Michelle Saftich writes engaging stories whenever she puts pen to paper – er, fingers to keyboard. Her historical novels ring very true, and the first,Port of No Return, was inspired by the experiences of her father’s family who fled northern Italy at the end of World War II, as the region was invaded by Tito’s Yugoslavian forces. The sequel, Wanderers No More, continues to follow the family’s journey, beginning with their arrival in Australia in 1950. Both these novels are highly rated.
Port of No Return by Michelle Saftich
More recently, Michelle has released The Hatch, a science fiction novel which I have recently read and reviewed (here). In The Hatch, all Michelle’s trademark insights into human nature, family interactions, and political machinations are transported thrillingly into deep space.
I’m so thrilled to speak with Michelle today on Last Word of the Week.
Thanks for talking with me, Michelle. You have three books out now – what are your thoughts on novel writing?
Michelle: It’s no small undertaking. A novel takes a long time to write. I know I’ll be with the story and its characters for at least a couple of years. For me, it helps having stories and characters that are close to my heart and that I feel have something to say or show. It’s about love, creativity and discipline.
Wanderers No More by Michelle Saftich
What are the challenges of being a writer?
Finding enough time. Working almost full-time in a communications job and being married and raising two boys, with an abundance of pets, there’s so little time free for writing. Every spare minute goes into it. I write in the car in carparks or sitting on the floor of foyers, waiting to pick up my boys from extracurricular activities. I edit or write next pages in my mind on the train going to work, where I scribble down notes to myself as reminders. When I finally set aside a whole Sunday afternoon to write, the joy as I lift the lid on my laptop can’t be described. It is bliss. It is coming home. It’s time to be me and to create. I can’t imagine a life without writing.
And yet, it is not easy. There are other challenges. Marketing. Reviews. Solitude, and the need for a lot of it during the writing process. Self-criticism. Doubt. Fear. Redrafts. Rewriting. Then finally the sadness when it’s done and there are characters to farewell, characters who won’t say another word. Then it’s time to put them out there, like birth. And like a parent, the writer gets to watch how they take those first steps in the hands of others. That’s the hardest for me. Releasing.
It sounds very difficult when you put it like that. I find it very sad when my characters no longer interrupt my dreams saying “And another thing I want to do or say is…” Given all that, why write?
There are times when I wonder why I do it. Why write? Why tie up so much time in bringing to life a story? The answer is simple, I love it. I love creating with words, using my imagination, challenging myself. I first knew I wanted to write at age six. At age 15, I was starting to try my hand at novels. Always writing. Weekends mostly.
You have written in different genres, which is something I do too. What’s that like for you?
When I wrote my first two published historical fiction novels, Port of No ReturnandWanderers No More, I was drawing upon family history, my heritage and the mysteries surrounding my father’s place of birth. I wanted to know more and found it enjoyable to research what happened to not only my father and his family, but to all those forced to flee their Italian cities in the north-east of the country after World War II. I was shining a light on a little-known part of history and my motivation was strong and somewhat personal.
My third published sci fi novel, The Hatch, is very different from the first two, though some themes are similar. I still have written about the prospect of having to leave all you know behind for another place, though in The Hatch readers are taken off planet and forward into an imagined future, rather than into a researched past.
The Hatch by Michelle Saftich
With the historical fiction novels, I tried staying true to historical events, while bringing in fictional elements to help tie it all together and to present a flowing narrative.
With sci-fi, I was fully in my imagination, speculating on a future Earth and what human aspects we would migrate with us if we were to settle on other planets.
And you have managed that brilliantly. Thank you so much for sharing with me today.
Jordan Bell is a psychologist and educator with a passion for helping children and parents learn about science. She also has a not-so-secret super-hero identity: she is Aunt Jodie of Aunt Jodie’s Guides to (just about) Everything!
Jordan’s first book, Aunt Jodie’s Guide to Evolution, gives kids a fun and fascinating understanding of the key concepts underlying the theory of evolution, using REAL science. It’s perfect for parents who want to inspire a love of science in children (7-11 year olds) or to start a child’s science education early. It’s especially useful for parents who would like their kids to have more female role models in science.
Definitely on board with that, I say (tucking my B App Sci into my back pocket with a happy sigh).
Author Jordan Bell
Welcome, Jordan, and thanks for speaking with me on this episode of Last Word of the Week. Can you tell us a bit more about you and your books?
