I just wrote a long paragraph about the bushfires that are rampaging across Australia, but I deleted it. Nobody can be unaware. Everyone can see the destruction and count the cost. The better question is: what can we do about it?
An intransigence of climate-change sceptics deny any connection between this disaster and humanity’s actions. It keeps them busy, I guess. I see no hope of winning that argument. Instead of bashing my head against the stoutly defended walls of Big Money, I’m regretfully abandoning them as impossible to save.
In my quest to remain hopeful and positive – because humans do have children who deserve a future – I’m seeking new ways to support the Earth. Plus there are only so many pictures of mummified wallabies I can carry in my heart. Fund raising and physical help (money, goods, offers of accommodation and assistance) will continue years into the future as we strive to recover, so there will be no shortage of actions to take after the event (so big and so new it doesn’t yet have a name). Yet I don’t want to just sit and watch, so…
Here’s a starting list of seven tiny things I can do right now:
Something that I’ve only just heard of: Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees
I interrupt the regular run of Last Word of the Week with an explanatory story about Australian dystopian fiction and bushfires.
Apologies to anyone looking for my Middle Child post – that’s been rescheduled to next week. The national bushfire emergency is too high a priority.
I wish I’d never written that book
As the climate emergency continues, I’m forced to reflect on my writing. One social media post I saw described a bookshop as moving its post-apocalyptic fiction books to the current affairs section.
I feel the same.
The Chronicles of the Pale started with a dream – or nightmare – in which desperate refugees were shut out of a fenced compound, and those of us inside were prevented from bringing them in to safety. This dream arose from Australia’s harsh treatment of refugees, a policy condemned by the UN. Scott Morrison as the Minister for Immigration at the time introduced Operation Sovereign Borders, and his lack of empathy, his inhumanity, his stubborn conviction that he and only he was right, inspired the cruel characters who rule inside my fictional policosmos, the Pale. Jason the Senior Forecaster and Élin the Regent care only for themselves.
If Australia had been a more compassionate country, I would never have written The Pale. I truly wish that was the case – better a world with care for refugees than a world with one more dystopian novel in it. I wish I had never had to write that book.
I can see my rejection of this every time one of my favourite characters acts in a compassionate way, every time they work against discrimination and cruelty. It’s sad to think that my fictional folk – humans and animals – have more heart than many of my fellow Australians. Brettin, the outrageously upright Lady of the Temple, represents all that distresses me about religion and prejudice. And that’s saying something.
Now that the current Federal Government is pushing through its religious ‘tolerance’ bill, allowing many acts of bigotry to flourish unchecked in the spurious name of religious freedom (ie freedom to discriminate against the LGBTI+ community), I’m sad that Book 2 also had to be written. A better world would never have the need for such a story.
Volcanoes destroy the Shaking Land – and yes I did write that before White Island erupted just off the New Zealand coast.
Unchecked fires rage through the Broken Ranges and send smoke across the entire continent, with displaced and starving ursini (bear creatures) invading Broad Plain because their habitat is gone – yes I did write that before Australia burst into unprecedented flame.
In my story, there is even a child – Jasper Valkirrasson – who does his best, at great personal cost, to warn the crusty old misanthropes at the old Settlement about the coming danger. I wrote Jasper’s courage and his big heart before I had even heard of Greta Thunberg, but if I hadn’t , she would certainly have been my model.
The Ruined Land was written at a time when – again and again – Australia turned its back on environmental reform in the name of money, and held the position that Australia had no desire or mandate to be a world leader in this field. True, our overall effect may be comparatively small, but we are also one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. We should care more. Many of us do, and we take the small steps we can, because we can’t keep on pretending that how we live has no effect on the planet.
I hope to never write dystopia again
I would like to live in an Australia that was compassionate, ethical, and environmentally responsible. I would like us to spend our money on resettlement of refugees, on bushfire mitigation strategies and equipment, on sensible use of water, on transitioning away from live export, on responsible waste treatment, on public transport, on the preservation of wildlife habitat, and so much more. People will shout about the cost, but our current policies are just as costly in dollars, and much more costly in long-term damage to the Earth and its inhabitants, of all species.
I have to say that unfortunately I’m planning to have The Chronicles of the Pale #4 ready for late 2021.
This post is, and isn’t, about writing. Writing, for me, can’t be divorced from who I am and what I believe. All the same, the books can simply be read as a story. I’m just so sad that so much of it has come true.
Next week, current affairs permitting, I’ll be back to plain old talk about books!
Gillian Polack is passionate about people, about books, about history. An Australian writer and editor, Gillian works mainly in the field of speculative fiction. She has published four novels, numerous short stories and nonfiction articles, and is the creator of the New Ceres universe. I first encountered Gillian’s work when I reviewed her novel The Year of the Fruitcake for Aurealis magazine. I started my review by saying that the book ‘fizzes with smart, sparkling prose and razor wit’, and finished it with this: ‘one of the most innovative, droll and appealing voices you’re likely to encounter in modern speculative fiction. To read a page of Polack is to enter a world both astute and delightful.’
As you can imagine, I’m enchanted to host Gillian today.
