Wild Colonial Girl Blog

Shyness is nice: the beauty of inarticulation

An autobiography of Christos Tsiolkas
A biography of Christos Tsiolkas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I felt like I’d been found.

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

MARKETING + PROMOTION STRATEGIES FOR INDIE AUTHORS

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

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

Here are some of the strategies the panellists shared.

ESTABLISH AN ONLINE PRESENCE/AUTHOR PLATFORM 

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

AUTHOR BLOG

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

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

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

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

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

USING SOCIAL MEDIA 

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOODREADS

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

PROMOTION IN THE REAL WORLD/OFFLINE PROMOTION

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

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

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

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

COVER, TITLE + PRICE

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

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

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

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

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

MORE MARKETING/PROMOTION TIPS

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Renovating and housekeeping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Black and Blue: Blue Mountains’ stories – Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

Ron Pretty hosts Black and Blue panel, Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival, photo: Bette Mifsud
Ron Pretty hosts Black and Blue panel, featuring Mark O’Flynn, Emma Brazil, Michael Streich, Jude Martinez, Craig Billingham, Faye Wilson, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival, photo: Bette Mifsud

Coming from Castlemaine, a small town in regional Victoria, I can see how certain rural areas of Australia are starting to thrive, attracting artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians. But even so, creatives can often feel they work in isolation, stuck in a studio or cave somewhere, coming out occasionally to see the light.

The Black and Blue exhibition in Katoomba, launched by local resident Tara Moss as part of the Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival, draws on Blue Mountains’ stories, bringing together writers and illustrators who live in the mountains. The early stages of the project involved a call-out to locals to submit stories they’d heard: rumours; truths; dark mutterings. Once on the table, there was a selection process and writers and illustrators were paired up for particular tales, free to interpret and make connections. Contemporary stories were put gently aside, with contributors wary of representing people still living in the area (this would have been fascinating, too). The result is a show currently exhibiting at a new gallery, the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, until 29 June.

In a panel hosted by poet Ron Pretty, there was much discussion about the role of the illustrator, and the divide between illustration and art. I’d never really thought about the difference between illustrators and artists (if there is one). Illustrations for children’s books are always as important as the words themselves, sometimes more so. Black and Blue was originally conceived as a way to celebrate what illustrators do, and how they fit into the publishing landscape.

Faye Wilson, an illustrator living in the Blue Mountains, is drawn to (literally) the ‘mad scientist process’ of  transforming traditional art mediums in Photoshop, the alchemy of combining the analogue with the digital, layering, ‘glaze upon glaze’. She spoke passionately of how primarily culture is about place — that hearing local stories always enriches the spot where you live, and that the Mountains has a deep culture of its own.

There are 16 artists involved –  the illustrators are Greg Bakes, Amy Cutler, Wayne Harris, Jude Martinez, Nancy Sarno, Toby Riddle, Michel Striech, and Wilson, and the writers are Craig Billingham, Emma Brazil, Kathy Hale, John Low, Mark O’Flynn,Vanessa Kirkpatrick, Trevor Shearston and Deb Westbury.

More on the Sydney Writers’ Festival: Emma Donoghue on Frog Dancing; Kirsten Krauth and Felicity Castagna on debut fiction and the here and now; and tough love in the books of Sally Piper and Annah Faulkner.

If you would like to meet me on Facebook and chat more, join up. If you could LIKE I would really LOVE.

Tough love: Sally Piper & Annah Faulkner – Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

Sally Piper + Annah Faulkner, Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.
Sally Piper + Annah Faulkner, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.

Annah Faulkner has the kind of eyes so sharp they seem to penetrate you to the bone. When talking about her novel The Beloved, you can imagine she is as gusty as the characters she speaks of. Sally Piper, a former nurse, has just released her debut novel Grace’s Table, and this is her first appearance at a festival.

Annah talks about how love seems to have changed over the generations, how in the past love could be fierce, so fierce it was like fighting for survival. There can be a point for mothers where they want something so badly (for their child), they’re so fearful about what’s going to happen (to their child), that their love tips at a point into something else, into desperate control. This reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s adopted mother — evangelical, deranged — in her memoir, who asks: why be happy when you could be normal?

