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About The Winter Trilogy, with Mark Smith

Australian author Mark Smith lives on Victoria’s Surf Coast, where he writes novels and stories, and runs outdoor-education programs for young adults. His first novel, The Road to Winter (2017), attracted the attention of many literary judges and has since been adopted as secondary school reading here in Australia. Its themes of a dystopian future, survivalism, compassion and the struggle against injustice in its many forms are deftly packaged in a gripping and sparely written tale, with not a word too many. It’s almost poetic in its emotional intensity.

Mark’s second novel, Wilder Country, won the 2018 Indie Book Award for Young Adults, and the final book of the trilogy, The Land of Fences, was published to acclaim last year.

Australian author Mark Smith

Australian author Mark Smith

Hi, Mark, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Here’s a tricky question: what would readers never guess about you?

I hated reading when I was young! I know a lot of authors are brought up in houses full of books or they are turned onto reading by a sympathetic librarian, but at the age of fifteen I’d never read a book. I knew how to read, I just didn’t have the inclination. I was very much an outdoors boys and I always associated reading with being closeted indoors. Then, when I was fifteen, I had a horse riding accident that left me with a badly broken neck – so suddenly I had to spend a lot of time indoors. My mum was an avid reader and she got me started on books like Storm Boy and I Can Jump Puddles. Discovering reading could transport into other worlds and other people’s lives, I progressed quickly to Catcher In The Rye, Steinbeck and George Johnston. By the time I returned to school six months after the accident I had read about twenty books and my outlook on learning and reading had changed completely.

That’s a very extreme version of book love! Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?

Writing courses are hugely valuable. Though I have never studied writing at a tertiary level (a Victorian university rejected my application to do a PhD in Creative Writing last year because they didn’t consider twenty published short stories and three novels adequately met their selection criteria!), I have completed a number of short courses at places like Writers Victoria. As much as anything, I think they help expose the areas you need to work on in your writing. They are also valuable in creating writing networks that can support you through your successes and inevitable rejections!

The Road to Winter by Mark Smith

The Road to Winter by Mark Smith

Good grief! That uni needs to take a good hard look. I also love the Writers Victoria courses and have found them very helpful in practical ways, while my degree was helpful in craft ways – a good supervisor is worth a few thousand rejection letters! What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?

No one wants to hear it, but there is no silver bullet, no secret to success other than hard work and perseverance. When I started writing I had stories rejected for twelve months before one was accepted. Other than that, my own mantra for writing is: “Don’t let the words get in the way of the story.” If you are writing to impress, you are probably not writing well. Also, draft and redraft until it is the best possible piece of writing you can produce then – and only then – send it out into the world.

I love that, thank you Mark. Very happy to hear it! You talk about perseverance – do you have a go-to routine for writing?

I like to get up early – about sevenish – and write for at least two hours before breakfast. I can generally bang out a thousand words, if not more, and it gives me time in the rest of my day to do other things I love, like surfing, riding, reading and planning for appearances and workshops. I am more clear-headed in the morning but I use the rest of the day to mull over what I’ve written. I do a lot of what I call writing away from the desk. This is just thinking through scenes and descriptive passages, considering how I might improve on them. I can do this while I’m riding my bike, surfing or walking the dog on the beach. When I get back to the desk the next morning, I know what I have to do to improve what I’ve written the day before.

Wilder Country (Winter #2) by Mark Smith

Wilder Country (Winter #2) by Mark Smith

I agree; a lot of writing happens inside your skull. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?

Because my first book, The Road To Winter, is taught in schools around the country, I love hearing from students who have discovered reading through my books. I like to tell them about how I was also a non-reader until I was fifteen. I also like the fact teenagers are brutally honest. On a visit to a large boys school a couple of years ago, a student waited back after my presentation to talk to me about The Road To Winter. I asked him what he thought of it. He replied, “Well, it’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s not the worst!”

That’s high praise from a teenager, I suspect. How do you feel about reviews?

I know some authors say they don’t look at reviews and that they don’t take them to heart, but I think most do. Good reviews are great and bad reviews – of which there will inevitably be some – can wound. The best advice I ever got regarding reviews was that I should never take them personally. The reviewer is criticising your work, not you.  And, in the end, it’s just one person’s opinion. This is particularly true of Goodreads reviews. Most are not from professional critics, just readers with an opinion. My favourite one star review from Goodreads was a short and simple one for The Road To Winter: “I hate it!”

Goodness, that is succinct. Has your work been compared to other writers?

Because I’ve written a YA dystopian series, my books are most often compared to John Marsden’s. To be honest, I am honoured to be mentioned in the same sentence as him. I was lucky enough to interview John at a festival last year and I found him to be a very humble and engaging man. He read my books in preparation for the interview and was very complimentary of my writing. My favourite comparison though comes from a review of my third book, Land Of Fences, by Fran Atkinson in The Age that said “…there is almost a Winton-esque lyricism when Smith writes about the big blue and the coastline that features regularly.” I am a huge Tim Winton fan and his writing has influenced me more than any other, so that quote now sits on the pinboard by my desk, for easy reference whenever I doubt my own abilities.

Land of Fences (Winter #3) by Mark Smith

Land of Fences (Winter #3) by Mark Smith

I agree with her – there is a very Australian lyricism to your books which is reminiscent of Winton. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?