Welcome, Gillian, and thank you for joining me. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Gillian: My novels are not about me. So many readers read one of my contemporary novels and say “Autobiography!”
This became so common that I started playing a guessing game with readers.
“Which bits of the novel are from my life?” I asked, and now I often intentionally put something in my fiction, to keep the guessing game going. In July I said, “I should stop doing this,” but I haven’t quite decided if I should stop, or if I should still add small and unpredictable bits of my life to my fiction and see if readers will ever work out what is borrowed from reality and what is invented.
Very, very few readers guess right. The most common (and entertaining) incorrect guess is about the character who swims naked in the Murrumbidgee River. I do not know how to swim and I’m exactly the wrong person to take off clothes in a public place.
Now I’ll be looking for clues! What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
I am stumped every time someone asks me my favourite book, because I’m not good at choosing just one. I’m like that with most things. Favourite food. Favourite season. All difficult. My favourite scenes, plural (for each and every novel) they’re the scenes that take me into the book, every time. In my perfect world, every single word of fiction I wrote would do this to me. I’m working on that.
It’s very hard to pick favourites, I agree. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
I wanted to give you the response of my very political character in The Wizardry of Jewish Women for she would argue gloriously and precisely and with much passion to prove her existence. Then I thought of giving you the answer Melusine would give from The Time of the Ghosts. “You’re not from this universe, are you, dear? Let me make you some coffee. If you’ve the time, I’d like to ask you if you’ve seen someone who might have travelled your way.”
These are not the most interesting answers, however. My mindwiped alien (in a perimenopausal human body) in The Year of the Fruit Cake would on some days be very distressed that she’s considered fictional, on others she’d discuss it rationally and at least once a week she’d hurt so much that she didn’t understand what you were trying to say. On her best days, she’d look at the evidence, work out the mathematics behind it, and agree with you. Most of this doesn’t show in the novel, but she’s an exceptionally courageous alien and every day she doubts her reality, she handles that doubt with style.
As you handled that question with style! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
So very many books…
I’ve known I was going to be a writer since I was eight. Since before then, actually, because I was eight when I made my big decision. I wasn’t taught to read until I was five, so every book I encountered before I was eight was critical. I read Enid Blyton and I read Edith Nesbit. I read Mary Grant Bruce and Elyne Mitchell. I read the complete series of lives of famous scientists my family owned, and I read history books about the Holocaust. No book I was able to read was banned, and I went from John and Betty (the first book I ever read – I remember learning to read with it, and then I remember helping my younger sister when she learned to read) to reading everything within reach in no time at all.
My biggest shock in between eight and thirteen was The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy (which was shelved in the children’s section until I asked a librarian to explain some critical plot points), and it was one of the books that taught me I didn’t want to write like another writer.
By the time I was thirteen I was reading Tolkien and Tolstoy and Dickens and every single science fiction and historical fiction and fantasy writer I could get my hands on. I had run out of books in the children’s section of the library, you see, and was given permission to borrow books from the adult section.
I can’t imagine life without books. What I knew when I was eight was that this was my playground and my life. That it was all the writers (except a certain few) who inspired me, not any single one. They still do. I have six piles of books to read and when I finish answering these questions, I’m going to start one of them. Today I want to read a book by Meg Keneally and one by Nick Larter. Yesterday, my reading was Kyla Ward and Jeanette Winterson. Tomorrow’s reading is Jo Zebedee and I want to re-visit Ruth Frances Long and maybe, if there’s time, read another Meg Keneally, for a friend just pointed out I hadn’t read her favourite Keneally novel yet.
There are a lot of books by Irish writers on my reading piles this week because of my research – I use my research as an excuse to find new writers. I never want to lose that spark that made me need to write, nor my love of the books of others. Each and every one of them inspires my own writing.
What a fantastic list and a great approach to reading. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
I’ve had a scary-bad ten years. So much near-death. So much being physically incapable of doing things. I’ve found a way of surviving, and so I’d like to please tell me back then:
Life is going to throw shit at you. It will be foul and smelly and will never stop. Turn it into fertiliser and grow flowers. The earlier you start doing this the less you will hurt. The shit won’t stop, so you will have plenty of fertiliser. You’re going to grow an amazing garden.
My garden is flourishing. Like all gardens, this takes hard and constant work. This week I’m growing roses.
Resilience and determination combined with creativity – perfect for gardens and life. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
Three things. I always have a novel happening, and I’ll talk about that in a moment (my summer novel).
The real writing world contains problems for writers like me: I’m a niche writer (many readers love my work, but have trouble finding it, because big publishers do not often take on voices like mine) and I am physically not capable of pushing my barrow much in public (disability sucks, and living in Australia also has its limitations). Next for me, therefore, is trying to find ways of getting my books to the people who want them. I want people to enjoy my books and that means being visible. That’s the hard work bit of what comes next for me. Trying to be visible. Several publishers are helping me with this and I have novels coming out in at least two countries.
The novel I’ll be working on this summer is not going to be angry. It’s going to give some of my characters some happiness. Also, I’m going to try to not kill anyone off.