Jordan: As a nerdy mama to a curious primary-schooler who always wants to understand the “why?” of life, I have had lots of experience in putting complicated ideas into words that little brains can understand.
It’s not just another boring bedtime story! It’s a science adventure into the ancient past that makes learning about the basics of evolution fun and engaging, and uses words and concepts that are right for kids in middle and upper primary school. For anyone new to science, my Aunt Jodie’s Guides also include an easy-to-read glossary, explaining the scientific terms used in the book and how to pronounce them.
Sounds great. Now let’s find out a bit more about you. What was your favourite book as a child?
My favourite book as a child was The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Not only is it an amazing tale about the power of stories, but also such a spell-binding title to a child who constantly begged for yet another trip to the library – a book that never ended? Sign me up! My dad bought me a really beautiful hardback edition when it was first released in English, which was printed in red and green ink with illustrated chapter initials. That exact copy was lost to the mists of time but my husband tracked down a copy for me a few years ago and I treasure it. I’ll be reading it to my daughter this year!
A book that deserves to be a lifetime favourite! Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
I’m most productive when I have a morning to myself and I can take my laptop to my favourite café, fuel up on french toast and tea, and write for 3-4 hours. They are used to me doing this now and top up my teapot without asking. I can write anywhere as long as I have half an hour and a computer, but that’s my preferred routine.
That sounds like the perfect writing space, and writers should always have a ready supply of French toast and tea. How do you feel about reviews?
I love them! I would really like some more! Having said that, if there’s anyone out there who hasn’t appreciated my book, they haven’t chosen to share those thoughts with me, so my experiences have all been positive at this stage. I might feel differently after some critical feedback!
What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
The greatest review I ever got was from the son of a friend:
“I thought the book was fantastic. I learnt lots, I never got bored and never wanted to stop reading it, it was very clear and it’s also a very fun way to put it. I would rate this book 5 stars and I normally pick out every single fault.”
But I’ve had lots of people excited about the idea of a book about evolution for children, it seems like a book that is needed out there in the world!
Yes indeed! What kind of reader would like your books?
I write Aunt Jodie’s Guides for primary-school aged kids, to help them get their heads around big scientific ideas that will have an impact on their life. I started with explaining evolution, because I think that’s the kind of idea that — if you can understand it as you are growing and learning — will change the way you view the world. We desperately need future citizens who are well-informed about the science that underpins our natural and technological worlds, and I think kids are a capable of understanding a lot more than we give them credit for, if we explain it properly.
Hear, hear! Is it easy for readers to find your book/s?
Anyone who searches Aunt Jodie’s Guide should find my online store pretty easily, and the bookshops that have stocked me so far have been very generous about displaying my book face out so hopefully a few people have stumbled across it that way!
That’s great, let’s hope for more stumbles. What would be a dream come true for you?
I’d love to have my book picked up as a series by a publisher with the scope to share these ideas worldwide and maybe even in other languages! I’m currently working on Aunt Jodie’s Guide to Climate Change, and I have strong ideas for more books in the series as Aunt Jodie explains the human body, space science, and computers!
All books that I think need to be in the world as soon as possible. Please keep writing! And thank you so much for sharing with me today.
The apocalypse is here, in the form of more fires, floods, and storms. Meanwhile, belief that democratic processes can find a solution is fading.
In difficult times like these, an outpouring of stories occurs. Witness the millions (literally) of books inspired by, based on, and discussing the Great War. A terrible experience gave birth to a never-ending strand of stories.
Now there is an explosion of science fiction: dystopian, cli-fi, and post-apocalyptic. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies, among many other examples. Australian Mark Smith’s fabulous Wintertrilogy is right on topic.
Alongside the enthusiasm for such stories, there is a strain of dismissal. Dystopian science fiction is criticised for glorifying hardship, or for giving unrealistically happy endings, or for giving depressingly horrific unhappy endings, and especially for not providing answers. A recent article on the dystopian sub-genre called hopepunk (where continuing to fight for good is an affirmation of humanity) commented that such stories, validating the struggle rather than providing a solution, were simply telling the downtrodden that it’s their place to suffer.
Many of you know that my academic area of interest is Great War literature. War stories, too, have been criticised as glorifying war, revelling in misery, continuing the cultural expectation that life is harder for some than others, and worst – not preventing future war.
I have to ask whether that is the role of war fiction. Isn’t it rather like expecting murder mysteries to solve crimes? Romances to enable real-life happy endings? Fantasies to provide tangible proof of faeries?