A small comment from a parent to a small child can influence how they see the world, and their place in it, for a long time. Annah tells of drawing at the table and her mother leaning over and saying, just casually, ‘Art is definitely not your strength.’ Creativity needs to be nurtured not strangled. It was only when she reached 41, that she saw a man in the park, and thought, ‘I’d like to paint that’. In a way, she sees writing a small girl character with a talent for art as a way of healing.

Annah Faulkner, BelovedAnnah reveals that her mother was a journo and photographer in Papua New Guinea. I was born in PNG and returned there for a short time when I was a child. It’s more and more on the radar with Australian writers. I look forward to reading The Beloved.

In Grace’s Table, Sally’s intent was to flout the expected conventions when writing about a 70-year-old woman. She wanted to write an older woman character who had lived (as we all have lived). Sally wrote her novel as part of a degree, and said she had always been fascinated with the 50s, women in the kitchen, the post-war period where after women had the chance to work, their opportunities were then stripped right back.

Sally talked about how the way we share food defines us, and her novel revolves around how food in a domestic setting is not just about loving and caring, but can be manipulative and taunting too. Her university exegesis was about how disempowered 50s women became empowered in the home by becoming guerilla tacticians. I have a vision of someone in a demure apron and a gorilla mask, but I’ll read Grace’s Table to find out more.

Sally Piper, Grace's TableIn response to an audience question about characters becoming part of their lives and buzzing around in their brains, Sally admitted to being a ‘bloody idiot’ when writing and driving (the two don’t mix; I can attest to this). I don’t mean literally. But having characters talk to you when you’re at the wheel can be really distracting.

While Annah, who has set an event in her new novel at a particular block of land that she drives past regularly, always thinks ‘There’s Fred’s place!’ as she sails on by…

For more on the Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival, see Emma Donoghue chatting about motherhood and cross-dressing, and a roundup of my Here and Now session with Felicity Castagna.

Here and Now: Felicity Castagna and me – Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

Kirsten Krauth, Felicity Castagna + Irina Dunn, Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival. Photo:
Kirsten Krauth, Felicity Castagna + Irina Dunn, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.

When you go up on a stage to talk about your book, the harsh spotlight and the mics and the intense concentration and the nerves means the event can fly past you even as you’re experiencing it. Something like smoking too much pot.

I was going to dredge up my disconnected and whimsical memories but — thank God — I discovered Lisa Fleetwood’s Welcome to My Library blog, which covers it so much more eloquently than I could. She’s kindly agreed to do the work for me, and let me reproduce it here…

HERE AND NOW: DEBUT FICTION AT THE VARUNA/SYDNEY WRITERS’ FESTIVAL: FELICITY CASTAGNA AND KIRSTEN KRAUTH

BY LISA FLEETWOOD

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Wow, what a great start to the Sydney Writers’ Festival! I love the day up at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba — its such a great setting for a writers’ fest! For this blog post I will just concentrate on the first session as it featured two amazing Australian women writers. I took so many notes, it’s too much for even one blog post.

Two debut writers (but both are by no means new to the world of writing and editing) Kirsten Krauth and Felicity Castagna featured in conversation with Irina Dunn. Both authors have written fiction centred around the suburbs of Western Sydney [Felicity’s is YA; Kirsten’s was published as adult but crosses over into YA], and have explored the lives of teenage protagonists that are forced into maturity early. The discussion was informative and interesting (as a writer and a reader), and chaired brilliantly by Irina.

just_a_girlKirsten Krauth’s novel 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. Layla is isolated and searching for a sense of connection, faith, friendship and healing. The author explores the teenage world of what it’s like to grow up negotiating the digital world of Facebook, webcams, internet porn, mobile phones and cyber-bullying — a world where the line between public and private is increasingly being eroded.

Felicity CastagnaFelicity Castagna’s novel (which has been short-listed for a NSW Premiers Literary Award & the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year: Older Readers) tells the story of Michael, whose older brother dies at the beginning of the summer he turns 15, but as its title suggests, The Incredible Here and Now is a tale of wonder, not of tragedy. It tells of Michael’s coming of age in a year which brings him grief and romance; and of the place he lives in Western Sydney and its mix of cultures. Through his perceptions, the reader becomes familiar with Michael’s community and its surroundings, the unsettled life of his family, the girl he meets at the local pool, the friends that gather in the McDonald’s parking lot at night, the white Pontiac Trans Am that lights up his life like a magical talisman.