How am I going to achieve these things? I’ve noticed a lovely theme that goes through some types of teen fiction and through some Korean drama, where people find happiness with each other, as a group. I would like to give this happiness to adults who travel, each of them alone, to another world. I want them to come back changed, but with each other.
This is quite different from my third activity for the next little while. Poison and Light will be released very soon, and I need to help it on its way. It’s about the last artist from Lost Earth, it’s about the way we hide in the past when we can’t face the present, and it’s about life on a distant planet. Life with highwaymen and swordfights and amazing publishers. My favourite part of it right now is the cover art: Lewis Morley didn’t just design a street scene: he built it and photographed it. My world lives.
That sounds awesome, Gillian. Finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I would be someone else’s fictional character. I don’t know whose, but I know precisely what. I’d have all the things I’ve missed out in this life: beauty, health, perfect eyesight, fabulous romance, awesome clothes and strange magic that changes the world. I suspect I’d be the somewhat sarcastic heroine of a steampunk Regency novel.
I can see it! And I want to read it! Thank you so much for sharing with me today, Gillian, and more power to you.
Melissa Ferguson’s debut novel The Shining Wallwas released earlier this year. Melissa is a medical research scientist with a graduate certificate in human nutrition. She likes to explore scientific possibilities through fiction. Her short stories and creative non-fiction have been published in lots of places that pay very little money.
When I reviewed her astonishing speculative fiction for Aurealis magazine a couple of months ago, I used words like grounded and observant, accessible and engaging. I was utterly transfixed by the premises in the storyline, so frighteningly futuristic and so devastatingly apt for today’s world. I’m looking forward to reading more from this Australian writer and very pleased to have her on board for today’s Last Word of the Week.
Welcome, Melissa, it’s so lovely to meet you. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Melissa: Access to affordable healthcare (as well as accurate health and nutrition information) are very important to me. I worked in medical research for many years (cancers and infectious diseases) and also completed a graduate certificate in human nutrition. I’ve also been a patient in the public system myself (two babies and Hodgkin’s lymphoma). And I have two children, one with allergies and asthma. The possibility of Australian healthcare being eroded until it resembles that of the United States terrifies me. I see people on social media crowd-funding for their treatment and paying ridiculous prices for medications such as insulin and epipens. I can think of nothing worse. There are many themes in my novel The Shining Wall, but access to affordable healthcare is the most important one to me.
Oh, interesting, because there are so many fascinating themes in your book. I’m a huge fan of the Neo Neandertal/Sapien contrast that you explore, reflecting so many historic instances of some people being seen, and treated, as lesser than others. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
There’s one scene in The Shining Wall where the stories of all three point-of-view characters converge briefly at one of the city gates. The repercussions of that chance meeting have profound impacts on each of their stories. Angling the different threads of the story towards this convergence and then playing it out was a lot of fun and very satisfying.
And it’s really well done, IMHO. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
I think all the characters in The Shining Wall would be quite relieved. They’d probably also wonder why I hadn’t created a kinder imaginary world for them. There’s a lot of weird consciousness stuff going on in the manuscript I’m working on at the moment. Those characters would probably be resigned to the nature of reality being an illusion.
Alida & Graycie by Brad O’Gorman
Relieved! That’s an excellent response ! Now, can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
I was always writing as a child. I was very into fantasy stories and fairy tales. I stopped writing to pursue science in my late teens and I didn’t take up writing again until I was in my thirties and had had my first child. The first things I wrote were short misery and motherhood memoir/realistic fiction pieces. Then I found Margo Lanagan’s books (Sea Hearts and Tender Morsels) and I wrote a fantasy novel with witches, selkies, dragons, man-eating trees, fighting bears and all sorts of fun fantastical stuff. While I was writing that I discovered Octavia E Butler and decided science fiction was for me.
The character of Alida in The Shining Wall was influenced by some of my favourite female characters in fiction including, Mirii from Marlee Jane Ward’s Orphancorp books, Devi Morris from Rachel Bach’s Paradox series, and Temple from The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell.
Oooh, thank you, there are a couple of new ones there for me. I love to hear about undiscovered treasures to chase. They sound excellent. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Ten years ago I’d just moved from Melbourne to Geelong, had left a job that saw me crying in the toilets on many occasions, was very pregnant with my second child, and very worried about my future career opportunities. If I could talk to that woman now I would say: ‘Your science career is going to fall flat on its face. Enjoy the time with your children and concentrate on your writing because that’s where most of your joy will come from.’ I would also maybe say: ‘No spoilers, but someday someone might even publish one of your books.’
Ooh, now I’m scared that I would adversely affect the future if I told past me too much!
Lucky you don’t write time travel then, eh? LOL. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
By the time I’d finished The Shining Wall I’d written three full-length novels in the space of five years. As a result, I felt the need to take on a more wieldy project. So during 2018 I wrote a novella, set in the world of The Shining Wall. The novella is out on submission at the moment (fingers crossed). I’m currently working on another story set on both a far-future, post-apocalyptic Earth and a distant planet colonized by a cult of humans. My plan is to keep exploring ideas that interest me with the hope that other people find them interesting too.