I could go on about the role of literature (and I have elsewhere), and I could enter the discussion about the bourgeois nature of fiction (which, after all, is written by the literate for the literate). And I probably will go on a bit more soon. For now, though, let me say:
Don’t blame science fiction for the world’s ills. Science fiction can sound a warning, or point out current issues, or provide role models. Dystopian stories are like the traditional adventurer genre described by the poet Paul Zweig, too*. Such narratives imply action and purpose, and to my mind this is just as valid as feelings of hopelessness. Adventure stories show how to keep living in the face of peril.
This is not a new role for stories. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the original tasks of the storyteller, handed down from the first oral stories and continuing through the earliest written narratives of about 4000 years ago. Ancient stories such as The Odyssey and Gilgamesh reassuringly confirm ‘the possibility that mere [hu]man can survive the storms of the demonic world’ (Zweig 1974, vii); a powerful affirmation for readers in apocalyptic times.
I’ll no doubt write more about this. I see ample opportunities in the difficult future, sadly.
I just wrote a long paragraph about the bushfires that are rampaging across Australia, but I deleted it. Nobody can be unaware. Everyone can see the destruction and count the cost. The better question is: what can we do about it?
An intransigence of climate-change sceptics deny any connection between this disaster and humanity’s actions. It keeps them busy, I guess. I see no hope of winning that argument. Instead of bashing my head against the stoutly defended walls of Big Money, I’m regretfully abandoning them as impossible to save.
In my quest to remain hopeful and positive – because humans do have children who deserve a future – I’m seeking new ways to support the Earth. Plus there are only so many pictures of mummified wallabies I can carry in my heart. Fund raising and physical help (money, goods, offers of accommodation and assistance) will continue years into the future as we strive to recover, so there will be no shortage of actions to take after the event (so big and so new it doesn’t yet have a name). Yet I don’t want to just sit and watch, so…
Here’s a starting list of seven tiny things I can do right now:
Something that I’ve only just heard of: Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees
I interrupt the regular run of Last Word of the Week with an explanatory story about Australian dystopian fiction and bushfires.
Apologies to anyone looking for my Middle Child post – that’s been rescheduled to next week. The national bushfire emergency is too high a priority.
I wish I’d never written that book
As the climate emergency continues, I’m forced to reflect on my writing. One social media post I saw described a bookshop as moving its post-apocalyptic fiction books to the current affairs section.
I feel the same.
The Chronicles of the Pale started with a dream – or nightmare – in which desperate refugees were shut out of a fenced compound, and those of us inside were prevented from bringing them in to safety. This dream arose from Australia’s harsh treatment of refugees, a policy condemned by the UN. Scott Morrison as the Minister for Immigration at the time introduced Operation Sovereign Borders, and his lack of empathy, his inhumanity, his stubborn conviction that he and only he was right, inspired the cruel characters who rule inside my fictional policosmos, the Pale. Jason the Senior Forecaster and Élin the Regent care only for themselves.
If Australia had been a more compassionate country, I would never have written The Pale. I truly wish that was the case – better a world with care for refugees than a world with one more dystopian novel in it. I wish I had never had to write that book.
I can see my rejection of this every time one of my favourite characters acts in a compassionate way, every time they work against discrimination and cruelty. It’s sad to think that my fictional folk – humans and animals – have more heart than many of my fellow Australians. Brettin, the outrageously upright Lady of the Temple, represents all that distresses me about religion and prejudice. And that’s saying something.
Now that the current Federal Government is pushing through its religious ‘tolerance’ bill, allowing many acts of bigotry to flourish unchecked in the spurious name of religious freedom (ie freedom to discriminate against the LGBTI+ community), I’m sad that Book 2 also had to be written. A better world would never have the need for such a story.
Volcanoes destroy the Shaking Land – and yes I did write that before White Island erupted just off the New Zealand coast.
Unchecked fires rage through the Broken Ranges and send smoke across the entire continent, with displaced and starving ursini (bear creatures) invading Broad Plain because their habitat is gone – yes I did write that before Australia burst into unprecedented flame.
In my story, there is even a child – Jasper Valkirrasson – who does his best, at great personal cost, to warn the crusty old misanthropes at the old Settlement about the coming danger. I wrote Jasper’s courage and his big heart before I had even heard of Greta Thunberg, but if I hadn’t , she would certainly have been my model.
