlier diet of Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, Famous Five, Secret Seven et al.); an assorted bunch of American writers (J.D. Salinger, Paul Zindel, Sylvia Plath, John Steinbeck, Richard Brautigan); the short stories of Katherine Mansfield.

By the time — years later, in my late twenties — I was starting to try to work out how I might write, I was reading and inspired by Helen Garner, Beverley Farmer, Brenda Walker, Elizabeth Jolley, Peter Carey, Tim Winton; Patrick White, too. I was in love with Australian writing. I was in love with women writers: Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt. I somehow didn’t discover Alice Munro and Carol Shields until I lived in Canada — they joined my pantheon. Men got a look-in too: Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Jim Crace. Moving to New Zealand in the mid-90s, I was struck most by the poetry that runs through this country’s literature (poetry and prose) — Elizabeth Smither, Jenny Bornholdt, Bill Manhire, Sarah Quigley, Fiona Kidman, Damien Wilkins, Ian Wedde.

This is a very white, very anglo list, I know. But the writers who have influenced me most have been overwhelmingly white, writing in English from the mid- to late-twentieth century onwards.

My reading (I’ve resisted the silly urge to qualify and diminish this with ‘for pleasure’; all of my fiction reading is for pleasure) always circles back to one early obsession: murder mysteries and thrillers. I return again and again to Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Peter Temple (a recent discovery), Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, John Le Carré, Henning Mankell; I find strange comfort in reading and re-reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. One of my early, unfinished novel MS is a murder mystery; I still fancy writing one, one day.

Your central character, Lena, lives into her 80s. How do you see yourself when you reach this age?

I look to my grandmothers. I was thinking a lot about them when I wrote this novel, and I dedicated it to them. At eighty, both of them were feisty, active, interesting, stroppy, interested, full of life and opinions. I hope I’m the same. I see myself as a kick-arse crone.

For more about Tracy Farr, or her debut novel, visit her website.

Each month I choose a debut author to profile from Friday Night Fictions. Read interviews with Michael Adams and Nina Smith. Next up is Laura Jean McKay, writer of the short story collection, Holiday in Cambodia — from the November soiree.

WHAT ABOUT YOU, DEAR READER? HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE WHEN YOU TURN 80? OR ARE YOU ALREADY THERE AND CAN OFFER SOME ADVICE?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Mothers: Jo Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

just_a_girl Christmas competition: win a book-hamper

FracturedI thought I’d get in the Christmas spirit and hold a little competition …

So … I have a prize pack on offer of 10 BOOKS from some of the fabulous writers who’ve shared their stories on Wild Colonial Girl over the past year. The winning Christmas book-hamper features SIGNED copies of:

  • Simmone Howell – Girl Defective
  • Walter Mason – Destination Cambodia
  • Jon Bauer – Rocks in the Belly
  • Jenn J McLeod – House for all Seasons
  • Jessie Cole – Darkness On the Edge of Town
  • Annabel Smith – Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot
  • Dawn Barker – Fractured
  • Angela Meyer (editor) – The Great Unknown collection
  • Jo Case – Boomer and Me
  • Wendy James – The Mistake

TO WIN?

My novel, just_a_girl, has just been listed as an e-book at Amazon.com.au and it’s looking a wee bit lonely.

Simply write a review (2 words, 2 sentences, 2 paras, a thesis – I don’t mind) and put it on Amazon here by 31 December (gives you a bit of time to do some holiday reading).

I’ll be choosing the winner (most unique response) on 1 January, and will announce it on the blog early in the New Year when I’ve recovered from staying up to 9pm to watch the fireworks (it’s never the same after you have kids).

I’ll also feature some of the reviews I love on Wild Colonial Girl next year.

THE BOOK-HAMPER: here’s a spotlight on the books you might win

Simmone Howell, Girl Defective

Girl Defective“It was just Dad and me and Gully living in the flat above the shop in Blessington Street, St Kilda. We, the Martin family, were like inverse superheroes, marked by our defects. Dad was addicted to beer and bootlegs. Gully had ‘social difficulties’ that manifested in his wearing a pig-snout mask 24/7. I was surface clean but underneath a weird hormonal stew was simmering. My defects weren’t the kind you could see just from looking. Later I would decide they were symptoms of Nancy.”

This is the story of a wild girl and a ghost girl; a boy who knew nothing and a boy who thought he knew everything. And it’s about life and death and grief and romance.

All the good stuff.