Lovely to hear that there’s more where The Shining Wall came from! And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I don’t think I could take the adrenaline of being a fictional character in the kinds of books I like to read. I like a quiet life. I would have to read some slow-paced realistic/literary fiction to find a suitable answer for this one (it’s not going to happen!).
Rebecca Bowyer, author and book reviewer, is a self-confessed, card-carrying story addict. On her Story Addict website, she offers range of new release recommendations, particularly historical, contemporary, literary and speculative fiction. You won’t find romance or horror books, but you will find a wealth of inspired and engaging reads in her carefully curated collection. Her debut novel Maternal Instinct, a speculative fiction that explores the humanity of love, has just been released to fab reviews.
Welcome, Rebecca, and thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book really ought to know?
Rebecca: I’m a mum who also works in the paid workforce, living in Melbourne, with two gorgeous kids aged 7 and 9 and a lovely husband. I love coffee, pancakes and comfy armchairs and I don’t like brightly coloured Lego-style apartment blocks.
The relevance of all this will be clear to anyone who has read Maternal Instinct!
Of course! What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
That award goes to the scene from my novel, Maternal Instinct, where 39-year-old Alice is trying to teach her teen-aged daughter, Monica, how to hand-express breast milk in the back room of a hair salon.
The scene is wedged into other, quite serious, conversations about whether Monica will be required to give up her 6-month-old baby to be raised by the state (she will be) and what would happen if she refused to (they would take him anyway). Australia in 2040 is primarily centred around the needs of children and all children must be raised by professional parents called ‘Maters’ and ‘Paters’.
But a new mother’s body doesn’t respect serious conversations about social structures – the milk needs to come when the milk needs to come.
Dealing with the messy, physical realities of new motherhood is a real bonding moment for Alice and Monica, who have always had a fairly formal relationship. It also provides some comic relief when Monica gets the hand-expressing horribly wrong!
That’s wonderful. If I told one of your characters that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
Oliver, Alice’s partner, has the most ‘maternal instinct’ of any character in Maternal Instinct. He’s a professional father – a ‘Pater’ – and picture-book author who has his head in the clouds most of the time.
Oliver has to face some heart-wrenching decisions about his kids throughout the novel. I think if you told him he was imaginary, he’d probably pause and consider it for a moment. Then, quite calmly, he’d nod and say to you, “That’s okay. As long as the kids and Alice are imaginary too so I can stay with them.” Then he’d probably stand up and call out, “Ellie, stop jumping on your brother!”
That’s quite touching, thank you. Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
My earliest memory of meeting an author was at the schools component of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival back in the mid-90s.I was obsessed with the Obernewtyn Chronicles and was absolutely thrilled to hear Isobelle Carmody speak. She’s an inspiring speaker and a magical storyteller with an incredible imagination.Her advice has stuck with me ever since – start with the ‘What if?’ and follow the story.
Of course, 25 years later it seems like obvious advice, but it was a revelation to teenaged-me, and I certainly used her advice when writing my first novel.
Maternal Instinct starts from the premise of ‘What if parenting was a high-prestige, highly paid profession?’ What would that mean for the rest of society? What would that look like?
I built a whole world around that single ‘What if?’. It was a whole lot of fun.
That’s such a great premise! Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Ten years ago I was trying to fall pregnant with my first child. I was still convinced that I was never going to be a writer and had given up altogether.
I’d like to tell myself:
“In the next few years your world will be entirely shattered and pieced back together. When you come out the other side of the pregnancy/baby/toddler labyrinth you’ll find the creative drive you lost somewhere around the end of university.
“Your children will help you rediscover your creativity. Your husband and extended family will help you nurture it. And your online parenting, writing and reading community – which you haven’t yet started to build – will help you bring the end product to life.
“In ten years, you’ll be a published author.”
Oh, that’s such good advice … all we need is a time machine … What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I have at least 3 writing roles at the moment. First, my day job is as a technical web content writer. Second, I run a book blog called Story Addict where I publish reviews. And third is my fiction writing.
Anyone who follows me on social media knows that I ‘quit’ fiction writing at least every 6 months or so. I’ve recently un-quit (again) and have finished off the first draft of my next novel, Time Thief. This one is based on the premise of, ‘What if, as a parent, you could buy time?’ What would that world look like? What would that drive you to do as a parent?
As you can tell, my books are basically written around every parent’s fantasies! Being valued, having more time…
More time! Now that’s something I really might be tempted to steal. And finally:Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I would be the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. The ability to drop in and out whenever I felt like it, make witty comments and then observe the fallout from the safety of invisibility sounds like fun.
Aha! I see the gem of another story: parent can become invisible and actually does have eyes in the back of her head…LOL. Thank you so much for chatting with me, rebecca, I’m very excited to read more from you asap.
Claire Fitzpatrick is an award-winning author of speculative fiction. She writes tales of terror and dark possibilities, in both short story and novel form. Her latest collection of meticulously researched, nerve-rattling stories was recently reviewed in my favourite magazine, Aurealis (issue #124) where it is described as ‘a wicked joy to read’.
I’m thrilled – not to say a little spooked – to meet this other Claire of the incredible words.
