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.

https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/products/locust-summer

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.

https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/products/where-the-line-breaks

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.

https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/products/a-year-of-loving-kindness-to-myself

Guest Blogger: Emma Young, author of The Last Bookshop

It is lovely to welcome Emma Young, author of The Last Bookshop, to Aussiereviews, to speak on her favourite bookish books. Over to you, Emma.

I was once a bookseller. At various shops across Perth, Western Australia, I covered and stickered and flyleaf-labelled titles destined for libraries, I bought and sold second-hand volumes, and I special-ordered non-fiction and technical books. Across the years I saw the challenges: the tight profit margins; the hard physical work; the need to be knowledgeable, continuously upbeat and helpful; the commercial headwinds forcing shops to pack up and move, or reinvent themselves repeatedly. I saw how at the heart of a bookshop’s success is the strength and sincerity of its connection to bookish people. I met so many such people, who asked me so many weird questions, and had such astonishingly varied interests, that of course it was not long before I began to think to myself, ‘This stuff would fill a book.’

I have finally written that ode to bookshop life: the difficulties and absurdities, but above all the joys of a business that’s about more than money. It’s called The Last Bookshop and it’s just been published by Fremantle Press.

Fun fact: my book mentions a grand total of 78 specific books by name. I know this because my editor, Armelle, made a list of them, for no doubt excellent editor-y reasons best known to herself.

But it’s not just my book that celebrates books, bookshops and writing. I come from a grand tradition of such stories. And since compiling this shortlist of my favourites, I see the influences they have had on my story, so I’m pleased to share my top five.

  1. 84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff

This gentle, charming story is a collection of real letters between outspoken New York writer Helene Hanff and antiquarian book dealer Frank Doel from Messrs Marks and Co, at 84 Charing Cross Road, London, beginning in the 1940s. What begins as a simple back-and-forth to fulfil Ms Hanff’s insatiable need for rare books blossoms into an epistolary friendship that spans decades. I can’t overstate how sweet, funny and touching this book is.

The 1987 movie adaptation is also good, starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins: lovely escapism with a cup of tea on a wintry afternoon.

2. Underfoot in Show Business, Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff’s account of her early days trying to make it as a writer in New York, employed as an apprentice playwright by the New York Theatre Guild, is equally enjoyable. It’s side-splittingly funny and utterly absorbing, a fascinating account that transports you effortlessly into her world.

If you loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls, this is very like it – but the real thing. It’s most likely out of print, but I urge you to find a second-hand copy.

3. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell

Wigtown, Galloway, Scotland: officially designated Scotland’s National Book Town. The largest of the second-hand bookshops is The Bookshop, run by Shaun Bythell. His published diaries are caustic and bad-tempered. He is Black Books’ Bernard in the flesh, though a big heart is just visible beneath the misanthropy. A hilarious book – the sort you constantly read bits aloud from to your partner, though they wish you would shut up, because strangely they don’t love books about books as much as you. It’s cruel Bythell wrote this; he essentially stole the book I wanted to write.

If you need more when you’re done, he’s also written three more books in this vein.

4. The Red Notebook, Antoine Laurain

 Bookseller Laurent Letellier finds a handbag on a Paris street and commences a journey to find its owner. The best clue he has: a notebook inside, filled with scribbled notes that drive him mad with curiosity to locate the writer. A beguiling tale of a meeting of hearts and minds, this is a light and cosy read written with a delicate touch. It’s incredibly French.

Now that I think of it, this would be a nice Mother’s Day gift

5. My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff 

A New York literary memoir, a coming-of-age tale and a fitting accompaniment to Underfoot in Show Business. Rakoff is another penniless wannabe writer new to the city, this time 1990s NYC. She takes a job as assistant to the literary agent of the reclusive J.D. Salinger, tasked with answering his fan mail. She’s supposed to send form letters, but – partly bored, partly touched – she begins writing back …

This is a nostalgic evocation of a pre-digital New York. I read it after a month’s stay there, which I highly recommend, but since that’s impossible right now, reading this is an excellent substitute. A big-screen adaptation has just been released starring Sigourney Weaver (though I just happened upon two scathing lines of review by the Guardian that I can’t unsee, so we’ll view at our own risk, shall we?).