The Ruined Land was written at a time when – again and again – Australia turned its back on environmental reform in the name of money, and held the position that Australia had no desire or mandate to be a world leader in this field. True, our overall effect may be comparatively small, but we are also one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. We should care more. Many of us do, and we take the small steps we can, because we can’t keep on pretending that how we live has no effect on the planet.
I hope to never write dystopia again
I would like to live in an Australia that was compassionate, ethical, and environmentally responsible. I would like us to spend our money on resettlement of refugees, on bushfire mitigation strategies and equipment, on sensible use of water, on transitioning away from live export, on responsible waste treatment, on public transport, on the preservation of wildlife habitat, and so much more. People will shout about the cost, but our current policies are just as costly in dollars, and much more costly in long-term damage to the Earth and its inhabitants, of all species.
I have to say that unfortunately I’m planning to have The Chronicles of the Pale #4 ready for late 2021.
This post is, and isn’t, about writing. Writing, for me, can’t be divorced from who I am and what I believe. All the same, the books can simply be read as a story. I’m just so sad that so much of it has come true.
Next week, current affairs permitting, I’ll be back to plain old talk about books!
‘I’d always imagined attending a book launch would be something you’d only do if an opportunity to stick rusty nails into your cornea wasn’t available,” writes author Katy Colins in her blog #notwedordead
Luckily I read Katy’s fabulous piece about book launches before I prepared my speech for the unveiling of The Ruined Land, and laughed myself out of all my nerves. Book launches can be fun, and I have enjoyed every one that I’ve attended. Talking to booksy people about books? What could be better?!
I’m so grateful when people come to my launches. And kind of surprised. They must have run out of rusty nails…
How long should a launch speech be?
I aim for under four minutes, which for me is maximum 400 words.
Then I add a five minute extract (about 600 words), so under ten minutes in all.
Add 4-5 minutes for the lovely person who introduces me, and the official stuff is wrapped up in under 15 minutes. That’s my aim.
Here’s my latest, at 369 words, in case you’re interested.
Launch Speech for The Ruined Land
First up, some words of gratitude.
Thanks so much to Nat for those thoughtful words. I’m very appreciative of the love and support I have from my dear friends. I’m actually very grateful to have worked at UniMelb, because I met some of the world’s best people there.
My friends and family have been endlessly supportive, and I’m so glad many of you can celebrate with me tonight. My publisher, the cover designer, the editor – they’ve all been fab. As has Readings which has now hosted all four of my book launches.
A couple of special mentions – to my niece Kate, who along with Aveline my friend in London, is a fabulous beta reader if anyone wants a recommendation.
And my brother in law Bernard is responsible for the very cool maps which you now find inside all three books of the Chronicles of the Pale. He comes highly recommended too!
So. The book.
Having a book published is definitely a Dream Come True – something I imagined in primary school. But there’s a bit more to the dream than that. The Chronicles began with an actual dream in 2013, a dream of abandoned babies and refugees, people I couldn’t reach to rescue. In the dream, my German shepherd dog Dinny, long since departed, saved the day. The character Mashtuk is based on Dinny
This was back when PM Scott Morrison was the minister for immigration. I feel that now the world is much the same, or maybe even darker.
My dream became a short story, which became a novel, which became a series, which became some sort of fully populated, fully imagined world parallel to the real world. There are now even more stories there because this mirror world we live in hasn’t changed enough.
Dreams can come true, but I’d like some happier dreams.
OK, I’m going to read from the very beginning of Book 3. This is Mashtuk, the canini scout, recovering from the wounds he suffered when the ravine was attacked.
Laura E Goodin’s first novel After the Bloodwood Staff is one of the most enjoyable reads I have ever encountered in quite a long and industrious reading career.
I’m a devotee of vintage adventure fiction and, let’s face it, adventure underpins many stories that are classified into other genres.
After the Bloodwood Staff is a treat. It’s witty and engaging, with cracking characters, and it takes the genre by the scruff of the neck and upends it with some panache.
If you love the kind of mystery, danger and excitement that infuses Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, the Murdoch Mysteries, and Shakespeare & Hathaway, you will adore Laura’s books.*
In today’s Last Word of the Week, I have an early Christmas present for you: an extract from the novel. Meet two of my favourite all-time characters: the sedentary, impractical Hoyle and the irritable, no-nonsense Sybil.
And if you’re looking for a different kind of present for that special reader in your life, follow the links. It’s not too late!
