The Wasteland begins with a chapter titled The Burial of the Dead. The very first line says that ‘April is the cruellest month’. What an attention-grabbing start!
The 434-line poem is Eliot’s extended lament for the lost lives and the destruction of the 1914-1918 war. He’s talking about the collapse of civilised behaviour, the wanton wreckage, the widespread despair. And he does it in style.
When I got home from my walk, I looked up the poem, recalling that it includes dozens of splendid lines. Then I discovered (re-discovered?) that the poem’s first publication was in 1922.
Lo and behold, 2022 would be the centenary!
The idea of an anthology of Wasteland stories burst into my head. Wow! so many good lines there that are almost irresistible as story titles – for something in literary speculative fiction genres. (Literary spec fic? Think Margaret Attwood and Octavia Butler.) Look at these phrases for a start:
a heap of broken images
they called me the hyacinth girl
looking into the heart of light
the barbarous king
are you alive, or not?
I’ve invited a select band of other active speculative fiction authors to write short stories springing from Eliot’s poem. I’m thrilled to say that we are a merry band of 19 writers. You can see more about them here.
‘From the Wasteland: speculative fiction inspired by Eliot’ will include ghost stories, fantasy, horror, steampunk, dystopia and queer romance. All will be intriguing and amazing tales.
I’m doing my best to ensure that this anthology will come out in the second half of 2022 to coincide with the poem’s centenary. I’m very busy querying publishers–no easy feat when we don’t actually have a completed manuscript on hand yet! And of course, I’m writing up a storm with my collaborators…
It’s going to be fabulous. Keep an eye peeled for more news about this wonderful project.
Of the 80 or so books I read every year, some stand out. As I’ve mentioned previously (see my post on book choices), I’m pretty good at judging what books will suit my readerly needs. I should be, after reading so many!
If your reading preferences are anything like mine, you might like to check out this selection from my 5-star reads this year.
The first of a new series by Juliet Marillier, whose evocative writing immerses the reader in ancient Ireland. Myth, romance, adventure and tragedy combine in this wonderful story.
Watch out for in 2022
As a reviewer, I’m privileged to read quite a few books prior to their release, in the form of ARCs (advanced reader copies). I love being considered an advanced reader LOL! Here’s one I adored for its teeming, lush fantasy world.
This statue, titled “Cobbers” by Melbourne artist Peter Corlett was was installed in the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles, France in 1998.
In the days after the battle rescuers recovered some 300 wounded from no-man’s land.
As one soldier carried a wounded companion from the field he heard a call for help.
Don’t forget me, cobber
The “Cobbers” statue in the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles in France features Sergeant Simon Fraser from Western Victoria carrying a fallen comrade from the field.
Cobbers is a memorial to Australian service and sacrifice at the Battle of Fromelles. Fraser risked his life and a possible court martial when he returned to save a stricken soldier whose identity is unknown.
Drawing on her days as a divorce and professional indemnity lawyer, Caroline creates ordinary, relatable characters caught up in extraordinary situations, pressures, dilemmas or crime. She admits to a slight obsession with the human psyche, what goes on behind closed doors and beneath people’s façades. She also enjoys performing a literary sleight of hand in her novels and hopefully surprising her readers!
Caroline has also written Convictions and Confessions, a legal drama under the pen name Caro Land.
Let’s find out what inspires Caroline’s work
Caroline: My Secret Inspiration!
Everybody has a secret.
Yes you do! A study revealed that the average person keeps thirteen secrets, five of which he or she has never shared with anyone. Go on, count them. They can range from the little things that some people don’t feel are too bad, such as not mentioning too much change at the supermarket or exaggerating mileage at work. Or they might be major crimes such as a hit and run, robbery or even murder! Then there are affairs, betrayals and hidden relationships which can have devastating consequences, to easy small lies to cover looking for another job or concealing the early weeks of pregnancy. Or perhaps a person’s secret is simply unhappiness. Don’t we all do it at times? Put on our bright facade for the Facebook posts and Instagram photos to hide the the sorrow inside?
What about family secrets? Ones which only come out when Grandma has a few too many sherries on Christmas Eve: your great uncle was a bigamist; your parents married when you were two; your aunty was arrested for shoplifting a Rampant Rabbit.
Then there are the deadly secrets in my domestic suspense novels… Those which are so dark and deeply hidden that they’ve almost been forgotten. Almost…
My fourth psychological thriller, TRUTH GAMES, revolves around Ellie Wilson. Outwardly her life seems good – she has friends, her partner Cam and three boys. But when Sean Walsh, Cam’s old university friend, comes back into their lives, she becomes tormented by fragments of the past, and deep shame, which come back to haunt her. It’s time for Ellie to confront the layers of secrets and lies to reveal the devastating and destructive truth…
OK, I admit it; I’m a tad obsessed with secrets and lies and the human condition. Indeed, one reviewer described me as a ‘specialist in stories of secrets, lies and revelations.’ So I guess I am an amateur psychologist who drives my family bonkers with my interpretations of people’s behaviour, what they tell us and what they don’t. But isn’t it fascinating to find out what goes on behind closed doors – or indeed, inside the pages of a gripping crime suspense novel? Do secrets burrow into our psyche and poison us? Or are they sexy, powerful and make us strong?
I probably have thirteen secrets; maybe there are five I haven’t told anyone. Come on, spill the beans – what are yours?
Well, there’s a challenge for us all. Now here’s an intriguing extract from Caroline’s novel for you.
An extract from Truth Games
‘It has to be the truth, the honest truth. Everyone agree?’
‘But what is truth?’
‘It’s only a game, man. Besides, another slug and we’ll know.’
Six young adults in the high-ceilinged room, two cuddled on the sofa and four on the floor. A girl and two guys sit around a candlelit coffee table. Though late, it’s still balmy, the leaded windows ajar. They’re drinking Jack Daniel’s from shot glasses.