 

Thanks for sharing Emma – I am off to add some titles to be wish list.  The Last Bookshop by Emma Young is available in all good bookstores and online.

 

Connect with Emma here:

 

 

Guest Bloggers Deborah Hunn & Georgia Richter on How to Be an Author

Guest blog post: introducing an indispensable new book for writers

Between the pages of How to be an Author is everything you need to know about the business of being a writer, from people who live and breathe books. In this guest post, co-authors Deborah Hunn who is a lecturer in creative writing, and Georgia Richter, a publisher and editor, talk about how the book came about, what you might learn from it and the joys they find in their everyday working life.

Deborah Hunn says:

When Georgia and I began to discuss writing our book How to be an Author, I  remembered how a former Curtin colleague was fond of saying she’d rarely met a creative writing student who didn’t have a great idea for a story; the real problem was with what came came next: taking that great idea and transforming it into a viable, well-crafted, fully developed piece of writing. In short, what makes an author is not just (perhaps not even) some magical innate streak of creativity. It’s putting in the work, doing the business.

Georgia and I aimed to provide our readers with help and advice in understanding that business when we drew on our varied experiences in teaching, writing and publishing, and when we decided to include the voices of an additional 18 authors in this book. Whether the apprenticeship of young and emergent writers (for not all new writers are young) is through a university or one of sundry other pathways, they must learn and sharpen through practise – developing skills with language and syntax, with structure, plot and characterisation as well with voice and point of view; building an awareness of the possibilities of genre, an eye for observational detail and other modes of creative research, and an ear for how to pitch to their target audience. However, doing the work of a writer also requires persistence and a willingness to be open to advice and critique. It means developing a workable routine, managing to write through the bad days as well as the good, and committing oneself to editing and redrafting, dealing with rejection and finding a way through when imagination runs dry.

As well as cultivating persistence, the developing writer needs to find their tribe. For some who start outside established educational or community networks, it may mean locating like-minded others to share writing, information and ideas with; for all it will mean learning to recognise and take on constructive criticism through peer workshopping and editorial feedback, and then making good use of that in refining a draft.

Then of course there’s the next big step towards being a writer: understanding and utilising the mechanics of pitching and publication.

 

Georgia Richter says:

Some people write as an end in itself – for them, the satisfaction of laying down words on a page, like bricks on a path, is enough. There is the joy of the hard, exacting slog of it, and the satisfaction of looking back and seeing a path that has been shaped, travelled and wrought.

For others, finding an audience for their work is an essential component of their sense of themselves as a writer – and so publication is a necessary part of their practice. If it is an audience a writer seeks, then there is much to think about. A writer can ask questions like:

  • What is an author brand, and how do I authentically create my own?
  • What’s in a contract and do I need an agent to get one?
  • What takes place during the editing process?
  • What are the important relationships I need to work on before and after publication?
  • What is success and what is reasonable to expect?
  • How will I bear the bumps and setbacks and rejections and learn to carry on?

Deb and I, and the contributing authors, provided as many insights and practical suggestions as we could to help emerging writers answer questions like these.

There are lots of things I love about my job as a publisher.

One is the feeling of reading a submitted manuscript and experiencing the affirming excitement of being in the hands of an assured storyteller who knows what they want to say and who has found exactly the right vehicle to say it.

Another is building a relationship through the editing process with an author as together we hone and refine the submitted work so it is as perfect as it can be.

A third is placing a book, fresh off the printer, into the hands of an author. Here is the hard, beautiful proof of all they have worked on – here is the moment when they are on the brink of sharing it with the world!

A fourth is when authors tell me about reader responses – conversations with strangers who have told the author how they were touched or moved or consoled or entertained by a book.

I derive huge satisfaction from having been a part of a writer’s journey to publication. Deb and I hope that this book will serve a similar purpose. We know that the greater work is always with the creator – from the clearing of the path and the placing of the first brick to the invitation to others to come walk that path too.