Metamorphosis by Claire Fitzpatrick zoom
Hi, Claire! Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Claire: I think the main thing readers ought to know is that my stories are semi-autobiographical. Every story reflects some aspect of myself, my emotions, my desires, fears, etc. A lot of them reflect my feelings regarding my Epilepsy, BPD, and being a mother. I’ve had Epilepsy since I was 12 (I’m 28) and was formally diagnosed with BPD when I was 26. I also have a wonderful 7-year-old daughter who inspires me to write more and become a better person. She can be quite a handful – she has ASD, and stresses the hell out of me sometimes, but we do so many creative things together; she’s my annoying best friend. I’m also an artist. I paint between writing, and I’m currently building a mansion out of paddle-pop sticks. I’m crafty when I procrastinate. My house is filled with books and paintings. I also have a cat named Cthulhu and don’t own a TV. Are those things readers really ought to know? They are now!
And fascinating things they are. Cthulhu, eh? I bet the cat can say that name better than I can, being an alien of sorts…
What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
Huh. No one has ever asked me that before. I rather like one of the final scenes in my novel Only The Dead. It’s a death scene; well, rather, one character finds another character’s body. I remember feeling rather proud of myself when I finished writing it. I also received a wonderful review with a nod towards that scene, so it made me feel quite thrilled I’d managed to evoke such a strong emotion from a reader.
Sounds gripping! Now, if I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
There’s a character named Cassie in Only The Dead who’s a badass motorcycle-riding artist and Vietnam War protestor. If I told her she was imaginary she’d probably tell me to get fucked and offer me a joint.
She sounds very real – which is exactly what you want from a character! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
Of course. I still have all the Sonya Hartnett books I stole from my high school library. I’m a hoarder and have a few hundred books, many of which I’ve owned since I was a teenager. Notable authors include Isobelle Carmody (of whom I named my daughter after), Anne Rice, Catherine Fisher, Clive Barker, Jostein Gaarder, Emily Rodda, etc.
I started writing at a very early age. The first ‘book’ I wrote was essentially fanfiction. I was fed up of waiting for the fifth Harry Potter book to come out, so I ended up writing my own book. It was called ‘Harry Potter and the Magic Broom’ and it was actually quite depressing. Harry felt all sad he couldn’t see Ron and Hermione over the holidays, and then he found a magic broom which gave him a sense of euphoria every time he rode it. Now that I’ve come to think of it, I believe it was a metaphor for antidepressants. I started self-harming when I was 12, so I’m pretty sure it was just another way to express myself. Weird. After I wrote the book, and a half-finished sequel, I developed my own characters, my own ideas. A lot of my early fiction were adventure stories, mostly about pirates. Incidentally, I still have those early books.
Returning to other authors…. Anne Rice, in particular, has a special place in my heart. I first read Anne Rice when I was 18. I had a pretty shitty home life, so I left home and moved in with the first man who paid attention to me. He was horribly cruel, a drug addict, would alienate me, and steal my money. During the period of three years all I wrote was scraps of things here and there. Yet the only nice thing he did for me is buy me Anne Rice books as a form of penance for my suffering. I was so lonely, I’d read her books from cover to cover and imagine I was in New Orleans with the vampires and the Mayfair witches, and that my life was as exciting as theirs. When I finally left the relationship, I felt so inspired by Rice’s world I immediately started writing again. And then I wrote ‘Madeline,’ my first published horror story, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What an amazing backstory! Lots of material – but very glad you’re through to the far side of it. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Fuck. Umm. Don’t worry your Epilepsy held you back from the Air Force. Don’t worry you didn’t get into university on your first go. Don’t worry you failed year 11 high school English class. Everything will make sense one day. It may be dark and horrible. You may think self-harm is something you need to do. But life – though it gets a hell of a lot harder – will get more manageable, I promise. Also, drink and party as much as you can. 21 is a really young age to become a mother. I won’t judge your breakfast rums. For now.
That’s precious advice, thank you! What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I’m currently working on two projects. The first is a novelette, of which I’ve almost completed a first draft. The story is about the grief and pain one feels regarding suicide, but I’ve disguised it as a supernatural horror. I think! Unfortunately, over the past four years, three of my friends have committed suicide, so it’s a subject that’s often on my mind. I’m enjoying writing this, as I’ve managed to throw in cantankerous off-beat character I’m hoping will get a few laughs.
The second project is a novella, something I’ve been working on slowly for the past two years. It’s a dark fantasy novella, tentatively titled ‘Therianthropy,’ and is about shapeshifters, the moral obligations of humans, what it means to have a soul, and the difference between being a human and a monster. ‘Therianthropy’ is my major work, and it’s something I’m taking my time with. I’m currently being mentored by the esteemed author Paul Mannering, who is helping me conclude the draft. I originally started the book as a mentorship with the fantastic author and illustrator Greg Chapman, so I suppose, in a way, it’s a collaborative project. Three heads are better than one!
Oooh, that sounds wonderful. I want it now! And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
Someone else’s. My characters are fragments of myself, and that’s horrifying enough.
Great answer. Thank you so much Claire for sharing with me on Last Word of the Week.