The girl snaps open the second bottle and pours. Her nails are bitten, her nose pierced, her short hair dyed black. Her attention is focused on the man stretched out on the floor.
Lifting his dark head, he glances at her. ‘Isn’t there anything other than that American shit?’ he asks, his accent distinct. He goes back to his spliff and takes a deep drag. ‘OK. Then we’ll use the correspondence theory of truth,’ he says. ‘A belief is true if there exists an appropriate entity – a fact – to which it corresponds. If there’s no such entity, the belief is false.’
The fair-haired boy laughs. ‘OK, genius, I’ll start.’ Blue-eyed and neat featured, he looks younger than his twenty-years. ‘A secret. A true secret . . . ’ He knocks back the whiskey. ‘I’m in love with somebody in this room.’
The girl whips up her head, her stark make-up barely hiding her shock.
‘Tell us something we don’t already know!’ This man is huge, his voice booms Home Counties. ‘Come on, old chap. What did you say? The honest truth. Something you haven’t told anyone before.’
‘Right; here’s one. My mum tried to snog me once,’ he says.
Everyone but the girl laughs.
‘No, it’s true, I’m not joking. Dad had buggered off, so she spent all the time drinking and crying—’
‘And snogging you?’
‘Yes, Your Honour.’ He guffaws. ‘The truth and the whole fucking truth, eh? Only the once, thank God, when she got close enough. I can’t do needy. Fucking disgusting.’
A silence of drunk embarrassment, then the eloquent voice again: ‘Are you two lovebirds playing?’
They turn to the couple on the sofa. The young woman is asleep. ‘We’re living our secret,’ her boyfriend says. ‘But one you don’t know . . . Let me think. My brother and me, we used to spit in the take-outs. Special treat for the racists we knew from school.’
‘Nah. Good try, but it won’t put me off your delicious—’
‘I saw my father beat up my mum.’ The man on the floor looks fixedly at the ceiling. ‘Badly. Watched the blood spurt from her nose. Did nothing to stop him.’
The Goth girl stares, but doesn’t speak.
The blond boy leans over. ‘Fuck,’ he says. ‘How old were you?’
‘Still a kid. But I blamed her. Probably still do.’ He sits up and throws back his shot. Then he squints through the smoke at the girl, still sitting cross-legged and silent. ‘What about you, nice middle-class miss? You’re not saying much. What’s your secret?’
Everyone is watching, all eyes are on her. ‘A secret truth?’ she asks, turning to him. ‘With an actual fact to which it corresponds?’
The man snorts. ‘Yeah. Come on, then; try me.’
She opens her inky lips—
What a place to finish! Thank you so much Caroline for sharing your inspirations, and especially for the enthralling extract!
Alice McVeigh uses the pen name Spaulding Taylor when she writes science fiction. She may have two names, but she has many more roles than that. She’s a ghostwriter, an editor, a performer , and a musician.
Alice is with me today to talk about what inspires her creative output. She is also sharing an extract from her book Last Star Standing (I love that title!) which is a dystopian sci-fi thriller!
What Inspires Alice
ALICE: I’ve been very open about my triumphs and disasters, perhaps particularly here:
Basically, I was lucky enough to get a Booker-prize-winning agent when I was still pretty young, along with a two-book contract with Orion (now part of Hachette). These novels sold very well, but not well enough for Orion, who rejected my third.
I then entered a period of real depression, retreating into ghost writing and cello-playing (my only degree is in cello performance, oddly enough!)… But fiction, eventually, pulled me back, and Unbound released my Kirkus-starred speculative thriller only a couple of months ago.
What inspired me? A meditation, which I mention in the interview. It was a crazy experience, having a character come and tap me on the shoulder! – But I’m very grateful all the same…
Thanks Alice, that’s so interesting. It’s not often a character accosts a writer, but it’s worth following up when it does happen.
Ravene, the alien King’s heir, was Aiden’s lover a decade earlier.
Aiden, along with Bully and the gromeline, is in the King’s encampment, on the mission to assassinate the King. Aiden is telling the story.
But Aiden is currently in the body of a hideous Tester, a bull-like humanoid alien. He’s taken aback when Ravene notices him in this guise and insists that he accompany her, alone, to her quarters.
Excerpt from Last Star Standing
Ravene shifted into a sitting position and flinched. She spoke almost to herself, as if I was too stupid to understand. ‘You’re ugly, of course, but then, you’re all ugly. But there’s something different about you. You remind me of someone I first knew years ago.’
Might not have been me, of course. Always sought-after, Ravene. The legs, mostly. She turned her head, reminding me that her profile was tops, as well.
She continued, ‘He was human. Good-looking – not stunningly good-looking, but still handsome – well-built, clever, amusing. Tenten was his name, you might have heard of him? He was only recently executed.’
So the King had lied even to Ravene, his favourite child and acknowledged heir.
As some answer seemed expected, I rasped, ‘A known rebel. A known traitor, lady.’
‘A traitor to us, perhaps, but utterly true to his own people. You must realise, hircht, that I am part-human? My siblings constantly remind creatures of this, in hopes that I might be discounted in the succession.’
I knew all this, of course. Whether most testers would have, I hadn’t a clue. I stood in the approved tester pose: staunch, wooden, dull.
Ugly too, I bet.
‘Perhaps that’s why I remember him so warmly. Of course, he was impulsive, stubborn, in some ways difficult, but his humanness somehow spoke to me. I’ve never since—’ She lapsed back into thoughtfulness, while I kept wondering why the hell she was telling me this.
‘He had such feeling! Everything with Aiden was always so wonderfully in the moment! There was a time, I remember, we were on a balcony—’
Oh God, I remembered that too. Almost fell off the bloody thing.
