What Snail Knows, by Kathryn Apel, illustrated by Mandy Foot

At school,

I usually try to find a place

away from other


It’s better by


Lucy can’t take her house with her wherever she goes, like her friend Snail – but she does take Snail with her. And she moves a lot, with her dad not keen to stay anywhere for very long. Always being the new girl makes school a challenge for Lucy but at her latest school she has a nice teacher and even a new friend. If only  she could convince Dad to stay here for longer.

What Snail Knows is a delightful verse novel for younger readers about friendship, family and community – and, of course, snails. From the perspective of Lucy, an outsider, there is much for readers to learn about empathy, but the messages of the book don’t overwhelm the story, which is important.

Told using free verse, with occasional shape poems, this a poetic delight, well supported by the gentle illustrations by Mandy Foot.

What Snail Knows, by Kathryn Apel, illustrated by Mandy Foot

UQP, 2022



Guest Post: From aged care to publishing contract in 10 months

It’s always wonderful to hear about authors’ paths to publications, so it is a pleasure to welcome today Karen Herbert, author of The River Mouth to share her story. Over to you, Karen. 

This time two years ago, I was an aged care executive. I didn’t know that soon I would be made redundant and spend the winter writing two novels that would be accepted for publication the following year. Today, as the federal government releases the report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, I’ve been reflecting on the last two years and wondering what I can learn from them.

Aged care is rewarding, exhausting and all-consuming. There is never enough money, staff or hours in the day. There are always changes that need to be made to a resident’s care as they age and their health declines. Leaving work issues at work is not an option. Like nurses with patients and school teachers with students, aged care workers go home each night and worry about their residents, about the amount of food they left on their plate, about their last fall, about how long it has been since they had a visit from family. About how they themselves didn’t spend enough time just sitting and talking instead of racing through the daily care plan before moving on to the next resident.

I was in charge of retirement villages and home care when my position was made redundant. Losing my job was like losing an arm. As I packed up my desk and remembered all the things I still needed to do, I scribbled notes about resident care plans that had to be updated, requests for changes to cleaning schedules, invoices to be finalised for the previous month. I drove home remembering resident morning teas scheduled for the following week that I would not be attending and family members who had contacted me for help in navigating the maze of the aged care funding system. I walked in the front door and sobbed the news to my husband, drank a glass of wine, and another, and promised him I would take time off before looking for another job. Aged care, he’d observed, had been taking its toll, and maybe I needed a rest.

The next day, I didn’t register my resume on Seek. Instead, I dressed for work, went to my home office and wrote the first two thousand words of my first novel. The next day I wrote another two thousand words, and the next day another two. I was used to working hard. I kept going until I had a completed manuscript 12 weeks later. Then I wondered what to do next, so I applied for a couple of jobs and wrote another one.

It took a stupid amount of courage to give my work to someone to read. Writing, it seemed, was the easy part. The words flowed. They delighted me. I laughed as I wrote, startling the dogs, and when I had ideas in the shower I hurried back to my desk, dripping water on the carpet. Over dinner, I updated my family on my characters’ progress, and they made suggestions for roadblocks and plot twists. But I didn’t let them read any words on a page. That was too hard, too revealing. It was one thing to talk about my fictional friends over dinner, but what if my writing was rubbish? How embarrassing. Sharing my actual written words didn’t come until I joined a writing group. In the first five minutes of the first session, the facilitator announced that we would have time to read aloud from our work. I was horrified. It was all I could do not to crawl under the table.

I got over it. I read to the group that first time, and then again, and again. I learned to receive feedback and to give it with kindness and encouragement in the same way it was given to me. I relearned my high-school lessons about character, plot and setting, practised showing not telling, and sent my manuscript to beta readers. I edited and re-edited, and was astonished by the way typos, clunky sentences and plot inconsistencies persisted in draft after draft. I worked hard. I dreamed about my characters and woke up to realisations about structural errors. In the final week before Christmas, eight months after I was made redundant, I sent my first manuscript to Fremantle Press. Two months later, they called me. ‘We’d like to publish your book,’ they said.

That phone call was a well-timed ego boost. The first thing I learned from my post-redundancy writing effort was that I am not immune to the loss of status that tests people when they lose their jobs. It hurts. I had nowhere to go each day, nothing useful to do. I lost my position on industry committees. I was out of the loop in speculation about the royal commission. When allegations of abuse in nursing homes hit the media, I had no-one to talk with about the horror of the neglect or the fear that the same thing might be happening under our own watch. I felt shame that I wouldn’t be part of any eventual solution. But that phone call was the first sense that maybe I could do something different. Someone wanted to publish my book; maybe I could do this new thing.

The second thing I learned from post-redundancy life was how to stick with something when there is only me to encourage me along. Corporate life had taught me about perseverance – building a new retirement village or introducing new home care services takes time and patience – but at least in a corporate office you have a team that can pick you up when you are gloomy about being short-staffed or going over your budget. When it’s just me and the dogs at 2.30 pm on a Wednesday and the scene I am writing is rubbish, there’s no-one to suggest I stop for a coffee or work on a different chapter. I have to do that for myself.