I started my career as an English teacher and I always had this little inkling in the back of my mind that I could maybe try writing. But, like most people, I didn’t do anything about it for years. I was in my fifties before I enrolled in a short story writing course taught by Emmet Stinson at Writers Victoria. Melanie Cheng was in the same class and we’ve been friends ever since. After lots of rejections, I began to get my stories published in a few journals and anthologies. But I still didn’t dare call myself a writer. Then I was lucky enough to win the Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize for a short story called Manyuk. With prize money of $10,000, it was one of the richest short story prizes in Australia. I didn’t realise at the time, but that’s as much as a lot of first time authors get as an advance on a novel. But, having won the prize and banked the cheque, I very tentatively started to call myself a writer. A three-book deal with Text Publishing confirmed it three months later.

Wonderful! How do you get feedback about your story, before it’s published?

I don’t show my drafts to anyone until I’m convinced I need a different set of eyes to read them. For each of my novels I have sought the advice of my local bookshop owner. I took a risk and did this with my first book because I knew she would be a speed reader (and therefore get back to me quickly) and she knew the book trade intimately so she would be able to tell me whether the novel had legs or not. As our friendship has grown, I’ve also encouraged her to be utterly ruthless in her feedback. Her instincts have been spot on every time!

She sounds a treasure indeed. Is it easy for you to meet other writers?

The best thing about becoming a writer is meeting other writers. We are a pretty small community in Australia and we need to encourage and support each other. I go out of my way at festivals and gigs to introduce myself to the other writers and I try as much as possible to attend their launches and events.  Social media also facilitates this interaction – follow your favourite writers and let them know you like their writing. I have “met” a large number of fellow writers on social media, some of whom I’ve yet to meet in person. Following them also keeps me updated on their new releases and the events they have planned around them.

I completely agree. The Australian writing community seems to be very supportive and I love interacting with fellow writers online … like right now! Did you have a big break in writing? What happened?

This is an easy one to answer because my first manuscript was picked up off the slush pile at Text. I knew nothing about publishers so I simply chose the one who published my favourite authors and sent the manuscript to them. Text have a house policy of all its employees reading off the slush pile on Friday afternoons. One of the senior marketers picked mine up, loved it and the rest is history!

That’s wonderful, and a great practice by a publishing company. I’m so glad that your book was plucked out of the slush because it’s marvellous. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Mark, and more power to your writing.

 

Mark’s LINKS:

https://www.facebook.com/marksmithwriter/

https://twitter.com/marksmith0257

https://www.instagram.com/marksmithauthor/

BOOKSHOP LINKS:

https://www.greatescapebooks.com.au

https://www.facebook.com/TorquayBooks

https://www.facebook.com/bookgrove

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Newman and his Electric Fence stories

Mark Newman is an award-winning writer from the UK, who is a master of the intense and difficult art of the short story. In this interview, Mark shares his perspective on reading and writing and how he tested his writing through entering – and succeeding in – writing competitions.

You can read my review of his fabulous short story collection, My Fence is Electric, here. I loved it and will return to it often.

Welcome, Mark, it’s great to talk with you. I first heard about you because we share a publisher, but I now know that you have a substantial CV as a writer of awesome short stories, and that you’ve been winning accolades for a while now. Let’s talk about how you got to be the writer you are.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Mark: The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis. I loved the whole Narnia series, and still go back to them every two or three years just for that hit of nostalgia. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is, of course, a classic, but I always loved The Magician’s Nephew for that first glimpse of the White Witch in Charn, the rings and the pools between worlds and the attics that ran between the houses. All kids ever want to do is find secret places. I don’t really think that feeling ever leaves you.

And that sense of possibilities in hidden spaces – I agree. You seem to be quite productive – do you have a go-to routine for writing?

I wish I did. Wouldn’t that be nice? I’m not really a routine person, though I see the sense in them. I just wait for sentences and ideas to drop through the ether, write them down until there is enough there to make a story out of, spread them out in the right order and fill in the gaps. It’s a wonder I ever write anything, to be honest.

Ah, the magical ether. Stories are a kind of wonder, even to the writer. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?

Getting shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award was pretty amazing. Seeing your face on a TV screen and blurb about your story scrolling through alongside other amazing writers was surreal. The Costa Book Awards was a weird experience – I don’t really belong in the same room as Dame Diana Rigg! It’s nice to get shortlisted for a competition that is judged by other writers as the Costa is, and the Retreat West competitions that I did so well in at the start of my writing, it really makes you feel you are doing something right.

My Fence is Electric by Mark Newman

My Fence is Electric and other stories by Mark Newman

Yes, winning is so affirming. I hope you took selfies at that awards night! Is writers block a thing for you?

Absolutely. I’m paralysed by the blank page and the blank gaps between the good ideas and good sentences. I wish writing felt like a good thing but it often feels like pulling teeth. The satisfaction comes when you read back something that works, but it’s often a long road getting there. But, it’s writing, isn’t it. It’s not brain surgery, I can’t really complain, I don’t have to do it.

It is often difficult, and we don’t have to do it, but then again we don’t seem able to stop! Those ideas still fall out of the ether, I find. On another tack, what do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?

We all have favourite books that have awful covers but it doesn’t really affect how we feel about the book. It’s the words inside that really matter, but a cover for a new author is super important. We’ve all picked up books because we like the covers and passed by covers we don’t like. I was asked for my opinions about the cover for My Fence is Electric but, unlike some novel ideas I have where I have quite strong ideas for covers, I didn’t really have any thoughts about what I wanted. My publisher, Michelle Lovi, designed it and sent it to me and I was so scared opening up the file, but I absolutely loved it. Simple and beautiful – hearts and barbed wire, sums it all up perfectly!

Did you have a big break in writing? What happened?

I went to see Alison Moore speak at Loughborough Library in Leicestershire (UK). I had wanted to be an author for nearly 20 years and had written numerous starts to novels and then been unable to progress. She detailed her route to publication and spoke about the importance of writing short stories and entering competitions for her to find out if she was heading in the right direction. She got an agent early on from doing this as well and it all spread out for her from there. She and Susan Hill are my all-time favourite authors so I listen to anything they have to say! The first short story I wrote was highly commended in a competition and I was approached by an agent from one of the biggest literary agencies in London. Nothing came of that (apart from some great advice) but it gave me the confidence to keep going.