 Irina began the discussion about the environment of the novels. How did the authors create the sense of place?

→For Felicity, Parramatta was a place she knew well, had walked and worked and lived in, and was fascinated by the mix of cultures and the small spaces where people gather — the Macca’s carpark, the Westfield food court, the local shops and the intricacies that make up a bustling city and how a teenager might inhabit that space.

→For Kirsten, her former commute from Springwood to Sydney was a plethora of research fodder for a self-proclaimed semi-stalker of people. She found that a train is a place somewhere in between public and private, a place where not all, but many people, reveal private information in a very public place, especially teenage girls. From the discussion today, I sense that the environment inside and outside the train (regular or irregular passengers, gigantic moths, the beautiful landscape passing by) will feature, but upon reading the book I am sure a further sense of Layla’s space, her inner thoughts and her online world will be revealed.

Both authors talked of wanting to elaborate more with the setting and place.

→Felicity is particularly interested in place-driven novels, but both commented on the need to strip back the description to write a character study rather than setting.

→Kirsten realised that her characters wouldn’t notice the environment as much as she would. Kirsten’s comment struck a chord with me — why hadn’t I thought about that before? I have sometimes used description in my novel as merely a need to get something across to the reader, but would a teenage boy (my protagonist) notice the lines of a building, what it was made of, or the sunlight sparkling on the cascade of a waterfall? Maybe not. Time for yet another edit maybe.

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Kirsten Krauth, Felicity Castagna and Irina Dunn, Here and Now session, The Carrington, Katoomba, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

The discussion moved on to how the authors captured the teenage voice. How did they do it so well?

→Felicity, as a former teacher in a boys’ high school, had seven years’ experience observing teenage boys and how they speak and react, but within that she wanted to create a poetic, lyrical voice with a teenage usage of similes and metaphors.

→Kirsten was fascinated with what she would sometimes hear on the train, the ease at which teenage girls would freely talk about their escapades (sometimes sexual) in a public space, but she was also interested in the private/public space of the internet and how much could be gleaned about people without their knowledge.

When researching her book (which actually began as a character study), Krauth found that talking to teenage girls didn’t reveal to her the information she was looking for, but all she had to do was sit back and listen — on the train, but also online. Her book also explored the digital medium of lonely people who can’t connect in everyday life but connect online privately on a public medium, or so they think. Krauth found that it didn’t take much to find out where someone lived, what they liked and who their friends were. She found it easy to get inside the minds of teenage girls, so how easy would it be for a sexual predator? Something to think about for me with a teenage daughter. We have had a ‘internet is turned off when Mum goes to bed’ rule for a long time. This rule won’t be changing anytime soon!

What were their influences for these novels?

→Felicity’s childhood YA reading (while living abroad) introduced her to a form of writing called ‘vignettes’ and she used this style to write her novel. A vignette is a short impressionistic scene that focuses on one moment or gives a trenchant impression about a character, idea, setting, or object, or in Felicity’s words — a series of ‘short short stories’. She then puts her stories into linear fashion and fills in the gaps.

→Kirsten’s quotes Room by Emma Donoghue, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and Rocks in the Belly by Jon Bauer as influences for their clarity and fresh voice, as well as the naive voice (of a child) and a terrible sense of dread.

Plotter or Pantser?

Definition: Plotter –  Outlines novel before sitting down to write it. Pantser – Sits down at the computer each day, waiting to be surprised, writing your book literally by the seat of your pants.

→Kirsten — definitely a Pantser. She wrote the first draft without planning or plotting and without re-reads or editing. As soon as she mentioned doing her Masters with Sue Woolfe, I knew what she meant! (I will do a blog post about Sue Woolfe soon). I did a fascinating day course with her last year. Her view is that over-planning and plotting limits the imagination, reins it in. Where would our imaginative brains have taken us if we weren’t corralled by a firm plot? Kirsten talked of writing scenes in fragments and moving the scenes around to where they fit best. What voice appears in the story after first draft? What emerges as the heart of the story, the main theme?