The third thing I learned is that a writer writes. Even if what I am writing is rubbish, if I want to finish a manuscript, I have to sit down at my desk and … write. It seems obvious, and very unromantic, but the muse only comes when I am working. It’s much the same as any other job; if you want to make a difference you have to put your shoulder to the wheel and work at it.

I will be part of the aged care solution. I have joined the board of Advocare, a wonderful organisation that helps older people and their families negotiate the system and have a voice in their care. Whatever solution government proposes when it responds to the royal commission report in May, that voice will still be needed as the government makes changes to the aged care system. I am fortunate that I will be able to help make it heard.

I can also use my own voice. I can have older characters, who are not just sweet old ladies, but strong women who once managed households and ran corporations. Maybe they will be a force for good. Maybe they will be the villains in my stories. By the time my first book is released in October 2021, changes in aged care will be well underway. I look forward to being part of the change and a force for good.

The River Mouth is available in all good bookstores and online.


You can connect with Karen Herbert on

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/herbert_whittle/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/herbert_whittle

Or on her website: https://karenwhittleherbert.wordpress.com


Guest Post: Why Comics? by Aśka

It’s been a while since we had a guest post here, but today I am delighted to welcome my friend, and the very talented illustrator  Aśka, here to talk about comics to celebrate the release of an important and wonderful new book, Stars in Their Eyes . Over to you  Aśka

Why Comics? by Aśka

I’m a visual person. In fact, that’s an understatement. There is always a movie playing in my head visualising how something feels, or scrutinising an image painted by a cliché, or ‘seeing’ music I enjoy. It never stops.

This may be why I was immediately drawn to comics when I started reading as a child. My favourite books had characters who interacted with the panels they were drawn in, played with space and time, and even the creator (whose hand and pen would sometimes feature). At six years old I had already found my medium. I was hooked and there was no going back.

Today it’s a dangerous game to say you love comics and keep your literary cred at the same time. Historically, comics have been associated with low-brow content, misogynous entertainment, propaganda and even teenage delinquency.

As the form developed and matured, it was rebranded as the more acceptable ‘graphic novel’. I personally use ‘comics’ as an umbrella term for both; apart from the format in which they’re printed I don’t believe there really is much of a difference between them.

Comics are a medium, and just like films, books and songs, they contain a universe of genres within them that vary in quality and sophistication. The same basic language of comics can be used for entertaining escapism, as well as for creating confronting, multi-layered emotional experiences.

I believe it’s time comics were taken as seriously as any other branch of literature, and with that, I present five reasons for my undying devotion to them.

Comics offer a personalised experience

A comic is not just pictures in boxes, plastered with speech bubbles. It uses panels (time), representational and symbolic images, words, sounds and layout to create an experience. It’s a vehicle the reader climbs into and then drives though the story. And unlike any other medium, the reader controls the pace and (to an extent) the direction of that journey.

If you’re disturbed by a part of the story, you can glance over it without losing your place. If you’re enjoying a moment, there is enough there to let you linger and revel in it. If there is a large spread, you can wonder around in it and become lost. The comic creator never knows exactly how the reader will traverse their work, except maybe for the minimal requirement of reading from left to right, top to bottom. But through the presence of this unknown parameter, the comic format creates a uniquely personal experience for each reader. Even as a child I felt this and that’s how my fascination started.

Comics require a high level of literacy

Every time someone says ‘comics are great for early and reluctant readers’, I roll my eyes. Yes, it’s true – the visuals offer an alternative reading of the story and this certainly helps with the interpretation of the text, as well as with the reader’s confidence. But there is so much more to it than that.

The comic reader is expected to assemble the visual, emotive, temporal, sound and narration cues in their mind: comic reading is therefore a much more complex and immersive experience. The more acrobatics your brain performs to extract the story, the bigger the reward. So to gain pleasure from reading a well put together comic work is to know one’s way around more than just the written word.

As children, we treat and train all of our literacies equally. However, when we are adults, it is possible to feel that multi-modal literacy is an innate ability and, unlike the written word, does not require attention or scrutiny. But this is not the case, and there is a deficit in our own ability (and the ability of our children) to be aware of and critical of the various non-verbal cues bombarding us. I will come back to the gravity of this point later.

Comics offer a platform for marginalised voices

Being shunned by mainstream literature, comics became an independent medium, growing and developing in the bedrooms of their creators, on the alternative zine-scene and shared at meet-ups and conventions – far from sanitizing power of the mainstream publishing industry. As a result, independent comics have long been a playground for diverse stories created by people whose voices have been silenced on other cultural platforms.

The personalised experience offered by reading a comic means the relationship between the reader and the storyteller is a more intimate one. A comic that offers a window into the life or opinions of an individual who is different from the reader has a chance of being met with less resistance than other mediums because of the powerful emotional connection that forms through the investment required to read it.