Author Mark Newman

Author Mark Newman

That’s a great story, thank you. What kind of reader would like your book?

Short story fans. People who love Susan Hill and Alison Moore. As I said, I’m a big fan of theirs and I think it shows! Same kind of mood.

Is it easy for readers to find your book?

Not at the moment. The global pandemic situation has resulted in my launch event and follow-up events being cancelled and distribution problems mean it’s been hard to get a paperback copy of my book in the UK. It can’t be helped, it is what it is. My book hardly matters against what is going on. The eBook version is easy to get and The Book Depository have copies in stock at the moment. And I have a box full in my front room so if you live in the UK contact me on Twitter if you want to pay through PayPal and I’ll send you one!

Tricky times indeed – I hope things improve for all of us soon. Is your local bookstore thriving?

My nearest local bookstore is Kibworth Books in Leicestershire (UK) and it’s nine miles away. I’d be there all the time if I lived in Kibworth or drove. It certainly seems to be thriving though and long may it continue.

More power to bookshops! Thanks so much for speaking to me today, Mark. Congratulations on My Fence is Electric,  and all the best with your writing.

Website: https://marknewman1973.wordpress.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/myfenceiselectric/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/FenceIsElectric

Book available at:

Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Fence-Electric-Other-Stories-ebook/dp/B084RQP2K6/

Google Play https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/My_Fence_is_Electric_and_other_stories.html/

The Book Depository https://www.bookdepository.com/My-Fence-is-Electric-Mark-Newman/9781922311030

Odyssey Books https://www.odysseybooks.com.au/titles/9781922311030/

Flexible thinking tips: emotional health boosts at your fingertips

For me, emotional health is something that needs attention during the pandemic arrangements. We’re fortunate here in Australia to be comparatively low in infection rate, with few deaths and relatively relaxed restrictions. That doesn’t mean that world-changing times aren’t tough to deal with, from social distancing and home schooling to serious economic consequences for many people.

I’ve whittled my thoughts  down to the three top considerations that support my emotional balance: flexibility, empathy, and creativity. Today I’m going to unpack just one of these a little in case something is useful for you too. You may have your own go-to places that give you comfort and strength. I’d love to hear your tips!

Disclaimer: despite my excessive education, I am not a psychologist. These tips are from lived experience – age and the school of trial and error – plus a few years of studying psychology, communication, management and history…

Clare’s Flexible Thinking Tips

This year, we are all travelling in a vehicle that hasn’t yet been fully described, let alone having a user’s manual. That makes it even more important to be flexible. Rules change more often than I find comfortable, and that can increase my anxiety. Without certainty about what will happen next, it’s easy to become stuck in my thinking.

Stuck thinking increases anxiety – you know that feeling when your usual chair in the lecture theatre is already taken? – while flexible thinking entertains the possibility of difference without stress.

You may have heard my long-time mantra: I can’t do everything, but I can always do something. These days, many of my usual activities and routines are no longer possible or are radically changed. I try to cultivate a flexible mindset to help deal with the frustration and sadness about what we’ve lost. Here are four strategies I have used lately to promote and strengthen my flexible thinking.

I hope you can share some others to build my store of healthy thinking habits.

  • Ask what if?

    This is a regular trick of writers: what if someone ordered a coffee and found a tiny poodle in their cup? That’s OK for stories, but for everyday we need different what ifs. I use this these days with cooking ingredients (what if I use peanut butter in this cake instead of marmalade?), household chores (what if I don’t iron anything?), desk work (what if I turn off emails until after lunch OMG!!!), exercise (what if I walk anti-clockwise around the block today?). What if we have our main meal in the middle of the day? What if we eat on the verandah? What if I read a story to the dog? What if I move that painting into the other room? I like the way this activity changes up my mind set.

  • Say there might be another way.

    And then look for it. Of course, this depends on the task that you are tackling. In writing, I sometimes get out of a stuck place by leaving a large blank space and creating a “final” sentence, and later trying to make the two ends meet. Putting a task aside and doing something different for a while helps too. It’s also helpful to ask for a second opinion when something isn’t working out right – another brain will probably have another mindset. I also like to think about the past and the future – history and possibility – by wondering how this task was done in the old days, or how it might be tackled next century, or on another planet (yep, too much imagination!).

  • Take a breath and think what’s the worst that could happen?

    This can seem a dangerous ploy, but often I find myself stressing about something that, in the bigger scheme of things, just isn’t all that important. My sense of perspective can get seriously askew when I’m trying to do something that needs concentration and keep getting interrupted (EG: self-imposed writing deadline + barking dog). Breathe IN-2-3-4, HOLD-2, OUT-2-3-4, HOLD-2. I do that a couple of times. That gives me space to recalibrate. In my example, the worst that could happen is that I miss my home-made deadline. The best that could happen is that I actually get a new storyline out of the situation: hmm, busy writer ignores barking dog and misses the moment when the zombie breaks down the door…

  • Deliberate sabotage.