Rosalie Ham is an Australian author most famous for her debut novel The Dressmaker, a black satire about love, payback, and 1950s haute couture, which was made into a major motion picture starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, and Hugo Weaving in 2015.
Recently I was fortunate enough to meet Rosalie at an event where she explained how the movie was made, her part in it, and the challenges of shifting a story from prose to film. Rosalie was so inspiring that, grabbing my courage in both hands and telling myself that being scared every now and then is good for me, I introduced myself and asked if she would consider appearing on the Last Word of the Week blog. And here she is!
Thank you for joining me today, Rosalie. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Rosalie: I tend towards the ironic, and so some readers don’t ‘get’ that sort of tone or my black humour, but I get that not every book is for every reader.
That’s a great way to think about it, very wise. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
I have favourite scenes in all four novels, so I’ll pick a couple. In The Dressmaker it’s at the end when Sergeant Farrat is sitting on top of The Hill. Everything around him is razed, the landscape burned flat to the ground, smouldering and smoking, cinders floating. The District Inspector of Police arrives and asks, ‘What happened?’
The sergeant replies, ‘There’s been a fire.’
At the beginning of Summer at Mount Hope Phoeba, Lilith and Maude are sitting on the narrow bench of the family sulky which is stranded in the middle of a roadside dam. The three 19thcentury ladies are wearing their Sunday best, sheltering from the sun under their vast, ostrich plumed hats. Their skirts are bunched on their laps exposing the lacy trim on their bloomers, their boots are up on the dash, slimy green water swirls just below their bottoms and the tail of the horse supposedly conveying them to Church floats before them. In the quiet of the country lane, they hear a carriage approach. It is the grand Britzka containing the wealthy neighbours from the vast property to the west. Maude speculates, ‘They may not notice us.’
Oooh, yes, these are perfect. From what I have read, I understand that your characters are not completely imaginary, but based on real people. Has anyone recognised themselves in your books?
I suspect most writers create characters using elements of real people. Because characters, basically, carry a theme, creating a plausible vehicle is my main focus. The added personality traits are instilled to make them more memorable and hopefully readers might then find empathy with a character and his or her purpose. Some readers out there might just recognise why a character says and does certain things.
No, I’m not a character in any of my books. Generally, in order to create an effective character for a particular role that character needs to do what you want them to do. Their intention is their narrative drive, if you like, so their intention has to be quite separate to what I might say and do. It’s essential to strive to present a balanced argument, so you need to think about alternate arguments and create characters to present them so they all need to be other than the writer’s personal point of view. The story becomes about the argument rather than how I feel about the point I’m prosecuting.
That makes sense. Take yourself back ten years – what would that Rosalie like to tell you?
Trust your ability. Believe in yourself more, go for it, your stories will reach further than you imagine.
Amazing, yes. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
More writing. I’ve got a few more events to attend this year to promote my last novel, The Year of the Farmer, then there’s a rough first draft of my fifth book that I’m dying to get stuck into. As I see it, there are at least two more novels I could write. And I have a dream that one day I’ll adapt one of my novels to a stage play. And I need to do all of this while teaching part time.
What’s the single most important quality in a writer, in your opinion?
Talent. Some books are written through sheer determination and they’re good. Readers will get much from them, but some writers are different, their stories boil straight from the heart, they burn and shimmer, they’re well-structured and moving, revelatory, unique, life-changing, and above all, memorable. That sort of writing can’t be taught, it comes from the way writers look at the world and convey it to others.
And finally:Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I’d be Phoeba Crupp from my second novel, Summer at Mount Hope. I’d grow my own grapes and produce fine wine, raise beautiful sheep with superior wool, cultivate exceptional grain crops and work hard with nature. Because I value friendship above romance, I’d carry sad matters of the heart in my back pocket like a spare hanky. When my father betrays me, I’ll turn that to my advantage and make my life a testament to female strength and the fighting rural spirit.
She sounds divine. Great choice.
Thank you so much for sharing with me today, Rosalie. I was indeed a pleasure and an inspiration to meet you.
If you’d like to book Rosalie to talk at your school, library or book club (or fundraiser, lunch, valedictory…) please get in touch with Booked Out Speakers, Melbourne on (03) 9824 0177. I can highly recommend her as a speaker!
Rosalie is represented by Jenny Darling and Associates (03) 9696 7750
Nicola Pryce writes romances featuring Cornwall, adventure, drama, handsome heroes, and foregrounding remarkable women – an irresistible combination. If you’re a bit keen on Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark, or Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth, or any well-written historical fiction, then you need to meet Nicola asap. Not in 1773. Now!
*Plus read on for a bonus scene!*
Welcome, Nicola. It’s great to meet you. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Nicola: If I have to reveal secrets, then it’s that I sail, certainly, but not across vast oceans. I’m more of a harbour hopper, sailing in and out of the towns and secret coves in Cornwall that I describe in my books. My characters inhabit my world, only 226 years before me. I follow their footsteps – every mile they walk, I walk; I have been to every harbour they anchor in, every river they row up, and every inn they dine in. Every mad dash they make across Bodmin Moor, I’m racing behind them. The houses they live in are all there, the streets they walk, the moonlit rose gardens and clifftops where they meet. And I wake to the same hammering in the shipyard, the same bleating of the sheep, the same crowing of the cockerel.