This might explain the rise of the biographical-graphic novel and the introduction of own-voice patient graphic novels as recommended reading across various medical sectors. (For more on this, see: www.graphicmedicine.org/resources/liasison-program/)

Comics are not just about amazing art

After years of being quite elitist in my opinions of what constituted ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art, comics have taught me that skilfully executed, realistic artwork is not what makes a great reading experience. After all, leaving gaps in the ‘text’ for the reader to fill in and interpret is how engagement is established.

The essence of comics is creating a space (with parameters decided upon by the maker) where the images and words interact in the reader’s mind, resulting in ‘the story’. An engaging comic could be made with no representational imagery at all – for example, in complete darkness or with ‘dots’ as characters. The success of storytelling through comics does not rest on the ‘quality’ of the words or images alone, but on the pacing, scale and multi-sensory and emotional narrative. This is often considered by the creator way ahead of any drawing taking place, and has little to do with how well the form of the characters has been rendered.

Comics in schools can end our visual illiteracy

As our screens overload with information, and our attention spans shorten, messaging is becoming more visual. Images can say and emote so much in a span of a glance. Each time you look at your phone, tablet or laptop, images are selling you a product, idea, opinion or agenda. Yet visual illiteracy is on the rise, as our ability to recognise and question visual propaganda wanes.

This brings me back to the earlier point that comics require multi-modal literacy of their readers. Treating comics as a valid form of literature, bringing them into the curriculum and studying the mechanisms that govern them is one of the major ways to prepare the next generation for the changing world ahead.

And with these words, I urge the ‘gatekeepers’ of the written word to start recognising and enjoying the rich diversity of what comics have to offer. Publishers of all genres could look into expanding their lists to include comics. Librarians are encouraged to read all the books in the comics-section to ensure appropriate age-classification of their titles. Educators could look to comics to boost their area of the curriculum with visual literacy. And this entire revolution starts with each individual picking up a graphic novel literary fiction and setting off on a journey of their own.

Stars in Their Eyes is a graphic novel by Aśka and Jessica Walton. It’s available in all good bookstores and online from Fremantle Press.


Aśka is an energetic illustrator, storyteller and science communicator who is a passionate advocate for visual literacy. She has illustrated ten published books and is a regular contributor to The School Magazine and other children’s publications.

Connect with Aśka on Facebook and Instagram (@askaillustration).








Guest Blogger: How an architectural icon became the perfect setting for a thriller with Zoe Deleuil

Today we introduce The Night Village. When Australian expat Simone moves to London to start a career, getting pregnant is not on her agenda. But she’s excited to start a new life with her baby and determined to be a good mother, even though her boyfriend Paul’s cold and grey apartment in the Barbican Estate seems completely ill-suited for a baby. In this blog piece author Zoe Deleuil shares how brutalist architecture informed her new novel.  Over to you, Zoe

A landmark of brutalist architecture, The Baribcan estate is an estate of some 2,000 apartments, in the heart of the London’s financial district, with three looming tower blocks and a famed cultural centre at its heart. The landscaping is pared back to symmetrical ponds and vast expanses of brick paving, the balconies have curved balustrades of rain-stained concrete deep enough to sit on, and the apartments are warm and sealed and quiet, and sell for millions to architects and magazine editors and well-heeled London creatives. It was home to Australian writer Clive James and is rumoured to be the inspiration for J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, High-Rise.

Designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon architects and completed in 1976 on a World War Two bombsite, it’s also famously difficult to navigate. Anyone who has tried to see a movie or performance at the Barbican Centre will know the rising panic of careening down deserted walkways and dead-ending in locked stairwells with Residents Only signs, before bursting into the buzzing foyer of the arts centre, sweaty and bewildered. I’ve even heard of a man stumbling onto the stage of a Shakespeare performance in a failed bid to find his seat. On a grey afternoon in mid-winter the place can feel downright post-apocalyptic. As a setting for a novel about a sleep-deprived and isolated new mother, it was filled with dramatic potential.

The Night Village opens with my main character, Simone, bringing her newborn son home to the Barbican apartment owned by her boyfriend, Paul, an urbane Londoner she’s known for one year. A few weeks later, Paul’s cousin Rachel turns up.

I have a clear memory of Rachel appearing at the door, eyes averted, walking into the apartment and simply staying. I didn’t know what she wanted from Simone and her baby, and it took many drafts until I found out.

As Simone fights rising unease and sleep deprivation, the apartment walls start to close in. Far from her Australian family, the bleak winter setting, the lack of community and the isolation of early motherhood  all heighten her isolation.