I shifted uneasily as she said, almost dreamily, ‘And then, and then, another time – we were on a picnic with other students. It was autumn in the overland and somehow one could still sense it, even deep below – perhaps some movement in the air, some atmosphere, some sense of leaves being trodden, decaying, into the dark earth… The picnic was in one of those kycnm fields with false-rainbowed skies and grass that never smells right. Aiden and I drifted away from the others. We had been dancing – did I mention the music? – but why on earth am I telling you this?’
But beneath both my hammering hearts I was still bewitched. That rainbow-textured sky, that music, that day… Sternly, I attempted to think of Bully, of Pavlina, of any bloody thing, just to break the spell.
This didn’t work. Instead, I was also caught up in remembering.
Ravene, casting her gaze backwards in the Academy corridor. Ravene waiting in the disabled loo, hair already rapturously dishevelled. Ravene winning the badminton tournament, with that perfected eye. Ravene sliding her palm into my pocket in the refectory… I tried to remember Petra, but she lacked vitality, in comparison. It was as if Ravene had tossed diaphanous silks over everything that wasn’t ourselves – young and handsome, young and full of hope, young and full of glory, the way the young are.
She sighed, stirred, and continued. ‘We left the others, just the two of us. We – oh, I don’t suppose you understand for one single second what I’m talking about! – but luckily, you’re far too stupid to understand. At any rate, we left the others under that great canopy of false sky. And above it there was a crack, and through it – like a gift – a slice of real sky. And he took me, just there, under that—’
She had been gazing into the distance. She glanced over at me and wriggled discontentedly. ‘What an apish expression you all have!’
As for me, I was still trying to look like the dimmest tester going. As much as I was feeling glad about anything, I was glad that I had shoved Bully out with the gromeline.
‘Lady, just tell me what to do,’ I growled, as politely as I was able. ‘Command me. A drink, a pundling, an attendant—’
She half-rose on her elbow, staring at me. Both of my hearts stopped.
BOTH MY HEARTS STOPPED!
What a place to finish. If you’d like to read more, you can find Alice’s work at the following links. Thank you so much Alice for speaking with me today on Last Word of the Week: 2021 Inspirations Edition.
Veronica Strachan spent most of her childhood lost in a good book. She spent most of her adult life lost in a good job as a nurse, midwife, CEO, coach, and facilitator (amongst other things).
After years of encouraging others to follow their dreams, she remembered what she wanted to be when she grew up. Five years later she has six published books: a memoir, a workbook/journal, and a children’s picture book series illustrated by her daughter, Cassi.
As V.E. Patton, Veronica has written a fantasy and a novelette. She is co-founder of Australian Book Lovers and co-hosts their podcast.
In keeping with my theme of 2021, I asked Veronica about her inspirations.
Veronica: Thank you for the lovely opportunity to contribute to your blog.
What inspires me?
Such succulent bait to my chronically overactive curiosity and imagination. Reel me in!
‘Learning’ in all its forms inspires me. But, let’s keep it to what inspires my writing life…
Age attenuated the urgency of making a living and bringing up children. So, having given myself permission to make writing my next best thing – as it had been my first thing during childhood – inspiration began coming from all points of the compass, the clock, and life.
I see a person frowning into their phone – what’s their backstory? A cat staring superciliously at its human slave – character for a villain. Autumn leaves skittering across chilled black dirt – setting. An anecdote from a friend – plot twist. Heated exchange in a shop queue – dialogue. Flick of a fringe or straightening of a cap – character trait. A quiet walk: still air and sunshine are the soil, imagination is the seed, inspiration bursts forth – a new stand-alone science fiction story about genetic engineering.
No, perhaps a trilogy with a second trilogy to follow!
I jog home to scribble down some notes. Most of all, I’m inspired by people: my husband, children, friends, and clients. Whether I’m coaching an individual, facilitating a room full of clinicians or chatting with a friend over a cuppa, I see potential in everyone, hope for a better future, be it this minute, this month, or this life. All food for putting words on a page.
Breathing While Drowning was inspired by my daughter, Jacqueline Bree, who died at four years old. Twenty-years later as I wanted to creatively write, I had her voice in my head encouraging me to write our story. I transcribed journals I wrote to Jacqui in the short years she was alive and for several years after as I struggled through grief. And I was inspired by myself. Perhaps an odd thing to say, but reading back over what that younger me had done, lived and felt, I was so grateful for how she’d held our life together – not always well, but hold it together she did. And ever so slowly, she opened herself to healing from the life and love around her.
Ochre Dragon was inspired by every science fiction and fantasy book I’d ever read, every utopian or dystopian world I’d ever escaped to and the absolute dearth of female protagonists over fifty! So, inspired by every clever and courageous woman I’d met, I wrote the book I wanted to read. Middle-aged woman battles her own demons, all the villains, and saves the universe – or does she?
My oldest sister, Mary inspired my picture book series: The Adventures of Chickabella. Mary died two years ago from breast cancer, a dearly loved and respected kindergarten teacher, leaving five young grandchildren to miss her reading stories to them. Mary was the oral story-teller in our family, every moment was history, and every moment a memory. She taught as easily and effortlessly as breathing. My eldest daughter Cassi created the beautiful illustrations for her Aunty.
Here we meet middle-aged project manager Ali just after she’s been attacked in her office!
If the assassin stops to kill her, then I can escape. Ali felt sick at being so gutless. Indecision kept her frozen to the spot, expecting a scream at any moment. With her eyes glued to the door, rainbow sparkles began to crowd her vision.
A trilling female voice hooted with laughter in Ali’s head. She clutched her temples. You should SO run. Impossibly, the voice sliced through her brain like a hot knife.
She’s not who you think she is. She’d definitely run if the shoe was on the other foot.
‘Who’s there?’ Ali rasped, fear drying her mouth.
