Wild Colonial Girl Blog

Treasure Trove: To Be Continued … The Australian Newspaper Fiction Database

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the newspaper and journal scene in Australia was thriving, publishing news, gossip and commentary. But what about local stories? A recent project curated by Katherine Bode at ANU, To be continued … The Australian Newspaper Fiction Database, has revealed that newspapers published a massive amount of fiction from Australia and overseas which was syndicated nationally (80 per cent of newspapers contained fiction). As most of these works were never catalogued or turned into books, they were lost to readers until a mass digitisation process made the newspapers possible to access. The largest digital collection of historical newspapers in the world, Trove now features 21,000 novels, novellas and short stories.

Browsing through the fiction, it’s immediately clear how valuable these stories will be for writers, especially for historical fiction. Many novelists like to read fiction from the time when their books are set and it’s exciting to hear these diverse voices including many women (Janet Carroll, Adeline J Whitfield, Jenny Wren) and popular genres including Christmas, crime fiction, adventure, the bush, children’s/ YA and international writers like Victor Hugo. There are titles that work well as click-bait: ‘The Tamar Pirates. A Sensational and True Narrative of Adventure of the Early Days in Van Diemen’s Land.’ I discover ‘The Mount Macedon Mystery’ by Ivan Dexter (aka James J Wright), which takes place just down the road from me, published in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal. The novel is broken down into 27 chapters in 1891, and its descriptions of a place that’s more frontier — wild and less settled by colonists — is a fascinating comparison to my map of the place.

There is also the opportunity to take on the role of volunteer, to search for fiction in the many digitised newspapers not yet accessed and add them to the database. Browsing through the publications available, many appeal to my own research interests and general curiosity: the Blue Mountains Daily, Sydney’s Communist Review, cross- cultural publications like Il Giornale Italiano.

I chatted recently to literary historian Katherine Bode from ANU, who along with bibliographer Carol Hetherington, embarked on this project after receiving an ARC Discovery Grant.

Where did the idea for the database come from?

Bibliographies of Australian literature like AustLit record a fair amount of Australian fiction published in 19th- century Australian newspapers. As it turns out, there was a lot more than we knew in these newspapers. But the motivation for the study — and the creation of the database — came from wondering what other fiction was published alongside these Australian stories. We know, today, that Australians are voracious readers and interested in stories from around the world: I wondered if the same was true of the 19th century —and as it turns out, it was!

What was the reading experience like at the time? Were novels serialised? Did the idea parallel what was happening in Britain?

Novels were serialised, and could be published across 50, 60, or even more newspaper issues. The newspapers also contained lots of short stories, that were often published in a single newspaper issue, or sometimes across two. In some ways the practice paralleled what was happening in Britain, in that most novels were first published in serial form. However, in Britain, these serialised novels were generally issued as books, whereas in Australia there was very little book publishing going on. Sometimes Australian authors were successful in getting their serialised work republished as a book in Britain. But very often, the newspaper was the only time these stories were ever published.

What has surprised you most in terms of the fiction you’ve come across and what it reveals about Australian society at the time?

Beyond how much of it was published, one of the most surprising things about the Australian fiction we found was the prominence of Aboriginal characters. There’s been a fairly entrenched view among researchers into Australian literature that fiction in the 19th century followed the legal practice of terra nullius in not acknowledging the presence of Australia’s original inhabitants. This has led to all sorts of theories about early Australian writing, such that it was haunted by an unacknowledged presence in the bush, creating a peculiarly Gothic character to the fiction. But Aboriginal characters were far from concealed in these stories. Many of the depictions are racist, and I think this would be expected. But there are also stories with progressive ideas about ownership of land, Aboriginal spirituality and the resilience and strength of Aboriginal people. If you’re interested in why literary scholars have for so long thought that Aboriginal people were absent from early Australian fiction, I think it’s because of the publishing situation. As I said earlier, only a very few newspaper novels were selected to be published as books — predominantly in Britain. I think that British publishers preferred stories without Aboriginal people and these books were then passed down to us as the record of Australian literature. In this sense, the question remains as to what other aspects of our literary tradition have been omitted by the way that fiction has traditionally been transmitted to us.

Any favourite new authors?

John Silvester Nottage is a very prolific 19th-century Tasmanian author who was unknown prior to the project and has written a number of great novellas and novels (as well as his fair share of somewhat average ones). Speaking of the presence of Aboriginal characters, I find Mary Hannah Foott’s fiction interesting — and challenging — for how it grapples with the consequences of Australia’s invasion and dispossession. Foott is mainly known as a Queensland poet, but she was also a staff writer for the Queenslander, a weekly newspaper for that colony, and contributed a number of stories in that role.