→Felicity wasn’t quite as definite. I recall her nodding to the question of being a Pantser. Perhaps she may have been combination of the two, but her form of writing — the Vignettes — leans towards a Panster. These vignettes may have been her first ‘pantser’ draft, then upon second draft spent some time plotting and, as she said, ‘fills in the gaps’. If she reads this post, perhaps she can confirm! It was hard for both authors to answer all of the questions fully with the limited time of the session, or maybe I simply missed her response while scribbling notes.

In closing

There was further discussion regarding multiculturalism and how children perceive it, internet research and the dangers of connecting online, the world of self-marketing as an author, and comparisons between growing up in the 80s compared to teenagers in the digital age. A question from the audience touched on the perception of adults about teenagers, and the discussion led to the intelligence and sensitivity of children and teenagers, and how there is a big gap between their inner thoughts and feelings, and how they present themselves to the world, which could lead to an incorrect perception by adults.

Both authors read short excerpts from their books which gave me a real sense of the characters and the place setting. I am really looking forward to reading and reviewing them.

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To read more about Kirsten Krauth click here for her website and Wild Colonial Girl Blog.

To read more about Felicity Castgana click here for her personal website go tohttp://www.incrediblestories.net.au for a teaching guide for her book.

Book images and synopsis from Goodreads.

Read my related articles about Notable Australian Children’s Fiction and the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

 

A room with a view + Emma Donoghue: Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

Varuna: a room with a (gothic) view
Varuna: a room with a (gothic) view

Walking into Varuna (a residence for writers in Katoomba) from the road is like entering some kind of wonderland. It seems to be a place where you leave your baggage at the gate. I sleep in the Sewing Room, in a small wooden single bed with a patchwork quilt, and read and write here in the Green Room, with wall to wall library shelves, a huge desk, window views and a comfy chair to sit.

Whenever I’m struggling for a metaphor to grab when describing writing and editing, I tend to go with the handicrafts. I do find my own method of putting a manuscript together works much like a hand-made patchwork quilt, writing the fragments and then piecing them together according to colour, texture, style. Editing too has often been described as a kind of tearing apart and stitching back together, hopefully with the stitches seamless and invisible to the reader.

I wake at Varuna to gothic bare trees after a night of red wine and grand talk around a fire with Djon Mundine and Felicity Castagna. I’m here at Varuna not to write this time, but for my first session as part of the Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival, and they’ve also asked me to guest blog.

In Emma Donoghue’s gut-churningly tense novel, Room, there are no windows, no view. Jack is a five-year-old who has been locked up with his mother since birth; Ma was kidnapped. His voice is precise and strikes at your heart, clear as a bell. When I was reading books featuring young characters as research for just_a_girl it was Jack’s voice, and Christopher’s in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, that remained with me.

 

Kate Fagan + Emma Donoghue at Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.
Kate Fagan + Emma Donoghue at Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.

Emma Donoghue’s session at the Carrington unfolds in her warm and hearty Irish accent. She talks of the ideas behind her latest book, Frog Music, set in the late 1800s about a cross-dresser, a frog-catcher and an erotic dancer. I’m already in love with the sound of it. The women in her novel are rebelling against the rules, refusing to be ‘good girls’. She talks about the joys of delving into the archives, uncovering things odd and excessive. She spends a day researching men’s jewellery, ‘trousers so tight it left nothing to the imagination’.

She also talks of the centrality of the theme of motherhood to her novels, sometimes capturing her by surprise: the pressures of family/work reflecting all our lives and that moment when as a parent you have to consider: ‘Will I keep them safe or will I let them live?’ She then goes onto describe her own creative processes, and how she achieves balance: ‘I weaned my daughter to go on a book tour … I feel so shallow saying that’, she says, laughing.

Donoghue’s passion for writers and writing shines through in every word. The youngest of eight, she loved the indulgence of being able to read books while her older siblings worked around her. She’s only just starting to feel like a grown up (now she has kids). I know how she feels  …

Heading off to another day in the mountains…

For more Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival coverage, see here and now fiction with me and Felicity Castagna, and tough love with Annah Faulkner and Sally Piper.

 

 

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.

The television of intimate connections: True Detective, Girls, Rake, Homeland, Redfern Now

Marty (Woody Harrelson) & Rust (Matthew McConaughey) in True Detective
Marty (Woody Harrelson) & Rust (Matthew McConaughey) in True Detective

TV’s True Detective has started off a conversation, the idea that long-form television series can be compared to the ‘old novel’—most notably 19th century serialisations—offering viewers the chance to develop along with the characters on a week by week basis as the episodes screen live to air: to confront their lies and peculiarities, to see structural and psychological changes, to find compassion even when they do diabolical things.