Weird, I know. This is related to the ‘what if?’ strategy, but uses a physical cue to change up my mindset. It’s kind of like playing a prank on myself so I get jolted out of my usual thinking rut. I have often used this trick in the past to mix up my routine thoughts on purpose. For example, I used to deliberately choose the longest queue in any circumstance, telling myself to use the time for taking notice of where I was, the people around me, and the mood of the place – all useful exercises for writers at any time, and quite good mindfulness exercises for anyone. These days I avoid queues completely, so I try other things like putting my phone at the other end of the house, taking the long route anywhere, reading and writing in unusual places like the garage or the back garden, and changing my furniture around. I do that quite a lot, actually! Last week, I turned my desk 180% so that I now face the door not the window. Is it better? I wouldn’t have thought so, but for the first time since the pandemic was declared, I wrote two new pieces of fiction. Was it the desk move that sparked me? Just maybe!

And I can’t wait to change my desk back again. 🙂

I hope some of these crazy ideas make sense and are helpful. In the meantime, stay safe and wash your hands. Next week, Last Word will return with another author Q&A. See you then.

 

 

 

19 and a half spells disguised by Josh Donellan

Today I’m talking with the lively Josh Donellan, author of 19½ Spells Disguised as Poems, the outrageous mystery novel Killing Adonis, and more.

Josh is an author, poet, musician, music journalist, teacher, voice actor and event manager, and a very entertaining interviewee. His CV includes being almost devoured by a tiger in the jungles of Malaysia, nearly dying of a collapsed lung in the Nepalese Himalayas, and once fending off a pack of rabid dogs with a guitar in the mountains of India. He has an unnatural fondness for scrabble and an irrational dislike of frangipanis.

Naturally enough, Josh’s answers to my questions are particularly amazing, and this interview reflects his clever sense of the absurd and the precious. Josh is a wordsmith worth noting, because you will never look at the printed page in quite the same way. 

You probably won’t be able to, because there’s every chance it will self-detonate before your very eyes. Either that or turn into a not-very-helpful imp.

19.5 Spells disguised as Poems by Josh Donellan

19.5 Spells disguised as Poems by Josh Donellan

Great to meet you, Josh, and congratulations on the publication of 19½ Spells. And thanks for reading some of them on your website here – that’s great! Can you tell me why is writing important to you?

Josh: Ani DiFranco once said “I was a terrible waitress, so I started to write songs.” I think I feel the same way, except I write stories instead of songs and instead of being bad at hospitality I was bad at (insert many different jobs here).

Ah, that means you really are a writer. Great. What was your favourite book as a child?

The Voynich manuscript.

 

In a language that only you can speak, no doubt. That one had me reaching for Wikipedia: ‘an illustrated codex written in an unknown writing system’! Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?

Yes, if you read everything I’ve ever written you’ll find I’ve encoded the secret to eternal life using a secret cypher that can only be understood once you’ve posted really nice reviews on goodreads and recommended my books to all your friends.

 

That sounds like a good plan! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?

 

 

“This is the best book I’ve ever read, but it should have had Dr Who in it.”

That’s the way I feel about most books, truly. Why are you the perfect person to write your books?

Because everyone else who has tried has descended into madness and now spends their days rocking back and forth, murmuring about eldritch horrors and the heinous price of printer refill cartridges.

 Or the scarcity of flour and toilet rolls, possibly. What would be a dream come true for you?

Having Taikia Waititi direct an adaptation of one of my novels, with the soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky.

That’s a movie I would definitely see. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Josh – more power to your marvellous way with words.

 

Josh’s Social Links

https://twitter.com/jmdonellan (@jmdonellan)

https://www.instagram.com/jmdonellan/ (@jmdonellan)

https://www.facebook.com/jmdonellanauthor/

Josh’s Book Links

https://www.jmdonellan.com/

http://sixcoldfeet.com/

Odyssey Books

Stendhal Syndome by Josh Donellan

Stendhal Syndome by Josh Donellan

Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger and The Road to Liberation

Chrystyna LUCYK-BERGER is the author of the award-winning, RESCHEN VALLEY series, and this year she released a collection of short WWII stories called Souvenirs from Kiev, based on the lives of her relatives from Ukraine,

Starting on May 5th, Chrystyna’s new novel Magda’s Mark is featured in The Road to Liberation,  a six-author collection of novels dedicated to commemorating the end of WWII.

Chrystyna is an American ex-pat living in Austria (yes, Austria in Europe – not Australia!) and apologises to the proper English speakers for her American “spelling” mistakes.

In the Alps

In the Alps

Thank you so much for joining me today, Chrystyna. You have an impressive list of novels now. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?

Chrystyna: I was in the second grade and Mrs Sharon Davis “made” us write stories. Around Halloween, she told us to write a ghost story. At that time, I was really into haunted house and ghost stories – I was reading way above my level and things that were probably not really meant for a 7-year-old.

I compiled a hodgepodge of impressions (read: I plagiarized) and on the day, we were all told to sit in a circle on the floor. One kid after another stood up and read their “paragraph” to us. I tried to pay attention, but everyone was bored, and squirming, and poking at one another and giggling about this and that. You know how it is? Then Mrs Davis called my name.

I stood up with about six sheets in my hands. I saw her raise her eyebrows; I saw the jawline tighten. I was really nervous – chunky kid, glasses, a nerd, really – but I stood up and started “telling the tale” so to speak. A minute or so into it, I realized something was really wrong. It was quiet; absolutely silent in the room. When I looked up from my story, I saw everyone – including Mrs Davis, her face beaming full of pride – was paying attention. I went home and told everyone I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

That’s brilliant! What a great story. You obviously have a great imagination, but how much research is involved in your writing?

I write historical fiction and so I do a lot of research. I read somewhere that a historical fiction writer reads an average of 35 books before they’re done with one novel. That sounds about right. My mother is a history buff. She’s now involved in my research: she prepares the research for my history and culture blog and she does all the groundwork for my new books now.

