I could say that 2019 is the year that convinced me that I am writer. So that was quite affirming, as well as a huge relief! Looks like I can sort of do this thing I’ve always longed to do.
Middle Child Reads
Some of you know that I ‘suffer’ from Middle Child Syndrome. I’m not the eldest, or the youngest; I’m not the prettiest, or the most artistic; I’m not the most talented sportsperson, or the most charming bloke. Each one of those titles belongs to one of my six siblings. Three older, three younger. (Search Middle Child Memes – they’re hilarious!)
Your classic middle child, so they say, craves the attention that is lavished on their older and younger sibs. Mid kids are said to be overachievers as they try desperately to be noticed. I could call 2019 the year of overachievement.
But I won’t. I’d rather say that my defining characteristic is that I’m the reader – reading is my superpower – and now I feel I can confidently say
I’m the writer!
Oooh, that felt good.
Thank you so much for your support and interest in 2019. Next week I’d better get my head properly around 2020.
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!
It’s 2020! I’m not sure how we suddenly arrived at 2020, but here it is. A new month, a new year, a new decade.
And many, many new books to read. Yay!
2019 was a stand out year for me in both reading and writing (see next week’s post for more about that). I met many great books, and authors, for the first time. In this post, I’m listing my Top 10 of 2019. I’m dividing them My Way, in alphabetical order by genre, because numbers are too hard, don’t you think? I’ve already made a resolution to do a top 20 at the end of this year … 10 is too few!
All of these books found me with a permanent smile of pure enjoyment on my face, cover to cover. Except when things got scary, of course. I recommend them all, especially if your taste in reading matter matches mine.
Too many to choose from, of course, when we start talking about my favourite genre. However, for sheer ingenuity and enjoyment, I’m nominating Desdemona and the Deep by CSE Cooney. I loved every baroque word of this glorious adventure. I reviewed this for Aurealis and named it one of my two favourite ‘books of the year’. Yes, we were allowed to choose TWO.
Only two! LOL
This was quite a crowded field for me this year. The story which has lingered longest is Voyage of the Dogs by Greg Van Eekhout. I just loved the Barkonauts on the crippled spaceship Laika trying their best to find a home. Dogs and space travel. How could I resist? Read my review here.
This is of course another favourite genre for me, which always makes it difficult to choose. Yes, I know: all these are difficult to choose. Right up there is The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. I am a dedicated reader of Barker’s wonderful writing, and this did not disappoint. A clever and touching re-telling of the Trojan War story. Read my review here.
My second nominated ‘book of the year’ for Aurealis was Icefall by Stephanie Gunn. Maggie and her wife Aisha travel to the planet of Icefall so that Maggie can climb the mountain that nobody has ever survived … I was enthralled! Space, diversity, adventure, romance, and AI. Perfect.
I was lucky enough to read the whole series for Aurealis this year, and Queens of the Sea by Kim Wilkins was a fabulous conclusion to a sword-and-sorcery adventure about five royal sisters. My favourite is of course Bluebell who is the warrior sister, with her own special magic.
Can you believe I’ve started reading some witchy books? My 2019 favourite was The Lights Go Out in Lychford by Paul Cornell. This short novella, which I reviewed in Aurealis, is very well crafted and great fun, and definitely makes me want to read more about the Witches of Lychford. You’ll devour it in one gulp and come up slightly scared, mostly reassured, and looking for more.
That’s the list for 2019. I’ve already started a list for 2020, but more about that next week. In the meantime, happy reading, happy writing.
‘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.
Dominic Brownlow lives near Peterborough with his children. He worked in the music industry as a manager before setting up his own independent label. Today I’m speaking with him about his debut novel The Naseby Horses will be published in December 2019. I was fortunate enough to read and review an advance copy earlier this year, and was enthralled by this eloquent, atmospheric novel.
Hey, Dominic, welcome to Last Word of the Week. It’s great to meet you.