That’s great to know! What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
My favourite scene is in The Captain’s Girl. My aristocratic heroine, Celia Cavendish, finds herself on a fast cutter in the charge of the rather secretive Captain Arnaud Lefèvre. It is two in the morning, the wind is gentle, the stars bright above them. Captain Lefèvre serves freshly caught seabass, grilled on a bed of herbs; they drink Chablis, watch a shooting star, and all the while the south coast of Cornwall is drawing closer. As she breathes the salt air, relishing the wind in her hair, Celia feels free for the first time in her life. At daybreak, she must return to rigid protocol and social niceties, but more importantly, she must explain her sudden absence.
Oooh, how intriguing! If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
Badly! I could see it hadn’t gone well when I saw Madame Merrick staring down at me from the first floor of her dressmaking establishment above Pengelly’s Shipyard. The sun was glinting on her lorgnettes and knew that as soon as I opened the door, her hawk-like eyes would pin me into submission.
And I was right. Her silk petticoats rustled as she swung to face me. Elowyn and Mrs Pengelly took refuge in the storeroom, but I knew I must stand my ground.
‘A figment of your imagination? Her French accent is always more noticeable when she’s cross. ‘I think not!’
I had to be brave. Most would turn and run, but I had to explain.
‘You’re a character in my stories, Madame Merrick. You don’t exist off the pages of my books.’
A rise in her perfectly arched eyebrows, a slight ruffle in the feathers of her headdress, and then a smile – and it’s always worrying when Madam Merrick smiles.
‘Well, perhaps it is not such a bad thing. Maybe it is better they think you have fabricated my existence. Yes, let them think that – let them believe, I do not exist. It might well work in my favour. Will you take a glass of punch with me?’
I had to say I would, but only a small glass as I know only too well what goes into Madam Merrick’s punch.
Oh, that’s marvellous, Nicki, thank you so much! An extra scene. Yippee!
Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
I was a dreamy child, a boarder from the age of eight in a school with limited television and a large library and I spent rather more time reading than I should – even finishing Gone with The Wind by Margaret Mitchell in orchestra practice with tears rolling down my cheeks!
I read everything I could, from Agatha Christie detective novels to John Wyndham’s science fiction, but mainly I read historical fiction. I loved Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, Elizabeth Goudge, Georgette Heyer, Huge Walpole, R F Delderfield, as well as all the Angelique books which we had to cover in brown paper! I did English A level and I enjoyed discovering the Classics.
At 42, I completed an Open University degree and found myself drawn to the eighteenth century and that has certainly influenced the books I write. My favourite author is Jane Austen, but it was Daphne du Maurier and Winston Graham who introduced me to Cornwall through their books.
The Rebecca and Poldark effect, eh? Perfect. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
I left school at 18 telling everyone I was going to write a historical novel, but my nursing career and my three children took up all of my time.
Ten years ago, at 52, I decided my children needed to know the real me. They knew me as their mother, and a nurse, but they didn’t know the stories that were always in my mind. I had never written anything down, but I decided to return to the child I was, to the incurable romantic who had read her way through school. So I began writing my first novel – Pengelly’s Daughter. It took me three years. I had never written anything before, but it was picked up by an agent, and then Corvus Books wanted a second book, and a third and a fourth.
What would I say to my myself ten years ago? I’d say, ‘Sit down, take a deep breath because you’re NEVER going to believe this …!’
Indeed, what a fabulous story. Good for you! What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I’m currently writing the fifth book in my series. Each book is written through the eyes of a different heroine. You get to know the new heroine in the previous books and so Book 5 follows The Cornish Lady. It’s now 1799 and Amelia Carew is facing a terrible dilemma.
You can follow the order on my website http://nicolapryce.co.uk/ but all my stories can be read as stand-alone books. I put photos to illustrate the history behind my stories on my website, so there’s background information as well.
Uh-oh, that’s a few more for my TBR pile – but thank you so much, these sound wonderful. And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
This is such a difficult question because, let’s face it, the trouble with books is that you get to fall in love with so many heroines as well as heroes. I would, of course, love to be Elizabeth Bennet, but – and I might regret this – I think I’m going to go for the daring-do, the energy and romance, and the sheer glamour of Marguerite St Just.
I’d like to be beautiful, graceful, witty, highly intelligent and I’d get to go to fabulous balls and wear stunning silk gowns. I’d have the whole of London falling at my feet, and I’d speak fluent French. I’d also have the very good fortune of discovering that the man I loved, and who had disappointed me so very terribly, is none other than the divine Scarlet Pimpernel.
I’d be just as cross with Sir Percy, just as hurt and disappointed; just as petrified of Citizen Chauvelin, and just as desperate to save my brother. But I’d be her, so I’d have her courage – her extraordinary bravery as she sets off across the channel to save her husband. Yes, can I be her, please? The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy.
Thank you so much Clare for inviting me to share your Last Word of the Week. I’ve had a lovely time answering your questions.