Come on. Did you see what I did there? Shoe on the other foot. You’re only wearing one shoe. SHOE-ON-THE-OTHER-FOOT. Surely that’s worth a groan at least.
‘Who is it? Come out now. This is not funny. We’re in a Code Black,’ Ali couldn’t imagine how the voice was in her head.
You know who I am Ali Morrow. That is who you’re calling yourself in this incarnation, isn’t it Alinta? Invisible, anonymous Proji and Cataloguer Extraordinaire.
The voice continued in a huffy tone. And that was very funny by the way. I’ve been practising my comedy routines while I waited for you to come to your senses.
Ali swivelled, searching the foyer for the owner of the voice.
We don’t have time for theatrics. We’re close to the century congruence. It’s me. Jiemba. I’m through. I’m back. We needed a life-threatening event so I could break through this ridiculous nightmare you call existence.
Ali’s gift flashed a picture of a cranky red dragon in her mind. Dragon. Mammoth body, sinuous neck, enormous frilled head, covered in scales, dragon. Dark red threads charged around her gift like lit fuses, blasting holes and breaking connections in her mind’s tapestry.
The dragon sat on its massive haunches in the chaos and bared a set of sharp, glistening fangs. It tilted and lowered its head so that Ali got a glimpse of one enormous eye peering at her – from inside her head. Apart from the vertical obsidian pupil, the dragon’s eye was like a gigantic opal. The eye drank in light, leaving the smattering of sparkling rainbow flecks a brilliant counterpoint.
Ali shook her head, her heart hammering a ragged tattoo. She must be going mad. The old woman had told her to remember Jiemba. Something about her shadow seemed out of sync and Ali glanced down to see that it had transformed into the shape of an enormous dragon, its head crowned with curled horns.
She dragged her gaze past outstretched wings, taloned forelimbs, and a lashing spiked tail. Its hind legs and enormous feet joined at her very real single shod pair. Her mind threatened to explode.
‘No. Absolutely not. There are no such things as dragons.’ She barely realised she’d spoken aloud and closed her eyes as an offended huff sounded in her head.
There certainly are such things. And you and I are one. So let’s get outta here. The voice turned a little plaintive. I wanna go Home.
Ali squeezed her eyes tighter.
Aren’t you even a little bit glad to see me? I was only kidding about the breakfast thing. I haven’t eaten a human in ages. At least a couple of hours. Kidding. I’m just kidding. I only eat the bad ones. Kidding again, Well, no actually. That bit is true.
Ali put her hands over her ears. ‘Not real. Not real. Not real,’ she chanted.
Jiemba sulked in the background, mumbling about humour and bad gigs. All of which only upped Ali’s panic level. A noise had her whirling as her office door opened and Sophie strolled out, the epitome of composure.
She looks more like a bloody manager than me, all cool and graceful. Ali did not qualify for cool or graceful just now.
‘Nothing there but shadows and an over-active imagination. Come on, come and see.’ Sophie beckoned her closer.
How can she be braver than me? I’ve got at least a quarter-century on her, and she’s just an addi.
I could’ve helped you with that. I have enough courage for both of us. And then some.
Sophie’s not hearing the voice.
Well, she wouldn’t, would she. I’m only in your head.
Ali gulped, swallowing the bile that fear had driven to her throat.
Ugh, that burns. I am so heading to that stress session tonight.
Sophie beckoned again, her lifted eyebrow questioning Ali’s hesitation.
Ali approached, limping in her single high heel, and peeked past Sophie’s smile. Nothing. No one. She stepped into the small room, getting a whiff of Sophie’s citrus perfume and nothing else. She edged past the upended chair, bent and looked under the desk and then over to the floor beside the window.
Nope, no ninja assassin. No silver thingies.
Her body sagged. She ran her fingers through her hair, gathering the soft escapees and tucking them behind her ears.
‘What about the conference room? Did you check in there?’ Ali asked.
Sophie nodded. ‘Nothing.’
‘Jeez, I must look like an idiot.’
Sophie patted her shoulder sympathetically.
Can’t disagree with you there, Jiemba chuckled.
‘Ali, you’ve been working like a fiend to get this report out. You’re exhausted. And you don’t eat well. Is it any wonder you’re jumping at shadows? Go and save your work and I’ll make you a cuppa for the trip home. Time we both left anyway. Federation won’t love us if we file for burn out.’
Sophie marched off and Ali listened to her confident clip, clip, clip across the tiles to the kitchen. The sound of the boiling kettle seemed so prosaic to her overwrought senses.
She realised she was standing forlornly in the middle of her office, adrenaline still churning her gut. She took a long, slow, deep breath, remembering her stress relief classes and glanced around.
‘Right, nothing to see. You’re ridiculously busy, so stressed that even in the daytime you’re imagining wandering wild women and nefarious ninja assassins.’
Seriously, why the hell would ninja assassins want to kill me? It’s not like I’m anyone important. I’m nothing. I know I’m good at my job, but jeez.
You forgot a dragon talking in your head. Jiemba sounded snarky. Ali ignored her.
Wow! All that and DRAGONS! Thank you so much Veronica, for being my guest tioday.
The lure of the ocean and a love of speculative fiction combine in the works of Australian author Rebecca Fraser. But these are not this writer’s only strengths. I recently read and reviewed Rebecca’s book of short stories Coralesque and Other Tales to Disturb and Distract for Aurealis magazine, using words like:
“Fraser’s insight and eye for detail imbue every story, and her imaginative scope encompasses a prodigious variety of settings and characters. Keep this little book of horrors close.”