The bookstore was a barn of a place. Hoyle thought it might have been an actual barn at one point, judging from the smell that underlay the scents of musty paper, old leather, and expensive coffee. He’d driven an hour from the DC suburbs to get here; a post on his favorite adventure-fiction forum had recommended it as a good source for overlooked authors. And he needed a change of scene. The pile of what looked like sawdust pellets that he’d found in a corner of the garage last week had filled him with a vague but relentless dread that somewhere in his house lurked a brood of termites. He’d been trying to get the nerve up to phone somebody for days. The dread had swooped again as soon as he had woken up. But it was Sunday. Can’t do anything about it today, he had thought almost jauntily. The bookstore would be the ideal distraction.
He could feel his mood lifting as he wandered along the first aisle, turning from dull worry to the bright eagerness of the hunt. He knew the look of the books he wanted; he almost didn’t have to read the spines anymore.
Oh, that one looked about right. He reached, and his hand was knocked aside by a painful swat.
“I saw it first,” snapped the woman who’d hit him. Her was hair slightly grey, like his. She was significantly shorter, but stocky enough to put a bit of sting in the swat.
“What the hell?” he cried. But she was already striding toward the cash register.
Hoyle felt a wave of loss and frustration. He rushed to the register. “Hey,” he called to the woman as she finished paying and carefully placed the book in her tote bag. “Hey, wait.” She gave him an annoyed look over her shoulder. “Please,” he said. He caught up to her. “Please. Just let me see what it was. I didn’t even get a chance …”
She hesitated, then drew the book out. After the Bloodwood Staff, by C.G. Ingraham. The cover was a faded mustard color, the title printed in an enticing Art Nouveau font. Without thinking, he ran one finger gently across the cover, feeling the rough cloth, and the slightly smoother lines of the title. The woman did not pull the book away.
“Ingraham,” murmured Hoyle. “Never heard of this one.”
“Fabulous stuff,” she said. “He was a bit of a maverick. Not many of them wrote about Australia. It was all Africa this and South America that and the South Sea Islands the other. I’ve been looking for this one forever.” She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry I was so rude.”
“That’s okay,” he said. On an impulse, he added, “Coffee?”
They stared at each other for a moment.
“Thanks,” she said.
Hoyle and the woman placed their orders at the cafe counter and looked for a table.
“There,” Hoyle said. “You go grab it.”
After The Bloodwood Staff by Laura E Goodin
Once he had the coffees, he twisted and shuffled through the chairs, holding the coffees at head height to keep his elbows safe from jostling. He had an uncomfortable feeling that raising his arms like this made him look paunchy. When he got to the table, he set the coffees down and sat.
“I’m Hoyle,” he said.
“What’s your first name?”
“That is my first name.”
“Your parents named you Hoyle?”
“Well, what’s your name?”
They sipped, not quite companionably. She kept glancing at him, then away, as if she were expecting something from him.
“So, um, you read a lot of adventure?” he ventured at last. Oh, God, what a stupid thing to say.
“Since I was little,” she said. “My grandfather got me started on one of Mundy’s novels.”
“King, of the Khyber Rifles?”
She sat back, astonished. “How did you guess?”
Hoyle shrugged, feeling bashful. “It’s my favorite of his, that’s all. Thought maybe your grandfather might have felt the same.”
“What’s your favorite Conan Doyle?”
“I confess it’s the Brigadier Gerard stories.”
“Oh, don’t be embarrassed. Just because they’re obscure, doesn’t mean they’re not good.”
On the strength of this, he said, “Tell me about Ingraham.”
Sybil leant forward, suddenly eager. “It’s such a sad story. He spent years of his life as a sort of groupie of Conan Doyle—followed him around from one speaking engagement to another, never getting up the courage to introduce himself or even write Conan Doyle a letter. He did write Haggard once, in 1899—at least, Haggard’s reply was found in Ingraham’s papers, although Haggard seems to have thrown out Ingraham’s letter. Typical.”
“What did Haggard say?”
Sybil closed her eyes. “‘My dear sir, your suggestion is entirely untenable—indeed, bordering on the insane—and I trust you will seek out competent assistance. Please do not contact me or anyone associated with me again.'” She opened her eyes and took a sip of coffee. “That was all. What in the world could Ingraham have suggested? I’ve been reading his books for clues. He was prolific, too—nearly thirty-five by the time he died. He starved himself to death. He’d become convinced that an evil parasite lived in his liver and the only way to kill it before it propagated was to starve it—and, by necessity, himself.”
“Wow,” said Hoyle, feeling queasy.