When writing The Night Village I wanted to explore how architecture can favour the able-bodied and unencumbered, and how landscapes – both interior and exterior – can feel threatening when you have to navigate them with a tiny baby. You get the impression that the architects who designed the Barbican didn’t spend much time looking after small children. It may be a lofty masterpiece of brutalism, but it’s not a place that embraces its inhabitants, least of all its more vulnerable ones. The brick courtyards are unsuited to ball games, the walkways are deserted and spooky, and a toddler could tumble silently into one of those Instagram-able green pools and drown in minutes. Simone doesn’t meet, or even hear, her neighbours through the soundproofed walls, and the men who guard the front desk of her tower block never acknowledge her as she passes them.

If I were writing an architectural history of the Barbican I would be more reverent and detached, but a novel is not about the architectural merits of a place, it’s about how that place makes its characters feel. The beauty of writing a novel is that you can follow your intuition, home in atmosphere and the smallest details to hopefully bring a building or street or city to life for your readers. As I tackled my first draft on sweltering summer afternoons in Perth, Australia, it was wonderful to escape to the northern hemisphere in my imagination – to summon up sealed, overheated rooms, bare winter landscapes and milky London light. With the help of real estate websites, Google Maps and YouTube I retraced my steps, identified street names and bus routes, and even wandered through apartment interiors for inspiration.

Making a building a character is a hallmark of gothic novels – look at Manderley, Hill House, Wuthering Heights and even Foxworth Hall. It’s not a new trick, but by finding the right building it’s one you can make your own. I had a lot of fun wandering around the Barbican when geography and two young kids meant a real-life visit was out of the question – and when you are working on something as long as a novel, it’s worth making it fun however you can.

In a strange way, setting a novel in the Barbican has made me fonder of the place. Sometimes a place captures your imagination not because it’s beautiful, but because it’s intriguing. The Barbican is a unique development, worshipped by design fans worldwide. But it’s also a little sinister and disorienting and weird. It’s easy to imagine people hiding from the world there, or hiding from themselves.

Thanks for visiting, Zoe.  The Night Village (Fremantle Press) is available in all good bookstores and online https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/products/the-night-village


Guest Blog: Meg McKinlay says The delight is in the detail

Meg McKinlay is a children’s writer and poet whose work ranges from picture books through to young adult fiction. Her publications include the Prime Minister’s Literary Award-winning A Single Stone, and CBCA-shortlisted No Bears and Duck for a Day, among many others. In this guest blog post she gets to grips with some common questions. Over to you Meg. 

What’s the story about? Where did you get the idea? Can you give a plot summary? What are the main themes?

When a new book comes out, authors answer these questions over and over again. And for good reason – they’re excellent, important questions. It’s important to have an excellent answer to hand. With the release of my new chapter book, Bella and the Voyaging House, I’ve been working hard lately to do exactly that.

But as much as I enjoy talking about these things, they never quite get to the heart of why I wrote the story. Yes, I can tell you where I got the idea, but I have hundreds of ideas and most of them will remain as fragments in notebooks, lacking that essential something that demands my creative attention, that makes me sit up and say, Oh. Yes. This is something I absolutely must write.

For me, that special something is always a tiny detail, a little grain that works its way under my skin and refuses to be ignored. In Bella and the Wandering House, the first ‘Bella’ book, it was the ‘perfectly round window’ in Bella’s bedroom. Though it has been some seven years since I wrote them, the lines that are used to describe it are lodged deep in my brain:

‘Grandad had made the frame wide, like a bench, so she could sit inside it, her back curving neatly against the smooth sweep of the wood.’

The moment I came up with this window was the moment when the story became inevitable. Something in it connected deeply to my childhood self, to a longing I had never articulated – for a reading nook, perhaps, or just a special space that was all my own. Whatever it was, I could feel it in my body, curving my own back against the imaginary wood, and there was no way I couldn’t write it into being.

Once I had done that, I was happy. I left Bella in her window and I moved onto other things, other stories. I had no plans for a sequel, until one day, several years later, long past the point at which it made sense to even consider another Bella story, a new little detail started gleaming in the corner of my eye.

I had just come back from the beach, where I had sat and watched the boats, and found myself thinking about Bella’s house, which has a nautical connection and likes to go out for a little swim every now and then. And just in the way that a creative brain does, I was idly wondering what it would feel like out there, what it would do, where it would go. What sorts of adventures that it might have, and what sorts of calamities might befall it and …

… just in the way a creative brain does, all day long. Sometimes all night long. Not in a way like an idea I’m going to pursue or a story I’m going to write. Until I tell my husband about these musings, spinning a little more and a little more, saying: You know, and they get stuck out there and someone has to rescue them and oh, I guess it would be Grandad and maybe he comes sailing in or … even flying in! On one of his contraptions!

And I look at my husband and he’s grinning like an excited kid, like one of the kids who sit in the front row at school visits and just.won’t.ever.put.their.hand.down, and he says, ‘Yeah! And he could be wearing some of those old-timey aviator goggles!’

And in that moment, I know I’m sunk. Because I can see Grandad, all of a sudden – braving the vast ocean, zooming in to the rescue. He’s grinning from ear to ear with the thrill of it, and even though I have no idea what this story is going to be about – why the house is on the ocean or why it gets stuck or what happens next or before or after … or indeed much of anything – I know I have to write it now because Grandad is having the time of his life and there’s no way I can let him down.