Going forward with the idea of an inspiring 2021, I recently asked Rebecca to contribute to my blog with a reflection about what inspires her writing, and – you guessed it – a bonus FREE EXTRACT! Read on…
Inspired by Life
REBECCA: Thanks so much for having me on you blog, Clare. I always love reading answers to this question! For me, inspiration is usually drawn from multiple sources. Sometimes it’s a snatch of overhead conversation (I’m a dreadful eavesdropper, but aren’t all writers?), that inspires the kernel of a story. An article or news item might trigger inspiration, or sometimes a random sequence of words strike me as an intriguing story title. I often glean glimpses and glimmers of inciting incidents or thought-provoking situations from random sources, and little building blocks of plot and setting start to form a framework. The characters always seem to come later.
I walk a lot too—for physical and mental exercise. There are some lovely walks that surround my home on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, and when it’s just me alone with my thoughts, immersed in nature, this is usually when the threads of a story come together, or when I get resolution to a plot point that might have been proving problematic.
As far as what I find inspiring on a personal level, it’s often drawn from deep wells where people have thrown off the cloak of repression or revolted against the abuse of power and privilege and marginalisation, sometimes at enormous sacrifice and cost. It’s people at their best versus people at their worst—the human condition is a perennial source of fascination to me. Courage, retribution, and comeuppance often find a place within my stories.
I chose this piece as the events, characters, and setting are a fusion of my love for the ocean and my love of speculative fiction. Much of my work carries a nautical theme or features a coastal setting, so it was a pleasure to write in familiar territory.
I also wanted to tackle issues and themes that are relevant to today’s youth, and thirteen-year-old Curtis Creed proved a worthy vehicle to use for this. The book highlights several themes: the acceptance of great loss, the differing effect grief can have on family members, courage in the face of adversity, self-worth, self-belief, self-acceptance, and respect for our environment.
It’s set in Queensland, in the fictional coastal township of Midnight Cove. I’m a former Queensland girl, so I feel like I’ve walked the shoreline of Midnight Cove many times, and delved deep into the hidden world of rockpools. Perhaps, like Curtis, I should have delved deeper … who knows what I might have found? 😊
EXTRACT from Curtis Creed and the Lore of the Ocean
Curtis Creed stood at the water’s edge. Come back to me, the ocean sighed. Come back to me. But he couldn’t. Not today. Not ever.
He squinted against the afternoon sun and focused on the line-up of surfers gathered out past the second break. Even though they were far offshore, Curtis’ trained eye was able to pick out their various techniques—weight transfers, body positions, timing. It was second nature. If you weren’t in the surf yourself then you were watching other surfers; scrutinising their moves, checking out their styles.
He’d stood at the shoreline for so long his feet had become anchored, buried ankle-deep in the sand with the ebb and pull of the tide. Out among the breakers, a surfer powered down the face of a beautifully formed wave before disappearing into the pipeline. Remember that feeling? the ocean breathed. Remember? Of course he remembered, but he couldn’t return to the surf. He just couldn’t.
Instead the school holidays dragged along—lonesome days spent wandering the shoreline of Midnight Cove or sitting high up on The Bluff, watching others chase waves. Sometimes, when the surf was really pumping, his sense of loss and failure was so suffocating it was easier to avoid the beach altogether.
Thwack. A wad of wet sand hit Curtis hard in the back, right between his shoulders. His buried feet caused him to lose balance and he pitched forward. He flung his arms out to steady himself too late, and landed in the water on all fours.
“Whatcha doing, Shark Crumb? Looking out for sharks?” The hated nickname. Loud guffaws. It was Dylan and his moronic mates. Why couldn’t his brother just leave him alone?
“Yeah, Shark Crumb. Seen any sharks lately?”
“Better get out of the water, Shark Crumb. They’ll smell your fear.”
Curtis stood up. His board shorts and the front of his singlet were soaked. He turned to face his tormentors. Dylan was flanked by Blake and Jordo, two of his mates from high school. They were fresh from the surf with wetsuits pulled down around their waists. Water dripped from their hair and trickled down their torsos. The boys had pressed their surfboards into the wet sand, where they stood upright like silent sentinels.
Then Curtis noticed Dylan was using their father’s surfboard and anger boiled inside him like lava in a volcano. The thruster stood between Blake and Jordo’s boards, a falcon between two pigeons. It was handcrafted for speed and could cut down the face of a wave like no other. Dimples of wax glinted from its surface, wax that remained from another time, applied in dawn’s first light by their father’s hand. The image sliced Curtis’ heart as cleanly as the board’s fin cut through water.
“Why have you got Dad’s board?” He was screaming now. He couldn’t help it. Didn’t care.
“What’s it to you? You never use it.” Dylan folded his arms across his chest.
“That’s not the point.” Curtis took a step closer to Dylan. “Dad left it to me. To me.” His voice was shaking now. Blake and Jordo circled like a pair of seagulls, cawing out the familiar taunt Shark Crumb, but Curtis barely heard them.
A tendon in Dylan’s neck began to pulse. He shaped up to Curtis so closely he could see the peppering of blackheads across Dylan’s nose. “Dad never would’ve left it to you if he knew you were going to turn into such a pussy.”
Before he’d even thought about what he was doing, Curtis punched Dylan in the face as hard as he could. The swing harnessed every ounce of his rage and the punch landed with a clap. Dylan fell backwards. His eyes widened with surprise then quickly clouded with danger. A droplet of blood fell from his nose and made a coin-sized stain on the wet sand.
It was time to go. Curtis turned and pelted off down the beach. Behind him he could hear Blake and Jordo give chase, but he knew he could outrun them. The stupid nickname rang out behind him, but as the distance grew the voices became fainter until they were eventually torn away by the ocean breeze.
He ran without looking back. His breath hitched in his chest. A ball of embers burned the back of his throat, but still he ran. Tears stung his eyes, but he also felt a thrill of exhilaration. He’d hit Dylan before, of course, and received his fair share back. Heck, they were brothers. They’d grown up with horse bites, birthday punches, Chinese burns, and the dreaded typewriter. But he’d never all out hauled off and decked him. It had felt good, but the brief rush of exhilaration was quickly replaced by terror at the thought what awaited him when he returned home. Especially as he’d managed to floor Dylan in front of his mates. His brother would no doubt have all kinds of retribution in store.