From the award-winning author of Notes from the Teenage Underground, and Everything Beautiful.

Walter Mason, Destination Cambodia

Walter Mason, Destination CambodiaThe ancient and mysterious ruins of Cambodia have long captured the imagination of visitors, more so now than ever before. In Destination Cambodia, Walter Mason charts an affectionate, intimate and deeply personal look at a Kingdom that has drawn him back again and again since his youth.

Whether he’s watching young monks recite the Buddha’s life stories, visiting shamans and fortune tellers, or discovering the darker alleys of Phnom Penh with a romantic novelist and a world-weary street hustler, Walter takes the reader straight to the heart of this famously unknowable country. As heat, dust and weariness take their toll, he remains alive to the charms, and even seductions, of a place that was once a byword for misery and human suffering.

Destination Cambodia takes us on a joyful and constantly fascinating literary journey in which Cambodia is vibrant and its people excited about the future while never denying their haunted past.

Jon Bauer, Rocks in the Belly

Jon Bauer, Rocks in the BellyHow far can you push a child?

Rocks in the Belly follows a precocious eight-year-old boy and the volatile adult he becomes. During childhood his mother fosters boys despite the jealous turmoil it arouses in her son. Jealousy that reaches unmanageable proportions when she fosters Robert, and triggers an event that profoundly changes everyone. Especially Robert.

At twenty-eight the son returns to face his mother. He hasn’t forgiven her for what happened. But now she’s the dependent one and he the dominant.

Jenn J McLeod, House for All Seasons

Jenn J Mcleod, House for all SeasonsBequeathed a century-old house, four estranged friends return to their home town, Calingarry Crossing, where each must stay for a season to fulfil the wishes of their beloved benefactor, Gypsy. Here they finally face the consequences of the tragic accident that occurred twenty years ago and changed their lives forever.

Sara, a breast cancer survivor afraid to fall in love;

Poppy, an ambitious journo craving her father’s approval;

Amber, a spoilt socialite looking for some purpose to life.

Jessie Cole, Darkness On the Edge of Town

Darkness on the Edge of TownMy dad, he collects broken things … Where other people see junk he sees potential … My dad collects broken people too …

Vincent is nearly forty years old, with little to show for his life except his precious sixteen-year-old daughter, Gemma: sensitive, insightful and wise beyond her years.

When a stranger crashes her car outside Vincent and Gemma′s bush home, their lives take a dramatic turn. In an effort to help the stranded woman, father and daughter are drawn into a world of unexpected and life-changing consequences.

DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN is a haunting tale that beguiles the reader with its deceptively simple prose, its gripping and unrelenting tensions, and its disturbing yet tender observations.

Annabel Smith, Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot

Annabel Smith, Whisky, Charlie, FoxtrotWhisky and Charlie are identical twins. But everything about them is poles apart. It’s got so bad that Charlie can’t even bear to talk to his brother anymore – until a freak accident steals Whisky from his family, and Charlie has to face the fact he may never speak to his brother again.

‘It is rare to encounter fiction that will appeal to adults and Young Adults alike that so intelligently explores the downright messiness of family relationships through adult characters; rarer still to find an author who writes of traumatic injury and the looming shadow of death with such verve and sensitivity.’ Australian Book Review

‘… by far the enduring sense of this novel is of having been in the hands of a storyteller with more than just a good story, one with something to say about how to live, and the energy and pluck to say it.’ The Australian

Dawn Barker, Fractured

FracturedAn unforgettable novel that brings to life a new mother’s worst fears.

Tony is worried. His wife, Anna, isn’t coping with their newborn. Anna had wanted a child so badly and, when Jack was born, they were both so happy. They’d come home from the hospital a family. Was it really only six weeks ago?

But Anna hasn’t been herself since. One moment she’s crying, the next she seems almost too positive. It must be normal with a baby, Tony thought; she’s just adjusting. He had been busy at work. It would sort itself out. But now Anna and Jack are missing. And Tony realises that something is really wrong…

What happens to this family will break your heart and leave you breathless.

Angela Meyer (editor), The Great Unknown

The Great UnknownThe imaginative stories in The Great Unknown take inspiration from vintage American TV programs such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits—and their contemporaries and successors—paying tribute to the cultural influence these shows have had on lives ‘down under’.

Episodes of these programs were often metaphors for equality, justice, the nuclear threat and other issues, while being memorably spooky and fun. Editor Angela Meyer wanted to see what themes might seep into the writing of contemporary Australian writers working with the spooky, the strange, the eerie, the fantastic, the speculative, the macabre and the absurd.