“Oh, yes, you can look up the case study.”
“Was he English?”
“No, American, believe it or not.”
“I take it you’re doing a PhD on him or something?”
She blinked. “Oh, no. No.”
“But you know so much about him.”
“It’s a mystery, that’s all,” she said, suddenly irritable. “I want to know what his suggestion was.”
“Ah,” he said.
“That’s why I needed this book. It’s one of the last three I didn’t have. I’d checked out online sellers, everything. When I saw you reaching for it … sorry.”
“Will it help make up for it if I let you in on a secret?”
“Really, it’s okay—”
She lowered her voice. “There is evidence that Ingraham travelled to Australia in the 1890s.” She sat back with an air of having given him something for which he should be very grateful.
“Wow,” he said again, somewhat more weakly.
She frowned. “Of course, wow. You … don’t get the connection?”
“Nope.” He started drinking his coffee as quickly as he could.
“His letter to Haggard was written in 1899.”
“Ugh! I’m glad I did nab Bloodwood, it would have been wasted on you. He’d found something in Australia and he wanted to mount a second expedition.”
Something in her voice made Hoyle say, “Whatever it was can’t possibly be there now. It’s been, what, over a hundred years?”
“Do you think I should go and find out? Or that I shouldn’t?”
“Well, it’s none of my business, is it?”
“Because if you’re thinking that I’m just a middle-aged woman who should stay home with her cats and her book club for a couple of decades until it’s time to go into a hospice and die, then you can just think again.”
“No! No, of course not, no, sorry.” The silence descended again. She finished her coffee and stood up.
Hoyle stood as well. “It’s been a pleasure talking with you.”
“Oh, no it hasn’t. Don’t patronize me. Oh, and thanks for the coffee.” He watched her go, then went back to the shelves. There was an unpleasant, dogged feel to his browsing now, but it was not entirely fruitless: he found a couple of Talbot Mundys he’d been looking for, and, over in the kids’ section, a copy of Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels. He bought it, even though he had three copies already; there were nephews and nieces, and Christmas was less than two months away. The oldest of them was almost too old now for the book, and, to be frank, too interested in black nail polish, but maybe there was still time to instill a love of adventure.
Not that Hoyle himself had ever been on an adventure. In fact, he’d devoted a fair bit of effort over the years to arranging a calm life. A job that suited him, if it didn’t inspire him. A few friends, whom he saw at comfortable intervals. His sisters’ kids, when he wanted someone to give something to. The thought of trudging through a jungle somewhere, picking leeches off his privates and drinking blood from a cut on the neck of his packhorse to stay alive …
Sybil, though—she seemed raring to go. Maybe she would go to Australia, find Ingraham’s secret—or something else entirely. A thousand possibilities, straight out of a thousand musty books with frayed and mottled covers.
He drove home past the endless rows of bland, northern Virginia strip malls and office buildings, fast-food places and office-supply stores. What kind of adventures could he have here? Finding the best price on red peppers at the supermarket? Crossing the street to avoid a group of sullen teenagers?
He pulled into his driveway, got out of his car, and went inside. Sunday afternoons were for reading. But today he couldn’t settle in. Tea, then doing the breakfast dishes, then checking email, then more tea, then filing a few bills, then a walk to the convenience store for some milk, then more tea. After each task, he tried again to engross himself in one of the books he’d just bought. Each time, he was overwhelmed by the need to walk, to straighten, to do. He kept finding reasons to think of Australia.
The very talented Kate Murdoch exhibited widely as a painter both in Australia and internationally before turning her hand to writing. Her short-form fiction has been published in various literary journals in Australia, UK, US and Canada.
Kate’s second novel, The Orange Grove, about the passions and intrigues of court mistresses in 18th century France, was published by Regal House Publishing in October 2019. I absolutely love the cover! Isn’t it gorgeous?
Kate was awarded a Katherine Susannah Pritchard Fellowship at the KSP Writers’ Centre in 2019 to develop her third novel, The Glasshouse.
Welcome, Kate, and thanks for speaking with me today. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Kate: I’m an artist turned writer so I write visually. I’m also fascinated by human motivation, the complex relationship between peoples’ past and present circumstances/traumas, and their actions.
An artist! That explains a great deal. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
Hard to say but I wrote a black mass scene in The Orange Groveand that was fun both in terms of imagery and in creating a menacing atmosphere.
It must be! If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
Duchesse Charlotte: What a heinous thing to say. I am most certainly real, and if you don’t believe me I’ll throw a vase at your head and set one of my Bichons on you!