One member of the research community recently alerted me to a novel, published in the 1890s in
the Illustrated Sydney News, that features a same-sex relationship between two women, and I enjoyed reading that. The depiction of the relationship is quite subtle but I think it’s remarkable that this romance was presented — and set in the state (then the colony) of Tasmania where homosexuality was only decriminalised in the late 1990s (and by only one vote). However, the author of that story — as is the case with so much of the local and international fiction in the database — is unknown. They didn’t include their name in the publication and although we’ve been able to identify some authors through bibliographical sleuthing, this is not one of them.

Why do you think it took so long for this fiction to be re-discovered?

It was undiscovered because it was in newspapers. Until the National Library of Australia began digitising these newspapers the archive was simply too big to explore. The digitisation project made it possible to search for fiction using the words often used to introduce the stories — such as ‘our novelist’, ‘serial story’ and, most successfully, ‘chapter’ — meaning that we could identify and extract large numbers of stories that had previously lain undiscovered in the newspaper archive.

You’ve done a call out for people to volunteer to help with the project. What’s involved in being a volunteer? How are they helping the process of unearthing fiction? How can Newswrite readers be involved?

Yes please — it would be wonderful to have new volunteers from the writing community. Volunteering can mean correcting the text of the stories, which have been produced with Optical Character Recognition, or OCR, and so contain a lot of errors. It can also involve finding missing instalments of the stories as you read them (the automatic process was not always 100 per cent successful) or adding new stories to the database that you discover in the newspapers.

Although our original search was fairly thorough, I estimate that only 30 per cent of newspapers had been digitised at that time. There are now hundreds more in Trove and so many, many more stories to discover. Some members of the research community are adopting a newspaper and working through their pages to add scores of new stories to the To be continued database. One great thing about adding fiction to the database is that it will be harvested by the National Library of Australia, so that your discovery will appear in the national collection to be then discovered and enjoyed by others.

If you would like to be a volunteer, browse the fiction, or use it for your own historical research, head to To be continued … The Australian Newspaper Fiction Database. The monograph A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History features an analysis of the fiction. Orbiter Press will be publishing edited collections of newly discovered fiction including five previously lost stories by Australian author, feminist, socialist and world-traveller, Catherine Martin — whose The Incredible Journey was the first colonial novel to centrally feature an Aboriginal protagonist.

This article was originally published in the AUTUMN edition of Newswrite magazine for Writing NSW.

 

Almost a Mirror shortlisted for Penguin Literary Prize

Hello everyone! It’s been a long time since I posted. I’ve been buried deep in a PhD in Creative Writing which took four years. The exciting news is that I’m now a doctor…

BUT equally as exciting if not more is that the manuscript for my second novel ALMOST A MIRROR has been shortlisted for the 2019 Penguin Literary Prize.

Penguin Literary Prize shortlist 2019 announced

Congratulations to the other entrants shortlisted and I look forward to the announcement of the winner. I’m not so fussed about that though because this feels like huge encouragement to keep writing fiction and in particular using styles and voices that are a bit different.

The novel is pop meets punk and centres around the twilight worlds of early 80s Melbourne – think Crystal Ballroom and Nick Cave — clashing with groupies, Countdown and Duran Duran.

Almost a Mirror, The Birthday Party

What’s everyone up to? Still blogging? What are you writing? Please comment so I can see your lovely faces again.

#almostamirror #kirstenkrauth #penguinliteraryprize #austlit

New Oz writing: for the Santa sack

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

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

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

 

Kirsten Krauth's list of top Oz writing 2015

Communicating the incommunicable: celebrating the work of Richard Flanagan

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

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

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

A River Runs Through it

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Force, and Failure, of Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of Love

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

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

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

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

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

Self-inflicted Fictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A little farewell…

Hi folks

In a bid to focus more on my work (a new job editing Australian Author magazine) and writing (a TV script then second novel in the making), I’m taking a break from social media and blogging (except for a thing or two I’ve already planned) until the new year.

A part of this process is letting go of just_a_girl. I didn’t realise how hard it would be to say goodbye to a little-book-that-could and the characters within. But it’s time to move on.

I’m heading old-school and can chat via The Email. So still feel free to use the contact form if you like as it will find me.

I hope youse are all going well with your own reading and writing…

 

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

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

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

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

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

Sin Can Can: I’ve been to Bali too

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

When research goes awry

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

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

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

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

There’s a fraction too much friction

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

You can’t handle the truth!

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

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

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

Fathers and daughters: shared meanings

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

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

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

 

Looking beyond the labels: Tara Moss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

Doug Anthony Allstars give good head: balustrades, bubblers + barking mad

 

Tim Ferguson, Kirsten Krauth, Paul McDermott, Jane McAllister, Flacco, Doug Anthony Allstars,
Tim Ferguson, Kirsten Krauth, Paul McDermott, Jane McAllister, Flacco, Doug Anthony Allstars, Yarraville, 2014

I always vowed I’d never be like the baby-boomers: going to Rolling Stones and Beach Boys concerts, looking beyond the thinning hair and artificial hips and dementia. The lyrics written on cue cards for those fading memories.