Jo Case, Boomer and Me: a memoir of motherhood, and Asperger’s

Jo Case, Boomer and MeLeo is having trouble fitting in. Whether it’s pulling his pants down in the schoolyard or compulsively saluting Mazdas because the company sponsors his football team, Leo can never seem to say or do the right thing. And Jo is struggling to help him find his place as she juggles work and the ordinary demands of motherhood. But her beloved only child has been reading novels since he started school, amazes strangers with his encyclopaedic knowledge of sport statistics, and displays a wit sharp beyond his years – could he be gifted? In fact, it turns out Leo has Asperger’s Syndrome.

This is the bittersweet, blackly funny story of a boy and his very twenty-first-century family, and why being different isn’t a disability – it just takes a bit of getting used to.

Wendy James, The Mistake

Wendy James, The MistakeThe past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past …

Jodie Garrow is a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks when she falls pregnant. Scared, alone and desperate to make something of her life, she makes the decision to adopt out her baby – and tells nobody.

Twenty-five years on, Jodie has built a whole new life and a whole new family. But when a chance meeting brings the illegal adoption to the notice of the authorities, Jodie becomes embroiled in a nationwide police investigation for the missing child, and the centre of a media witch hunt.

Friday Night Fictions: November 2013

Howdy again, and hope you enjoy the final edition of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS for the year*. This NOVEMBER issue, we’ve got high-pumping action, a fair smattering of YA, short stories galore and literary fiction to blow your mind. I love the mix that comes in each month…

I also did a recent debut author profile of Mr September, Michael Adams, about his genre-bending novel, The Last Girl (that slips between YA and lit fiction). Coming up soon is Tracy Farr  (whose Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt featured in the OCTOBER edition).

AND my pick of the month this time is Laura Jean McKay’s Holiday in Cambodia. I’ve heard great things about this debut, and it continues a Cambodia thread that I seem to be following… I look forward to talking to Laura Jean and finding out more about her book.

I’m really excited to hear what all the FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS authors have been up to. Many are getting coverage on blogs and in mainstream newspapers. A big thanks to the writers who have started commenting on, and writing about, other writers’ work. I’ll be posting reviews and comments as they come in.

Sharon Kernot has done a wonderful review of Margaret Merrilees’ The First Week (see the Reviews section at the bottom of the OCTOBER edition). Even now, with a few reviews under my belt, I know how exciting it is to see someone engage in a meaningful way with the book (and finding out another writer’s views can be especially stimulating!).

If you’re new to FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS, you can find out more here, read the AUGUST, SEPTEMBER and OCTOBER editions + read my author profile of Nina Smith (Hailstone).

If you’re a debut author who’s been published in 2013 (or 2014 as it comes), and would like to contribute, read the guidelines and contact me.

*FNF will take a few months’ break (I’m hoping to spend a bit more time offline) but will be back at the end of February. Have a great Christmas and New Year, relax, read, and write (if that’s what you’re planning)…

SCOTT BAKER, The Rule of Knowledge

Scott Baker, The Rule O fKnowledge Faith, history, science and love collide in this fast-paced action adventure. High school teacher Shaun Strickland is shocked when he receives a last-minute invitation from Cambridge University to deliver a paper on the relationship between space and time, something he has been studying for years. It’s the break he’s been longing for.

But as he speeds through the cold Carolina night, his car slams hard into something surging from the bushes; an old and tattered hobo, carrying an ancient package whose mystery is irresistible. But there is something else, a book, sealed airtight for millennia, written in modern English, and predicting the exact moment it will be found.

Relentlessly pursued, Shaun must immerse himself in an ancient world to uncover something bigger than he could have possibly imagined.

What he finds is that much more than his own fate is at stake…

‘Indiana Jones’ meets ‘Back to the Future.’

In stores now. Buy the book online.

KASPER BEAUMONT, Elven Jewel

Kasper Beaumont, Elven JewelThis sword and sorcery fantasy begins when the magical continent of Reloria is threatened by cruel, scaly invaders called Vergai from the wastelands of Vergash. These invaders are barbaric and are intent on destroying the protective elven forcefield and conquering peaceful Reloria.

Halfling friends Randir and Fendi and their bond-fairies are the first to discover the invaders and they embark on a quest to save the threatened Elven Jewel.