Brilliant! Well done, Duchesse! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
Kate Grenville has been an inspiration for the way in which she can, with few words, create vivid imagery and layered emotional nuance.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez has also been an influence and inspiration for my writing. His lyrical style, detailed description and romantic themes made an impact as did his ability to move me.
A couple of iconic writers there; great inspiration. Now take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Relax a little. You can direct things more than you realise. Appreciate all the positives and more of them will arrive.
Relax. Of course. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I’m on the second draft of my third novel, The Glasshouse, about a girl orphaned in the Messina earthquake of 1908 and adopted by a wealthy Palermo family. I’ve also started work on a dual-timeline novel set in World War Two Croatia and 1960’s Melbourne, told from the perspective of three generations of women.
I’m doing a number of events for The Orange Groveand am looking forward to talking with readers.
And The Orange Grove is garnering some very enthusiastic reviews. Congratulations! I have it on my summer reading list. Now finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I’d quite enjoy being Romain de Villiers, the tarot reader in The Orange Grove. Aside from his money problems, he does what he likes, has numerous love interests and moves between the château at Blois and Versailles, mixing with lots of interesting people across the classes.
He sounds very interesting indeed. Thanks so much Kate for speaking with me today. Meet you in the Grove!
The Orange Grove:
When status is survival, everychoice hasits consequence.
Blois, 1705. The chateau of Duc Hugo d’Amboise simmers with rivalry and intrigue.
Henriette d’Augustin, one of five mistresses of the duc, lives at the chateau with her daughter. When the duc’s wife, Duchesse Charlotte, maliciously undermines a new mistress, Letitia, Henriette is forced to choose between position and morality. She fights to maintain her status whilst targeted by the duchesse who will do anything to harm her enemies.
The arrival of charismatic tarot reader, Romain de Villiers, further escalates tensions as rivals in domestic politics and love strive for supremacy.
In a society where status is a matter of life and death, Henriette must stay true to herself, her daughter, and her heart, all the while hiding a painful secret of her own.
Gillian Polack is passionate about people, about books, about history. An Australian writer and editor, Gillian works mainly in the field of speculative fiction. She has published four novels, numerous short stories and nonfiction articles, and is the creator of the New Ceres universe. I first encountered Gillian’s work when I reviewed her novel The Year of the Fruitcake for Aurealis magazine. I started my review by saying that the book ‘fizzes with smart, sparkling prose and razor wit’, and finished it with this: ‘one of the most innovative, droll and appealing voices you’re likely to encounter in modern speculative fiction. To read a page of Polack is to enter a world both astute and delightful.’
As you can imagine, I’m enchanted to host Gillian today.
Welcome, Gillian, and thank you for joining me. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Gillian: My novels are not about me. So many readers read one of my contemporary novels and say “Autobiography!”
This became so common that I started playing a guessing game with readers.
“Which bits of the novel are from my life?” I asked, and now I often intentionally put something in my fiction, to keep the guessing game going. In July I said, “I should stop doing this,” but I haven’t quite decided if I should stop, or if I should still add small and unpredictable bits of my life to my fiction and see if readers will ever work out what is borrowed from reality and what is invented.
Very, very few readers guess right. The most common (and entertaining) incorrect guess is about the character who swims naked in the Murrumbidgee River. I do not know how to swim and I’m exactly the wrong person to take off clothes in a public place.
Now I’ll be looking for clues! What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
I am stumped every time someone asks me my favourite book, because I’m not good at choosing just one. I’m like that with most things. Favourite food. Favourite season. All difficult. My favourite scenes, plural (for each and every novel) they’re the scenes that take me into the book, every time. In my perfect world, every single word of fiction I wrote would do this to me. I’m working on that.
It’s very hard to pick favourites, I agree. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
I wanted to give you the response of my very political character in The Wizardry of Jewish Women for she would argue gloriously and precisely and with much passion to prove her existence. Then I thought of giving you the answer Melusine would give from The Time of the Ghosts. “You’re not from this universe, are you, dear? Let me make you some coffee. If you’ve the time, I’d like to ask you if you’ve seen someone who might have travelled your way.”
These are not the most interesting answers, however. My mindwiped alien (in a perimenopausal human body) in The Year of the Fruit Cake would on some days be very distressed that she’s considered fictional, on others she’d discuss it rationally and at least once a week she’d hurt so much that she didn’t understand what you were trying to say. On her best days, she’d look at the evidence, work out the mathematics behind it, and agree with you. Most of this doesn’t show in the novel, but she’s an exceptionally courageous alien and every day she doubts her reality, she handles that doubt with style.