And thus, Bella and the Voyaging House was born, an entirely unsensible sequel, a mere six years after the first.

I’m calling these small details, because they are. But they’re also not. They’re the seeds from which everything grows, not just in terms of inspiration, but structurally, technically. Bella’s round window tells me something about Bella, about who she is. It starts to form her as a character. It suggests her relationship with Grandad, which is at the heart of both books. This in turn starts to build the characters of Mum and Dad, and their own, different relationships with Bella, which becomes important to both the plot and emotional narrative of both stories. Grandad’s goggles and improbable flight tell me that I’m writing about things like ingenuity and adventure, about freedom and courage, and a sort of resilient, childlike optimism. They give me an image and a feeling to head towards, and for a writer like me, that’s plenty.

Follow the details, I say – take that funny little grain that grabs you and write out of that. You can build a whole story that way, a whole delightful, detailed world.

Meg McKinlay’s Bella and the Voyaging House and Bella and the Wandering House are both available in all good bookstores and online.

Guest Blog – Katie Stewart author and illustrator of Where Do the Stars Go?

Born in the north of England, Katie Stewart came to Australia at the age of nine. She started her working life as an archaeologist and ethnohistorian, then went on to teaching and to being a mother. She later worked in a school library, but her lifelong dream was to be what she is now. She is married to a farmer, has three children, writes and illustrates books, and lives north of Northam with lots of pets. Sounds idyllic, right? In this blog post, Katie talks about the highs and lows of being a regional writer.

I always wanted to live on a farm. I’d lived in the country most of my life, but not on a farm. So when my fiancé, who works in the Department of Agriculture, said he wanted to go back to the family farm, I thought a dream had come true. I headed into married life with a head full of idyllic pictures of my future.

As a writer, there is huge inspiration to be found on a farm. Wandering over the top of the hill in midwinter, taking in the vast green landscape around me, I’ve often had to stop myself from twirling Maria-like over the paddock, arms raised, singing at the top of my voice. Okay, I’ll be honest, sometimes I don’t stop myself. Not a pretty sight, I’m sure, but who sees me but the birds?

For my picture book Where Do the Stars Go? (Fremantle Press, May 2021) living on the farm was a great advantage. Like Possum in the story, I wandered along the creek until I found enough examples of ‘stars’ to make the story. The environment and inspiration for the book was there on hand. I lived what I wrote.

Then there’s the peace and quiet afforded to the writer/illustrator at her computer. A twittering bird, a bleating lamb, even the short-lived roar of a tractor heading for the shed has to be preferable to the constant street noise in some city houses.

Sad to say, though, there’s a downside. Living on a farm is wonderful until something goes wrong with the services city folk take for granted. Our house on the farm is in a ‘dead spot’ as far as mobile signals go, so to use our mobile phones means a walk to the top of the hill. Believe me, I don’t feel like singing when I’ve had to trudge up there to receive a confirmation code, or to report the fact that our power has gone off, thus rendering the landline useless as well. Power cuts are so frequent that we’ve had a generator plugged into the house wiring so that we can just flick a switch to use it, rather than having to search for extension cords.

The distance from Perth can be a hassle too. There are so many things I’d love to be able to attend, at the Literature Centre or a SCBWI function, for example, without having to arrange accommodation to save a long trip home in the dark. I’m slowly learning to combine things to make a daytime trip more worthwhile, like coffee with a fellow author and shopping for things I can’t get here, on the same day as a meeting at Fremantle Press, as I did recently. I belong to a lovely writers’ group here in Northam, but I still wish I could get together with fellow children’s authors more often. There’s so much to learn from them.

That said, I couldn’t live in the city. I’m a country girl. I’m here to stay.

Katie Stewart’s picture books are full of gorgeous and accurate depictions of Aussie plants and animals. Where Do the Stars Go? and What Colour Is the Sea? are available in all good bookstores and online.

Guest blogger: David Allan-Petale and the harvest that inspired the writing of Locust Summer

Locust Summer, which was shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, is the story of a young man called back to the family farm for one final harvest. Readers get a ‘harvest of suspense’ according to Carmel Bird and, according to Toni Jordan, ‘insights into pasts and futures, nostalgia and grief.’ In this guest post, David talks us through his very first harvest and how it spawned a novel.

‘A sandgroper, eh? You can teach us all how to grow wheat then!’

That’s the greeting I was given on my first day of working with the harvest crew on my mate’s farm in New South Wales.

Lucky they didn’t look too closely. They’d have seen the creases still ironed in to my brand-new KingGee shorts and shirt. The lack of callouses on my office hands. And the look in my eyes that said I had no idea what I was doing.

‘Righto, boys,’ the boss cocky said. ‘Let’s get stuck in.’