And then I find myself at the Violent Femmes at Revesby RSL where bald men line the walls and I sit elegantly on garish carpet waiting for the band to start at 7.30. Or dancing to Stone Roses where the line-up well and truly looks resurrected. Twenty years on, the band desperately clings to the same look, the same haircut, as if fearful that their fans will just walk down the street and pass on by. And then there was Dexy’s Midnight Runners at Harvest Festival. OK, I can only remember one song, and so could they, really, the rhythm and brass section propping them up so they didn’t fall off the stage. I catch myself thinking, ‘Belinda Carlisle, that would be a great gig’, or ‘Duran Duran, that Girls on Film clip was really groundbreaking’.

Which brings me to Doug Anthony Allstars. I saw them on Friday night in Yarraville. I’d envisaged the comedy club as a run down terrace, intimate, with a red-curtained stage, dark, smoke-ringed. So 20 years ago. Instead I walk into a brightly-lit gambling den, pass the sign-in forms, to a huge room with plastic chairs and ugly carpet. I’ve blogged about how besotted I was with DAAS when I was a teen, and have had the luck to meet Paul and Tim in recent times — surreal moments where my old and new selves had to meet each other and clash, like worlds colliding.

Doug Anthony Allstars - now
Doug Anthony Allstars – now

So I’m in the audience, and I have my hair dyed blonde and cut short in a Jean-Seberg-Breathless style, just like I did when I was 18, and Paul wheels Tim out in a wheelchair, and they are both wearing suits, and an empty mic stands in for Richard for a bit, and the comedy via necessity comes cerebrally rather than physically except for small moments: Tim trying to play the triangle with a straw; Flacco (shorthand for Paul Livingston as there are two Pauls) trying to play the newspaper and shredding it (probably the highlight of the night – look you had to be there) and imagining his head as a balustrade; and Paul playing the wobble board and pissing into his own mouth.

Why it's best not to approach strangers on aeroplanes when you're 8 + travelling
Why it’s best not to approach strangers on aeroplanes when you’re 8 + travelling alone.

I met Rolf Harris when I was 8 (true story – I approached him on an aeroplane after being encouraged by the air hostess where I got an autograph and a bitter old man who was nasty and no touchy feelies). The final reference I didn’t get as I’m allergic to Rugby so I looked up this and found a new meaning for bubbler. Those footballers, they’re such a catch.

I’m guessing that this is no DAAS reunion. It feels like a gig for limited time only. Much of the energy of the previous incarnation came from the audience feeling terrified that they would be assaulted at any moment. The dynamic has segued into a commentary on the marking of time, highlighted by Paul’s intense and rapid-fire approach (which hasn’t really changed that much) versus Tim’s new persona, a man with MS who can ejaculate random and surreal lines (that’s what medication does to you) and accentuate the spasticity to get through airports quicker (he leans, paws and tries to bite his own shoulder). Tim’s Feminist Poems are a real highlight: on sideboobs, the importance of keeping your pubic hair (Sisters!) and ‘the sound of one clitoris clapping’. Every time he talks you think ‘WTF?’ which is probably a good thing for comedy in short doses.

Doug Anthony Allstars - then
Doug Anthony Allstars – then

A highlight of the show is the Meet and Greet afterwards. Now I don’t remember there ever being a Meet and Greet in my day. It would have turned into a fangirl riot. Seeing the queue snake around the room as women with DAAS tattoos on their shoulders and fishnet stockings and boots and the same haircuts they had when they were 18 gives the performance space over to the fans. As they adjust their dresses and rehearse what they’re going to say when they reach the desk, their faces are transformed as they leave, clutching their phones with selfies, their signed posters from the night.

Can middle-aged people still be punks? On stage, Paul says, ‘When we were young we used to pretend we didn’t care. Now we REALLY don’t care’; and in the most nostalgic moment of the night, when a screen image of the three beautiful young men singing, turns into Tim standing up out of his wheelchair, and my eyes well up, any emotion I feel is abruptly cut off as Paul runs off stage: it’s the closest they come to a Fuck You moment, really. Except for the Meet and Greet. As Paul rails against the clock striking midnight to security – ‘Where are our people? I’m tired! Get these people away from me!’, Tim draws a detailed anatomically correct diagram onto the inside pages of his book for sale — a woman’s legs spread wide apart, her vagina resplendent with pubic hair — for a group of middle-aged women standing around who’ve seen it all before (all they have to do is look down).

If you missed them in Sydney and Melbourne, DAAS’ next stop is Perth.

Bendigo Writers’ Festival: girls, grief, guts

On the radio oh oh

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

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

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

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

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

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching the detectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *  *  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open FieldHow did you choose the charity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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