He decided to delay for as long as he could. As he rounded the southernmost end of Midnight Cove he slowed to a jog. Here the long stretch of beach gave way to a rocky shoreline heavily strewn with ancient lava boulders and rock pools. The rock shelf—a labyrinth of stones and shallows—skirted the great cliffs that rose to form Midnight Bluff, the town’s highest point.
The ocean’s teeth had gnashed the cliffs for thousands of years carving an alien landscape of rock face and rivulets. The rock pools closest to the sandy beach made safe watery playgrounds for children to explore with buckets and spades. Further round the headland, however, access was difficult and discouraged. The gentle waves that undulated through the bay had nowhere to go when they met land here, and they boomed and crashed over the rocks. The boulders were larger and denser, filled with ankle-breaking crevices and rock pools that were deceptively deeper than their beach-hugging counterparts. They filled and drained with the tide’s highs and lows.
Curtis knew Dylan wouldn’t follow him here. It wasn’t just the difficulty of access that would stop him, there were too many memories.
Curtis ignored his aching fist as he jumped gazelle-like from boulder to boulder. The ocean’s salt-tinged air whipped and whistled and he ventured deeper into the network of rock pools until the beach was completely out of sight.
Oh my goodness, that’s an exciting extract! Thank you so much, Rebecca, for sharing it with us today.
You can find Rebecca’s work at the links below. Enjoy 😉
FAITH SAYS: Inspiration for a book is a funny thing. As a writer, it’s probably the question you’re asked the most – where do you get your ideas? The truth is, the ideas are everywhere, just waiting for you to grasp them.
Sometimes, an idea comes from little more than a few off-hand words, a comment in a voice that you know would work great in a character. It’s not necessarily, even a real voice, just one that seems to enter my head from nowhere.
At other times, inspiration can be as simple as the beauty of my surroundings. Quite a number of my books are based on a fictional village called Ballycove. It’s a place that doesn’t exist, and yet it very much does. It’s a mish-mash of all the best of the rugged coastline that runs from west County Sligo to the far reaches of County Mayo, here in the west of Ireland. Local readers will often tell me they recognise various landmarks. At the same time, many locals could pick up my books and not have the foggiest that they are actually living in some part of the story.
I think that’s the magic of inspiration – it’s very personal. Where you and I see beauty or the nugget of a story can be poles apart. It’s also why there are so many books and all so different.
They say that there are only ten different plots. Fewer depending on who you believe. But the same plot in different hands becomes a completely different book and none the less satisfying for that, if the writer is worth their salt.
It is set in Ballycove, a windswept corner of the west of Ireland.
The Wild Atlantic Way stretches along the west coast of Ireland, from Cork at its tip to Donegal at its head. It’s a symphony of small villages, unspoilt beaches, crashing waves and green fields. It’s truly breath taking, no less in winter when we’re blown away by gales than it is in summer when the sun shines and it feels as if the heavens have opened up before you.
And then there are the people. My books are all character driven. In The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club, it is Lucy, Jo and Elizabeth who are steering the story. We meet each of them in their own moment of need. Each of them faces their own personal crises, some of which can be resolved. Others are out of their hands. But in life, it’s not always about how you fix things – it’s about how you cope with them.
What we’ve all learned, if we’re lucky enough to have a solid network around us, is that there is no problem that can’t be made to feel smaller if you can laugh at it. And there is no-one better to help you put things in perspective than another woman.
The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club is a story about friendship. It’s about reaching out not because you have to, but because you can. It’s about the therapeutic benefits of laughter and kindness and the fact that every problem is halved once it’s shared.
After the year we’ve all put in, I think it’s exactly the sort of book I would like to pick up and read this weekend. It’s been described as ‘joyful, life-affirming and inspirational‘ and isn’t that exactly what we need right now?
The cold burns against my skin, numbing it instantly. I wade out, warily knowing that the icy water stabbing against my legs is an inevitable part of this. A bitter blanket weaving about my body welcoming me, a dear friend; I plunge violently in, gasping, salt water teasing my lips. I feel the small jagged stones beneath my feet. And then, I’m in. My arms and legs cut automatically through the water, until the cold has eaten from the outside in and there is nothing to do but surrender to the vastness and in it know that I am somehow suspended safe and all is well. I turn on my back for delicious blissful moments before I must go back to the shore and take up my life where I left off before … From Jo’s Journa
Mid May and to Elizabeth, the night felt almost balmy. The cove was just half a mile along the beach. Elizabeth knew she’d come here again, even if she wouldn’t have admitted it to herself. When she did, she stood for a few moments. This was where Jo came to swim every single night. Like her window washing every Thursday afternoon, Jo was a woman of routine, albeit to the beat of her own drum. Each evening when all the other women in Ballycove settled down to fall asleep before the television, Jo pulled out an old shopping bag with a threadbare towel and a comb that once belonged to her mother. She walked along this beach until she came to just this spot and then she stripped down to her faded swimsuit and swam energetically for at least ten minutes in the biting waves.
Elizabeth stood for a long while, a little transfixed with the recollections and ghosts that played along in her memory. She had come down here often when they were children, but she hadn’t swum for years.
‘I thought it was you,’ Jo’s familiar voice called out from behind her. ‘What brings you down here tonight?’ She dropped her bag on the ground.
‘Oh, just out for a bit of a ramble,’ Elizabeth said easily, regretting now that she’d come here to impose on what was Jo’s own form of meditation.
‘Maybe you’ll join me?’ Jo laughed.