Like the best of adventures, this one began over a drink. I was working as a journalist for the ABC’s Kalgoorlie office in the WA Goldfields, and after a tough day of gathering news from around the region, I’d host a gathering on the verandah of my place on Dugan Street to have a yarn with a few other journos.

One night my mate started talking about the harvest at his family farm. How he would return there every year and bring in an enormous crop of wheat. It sounded like an adventure to me, and he said I should come. The next day I booked time off work and a ticket east.

I’d worked as a journo in the Mid West region of WA where wheat farming dominates, and had covered harvests with the spare remove of an observer. But actually doing it? It was so far beyond my ken as a city boy from the suburbs. Then again, I loved to travel and give new things a go, and wasn’t afraid of hard work. Or so I thought …

The weeks I spent working on the farm were backbreaking, hot and fast. We worked from sun-up to sun-down and often deep into the night with a full moon haloed by wheat dust. I carted fuel, fetched lunches, fixed broken header harvester teeth, drove chaser bins to catch the grain and helped keep the grain bunker organised. I even got to drive a harvester for a few spells.

It was busy. It was tough. But it was glorious. There were lightning storms and crop fires, wild dogs to chase off and stranded sheep to rescue. Sunrises and sunsets that were like Hans Heysen paintings come to life. And the good humour of the workers chatting on the CB, drinking cold pints after a hard day while reciting bush poems. It was a bumper harvest my mate often says was the best he’s ever seen, as if a highlights package of everything that could go right or wrong had been prepared just for him to share with me.

The experience stayed with me long after I left to catch a train and a plane back to the big smoke. After that, no job was too hard, no conditions too rough. I knew I could back myself and stand up to a big task. And it gave me a far deeper appreciation of rural life and country people than I had ever grasped as a dispassionate observer. Over many of the following years I spent as a regional journalist, I found I could relate far better to the people whose lives I was seeking to reflect and explore.

And damn, if it didn’t give me some good stories to draw upon as a writer. The first book I attempted was set in the forests of South West WA, and was infused with my experiences on the land – the language, feeling and nuance that can’t be found solely through research.

Yet something deeper was calling. When the time came to begin another book, I knew it had to be set on a farm. Had to be about a harvest. Had to connect to the magnetised feeling I had while working in the blazing sun as an outsider looking in. And so, slowly, inexorably, Locust Summer’s raw elements began to take shape.

Back to the farm, back to the harvest, back to a place where ‘the earth spins steady, the moon rises, and all crops grow: wheat, sheep, dementia.’

Thanks for visiting, David. Locust Summer is available in all good bookstores and online.


Guest blogger: Mel Hall on making up a religion to deal with pain

Making up a religion to cope with chronic pain led to Mel Hall’s debut novel, The Little Boat on Trusting Lane. Today she has dropped in to share her story. Welcome Mel. 

The Little Boat on Trusting Lane by Mel Hall is a feel-good novel about a small spiritual community that hangs out on a boat in a scrapyard in Fremantle. An affectionate satire, the novel provides a funny yet critical commentary on belief, self-help, magical thinking and the mind/body connection. In this guest post, Mel describes how the novel, which was longlisted for the Fogarty Literary Award, came into being out of extreme adversity and the need give form and shape to her chronic pain.

Making up religions in the night

Back in 2016, I was awake at four a.m., reading the Conscious Living Expo guide. I couldn’t help but notice there wasn’t any mention of aliens or Jesus. This got me thinking: aliens and Jesus have a lot in common. People believe they are real, or don’t believe in them at all. People build their lives around them, or don’t pay them a second thought. But how often do we hear about aliens and Jesus together?

So, on that early morning in 2016, I decided to make up a religion that would feature aliens and Jesus. Perhaps it might one day be mentioned in the Conscious Living Expo guide.

I began writing ideas for this religion before work each day. The results were … weird and boring. (Some people don’t realise it’s possible to be weird and boring, but these are the two best words to describe me.) It seemed like this religion might not get off the ground. But in the process of writing, three characters began wandering around in my mind. I started to write a book.

Is this true?

Is anything I just wrote true? Maybe there is something that’s more true. Maybe I’ve spent many sleepless nights in pain. Maybe, in my tiredness, on that particular morning, I was reading whatever I could get my hands on. And maybe I wasn’t making up a religion, but wanting to create some kind of mythology: a place to plant this pain, in hope that some kind of meaning or sense might grow.

Mystery illness

I began experiencing mystery pain when I was eighteen years old. Abdominal pain, back pain, pain that shot down my legs. When I was twenty-two, I was diagnosed with sciatica. Then I ended up with RSI in both my arms: I had been studying jazz music and practising bass quite obsessively, for sometimes ten hours a day. The RSI forced me to quit my degree.

Soon, pain and tension were across my whole body. For a couple of years, I didn’t have full use of my hands. A physio told me I had huge muscle wastage across my back, and that many problems I experienced were those of an old woman. This was when I was twenty-four.