Dominic: And thank you for inviting me, Clare.
My pleasure! Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book really ought to know?
Firstly, before any unbridled confessions are revealed, is that I live now, once again, in the Fens, on the edge of them at least, where the story of The Naseby Horsesis set. It is a truly beautiful part of England that on the whole is seen by others mostly as a forgotten, undeveloped stretch of land designed and constructed purely for the purpose of farming, as though it were nothing more than an enormous jetty pushing into the North Sea from places like Cambridge and Peterborough. This is only partly true. It is wide, open and empty, and in places bleak; a landscape containing both thriving towns and villages and tiny, self-sufficient communities content with their own ways of life. Simon’s village is one of these.
Secondly, as a young boy growing up there, I was a member of the Young Ornithologists Club and would occasionally go on bus trips to places like Crowland and Gedney and Whittlesey, accompanied only with a pair of binoculars and a pack-up.
The Naseby Horses
I’ve visited the Fens a few times – they are a very long way from Australia both literally and atmospherically – and I was excited to read your novel set in the Fens. I love the birds too – the ways you describe flocks in flight especially. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
This is a hard one as there aren’t really that many scenes, as such, but what I enjoyed writing the most, and which I hope I have got somewhere nearly right, are the moments when Simon is effected by the aura, when he is detained within the unsteady world of a potential seizure. I researched this a good deal and what I found the most interesting, and what in many ways steered the narrative to what it is now, is that those suffering with epilepsy see and feel and smell different things in the aura. With the greatest respect to those who have this at times debilitating disorder, there was to me, as a wannabe writer, unquestionably something intriguing and mysterious about this phenomenon, and from that came the idea, fictitiously, that maybe this was more than simply electrical surcharges in the brain. It doesn’t compare to the life changing circumstances that epilepsy, sadly, can at times inflict on a sufferer, but as a child and young boy I experienced quite dramatic focus shifts. These, although harmless, I discovered through my research are similar, in part, to what is experienced in the aura and so, as best I could, I tried to bring these experiences back when writing these passages. I even, at times, would purposefully make myself dizzy before typing. This is not a book about epilepsy but, as I said before, if I have in any way captured that moment of fear and uncertainty and the loss of control of one’s own world, then all those days and nights spinning my head around in the office to the point of nausea were possibly worth it.
Those moments are very effective, I think. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
Well, I suppose it would have to be Simon although I would hate for you to do this to him, for he would believe you. His world is already eidetic. He lives his memories and dreams in real time and to tell him he wasn’t real would be like telling him he was. No, sorry, I love him too much for you to do that. Maybe Mum and Dad, then. No one should have to go through that in real life.
Excellent! I like the way you’re thinking. 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?
I don’t think any writers inspired me directly. Whilst always being a reader I was never fanatical about it or particularly bookish. My life until five or six years ago was absorbed in music and bands. The Wasp Factorywas the first ‘grown up’ book I read beyond school books and I went on to read pretty much everything Iain Banks wrote after that. He had the most extraordinary imagination and I imagine was a pretty good guy. I think I would like to have met him. Jon McGregor over the last few years has taken over that mantle. I would love to be able to write like that. If asked, I often say my favourite novel is Climbers by M John Harrison and the book I have bought the most, without question, as gifts for kids, is The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. If any book can get the world reading again it surely has to be this one.
Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
In hindsight, although ten years ago I would have most likely told myself to get lost, or words of that nature, I would have unquestionably concentrated on writing more and not filling every spare moment of my life trying to harbour success for others, although I have no regrets there. I enjoyed it greatly despite the lack of a regular wage. As all wannabe writers will know, finding time is a huge issue. I’d been writing essays and screenplays and short stories all my life, purely for the benefit of my computer or some old notebook. Words themselves, either writing them or reading them, were, to me, always more important than the stories they told, and it wasn’t until I moved back to the Fens that I at last found that time to put these ramblings into some semblance of a plot.