Charles Dickens’ and Alexandre Dumas’ novels often started out as instalments in magazines or newspapers, giving readers the opportunity to see the characters gradually emerge over months or even years, before the entire series was published as a novel. Television in the US (and it’s starting to change in Australia) is giving writers the freedom to challenge conventional TV wisdom by offering philosophical meanderings and deep psychological insights, compassion for the building complexity of characters who are initially difficult to like, the chance to draw on a number of intertwining perspectives, and movement between main and minor characters as the series unfolds. Central to many of these shows—Girls, Homeland, True Detective, Rake, Redfern Now—is an argument for empathy for those stuck in a wasteland of socio-economic-moralistic ambiguity, where the rage against the machine is no longer heard, where characters—and viewers—are no longer sure where they are placed when it comes to the slippery line between good and evil.

We Are All Refugees 

Allie (Lisa Flanagan) & Aaron (Wayne Blair) in Redfern Now
Allie (Lisa Flanagan) & Aaron (Wayne Blair) in Redfern Now

In Rake, Frank the priest (Tony Barry)—who Cleaver (Richard Roxburgh) visits regularly to ‘confess’ —argues that “we’re all refugees in one way or another.” And it’s this idea that underpins most successful contemporary TV series, where we grow to care intimately about characters who are outsiders, drifting aimlessly, despite (and because of) their exposed flaws.

In Redfern Now, the residents of the inner-city suburb are shown to be displaced even on their own turf. Aaron (Wayne Blair) is ostracised within his Indigenous community, for being a copper and for letting a man die on his watch. When he walks down the street he takes his granddaughter “as a shield” against the hostility of local residents. Allie (Lisa Flanagan) tells him he’s “not a proper blackfella,” even when he has just come to the front door to help after her husband has assaulted her. Listening to karaoke at the local pub, Aaron is refused bar service and Allie stops mid-song to confront those judging her bruised face. They’re united in their exclusion: Allie asks if she can join his “leper colony.” When they go out on their first date to a ‘flash’ Japanese restaurant in Surry Hills, Aaron says to Allie as they are walking in, “We’re Brazilian, not blackfellas—remember?” to put her at ease.

Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls
Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls

In Girls, Hannah (Lena Dunham), an aspirational writer, doesn’t fit into the NYC ideal of heavy-hitting glamorous go-getter and stands on the outside looking in. She is often seen naked, her voluptuous, soft un-Hollywood body a revelation with its unsexualised bulges. Watching her with Dunham’s neutral gaze, we want to be exposed to her, even when she’s grating—and she can be (in that funny, neurotic way that Woody Allen and George Costanza can be). When Hannah’s editor dies, she feels nothing, only concerned about whether her e-book will still be published. Attending her editor’s funeral, she cries, “Oh my God! I think I see Zadie Smith. That is definitely her.” Just when we’ve had enough of Hannah’s solipsism, the focus pulls back and we see her in bed, counting everything in eights, contending with OCD, sticking a Q-tip in her ear so hard she ruptures an eardrum, alone, cast aside and so vulnerable it wounds us too.

 The limits of compassion

Richard Roxburgh as Cleaver Green in Rake
Richard Roxburgh as Cleaver Green in Rake

The ABC’s Rake has become ever more expansive, series two taking Cleaver Green to the limits of our (and other characters’) compassion. He’s like the Aussie larrikin (the questionable stereotype that our identity is apparently based on: mischievous, rowdy, a lad) taken to the extreme, to the point where he’s completely devoid of charm, in a slow process of disintegration. When Cleaver gets out of jail he’s repeatedly punished for his casual neglect: by the young man (Dan Wylie) who stands (too close) by him in prison and then kills himself; by the son (Keegan Joyce) who accepts Rake’s failures with complete and unnerving clarity; by the wife (Caroline Brazier) who has literally moved on and sold the family home; by the woman (Jane Allsop) who refuses to sleep with him and ends up in hospital three times as victim of Cleaver’s suspected domestic violence. At one point, the show’s sleazy TV show host, Cal McGregor (Damien Garvey), asks, “I mean, what country are we living in, people? The United States of Self-Interest?” It’s only when Cleaver finds an emotional connection and empathy with his clients—one, a priest (Paul Sonkilla), who reveals his brother, also a priest, was a paedophile—that he starts to win his cases. And the wider scope of Rake, which gives the second series its pace, is that it’s always up for seeing through systemic oppression and hypocrisy, exposing upper class cruelty, the cover-ups and silent witnesses among the silks, the Gina Rineharts, the tax lawyers, the priests who look past sexual abuse, the pollies who rely on polling for their shifting morality.