They leave their peaceful farm village with their fairies and race against time to stop the invaders. They join forces with dwarves, elves, men and a mysterious dragon, and call themselves the Hunters of Reloria.

The quest is perilous, with numerous encounters with the ruthless Vergai. The Elven Jewel is stolen and the quest becomes a race to the portal to retrieve the jewel before it can be taken to Vergash.

Online extract and YouTube clip.

Buy the book at Smashwords, Amazon.com and Writersweb.com.au.

FELICITY CASTAGNA, The Incredible Here and Now

Felicity Castagna, The Incredible Here And NowSomething terrible happens the summer Michael turns 15.

But The Incredible Here and Now is not about tragedy. It is about his place, the West, where ‘those who don’t know any better drive through the neighbourhood and lock their car doors’.

But Michael knows it intimately and lets the reader in: to the unsettled life of his family, the friends who gather in the McDonald’s car park at night, the one girl who will acknowledge he’s alive, the white Pontiac Trans Am that lights up his life like an omen.

It is here that he finds an escape from his mother’s growing silence and the absence of his brother Dom, who could charm the whole world with his energy and daring.

Michael’s stories are about love and joy and wonder, felt in the company of friends, and in the place he lives in.

Read an extract from the text.

Buy the book.

Meet Felicity at her website and on Twitter.

ELIZA CREWE, Cracked

Eliza Crewe, CrackedAt 17, Meda Melange is already an experienced serial killer. It’s not her fault, she doesn’t do it because she likes it (though she does). Meda eats souls, and there’s really only one place to get them — and it’s not the Piggly Wiggly. Then Meda learns she’s not the only soul-eater, she’s part demon, and the other demons are out to get her.

Fortunately, Meda finds the perfect place to hide — in a school for demon-hunters. The modern Knights Templar are dedicated to fighting demons and protecting Beacons, people marked by God as good for mankind. Because the demons are determined to kill her, the Templars are convinced Meda is a Beacon trying to fulfill her destiny.

Meda’s goals are far less saintly. She just wants to find out why the demons are out to get her and, well, that’s easier to do with back-up — even if her back-up would kill her if they knew the truth.

Meet Eliza at her Website + Twitter.

Buy the book:
Worldwide (except India): The Robot Reader (E-book).
AU: Booktopia + Readings.
UK: Amazon + Book Depository  + Waterstones.
US: Amazon  + Barnes and Noble + Indiebound + Powell’s.
Canada: Amazon + Chapters + Kobo.

LESLEY DIMMOCK, Out of Time

Lesley Dimmock, Out Of TimeLife is about to get really complicated for Lindsay ap Rhys ap Gruffud as Queen Elizabeth the First lands in her garden.

Not only does Lindsay have to try and find a way to get Elizabeth back to her own time …

… but she also needs to avoid the thing she dreads most — falling in love — as Lindsay’s best mate, Meg, enlists librarian, Kate Spencer on the quest to send Elizabeth home before a sixteenth century plot to seize the throne can succeed.

Time is running out … for Elizabeth I and Lindsay ap Rhys ap Gruffud

Read an excerpt.

Buy the ebook at Amazon,  iTunes and Lulu.

Meet Lesley on Facebook  and Twitter, and at her blog.

NICOLE HAYES, The Whole of My World

Nicole Hayes, The Whole Of My WorldDesperate to escape her grieving father and harbouring her own terrible secret, Shelley disappears into the intoxicating world of Aussie Rules football. Joining a motley crew of footy tragics — and, best of all, making friends with one of the star players — Shelley finds somewhere to belong. Finally she’s winning.

So why don’t her friends get it? Josh, who she’s known all her life, but who she can barely look at anymore because of the memories of that fateful day. Tara, whose cold silences Shelley can’t understand. Everyone thinks there’s something more going on between Shelley and Mick. But there isn’t — is there?

When the whole of your world is football, sometimes life gets lost between goals.

“A poignant coming-of-age tale with a fresh, original angle. No matter what your feelings are about AFL, this novel is bound to have you cheering by the end.” – Junior Books + Publisher

Buy the book at bookshops, at Random House, Booktopia and Bookworld, as an e-book at all the major outlets in Australia, and in the USA and the UK, where you can also buy the paperback.

Read the first chapter here. Find Teachers’ Notes at the Random House Website and an interview at Hypable.

Like The Whole of My World on Facebook and visit Nicole’s website for more information. Or follow her on Twitter @nichmelbourne.