What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I am in the throes of a new novel as we speak although to be honest I need to find a routine again. I’m making excuses not to write as opposed to writing, which is awful, really, seeing as I’ve been waiting so long. I need to get back into red wine and coffee, my ever-trusty companions for The Naseby Horses.
I hope you find the writing groove again soon! And finally:Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
In many ways, I’d like to be Simon, despite the card he was dealt. I think I’d like to tell him that, actually, everything’s alright. There is something enticing about the messed-up teenager in fiction. I don’t know if that’s because we want to be them or steer them away from the dangers they are readily putting themselves in, but just for a few moments, and with a massive red eject button at my side, I’d like to be either Frank from The Wasp Factory or Vernon from Vernon God Little or Holden Caulfield or Hallam Foe. And Karrion from the Wilde Investigations series. He’s just cool and a bit of a goth. Yes, Karrion it is: Motion passed.
Karrion it shall be! Thank you so much for sharing with me today on Last Word of the Week.
Today I’m honoured to speak with Myles Ojabo, whose debut novel Black River was published earlier this year. I was very fortunate in being chosen to review Black Riverfor Aurealis magazine, and very appreciative that Myles is able to be with me today to share some of his experiences in researching and writing his splendid novel. I used words like ‘energy and unending relevance’, as well as ‘complex, thoughtful, entertaining and pertinent’ in my review which can be found in Aurealis #123
Welcome, Myles, I’m very pleased to meet you. I thoroughly enjoyed your novel. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
I came to New Zealand from Nigeria in 2011 to study. I completed a Masters of Creative Writing in 2013, which focused on the features and significance of the short story cycle, and the PhD came later on. I met an African American man in my first year in New Zealand and we became friends. Our friendship often got me thinking about the historical impacts of slavery in our contemporary societies. When my African American friend told me about life in America, I saw a different but really fascinating black culture that originated from the continent of Africa. My thoughts often wandered back to days of my childhood, when my mother and father told us stories of some of our forebears who were taken as slaves. I wondered if some of my distant relatives could be living in America, Brazil, Cuba, or the Caribbean. I became interested in American slavery and its impact on black people. And the PhD in Creative Writing explored my own lineage in this regard.
In the course of writing Black River, I carried out an ethnohistorical research on my own ethnicity, that is, of the Idoma people of Nigeria, and on American slave history. I also undertook a psychogeographical trip to America for the sole reason of visiting old slave plantations to confirm some information acquired from my ethnohistorical research. I tried to employ fantastical features when merging the history of my people with that of the African Americans. One legend vital to the novel is that of a forebear believed to have flown from slavery in America back to his village in Africa. Black River became a neo-slave narrative with supernatural elements that fills the literal gap in my family history. The novel has recently been nominated for the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize for prose fiction.
Congratulations! That’s so fascinating. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
My protagonist, Christmas Preacher, sold into slavery as a boy, lives most of his life on American soil. A supernatural mermaid, Oda’nyaa, is bent on having him remain in America. She is irresistible and he often finds himself trapped by her seduction. On the other hand, Orinya, Christmas’s resurrected forebear, wants Christmas to return at a predestined time. Christmas is indecisive all through the novel.
For an African American writing about slavery, home in most cases is freedom. Some never get it. Some get it. The novels The Underground Railway by Colson Whitehead and Grace by Natasha Deon are good examples. Both works, written by African Americans and published in 2016, depict enslaved blacks in America’s South heading North in pursuit of freedom. Africa is the mother continent to most black people around the world. In Black River, freedom is not depicted as home. Africa is home in the novel.
My favourite scene in Black River is that moment when Christmas Preacher realises that he has powerful ability to levitate back to Africa. He leaps into the air and heads for the sky. However, he is captured by the mermaid and her followers in the course of the journey. Christmas is held captive until his Ancestor, the great Alekwuafia, comes to his rescue, allowing him to complete the journey to Africa.