A lot of my invested time (and money!) is spent visiting the settings in my books as well. So, for the Reschen Valley series, only for the purposes of writing the six books, I’ve been in South Tyrol probably fifteen or sixteen times. I travelled to Ukraine and lived in Poland while writing the Ukrainian stories. For Magda’s Mark, I just managed a trip to the Czech Republic and the town of Litomerice before the Corona shut-down. I hope to go again before we republish the book as a standalone. It needs another gust of Czech wind in there.

How wonderful to visit all those places. I hope we can all travel again soon. How do you deal with plot holes – if you ever have any!

I plot these days and still I manage to get stuck because I have a tendency to overcomplicate things. This is something very true about my nature, period. I’ve been fighting hard to simplify, simplify, simplify in all aspects of my life. It’s working pretty well for the most part; I chalk it up to über-50 wisdom. However, when I’m writing intensely I can still get tangled up in the weeds. My husband is my sounding board and 90% of the time he is the reason I get unstuck.

I love a handy husband! What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?

It’s insane, really. I’m actually “writing” four horses across the river at once. I’m rewriting the first half of the next Reschen Valley installment and still have to draft the second half by mid-July; I’ve got some smaller rewrites to do on Magda’s Mark before it gets published as a standalone (some of my readers have already begged for an expansion of the story); I have another WWII novel forming in my head; and the last installment of the Reschen Valley should come out sometime next year, too. And then? I’d love to tackle my 16th-century Ottoman series that I plotted in 2017!

Wow, I think you need to be locked down to get all that done! What do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours? I think they are wonderful.

I might have the most remarkable and unique relationship to a cover designer out there. Ursula Hechenberger-Schwärzler was one of my first trainees when I started to doing corporate trainings in Austria. She and her colleagues became my first friends here. She was working as a graphic designer, then left for Australia to do her master’s in photography. When she returned, I hired her to do the branding for my company and she’s been working for me since and is also one of my dearest friends. When I decided to go Indie, I asked whether she thought she might be able to design my book covers. We did everything: research trip to study English book covers in Zurich bookstores, storyboard for the Reschen Valley series, costuming, finding the models, photo shoots, coming up with the final titles, everything. She happened to travel to Ukraine to work with a dog sanctuary and had photos of Kiev available when I put out Souvenirs. She went to the Czech Republic with me for Magda’s Mark and we spent almost a week together as she shot scenery and architecture and I did my historical research. She’s so fully invested in the projects!

Chrystyna and Ursula

Chrystyna and Ursula

That’s wonderful. What a great partnership. Where do you write?

Four years ago, my husband and I finally moved into our dream house. Some people would balk: we live in the mountains of Austria, in the middle of woods and field, on a hiking trail. We bought a holiday home where we live year-round. Our heating is a tiled oven, we have a huge outdoor area where we practically live half the year, and we renovated the hut in a way that the walls and ceilings never feel as if they are about to crash around us. We have learned to live more simply, get by with a lot less, and to simplify (remember, it’s my motto). I work from my office or in the garden or in the Stube, the traditional Austrian “living area”. I also run a coaching and training business, where I teach business communication courses and do consultations, so I actually do go out and mingle with people. I need that as much as I need my peace and quiet. It’s a great balance!

That sounds wonderful. Do you send out newsletters to readers?

I do! I have three segments: a Morning Coffee with Chrystyna that goes out once a month and provides an update and more personal view of me and my work. Then a Free-Books Fridays segment that goes out once or twice a month depending on the cross-promotions I do with other authors. And there is a Historical and Cultural Background segment that deals with some aspect of my WIP or most recent release. I have also done author interviews in these segments, which you were a part of last year featuring your novel, Stars of the Night.

Yes, I remember gratefully. And readers can sign up for these goodies at your website, using this link. I’ve signed up just now.

The Road to Liberation Collection (featuring Chrystyna’s story Magda’s Mark) was released on May 5th and the ebook is only 99 cents until May 11th. It’s a great deal for six novellas in one book.

 

Chrystyna’s Social Media Links

Facebook: www.facebook.com/inktreks

Twitter: @ckalyna

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/ckalyna

Subscribe to her Newsletter: https://www.subscribepage.com/RSV

Homepage: www.inktreks.com

Reschen Valley Box Set

https://www.books2read.com/u/bppvLg

Souvenirs from Kiev

mybook.to/Souvenirs

Road to Liberation (Featuring Magda’s Mark)

books2read.com/RoadtoLiberation

Eleni Hale’s heartfelt Stone Girl

Eleni Hale’s stunning debut novel, Stone Girl, burst onto the scene in 2018, and was instantly recognised for its outstanding quality and its direct emotional engagement with a difficult topic – society’s forgotten children. Published through Penguin Random House, Stone Girl won the prestigious 2019 Readings YA (Young Adult) Book Prize , and has been short and long listed for a number of other awards. Stone Girl tells the story of one child’s journey through institutional care.

Stone Girl by Eleni Hale

Stone Girl by Eleni Hale

Eleni describes herself as a survivor of the system, and she campaigns for the recognition and rights of children who are in, or have now left, the care of the state.

My review of Stone Girl is forthcoming. I can’t wait for the book to arrive!

Welcome, Eleni, and thank you for speaking with me today. I know you have quite a background as a writer across different media and genres. You’re now working on your second novel. Is writers’ block ever a thing for you?

Eleni: It’s not really a ‘block’ for me. I think it’s a message that something isn’t right in the work. It took me years to figure this out but it’s completely changed the way I approach that horrible moment when my fingers are suspended over the keyboard and I have nothing to say.

Writing isn’t just about writing. it’s about thinking and dreaming and problem-solving and that ‘block’ moment is when I step away from the keyboard to go for a walk or take a shower or clean the car.