AMANDA HICKIE, AfterZoe

Amanda Hickie, AfterZoeZoe’s not completely happy with the way her life has turned out but she’s even less impressed with her death.

She is blindsided by an afterlife of perpetual contentment arranged by paternalistic angels. Most of heaven’s population enjoy their eternity with the aid of an elixir which ensures they forget their loved ones, but Zoe doesn’t want to forget.

She joins an underground resistance group and starts to explore the might-have-beens with an old lover.

Zoe’s insistence on her right to absolute memory becomes more complex when her husband shows up.

This alternative heaven explores the nature of relationships, the possibility of identity without memory and what it would take to be happy for eternity.

The book is available in paperback and on Kindle, Smashwords, Kobo, iBooks and others.

Find out more and read an extract here.

JANIS HILL, Bonnie’s Story: A Blonde’s Guide to Mathematics

Bonnies StoryA Young Adult/New Adult chick lit tale told by Bonnie, a smart self-imposed blonde hairdresser with an attitude and cynical outlook on the life of science she grew up in.

The first time I met Rogan, he was wandering down my street taking pictures of the street signs with his phone.

His name wasn’t really Rogan, it was Josh, but due to the crowd he hung around with and the quirky sense of humour science geek types have, he’d become Rogan Josh. Rogan for short.

Still, this wasn’t something I learned until a lot later.

Since meeting him, I’ve not just learnt this little soliloquy; I’ve visited the Moon, watched life begin, and discovered the true depth of mathematics. I can tell you now; maths really isn’t as boring as you’d have thought.

Click here to read the full sample and for details on how to purchase the book.

HEATHER KINNANE, A Faery Dream

Heather Kinnane, A Faery DreamEver had a dream you wished would come true?

Melissa is blessed, or cursed as she most often feels is the case, with the ability to dream true; an ability she knows was passed down from the mother she never met.

Now in her 30s, and plodding along in her failing relationship with Tom, Melissa is having dreams she wishes were prophetic.

Tall, strong and sexy Kellen lives in the forest, clad usually in nothing but a loin cloth. Though he makes her heart flutter, and is the man of her dreams in more ways than one, Melissa knows this dream is too far from reality to ever come true.

So when Kellen does turn up in Melissa’s life, with secrets from her past and plans for her future, can Melissa trust that this dream isn’t too good to be true?

Buy the book.

Read an excerpt.

KIRSTEN KRAUTH, just_a_girl

Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girlLayla is only 14. She cruises online. She catches trains to meet strangers. Her mother, Margot, never suspects. Even when Layla brings a man into their home.

Margot’s caught in her own web: an evangelical church and a charismatic pastor. Meanwhile, downtown, a man opens a suitcase and tenderly places his young lover inside.

just_a_girl tears into the fabric of contemporary culture, a Puberty Blues for the digital age, a Lolita with a webcam, it’s what happens when young girls are forced to grow up too fast. Or never get the chance to grow up at all.

““Krauth’s debut is alive with ideas about isolation and connection in the digital age, particularly the way the internet raises the stakes of teenage rebellion.” – Jo Case, The Australian

“It’s about porn/love, isolation/connection, sexualisation/justification, misogyny/mentality, Facebook and the face-to-face. It’s about our world, right now, and it’s a little bit brilliant.” – Danielle Binks, ALPHA READER.

Read an extractBook Club Notes are available.

Buy the printed version at ReadingsBooktopia or Amazon. The ebook is available at Amazon.com.au and iBooks.

International readers please contact me direct…

See reviews of just_a_girl here.

Contact Kirsten at Goodreads, her blog (Wild Colonial Girl), Facebook and Twitter. You can see her read from her work at the Sydney book launch, along with Emily Maguire (who introduced it).

LAURA JEAN McKAY, Holiday in Cambodia

Laura Jean McKay, Holiday In CambodiaBeyond the killing fields and the temples of Angkor is Cambodia: a country with a genocidal past and a wide, open smile. A frontier land where anything is possible — at least for the tourists.

In Holiday in Cambodia Laura Jean McKay explores the electric zone where local and foreign lives meet. There are tender, funny moments of tentative understanding, as well as devastating re-imaginings of a troubled history.

Three backpackers board a train, ignoring the danger signs — and find themselves in the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Elderly sisters are visited by their vampire niece from Australia and set out to cure her.

A singer creates a sensation in swinging 1969, on the eve of an American bombing campaign.

These are bold and haunting stories by a remarkable new talent.