I love that mermaid. She’s pretty much my favourite character. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
Black River has two endings, offering readers the liberty to pick one of them. A scene predicts his death in America. And another shows his return to Africa. In the novel, death is not able to end existence. Characters die, but their spirits often continue to communicate with each other, and with the living. In the life beyond death, Oda’nyaa, the mermaid, attempts to convince Christmas that his trip back to the mother continent was a lie, that it never occurred. He laughs and calls her a lying mermaid. Well, I think Christmas would laugh and of course accuse you of lying to his face.
I like the freedom this gives to the reader and I know which is my preferred ending (but no spoilers here!). 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?
The list of writers that inspire me continues to increase over time. The list of my favourite books also changes with time. If we were to look back to the period in which I was writing Black River, I would list these books:
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, a memoir written by himself.
Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, an autobiography written by himself.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, an autobiography written by Harriet Ann Jacobs.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, an autobiography written by himself.
Their works were the first to inform me in detail about the experiences of the brothers and sisters taken away from the mother continent many centuries ago and enslaved. It was exhilarating for me to see the painting of Frederick Douglass among the great African Americans honoured on the walls of the Freedom Centre when I visited America. He was born enslaved in Maryland and escaped to freedom as a young adult in 1831. He did this by pretending to be a black sailor. The Civil War galvanised Douglass and others who saw that slavery might finally end and they lobbied President Lincoln and other leaders for the recruitment of black soldiers.
Literary works such as Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Grace by Natasha Deon and Kindred by Octavia Butler provided me with an opportunity to elucidate why and how literary genres such as historical fiction, neo-slave narrative, and magical realism can mutate or come together. This equipped me to handle my research and also to tackle its question by being able to draw out themes around the African American slave experience.
Thank you; these are good additions to my wish list. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Be confident. Be proud. Be much more ambitious.
I say this because I have been a victim of spiteful words. You go through a PhD journey only for some people and institutions, I call them strongholds, to use their demoralising words to crush you. There are people who have never read a novel but enjoy telling you what to write about. I would tell my younger self to be ruthless in pursuing his desires amidst these sorts of negative energies.
I used to worry about some of the negative things said to me until my father asked me what I was worrying about. He went on to say, “You are still young. You can make a lot of mistakes. You can make a lot of decisions and you can attain a lot of success.” I would tell my younger self the same thing. I would tell him no one can tell the stories he intends to tell or write about.
What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I dug up some short stories I wrote during my Masters Degree in Creative Writing and have started polishing them. They are all about the experiences of exiles in a psychiatric hospital. The collection of short stories will appear early next year.
I am also working on a play about a Nigerian PhD student living in New Zealand and struggling to maintain relationships with his supervisor and his Kiwi girlfriend.
I like the sound of that play! What would the student’s name be, I wonder…And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I would like to be Christmas Preacher’s son, Ijeyi. Christmas, as indicated earlier on, is the protagonist of my novel, Black River.
Ijeyi, born in 1804 to Christmas Preacher on American soil, represents the American experience that I cannot relate to.
My African American friend and I recognise Africa as our mother continent, but we have different outlooks on life. I could relate to my friend’s experiences in life but not fully, since he is the one that has been through life in contemporary America. It is vice versa when it comes to him trying to relate to my experience growing up in contemporary Africa.
Christmas has two sons in Black River. An African American and an African son. I can relate with the African experience. I can relate with the impact of the colonial experience on the continent of Africa. I wish I could be Ijeyi who was born a slave, just because of the desire to fully understand the impact of slavery on the lives of African Americans in contemporary America. Due to this, Ijeyi’s story seems missing in Black River. He is sold off as a child, and not even Christmas ever sees his son attain adulthood.
That’s terribly sad! Maybe a future book about Ijeyi? Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Myles, and congratulations on a wonderful book.