As you handled that question with style! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
So very many books…
I’ve known I was going to be a writer since I was eight. Since before then, actually, because I was eight when I made my big decision. I wasn’t taught to read until I was five, so every book I encountered before I was eight was critical. I read Enid Blyton and I read Edith Nesbit. I read Mary Grant Bruce and Elyne Mitchell. I read the complete series of lives of famous scientists my family owned, and I read history books about the Holocaust. No book I was able to read was banned, and I went from John and Betty (the first book I ever read – I remember learning to read with it, and then I remember helping my younger sister when she learned to read) to reading everything within reach in no time at all.
My biggest shock in between eight and thirteen was The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy (which was shelved in the children’s section until I asked a librarian to explain some critical plot points), and it was one of the books that taught me I didn’t want to write like another writer.
By the time I was thirteen I was reading Tolkien and Tolstoy and Dickens and every single science fiction and historical fiction and fantasy writer I could get my hands on. I had run out of books in the children’s section of the library, you see, and was given permission to borrow books from the adult section.
I can’t imagine life without books. What I knew when I was eight was that this was my playground and my life. That it was all the writers (except a certain few) who inspired me, not any single one. They still do. I have six piles of books to read and when I finish answering these questions, I’m going to start one of them. Today I want to read a book by Meg Keneally and one by Nick Larter. Yesterday, my reading was Kyla Ward and Jeanette Winterson. Tomorrow’s reading is Jo Zebedee and I want to re-visit Ruth Frances Long and maybe, if there’s time, read another Meg Keneally, for a friend just pointed out I hadn’t read her favourite Keneally novel yet.
There are a lot of books by Irish writers on my reading piles this week because of my research – I use my research as an excuse to find new writers. I never want to lose that spark that made me need to write, nor my love of the books of others. Each and every one of them inspires my own writing.
What a fantastic list and a great approach to reading. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
I’ve had a scary-bad ten years. So much near-death. So much being physically incapable of doing things. I’ve found a way of surviving, and so I’d like to please tell me back then:
Life is going to throw shit at you. It will be foul and smelly and will never stop. Turn it into fertiliser and grow flowers. The earlier you start doing this the less you will hurt. The shit won’t stop, so you will have plenty of fertiliser. You’re going to grow an amazing garden.
My garden is flourishing. Like all gardens, this takes hard and constant work. This week I’m growing roses.
Resilience and determination combined with creativity – perfect for gardens and life. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
Three things. I always have a novel happening, and I’ll talk about that in a moment (my summer novel).
The real writing world contains problems for writers like me: I’m a niche writer (many readers love my work, but have trouble finding it, because big publishers do not often take on voices like mine) and I am physically not capable of pushing my barrow much in public (disability sucks, and living in Australia also has its limitations). Next for me, therefore, is trying to find ways of getting my books to the people who want them. I want people to enjoy my books and that means being visible. That’s the hard work bit of what comes next for me. Trying to be visible. Several publishers are helping me with this and I have novels coming out in at least two countries.
The novel I’ll be working on this summer is not going to be angry. It’s going to give some of my characters some happiness. Also, I’m going to try to not kill anyone off.
How am I going to achieve these things? I’ve noticed a lovely theme that goes through some types of teen fiction and through some Korean drama, where people find happiness with each other, as a group. I would like to give this happiness to adults who travel, each of them alone, to another world. I want them to come back changed, but with each other.
This is quite different from my third activity for the next little while. Poison and Light will be released very soon, and I need to help it on its way. It’s about the last artist from Lost Earth, it’s about the way we hide in the past when we can’t face the present, and it’s about life on a distant planet. Life with highwaymen and swordfights and amazing publishers. My favourite part of it right now is the cover art: Lewis Morley didn’t just design a street scene: he built it and photographed it. My world lives.
That sounds awesome, Gillian. Finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I would be someone else’s fictional character. I don’t know whose, but I know precisely what. I’d have all the things I’ve missed out in this life: beauty, health, perfect eyesight, fabulous romance, awesome clothes and strange magic that changes the world. I suspect I’d be the somewhat sarcastic heroine of a steampunk Regency novel.
I can see it! And I want to read it! Thank you so much for sharing with me today, Gillian, and more power to you.