“Polished, Hemingwayesque snapshots, vivid and atmospheric” – Steven Carroll

“Subtly encompassing — these unostentatiously wrought stories look at the residual effects on their characters of the low, persistent fallout of catastrophe.” – James Tierney, The Australian

Buy the book.

Read an extract.

Read reviews in The AustralianCrikey and Artshub.

GERALDINE MEADE, Flick

Geraldine Meade, FlickFelicity Costello, aka Flick, is like any other 16-year-old — except for one difference. A difference she doesn’t want anyone to know about. A difference she hardly admits to herself.

Flick tells the story of a girl struggling with the secret of her sexuality and who goes to great lengths to hide the fact that she’s a lesbian.

In her efforts to conform to what she and her peers think is ‘normal’ Flick’s life spirals out of control until she sees no escape.

Will Flick succumb to the darkness? Or will she find the courage to realise that you can’t help who you fall in love with?

“Flick is the sort of book I wish I could have read in my teens. It never talks down to the reader but still manages to shine a light on some of the darkest and most confusing moments of becoming an adult.” – Graham Norton

Shortlisted for The Reading Association of Ireland’s Children’s Book Awards 2013.

Read an extract of Flick.

Order Flick here.

Buy e-book or paperback here too!

Follow Ger on Twitter or on Facebook.

Meet Ger at her website.

SKYE MELKI-WEGNER, Chasing the Valley

Chasing The ValleyEscape is impossible. Escape is their only hope.

Danika is used to struggling for survival. But when the tyrannous king launches an attack to punish her city — echoing the alchemy bombs that killed Danika’s family — she risks her life in a daring escape over the city’s walls.

Danika joins a crew of desperate refugees who seek Magnetic Valley, a legendary safe haven. But when she accidentally destroys a palace biplane, suddenly Danika Glynn becomes the most wanted fugitive in Taladia.

Pursued by the king’s vicious hunters and betrayed by false allies, Danika also grapples with her burgeoning magical abilities. And when she meets the mysterious Lukas, she must balance her feelings against her crew’s safety.

Chasing the Valley is the first book in an epic trilogy of magic, treachery and survival.

Buy the book at Random House.

Read an extract.

Watch the book trailer.

Get in touch with Skye at her website, Twitter and Facebook.

ANGELA MEYER (editor) AND WRITERS, The Great Unknown

The Great UnknownThe imaginative stories in The Great Unknown take inspiration from vintage American TV programs such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits — and their contemporaries and successors — paying tribute to the cultural influence these shows have had on lives ‘down under’.

Episodes of these programs were often metaphors for equality, justice, the nuclear threat and other issues, while being memorably spooky and fun.

Editor Angela Meyer wanted to see what themes might seep into the writing of contemporary Australian writers working with the spooky, the strange, the eerie, the fantastic, the speculative, the macabre and the absurd.

Authors include Paddy O’Reilly, Ali Alizadeh, Chris Flynn, Carmel Bird, Ryan O’Neill, Marion Halligan, Krissy Kneen, AS Patric, Damon Young, Chris Somerville, PM Newton, Deborah Biancotti and Kathy Charles, and the winner of the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award, Alex Cothren (with his first ever published story).

Find out more about the book at Goodreads and Facebook.

Available in December (and on pre-order) from Readings, Booktopia and Fishpond.

FELICITY VOLK, Lightning

Felicity Volk, LightningAmid the chaos of sweeping bushfires, Persia gives birth alone at home with tragic consequences. Traumatised and grieving, she travels north, and encounters Ahmed, a refugee fleeing deportation and his past in Pakistan.

So begins a road trip to the dead heart of Australia, a journey that transcends the limits of ordinary experience. In Persia and Ahmed’s world, ancient winds wreak havoc across generations, lightning ignites flames that both destroy and rejuvenate, and water drowns then delivers. Hearts break, days are leavened with loss, laughter kills and cinnamon preserves.

Lightning is an odyssey across continents and centuries that explores identity and connection, and our yearning to reveal ourselves even when cloaked in crippling grief.

A moving meditation on finding hope in the rubble of our lives, Lightning celebrates the way our stories and their telling keep us alive when all else is pulling us under.

Lightning can be found at most book retailers including Pan Macmillan, Booktopia, Bookworld and Amazon.

Read an extract.

Meet Felicity at her website and Facebook.

For reviews of Lightning see her website and, specifically, in The Weekend Australian. Read the story behind Lightning.