The book is available in all good bookstores and online

To connect with Georgia Richter, Deborah Hunn and other writers, join the How to be an Author in Australia Facebook Group.

Georgia Richter has also launched a new podcast series How to be an Author which features interviews with passionate members of the Australian publishing industry. You can listen on your favourite podcast app or using one of the players provided here.

 

Thanks for visiting, Georgia and Deborah. 

 

 

Guest Blogger: Josephine Taylor author of Eye of a Rook

Guest blogger Josephine Taylor hopes her historical novel will shine a light on a condition many women have but most don’t discuss

I’m always reassured when I hear other writers advise, write what you feel passionate about, because that’s why I wrote Eye of a Rook.

I was angry. Angry that so few people knew about a condition that was so debilitating and that affected so many women, including me: vulvodynia. And I felt frustrated and helpless – at least at the beginning, way back in 2000. Then, in 2003, I started writing about my experiences, and I began to feel more in control, more an agent in my own life. I researched and wrote and eventually began a PhD, which turned into a memoir – a kind of embedded sociological detective story that delved into the history of vulvar pain and hysteria, and that explored more recent understandings of pain that won’t leave, from psychoanalysis, psychiatry, neurophysiology, feminist studies… The resulting investigative memoir, Vulvodynia and Autoethnography, won several awards, but it was an unwieldy beast from a publisher’s perspective. So, while I continue to draw material from it for my personal essays, with many published, I’ve left a full-length memoir to one side – for the moment at least!

After I finished my PhD in 2011 the pressure inside me remained. I knew that somewhere between 10% and 28% of all women would experience vulvodynia in their lifetime, so how could I contribute to beneficial change for them? What was I to do about the BIG story I wanted to get out into the world? I had no conscious idea. Fortunately, my creative life had its own plans, and at a writing workshop in 2013, two Victorian men came to life in response to a writing prompt. One was a man called Arthur, with fine brown hair and dressed in a frockcoat, and the other was a real-life surgeon I’d been researching, Isaac Baker Brown. It seemed that Arthur was consulting Brown about his wife, Emily, and contemplating the surgeon’s radical ‘solution’ to hysteria. This initial scenario turned into a short story which now also included a scene with a contemporary Perth couple driving tensely to an appointment. It seemed that the modern-day Alice had the same pain as Emily – the same pain as me – and both women needed answers. The short story, published in an anthology as ‘That Hand’, became the first chapter of Eye of a Rook.

I wrote my novel in timelines separated by almost 150 years because I wanted to show how little has changed since 1866. In fact, my research had shown that the understanding of chronic pelvic pain and specific pain states like vulvodynia has stayed largely stuck for many centuries. It’s men who have, until very recently, studied, written about and treated mystifying female complaints across recorded history, and medical understanding has been based on a male model. Knowledge skewed even further in the twentieth century, as the theories of Sigmund Freud were taken up by psychiatry then gynaecology, especially in the US. Under this influence, vulvar pain was interpreted as psychosomatic, a woman’s way of acting out unresolved unconscious conflict, a ‘defense mechanism’ against intercourse. The onus was placed upon the woman, rather than the limits of medical knowledge, with women generally told or made to feel that the pain was ‘all in her head’.

Both Alice and Emily come up against this kind of ignorance and dismissiveness, enduring harmful treatments and worse. Both reach out for help, with Alice finding community in a support group and Emily relying on her husband at a critical moment. I hope that readers will be able to relate to or empathise with Alice and Emily’s pain and the decisions all the characters make, for themselves and their futures.

My biggest hope is that my book will be read by women with vulvodynia and that it helps them in tangible ways. More, I hope that the people these women depend on read it: family, friends, GPs, physiotherapists, gynaecologists, dermatologists, urologists and psychologists. I hope that those who live with chronic pain, who may have been made to feel that they could be doing more for themselves or that they are exaggerating their symptoms, read it. I hope that Eye of a Rook will shine a light where one is so desperately needed and bring this conversation into the public domain.

Eye of a Rook is available in all good bookstores and online.

Thanks for visiting, Josephine. You  can learn more about Josephine, and connect with her

At her website here.

On Twitter.

On Facebook.

And on Instagram .