I was looking into getting a cane, going on disability payments, and sleeping a lot of the time. I was sent to a rheumatologist, and in some notes I received afterwards, I was described as a high-achieving young woman, and other words used were anxiety and fibromyalgia.

Getting better

But then, I read some books that helped me. I saw a psychotherapist. My pain got a lot better, and even nearly went away. I began to think it was all psychological after all. By 2010, when I was twenty-eight, I was pretty healthy, and even lived my dream of backpacking around Europe.

Getting sick again

Then, in 2016, the pain came back with a vengeance. I was almost blacking out at work, leaving the room to vomit, then coming back in to pretend nothing had happened. Sometimes if I told a person about the pain, they’d ask if I was pregnant. My lowest point was when I vomited on myself while driving, and had to stop in at a friend’s to shower, change and admit my desperation.

So, as well as the intellectual pursuit of wishing to marry aliens and Jesus, one of the first things that got me writing this book was an imagined therapy. In this therapy, a character tries to find the right image to give shape to their pain. I needed this for myself too.

Towards the end of 2016, I was sent back to a rheumatologist and diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of inflammatory spinal arthritis that affects many parts of the body. Getting a diagnosis and medication really changed my life, as my rheumie said the last time I saw her, in November 2020. But writing changed my life too.

Writing a book to cope with chronic pain

Writing this book gave the pain somewhere to go. I think of the book as a creation story, where I can let the pain unfold amongst other things, beings, events, places.

Creation stories are about beginnings rather than endings. Part of me would like to focus on endings, as I would like to know that this pain, or this disease, will never return. (I can never be sure of that.) But being able to place this pain in a big creaking boat on Trusting Lane was something like a transformation for me. I found new life in the daily act of writing – writing which became a book.

The Little Boat on Trusting Lane is available in all good bookstores and online.

Guest Blog – Michael Burrows author of Where the Line Breaks

Ryan O’Neill calls Michael Burrows’ debut novel, which was shortlisted for the Fogarty Literary Award, ‘an engrossing war story and a captivating tale of love and obsesssion’.  In this post Michael shares where his inspiration came from.

The idea to write Where the Line Breaks came to me at 4 or 5 am, Anzac Day 2013, sitting in Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli coast in Turkey after a long night of readings, stories, music, remembrance and moving testimony.

The moment came when someone approached the microphone and recited a few lines of war poetry. I can’t remember which poem exactly, but it was one I was familiar with – Owen or Brooke, maybe? There’s something special about war poetry; the juxtaposition between beauty and barbarity. So it was that night in Gallipoli – the poetry cut through the chill air and you could almost feel the crowd glowing with appreciation. I loved it. My only question was, why weren’t they reading Aussie or Kiwi poetry?

And then I thought, but who would they read?

Where the Line Breaks concerns the discovery of an anonymous Australian war poet, our very own Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, called the Unknown Digger. At one point during writing, my novel was titled The Sky Where Red Stars Move, a line from the Leon Gellert poem ‘Red’. I hadn’t heard of Leon Gellert before researching my novel, strange as that seems. How was it that I knew of Brooke and Owen from school, but hadn’t even heard of ‘Anzac Cove’ or ‘The Last to Leave’?

Leon Gellert was born in Adelaide in 1892. He landed on Gallipoli on that first Anzac Day, was injured three months later and though he attempted to re-join the fight, he was repatriated as ‘medically unfit’ in June 1916. Maybe that’s why he isn’t better known – he didn’t have the tragic death of a Brooke or an Owen to push his poetry into the national consciousness. Unlike Graves or Sassoon, he stopped writing poetry after a few years and turned to journalism. He died in 1977 at 85 years old. But his poetry is wonderful, and in Gallipoli to Gaza, Jill Hamilton recognises him as ‘the only Australian poet whose work can be compared with that of the leading soldier-poets of the World War’. My personal favourite Gellert poem is ‘Anzac Cove’, with its devastating closing:

There are lines of buried bones:
There’s an unpaid waiting debt:
There’s a sound of gentle sobbing in the South.

Reading this poem for the first time, I really felt the gut punch of the Australian war experience, different to anything I’d experienced reading Brookes’ ‘The Soldier’ or Owen’s Latin homework.

Likewise, with the works of Clarence Michael James Dennis – or C. J. Dennis as he became known. Born in 1876, unlike Gellert, he never fought for his country, but his works, particularly The Moods of Ginger Mick, capture the sound of Australia like no-one else. Dennis was known as Australia’s version of Robbie Burns and the ‘laureate of the larrikin’. After his death in 1938, then Prime Minister Joseph Lyons said, ‘he captured the true Australian spirit.’ Read these lines out-loud in your finest Steve-Irwin-esque voice and tell me you don’t love it:

On the day we ‘it the transport there wus cheerin’ on the pier,

An’ the girls wus wavin’ hankies as they dropped a partin’ tear,

An’ we felt like little ‘eroes as we watched the crowd recede,

Fer we sailed to prove Australia, an’ our boastin’ uv the breed.