‘Oh, I don’t think so. For one thing, I’m not sure I have your constitution for the cold.’ She laughed at this for a moment, and then she remembered as Jo shed layer after layer of clothes that she was nowhere near as strong and robust as Elizabeth had always assumed. Rather, beneath the layers, she had shrunk into a sparrow of a woman with stick-like arms and legs, and not very much more in between.
‘You’re missing out – that’s all I’ll say.’ And then she was picking her way down towards the waves and Elizabeth was left to think about the fact that she had spent her life sitting on the sidelines. It wasn’t where she wanted to finish out the rest of her days.
There was something about today. Something Elizabeth couldn’t quite put her finger on, as if it was the start of a new chapter. The water ahead seemed suddenly so inviting. She really wasn’t sure that she was in full command of her actions or her senses as she began to throw off her clothes, but soon, she was running with the energy of an excited child, shrieking with an abandon she’d never known before, naked as the day she was born, she ran into the water.
It was exhilarating, a baptism of biting cold that felt as if it might chew her up in no time. It rattled her nerve endings, sending an extravagant swell of emotion through her. It was initiation, as if she was being culled of her old staid life, and suddenly, this unbearable cold became part of her, a wholly new sensation, freeing her from the life she’d lived until now. This was liberating. It was overwhelming. A cascading of emotion welled within her, the salty cold now insulating her from any pain, rather, for the first time, it felt as if all of those fears and secrets could reside as one within her and the biting sea was powerful enough to hold her in equilibrium. Finally she was free.
This moment was her whole life, all rolled up – past, present, future – but mainly, she was here and now and she’d never felt so alive. She dived beneath the water feeling the freedom of it while shocked with the cold, but she filled with immeasurable warmth. It was madness, passionate, wonderful living perfection. She lay on her back, squinting off towards where she knew the horizon sat. She swam out further, far beyond her own depth to where Jo was lying on her back, gazing up at the fading light.
‘You did it,’ Jo murmured as they treaded the freezing water together.
‘It’s bloody cold here,’ Elizabeth said unnecessarily.
‘It is that, but don’t you feel alive? I feel the same thing every day I come here. It anchors me in a place that’s mine within the vastness.’
‘Okay.’ Elizabeth wasn’t sure what she meant. She just knew that here, in the sable saltiness of the ocean, she felt as if she could do anything – nothing could faze her at this moment.
‘I wonder what Eric would say now?’ Jo smiled and suddenly they were both laughing their heads off like lunatics. For once, he’d have been completely lost for words. The notion that his respectable wife would be out swimming in the altogether in the moonlight; it might very well have been enough to shock him into sobriety.
The beach was completely empty, apart from a few circling gulls who probably thought they were wholly mad. Elizabeth laughed again; perhaps they were right – maybe she had finally tipped over into a state of happy lunacy, but she didn’t care. For the first time in far too long, she felt what it was to be truly blissful.
Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Faith. More power to you!
Born in Sydney, Mikhaeyla now lives in the Hunter Valley with her husband, son, two rescue dogs, four Australorp chooks, a hive of cantankerous bees, and the occasional herd of beautiful Black Angus steers.
When she is not writing or reading, Mikhaeyla enjoys cooking with the produce harvested from her kitchen garden, going to the beach, stargazing, and training to be a ninja.
I’d better watch out, because ninjas are a bit scary. Time to turn over the post to Mikhaeyla!
Mikhaeyla talks about inspiration
Mikhaeyla: I’ve always been interested by stories that explore the (artificial) divide between us and them. Romeo and Juliet, Brave New World, Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games, Red Rising – they all show what it is to sort people into pre-defined boxes so that you can align yourself with one side and demonise the other. It’s part of our evolutionary psychology to seek out our ‘tribe’. Our biochemistry is designed to give us hits of happy chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin when we’re accepted into (and by) a group. It’s why we get so much pleasure from social validation or feeling like we’re part of a team, and why it’s so hard to break away from social norms or reject peer pressure.
I enjoy writing stories about characters who have to confront the neat boxes they’ve constructed for their identity (and the perceived identities of others) and engage in more complex, uncomfortable, and nuanced relationships because of it. Ellie Safak, a brilliant writer, gave a great TED talk a few years ago on the politics of fiction and she used this wonderful metaphor of circles – explaining how everything dies when it is surrounded (almost entombed) in a circle. I like putting my characters in situations where they are forced to break out of that circle.
Fascinating! And you have an extract to share?
This is an excerpt from the first book in my Divided Elementsseries, Resistance. The series is set in a future, dystopian Paris where everything is engineered, including identities, and a resistance movement has emerged to upset the carefully-constructed order. The first book follows Anaiya, a Peacekeeper who has her mind realigned to a different identity so that she can infiltrate the resistance movement and bring it down. In this scene, Anaiya has just got her first real lead and is about to embark on a night out in the hedonistic and carnival-like nightlife of the Northern Area:
The late afternoon light filters through oppressive brown clouds as Anaiya makes her way back towards the Ravignan Strip. She shivers past the long jagged shadows cast by Stricken Core on the ancient bricks of Ruzais Street, her boots slapping the uneven surface as the descent falls steeper and steeper.
Arriving at the start of the Ravignan Strip she stops to survey her target. The Lavoir izakaya rises seven storeys, its pale-brick walls following the sharp angle of the intersection and forming a wedge. Anaiya tilts her head back and stares up at its heights, intrigued by the way its triangular shape is softened by rounded corners that defy the geometric rigidity of rectangular bricks.
The strange perspective pushes her off-balance and she finds herself swaying like the treatment boats in the nearby River Syn. Closing her eyes tightly, she steps back to regain her balance, stopping abruptly when she collides with something behind her.
Spinning around, she is confronted by a smiling Elemental. It takes a moment for the surprise to fade, for her neocortex to kick in and allow her to assess him.