I think about where the story is and how the characters feel about it. That’s how I figure out what to write next. And sometimes that means going back and deleting what I never should have written because those characters would never do that or it was leading the story to a dead end.

Sometime deleting sections is the kindest thing you can do for a work in progress, I agree. What would readers never guess about you?

I am addicted to documentaries, especially true crime. In another life I would have liked to be a criminal psychologist.

Never too late! And there’s always your next reincarnation. When did you fall in love with reading?

I discovered the escapism of books when I was about nine or ten. My mum let me read whatever I wanted and once I devoured all the Sweet Valley High series I quickly moved onto Judy Blume. Then, at about twelve years old, I discovered Virginia Andrews and Anne Rice.

Books opened up new worlds up for me. I was no longer living my life and grappling with my difficulties but sharing in the troubles of my characters. It was magical and empowering.

Always, I was attracted to dark-subject books.

Eleni Hale, writer

Eleni Hale, writer

Yes, I see that. Dark stories can be very affirming, in strange ways. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?

Yes. Writing course offer parameters and structure for the creative mind to build upon. I remember starting Stone Girl and my brain was the wild wild west. I had no idea how to write a book, what the elements were or the structure required to hold it all together.

Courses teach a novice writer the tools and secrets of those who’ve been writing for years. This is a fast-track method to enlightenment. Obviously, some courses are more valuable than others so do your research.

That sounds right. I learned so much from my creative writing studies, though I had been writing for a lifetime already. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?

From my personal experience (I can’t talk for others), writing appealed to me because it was a way to express an active imagination. The world around me was shrill, triggering and inspiring. I wanted to capture it and, in this way, find some control.

Aspiring authors are told ad nauseum to read lots and write constantly. Create a character, find the plot and the voice and set it in a place. I concur that this is all vital.

However, don’t forget your imagination. It is completely unique to you. Don’t constrain it too much in rules and structure or worse, trying to write like someone else. Particularly with your first and second draft, allow your writing to be free and trust the muse. After that, apply the theory.

Imagination is the basis of each writer’s own voice, I think. Do you have a go-to routine for writing?

I enjoy writing in the morning but since I’ve had kids, I am an opportunistic writer. Pre kids I wrote for about six hours in the morning before university or when I worked as a journalist, I’d write on the train on the way to work.

Now, my husband and I negotiate terms and times and I inform everyone I’m working and to only interrupt me when it’s absolutely urgent. But, as I have a three and a five-year-old ‘urgent’ can mean pretty much anything! Yes, I’ll get you a snack/peel your banana/give you a hug. I’m starting to insist though that they understand this is important. Being a mother and a writer has taught me to be pretty great at shutting out distractions.

And excellent practice for pandemic lockdowns, too. Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?

I’m not sure about ‘secrets’ but I hate being bored. My writing needs to involve a level of emotional intensity and a constantly progressing plotline to keep it interesting. I often need to go back and stretch out the action to make sure it’s not too much too soon.

Pacing is important, but I’m sure you have that down pat. Congratulations on the great reception for Stone Girl, and many thanks for speaking with me today, Eleni.

Stone Girl by Eleni Hale

Stone Girl by Eleni Hale

 

Stone Girl is available through all good booksellers (the link at the start of this sentence is to Booktopia), and many bookshops are providing free postage during the COVID-19 restrictions. Or buy an e-book – guaranteed germ free 🙂

Eleni’s Links

Eleni Hale – Writer – elenihale.com

Facebook: EleniHaleauthor

Twitter: @EleniHale

Insta: eleni_hale_

Goodreads: Stone Girl

The Stars and Anzac Day

This week, we will mark Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand. For the first time in over a century, there will be no attending official services. The pandemic changes how we mark historic events, just as it changes how we celebrate or grieve personal events. I’m aiming to be up at 6am next Saturday, to watch dawn from my front garden and to think about the enduring legacy of war, and how world events affect us here Down Under.

Just in time, there is a fabulous new review of my WWI Anzac story.

My heartfelt thanks to Baffled Bear Books for this brilliant, thoughtful review of The Stars in the Night.

The Stars in the Night is indeed a tale of enduring love. This review is well worth a read. I’m very grateful to find such wonderful readers!

https://baffledbearbooks.com/2020/04/18/stars-in-the-night-by-clare-rhoden-a-story-of-broken-lives-and-enduring-love/

Christine Bell, No Small Shame

Christine Bell’s historical novel No Small Shame has just been released, making hers the first fully online book launch of my experience. Christine has 35 short fiction books published for children including picture story, chapter book and YA titles. Her short stories have won national writing competitions and been published in various anthologies. No Small Shame tells the story of immigrant Mary O’Donnell who arrives in Australia on the brink of WWI. Meticulously researched though it is, the story’s strongest points are its engaging and relatable characters.

No Small Shame by Christine Bell

No Small Shame by Christine Bell

Welcome, Christine, and congratulations on the excellent reception of No Small Shame. Thank you for sharing some words with me today. Let’s see what set you off on your writing journey. What was your favourite book as a child?

Christine: When I was in grade four, our teacher Miss Yule possessed the most beautiful illustrated story book I’d ever seen. It was a large, full colour book called Best Scandinavian Fairy Tales. Every couple of days she would read from our current story and hold up the divine full-page illustrations. Once a week, a child was allowed the very special privilege of taking the precious book home overnight to read. It seemed an interminable wait until it was my turn. I could barely breathe for excitement that evening while I turned the pages and read as much as I could. Later, I read surreptitiously by torchlight, carefully turning the pages under the sheet. It broke my heart when at the end of the term, Miss Yule left our class to get married, taking her beautiful story book with her and depriving me of a second overnight read. I’ve never forgotten that book.