I love the dropped endings of words, the slurred ‘uv’ and ‘wus’. That’s why I opened my novel with an excerpt from The Moods of Ginger Mick.

Those two poets are my personal favourites, but there are plenty of Australians who deserve to be better known, like Private William M. McDonald (read ‘Camps in the Sand’), Archibald Nigel Guy Irving (read ‘The Dead’) or Oliver ‘Trooper Bluegum’ Hogue (read ‘The Horses Stay Behind’).

The Unknown Digger is a fictional creation, but he is inspired by the works of countless Australian soldier poets. I hope Where the Line Breaks encourages us to take a closer look at our own homegrown poets. Who knows, maybe this Anzac Day we can read a few lines of Gellert or Trooper Bluegum – something written by the original Anzacs themselves.


Where the Line Breaks is available in all good bookstores and online.


You can visit Michael online at:

Twitter: @mperegrineb

Facebook: facebook.com/mperegrineburrows

Instagram: @mperegrineburrows_artist

Website/blog: www.mperegrineburrows.com

Guest blogger: Brigid Lowry on using reading and journaling to create a meaningful life

It is a delight to welcome Brigid Lowry to Aussiereviews.  

If you’re struggling to maintain grace and good humour amidst daily potholes and pitfalls, Brigid  may be just the warm, wise and witty companion you need. Her new book is called A Year of Loving Kindness to Myself and other essays.

Greetings. My name is Brigid Lowry.

I didn’t start out wanting to be a writer. I tried being a librarian, a schoolteacher, a waitress, a cook and a laboratory assistant, and had various other unmentionable jobs, then lived in a Buddhist community for many years, helping to raise children, run retreats and build adobe buildings. When I was 35, married with one son, I went back to university and realised that writing was the thing I loved to do.

My first title was a mushy teenage love story in the Dolly Fiction series. Various twists and turns led me to a rather lovely career writing for teenagers and teaching creative writing to people of all ages, though I still published poetry and short fiction here and there. My MA in Creative Writing involved writing a semi-autobiographical adult novel and an academic thesis on the topic of memoir. Most of my YA titles were fiction, but one was non-fiction – Juicy Writing: Inspiration and Techniques for Young Writers. Although it was marketed this way, many adult writers have told me they love this book and use it often for inspiration. More recently, I have returned to writing for adults and, in 2016, my first adult title, Still Life with Teapot: On Zen, Writing and Creativity, was published by Fremantle Press.

A Year of Loving Kindness to Myself and Other Essays is my latest book and it’s about to hit the shops. I’ve been practising meditation in the Zen and Vipassana traditions for 40 years, and during those years I have also explored personal growth and therapy to process the events of a challenging childhood.  My work and themes have evolved from these sources. In my new book I offer insights and suggestions for anyone wishing to live a sane, nourishing and creative life in these difficult times, using humour to lighten the mood.

I am very much in favour of humour as good medicine. My favorite cartoonist is Roz Chast, who uses her own life and the lives of fellow New Yorkers in her wise, warm and excellent cartoons. I also love Anne Lamott, who is a recovered alcoholic, a Christian and one of the funniest writers I have encountered. She writes about her own neurosis and struggles, inspiring the reader by sharing her joys and triumphs. Life is good, but also weird and hard, she writes.

So, how do we navigate life’s challenges? Are our survival mechanisms healthy? Buddhist teacher and psychologist Josh Korda calls drinking a failed attempt at happiness, yet wine o’clock is common for many until health or financial issues become problematic, or one realises that the thrill is short-lived, that hangovers suck and that the problems you were trying to avoid did not magically vanish. Similarly, working too hard, emotional eating, recreational shopping or too much screen time are temporary fixes. A little may be good, too much proves hollow. In my own life, I have found creativity, meditation, exercise, the outdoors and human connection of benefit.

Reading and journalling are precious tools for creating a meaningful life. Savour books, keep a pile beside your bed, use them as islands of wonder. Read widely, read deeply, but skim if you need to. Give yourself permission to abandon a boring book. When feeling stale, make haste to the library or a bookshop, feasting on what you find there. Books provide an unlimited source of escape, fascination, knowledge and solace.

Journalling is a satisfying way of staying in touch with yourself and your feelings, a safe place to be yourself when the world seems murky. It can bring clarity in the midst of mayhem, comfort when one is world-weary. Choose a cheap exercise book or a fancy journal. Grab an old pencil or some rainbow pens. Collect ideas, memories, wise thoughts. Record your dreams. This life is so precious, so fleeting and so ready to be explored on paper in your own sweet way.

Try some lists. The five worst people to invite to dinner. The 10 things that bring merriment. The three best places to yell out loud. The six uses for a banana that are not eating it. The eight things you would like for your birthday that don’t cost any money.

Wishing you creativity and wonder, ease and delight.

A Year of Loving Kindness to Myself and other Essays by Brigid Lowry is available in all good bookstores and online.