Male. Sixth lustrum. Six feet four inches, maybe five. Traces of skin ink on left arm from mid-ulna upwards. Non-hostile stance. Intelligent eyes.
“Hey,” he offers casually, reaching for the entry panel next to the izakaya door.
The door clicks and he pulls it towards him. Anaiya watches as his sleeve recedes further up his arm, revealing more of the skin pattern – thick, dark lines stretch into twisting ribbons, reaching up to cradle a skull.
“Hey,” she replies.
He stands there, the door still grasped in his hand.
“Going in, butterfly?” he asks, inclining his head towards the activity just beyond the door.
Anaiya blinks in recognition of the familiar nom de douceur. This Elemental with the interesting ink is the same one who barred her exit from izakaya last night.
She stares at him, trying to gauge his approach, interpret his intent. His body language is neutral, the smile still dancing at his lips. He is teasing her. Anaiya returns the smile involuntarily, enjoying the moment of levity even if it is at her expense, and ducks through into the Lavoir.
Inside, the lighting is dim. A score of ancient incandescent bulbs dangle from plastic cables, throwing soft light around the low-ceilinged, narrow space. Music beats and pulsates, bouncing off the wall and blending with the low hum of conversation. The air is rich with smells and noises.
Anaiya pauses, allowing her limbic brain to revel in the feast of sensations presented before her. The breeze at her back dies as the door to the izakaya clicks shut. She drifts between Air Elementals, slow-dancing a wandering path towards the bar. Her gaze tracks along its architecture; a long piece of graphene, suspended on transparent glass to seemingly float above the polished concrete floor.
The Earth Elemental behind the bar is two generations older than Anaiya, the lines of hard working and hard living marking her handsome face. Beside her, a now-familiar inked arm reaches out to plug its silver cable into the terminal.
“Five lyseracids,” he requests.
He looks over to her, eyes glinting in the yellow light.
“Six,” he says, amending his order.
The bartender turns her back to fill the order, leaving them alone in the small space buffeted by the throng of Elementals around them.
All Air Elementals possess a certain charisma: A freedom, a spontaneity, that sweats through their pores. As a Peacekeeper, Anaiya had detested it – passed it off as an arrogance and independence bordering on Heterodoxy. Tonight, she envies it.
“Where are you from?” he asks, tapping his fingers against the matte grey surface of the bar.
She runs her fingers along the graphene in a subconscious response, shadows lengthening and retracting under her fingers – her neocortex feeding her an appropriate response even while her limbic mind surrenders to the tactile and audio sensations assaulting it.
“Eastern Area,” she says.
“Yeah, you looked green,” he says, turning back to the bartender.
For Peacekeepers, the adjective is used for pups – inexperienced Trainees who don’t yet understand the way of the world.
“Why the transfer?” he asks, stacking the shot glasses in a narrow rectangular tray.
“Hypoxic demotion,” she says, feeding him the standard response.
He nods, handing her a shot glass brimming with the liquid lys.
“Bienvenue,” he says, his voice lilting in the pidgin convention of Air Elementals.
And with that, he retreats from the bar, never looking back, gripping the tray of lys and walking to the far end of the izakaya.
Anaiya shoots the dark liquid, a cloying sweetness coating her tongue. To her left, Air Elementals download their wristplate playlists via one of two terminals attached to the bar. A screen embedded in the bartop flashes with the music’s identifier – sometimes a name, other times a visual – before adding it to an updated queue. Bodies sway and dip and writhe in a contorted imitation of Anaiya’s free-running; their movements chaotic where hers were precise.
Thank you so much, Mikhaeyla. What an intriguing set up.
I’m so glad to meet you and your writing. Till next time!
Preparing for the annual Anzac Day celebration, I’m taking a break from interviews.
Around this time every year, there is renewed interest in my World War I academic book, The Purpose of Futility, as well as my historical novel, The Stars in the Night. Both of them came out of my PhD studies at the University of Melbourne. Today I have three goals:
to share some of the fascinating background to my story
to let you in to some of the secrets hidden inside the covers
and offer you a free copy of The Stars in the Night*#
*#UPDATE April 18th: Thanks all, the free copies are GONE 🙂 … but feel free to sign up for my newsletter if you wish in any case
Behind the story
Here are some facts and figures for you. I know some of you love numbers and weird trivia.
Australia of all the combatant nations in the First World War did NOT execute any of its own soldiers.
Over 316,000 Australians served overseas in WWI, but only about 7000 remained in service from Gallipoli to Armistice.
Originally, only those soldiers who served at Gallipoli were called ‘Anzacs’. Their identifying colour patches were distinguished by a gold letter ‘A’.
After the war, more than 250,000 servicemen returned to Australia, bringing with them a new perspective on our place in the world.
My reasons for studying WWI novels in the first place had to do with family. My paternal grandparents arrive in Port Adelaide in January 1914, escaping the threat of European war. My father had some stories of their experiences. Some of these have made their way into my novel.
Harry Fletcher’s German grandmother, Liesl, is modelled on my grandmother Albertine. She died when my dad was only 9 years old, so I never met her. Quite possibly, I have a rose-tinted view of her.
Harry Fletcher’s birthday is the same as mine!
Harry’s mother Ellen is based on my mother-in-law Nell. Watch out. I’m sure she’s still around in one way or another.
The German widower and his son, who come into Harry’s bakery early on in the story, represent my dad and his bereaved father. I wanted them to have jam doughnuts.
Finally, free copies!
*#UPDATE April 18th: Thanks all, the free copies are GONE 🙂 … but feel free to sign up for my newsletter if you wish in any case
To help commemorate Anzac Day 2021, I am offering a free print copy of The Stars in the Night to the first three readers who sign up for my newsletter. *Australia only this time. See the panel to your right to sign up. I promise there not to deluge your inbox with spam!