Scandinavian Folk & Fairy Tales

And never forgiven Miss Yule, no doubt. Or those conventions that made marriage and teaching incompatible! Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?

There are no secrets as such, but there are always guns on the wall. Small moments that may not mean much at the time of writing, but must inevitably have a purpose. I have a scene in No Small Shame, aboard ship, where Mary is forced to have her hair cut off due to a plague of nits. The scene shows the conflict with her mother, but Mary’s hair also comes to have a deep symbolism throughout the novel. When I first wrote the scene, it was more to show shipboard life and I was concerned in the early drafts if it was earning its place. But as the novel progressed, Mary’s hair became a metaphor that echoes right to the final scene.

Guns on the wall! Eek! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?

Just before No Small Shame was officially released, a writer friend emailed me from the bookshop carpark after getting caught up reading it. She emailed again, a day later, half-way through, to say how much she was loving it, and that I’d painted such a picture with words and drawn the characters so well that she felt she knew them. The next day she contacted me to say that she’d cried through the final five chapters, loved the book, and how could we get it made into a movie. It’s an author’s dream to have a reader connect so emotionally to your story and to have it come alive in their mind.

That’s wonderful feedback. Do you write full time?

I write virtually full time. My children have all grown up and left home, and I’m most fortunate to have the financial support of a partner. Royalties from my many children’s short fiction titles, together with my annual PLR and ELR payments* help financially too, even all these years after the titles were published. I work in our business part-time too, but the majority of days I can be found at my writing desk.

*Note: public and electronic lending rights, from when books are borrowed from libraries. Note 2: Support authors! Borrow books from libraries!

Excellent! Is it easy for you to meet other writers?

I’ve had lots of opportunities to meet many fellow writers through writing groups, events, conferences, masterclasses and workshops. I’ve also completed two tertiary qualifications, including a Master of Creative Writing, where I met writers who’ve become good friends. I also served as the Assistant Co-ordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Vic (SCBWI) for five years where I made a lot of friends and connections in the kid-lit community. I’ve connected with lots of writers through Facebook and Twitter. My social media is predominantly all about writing, publishing, books, and related topics, and I’ve always found the online writing community incredibly supportive and friendly.

I agree, the #WritingCommunity is great. Where do you write?

My office looks over our rather lovely, tranquil back garden where I can hear the birds, see them playing in the bird bath, and watch the change of seasons. A couple of years ago, after a spinal surgery, I purchased an electric standing desk and combined with another long desk, it forms a fabulous L-shaped workspace. One full wall is floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves, and, adding a red filing cabinet and splashes of red on the bookshelves and desk, I have a bit of a colour theme going. The wall opposite features a huge framed map of the Somme, the setting of my current work-in-progress; plus a large original illustration from my children’s book, Snozza; a messy corkboard of memorabilia and treasured mementoes; as well as various artefacts related to my current work . It’s a lovely space that I had such fun decorating to truly inspire and reflect what I’m writing.

Do you have launch parties for your books?

I never had a launch party for my children’s books, so I was very excited to plan an instore event at Readings Hawthorn to release No Small Shame. It was rather a large shame that the event was cancelled due to Covid-19, but I quickly became aware of the possibility of launching the book online, via Facebook. I was still very keen for acclaimed author and writing buddy Alison Goodman to launch the book. This was a little problematic since we were to be in separate houses due to this time of isolation. We decided that a pre-recorded launch was probably the only way to go. I really wanted a live, spontaneous component though. But even as I advertised it, I wondered if the live stream would work. Short story, with a little tech advice and after a practice mock event, it worked very well and No Small Shame was launched on the 2nd April. I was really thrilled that I was able to see so many friends, family and fellows present in the event comments, questions and congratulations. For anyone who’d like to view the launch, I’ll include the Youtube links: Book launch https://youtu.be/LHXC4OJvKTI. Live stream https://youtu.be/c4sJ9vamIzI.

Ooh, and readers can have a little look at your writing office on the YouTube link! Thanks, Christine; I’m very much looking forward to reading No Small Shame, and to your next book, which is also set around the time of the First World War.

Christine’s links:

Website:              https://christinebell.com.au

Twitter:                https://twitter.com/chrisbellwrites

Facebook:            https://www.facebook.com/chris.bell.77377

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

Book links:

Readings: https://www.readings.com.au/products/30505748/no-small-shame

Dymocks: https://www.dymocks.com.au/book/no-small-shame-by-christine-bell-9781920727901

Booktopia: https://www.booktopia.com.au/no-small-shame-christine-bell/book/9781920727901.html

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com.au/No-Small-Shame-choice-forever-ebook/dp/B07WQYNC2G

Meg Mundell and ‘the whole strange, confusing, wondrous and mysterious mess of existence’

I first met Meg Mundell during last summer’s Australian bushfire crisis – a virtual meeting as we looked around at the devastation of the land, livelihoods, homes, habitat and wildlife, and the deaths. We engaged in a group called Writing for the Environment. Now I’m speaking with Meg again, in the early stages of another unprecedented, life-changing event, this one the global Covid19 pandemic, now so close to everyone’s home.

Author Meg Mundell - Joanne Manariti Photography

Author Meg Mundell (Joanne Manariti Photography)

Meg Mundell is a writer and academic. Born and raised in New Zealand, she lives in Melbourne with her partner and young son. Her second novel, The Trespassers  was named Readings ‘Fiction Book of the Month’ for July 2019, and has been optioned for a TV series. Her first novel is the  critically acclaimed Black Glass (2011), and Things I Did for Money (2013) is her debut short story collection.