Claire Danes and Damian Lewis in Homeland
Claire Danes and Damian Lewis in Homeland

In Homeland we are continually forced to navigate large-scale hypocrisies and cross narrative boundaries where the line between good and bad is not stretched thin, it is completely gone. Both CIA ‘case manager’ Carrie (Claire Danes) and ‘terrorist’ Brody (Damian Lewis) are shown to be worthy of respect yet deeply conflicted, and their lives are often paralleled: Carrie is forced against her will into a mental institution for bipolar disorder, Brody is strapped down in a high-rise slum in Caracas, reliant on heroin to deal with the horrors of incarceration. Carrie and Brody are seen as the heroic anti-heroes because they are guided by intuition and how they relate to others, compared with the failures of the large impersonal corporations they work for. The turning inwards and isolationism of US culture and policy at large after September 11 is exposed in Brody’s being turned over by the US to his Islamic torturers. Forced to perform his prayer rituals while cowering in a corner of his locked garage, he is seen as unforgivable: a US marine who has converted to Islam.

 The gender divide

 With True Detective, the main characters Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson) come to us fully formed. Like babies seen as ‘old souls,’ they appear as if they’ve been here before, lived other lives. This is accentuated by the opening sequence with its cinematography by Australian Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom; Lore): we feel like we inhabit the landscape, and the language, of these men. The opening image arrests us. We begin in a cane field, looking at a tableau of a naked girl, her body purple-hued, huddled in prayer position, delicate antlers crowning her head. A deer in the rifle sight, she sets the detectives off into a meandering expose of Southern comfort and culture, how men relate to one another, and how they fail to communicate. As the men look longingly at the pretty, dead prostitute laid out in extreme closeup on the slab, she is, in all her glory, ‘fridged.’

Michelle Monaghan as Maggie in True Detective
Michelle Monaghan as Maggie in True Detective

But when the women are alive, they get to the heart of the matter very quickly, and perhaps this is a problem for the shape of the overall narrative. It takes Marty’s wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), who’s not a detective, five minutes to find out what Rust has been concealing from Marty for months. Perhaps if the series let Maggie speak more, she would get past the bullshit and solve the crime, and the show would be over in an hour. The exciting thing about True Detective is that the men are deeply flawed, contrary, enigmatic and compelling characters—but portraying women as ‘whores,’ ‘crazy bitches,’ ‘teenage sluts,’ ‘corrupted innocents,’ or the open-all-hours attractive women that sagging Marty seems to seduce with ease, ultimately reduces the series’ dramatic possibilities.

 The demanding viewer

Vince Gilligan, creator Breaking Bad, is appearing at Sydney Writers' Festival on 1
Vince Gilligan, creator Breaking Bad, is appearing at Sydney Writers’ Festival on 1 May

While Australian TV series writers and creators don’t yet have the lit-celeb status of those starting to tour here (like Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, and David Simon, who crossed boundaries with The Wire), shows like Rake and Redfern Now are pushing characters beyond the usual conventions of prime-time TV, blending dysfunctional family dynamics, occasional tragedy and off-the-wall humour. Like their 19th century counterparts, some people are happy to view their show at the same time each week, sometimes waiting months for the final instalment. Meanwhile the impact of iView, Apple TV and illegal downloads means more viewers are binge-watching entire series, just to keep up with social media conversations. Either way, the new-found popularity of TV series is forcing writers to keep up, to create characters that invite intimate connections, stimulate discussion and open up new narrative possibilities for increasingly demanding viewers.

This article was originally commissioned for the April-May 2014 edition of RealTime, which focuses on Art, Empathy and Action. Check out the full edition.

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