Meg also runs the project ‘We Are Here’, using creative writing to explore understandings of place with people who have experienced homelessness (www.homelesswriting.org). She’s the editor of We Are Here: Stories of Home, Place & Belonging (Affirm Press, Nov 2019), a world-first collection of writings by people who have known homelessness.

A fascinating guest!

Welcome to Last Word of the Week, Meg. Can you tell me why writing is important to you?

MEG: Writing helps me to make sense of the world – the whole strange, confusing, wondrous and mysterious mess of existence. I also enjoy the craft of knocking out words, with all its frustrations and small satisfactions: the feeling of making something. Putting letters on the page, wrangling with a line, breathing life into a character, hacking out a parallel universe using the beautiful tool of language…it makes me feel alive.

How wonderful – great writing images there. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?

It wasn’t a conscious decision, more something I just knew from very early on. There’s one vivid memory. When I was a preschooler my parents would sometimes take me to work with them, and at my dad’s workplace there was this room full of typewriters. I’d sit there for ages banging out misspelled words, just enjoying the sight of the letters slamming onto the page. One day my dad’s workmate poked his head in. “You’re very busy,” he said. “Are you going to be a secretary when you grow up?” I remember the question annoyed me. “No,” I said. “I’m going to be a writer.”

A secretary, LOL. How much research is involved in your writing?

A lot! I love research. But it’s easy to get sucked down wormholes. Sooner or later you have to stop researching, just dive in and write the damn thing. Working on my latest novel, The Trespassers (UQP 2019), I spent hours researching sailor’s tattoos, sea monster myths, marine pollution, Irish and Scottish slang, future fuel scenarios, pandemic containment strategies, bioterrorism, the psychology of germophobia… My browser history looked so dodgy: how long does a body take to rot at sea? What drug stops hallucinations? How do you kill someone with a crowbar?

Early on in the research process, I also visited the Point Nepean Quarantine Station, on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. It’s an amazing site – beautiful, idyllic, but with this undercurrent of trauma, grief and sadness. Echoes of all the suffering this place has seen, especially in the immediate aftermath of its creation back in 1852. Visiting that site was a key moment that inspired me to write the novel.

Port Nepean Quarantine Station (Meg Mundell)

Port Nepean Quarantine Station (Meg Mundell)

Perfect preparation for the world we live in, too. I love your search history. What five words would best describe your style?

Vivid, pacey, voice-driven, multi-layered, empathic.

Great words. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?

Crewed a boat from New Zealand to Australia in my 20s, with zero sailing experience and a sleazy cowboy of a captain who refused to let us wear life jackets. Two friends invited me along. For the whole nine days I was seasick, and so heavily dosed up on Scopolamine that I started hallucinating: I heard mermaids singing and had long conversations with flying fish.

Each of us did an 8-hour watch, steering over these huge ocean swells, 8 or 9 metres high at times, with only a thin wire clip-line connecting us to the boat. Out on the open sea, you’re nothing. Steering up and down those waves, trying to keep the boat upright, was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Sheer terror, but hugely exhilarating. That trip planted the first seeds of The Trespassers.

The Trespassers by Meg Mundell

The Trespassers by Meg Mundell

That sounds absolutely terrifying, but what a fantastic basis for a story. Congratulations on the TV option for The Trespassers, too. A thrilling achievement  What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?

Figure out a plan for my next book – non-fiction, I think. Publish some academic articles, a couple of essays, maybe some long-form journalism. And like always, write some dubious poetry nobody will ever lay eyes on.

It’s great that you have something just for you. I believe writers have private voices too. What do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?

Covers matter a lot to me: my brain really latches on to images. So far I’ve been extremely lucky to have been allowed a lot of input on this front. I love the cover we ended up with for The Trespassers: that jellyfish is so eerily gorgeous, almost otherworldly. Menacing, but delicate too. It suggests so much.

Yes, it’s absolutely perfect. Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?

Places: their different moods and atmospheres, the things they’ve witnessed. Human beings: their words and actions, their hidden selves, the things they come up against and how they cope. Love and compassion: the way they’re thrown into stark relief during dark times. Injustice: things that make me angry. Dreams, memories, poems, photographs, paintings. Exploring old abandoned buildings. Glimpsing other lives through a train window. Words and phrases, mysterious patterns. A certain slant of light, a strange doorway, a word carved into a tree. A funny incident. It all goes into a big compost heap in my brain. It’s a mess in there, but there’s always material if you dig around.

That’s a beautiful piece of writing in itself – a prose poem about inspiration. Thank you! Do you write in more than one genre?

Always. In my fiction I like to plunder elements from different genres – literary fiction, thriller, crime, spec fic, even historical fiction. I tend to resist rigid categories, and enjoy playing with genre conventions – using those tools to create something slightly off-kilter, something fresh and hopefully surprising.

And succeeding. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Meg, and more power to your pen.

 

Meg’s Links:

Website: megmundell.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/megmundell.writer/

Twitter: @MegMundell

Buy links for Meg’s books:

Readings bookshops (free local delivery during pandemic: Carlton, Doncaster, Hawthorn, Malvern and St Kilda, VIC): https://www.readings.com.au/products/27274538/the-trespassers

Sun Bookshop (free local delivery during pandemic: Yarraville, VIC): https://shop.sunbookshop.com/details.cgi?ITEMNO=9780702262555

UQP: https://www.uqp.com.au/books/the-trespassers

Booktopia: https://www.booktopia.com.au/the-trespassers-meg-mundell/book/9780702262555.html

Michelle Saftich, leaving home behind

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

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

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 Return and Wanderers 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

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.

 

Michelle’s Links:

Website: https://michellesaftich.com

Twitter: @MichelleSaftich

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/14175416.Michelle_Saftich

Odyssey Books: https://www.odysseybooks.com.au/titles/9781925652857/