Thank you Nicola, you’ve been a great guest and I’d love to talk again – how about when Cornish Saga 5 appears?! In the meantime, of course Baroness Orczy would love to host you in her novel :-).
Marianne: Thanks so much for having me, Clare, and congratulations on the publication of The Ruined Land.
Thank you! It’s very exciting, but let’s talk about you today (or this post will be VERY long!). Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book really ought to know?
Ooh, that’s a hard one, I’m not sure readers need to know anything about me at all! However, part of A Little Bird Told Me is set during the British heatwave of 1976 when I was the same age as my main character, Robyn. I have a particularly strong memory of that summer because my family moved back to the UK after a couple of years in Germany. We found huge cracks had appeared in our lawn, the tarmac on the roads melted and there were ladybirds everywhere. The hot weather was wonderful for us kids but did make everyday life harder for the adults.
We also owned a TV for the first time and I remember suddenly being exposed to pop music, kids’ programmes and lots of American shows and films. It was quite a revelation!
That probably explains the great sense of setting in your novel – you were almost there! What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
There’s a scene early in A Little Bird Told Me that happens after the nine-year-old Robyn is given a gift by a stranger. She’s too tired to tell her mother about it that night and instead asks for her favourite bedtime story about how the family came to live in their home. The story is so familiar to Robyn that she joins in with the telling of it.
I love the way families create these little narratives about who they are and how soothing children find this kind of repetition. In the story, it’s a nice little moment before Robyn starts learning the truth behind her mother’s tale.
Yes, that’s a great family insight. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
I think the child Robyn would be fascinated but adult Robyn would be a mix of furious and resentful. At the beginning of the story, she’s trapped by the events of her past and if she discovered that none of that was real I can see a fair bit of foot stomping.
Oh yes, I can see that! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
My favourite reads over the summer have been Circe by Madeline Miller and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. I have always had a soft spot for myths and legends but these new retellings from a female perspective combine fantastic writing and innovation and that’s inspirational.
I agree entirely. Some great tips there, thank you! Now, take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Ten years ago, I had a super active toddler and was coming to terms with a second miscarriage and the death of my Dad. I was pretty exhausted, feeling guilty that I wasn’t like those other mums that set up new businesses in the evening after the baby’s in bed. The thought of writing a book was a very distant dream indeed.
So, I’d tell myself, and anyone else in similar circumstances, to try and worry a little less, be kind to yourself when you need it and enjoy the small moments. A year later I was pregnant with my second child, which was wonderful and unexpected, and my oldest was starting at playgroup. It was that extra time at home with the baby that allowed me the space to think about writing.
So much can change in ten years, can’t it? Kindness is essential, especially to yourself at such times. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I’m editing another novel at the moment or will be just as soon as the kids are back at school this week. It’s about a young woman who, partly out of loneliness and partly because of her own history, is drawn into the public outpouring of concern and grief surrounding the case of a missing child. Her involvement leads to a series of deceptions that carry her deeper and deeper into trouble.
Oooh, that sounds interesting! Do let us know when it gets to print. And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
Hmm, I’m not sure whether I should be answering with a character that I think is most like me or a character that I would most like to be. That would make quite a big difference!
Reading Circe right in the middle of school summer holidays this year, I found a passage where she discovers that the island she’s been exiled to is quite beautiful, has all the wildlife she needs to pursue her sorcery and, to top it off, her home is self-cleaning and her food replenished fresh every day. I had a very strong urge to be Circe in that moment!
Excellent answer! Thanks so much, Marianne, for sharing with me on Last Word of the Week.
Today I’m speaking with Gill Thompson. Gill has spent most of her career lecturing in English at sixth form level, but her hankering to write fiction has never gone away. She enrolled in and completed a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, and says it was the best thing she ever did.
Gill understands both ends of the writing process: the planning and editing required to produce a text, and the reading and analysis it takes to appreciate it. She says she is now finally fully joined up! The writers among you will find her website full of wonderful writing tips, and the readers will be very interested in her wonderful historical novel The Oceans Between Us about the post-WWII child migrant process. So relevant in today’s context of the movement of people seeking refuge and safety, and with a foot firmly in both the UK’s and Australian social history.
Welcome to Last Word of the Week, Gill! It’s lovely to have you. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
That’s a difficult one! My book is about a child migrant from Britain to Australia just after World War Two. I don’t have any personal connections with that story (I’m old, but not that old!) – and in fact I agonised for quite some time about whether it was my place to tell it – but the support I received from ex migrants, and from The Child Migrants Trust, the charity that reunites parents and children, gave me the encouragement to go ahead. The fact that many people have written in their reviews of the book that they are grateful to have found out about this event makes me feel I’ve done the right thing.
My only common ground with the novel is that it is about a mother separated from her son. A few years ago, our son set off on what we now call his ‘gap decade’ (!) as he found a way to combine work and travelling. He is now settled in Bucharest where he met the girl of his dreams and they are getting married next month. I am happy for him, but I know how my character Molly feels at being separated from her child. It’s really hard! I certainly think I wrote those scenes from the heart.
Separation, especially for an unknown time, is really hard! What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
I submitted three chapters from the novel as my dissertation for the Creative Writing M.A I undertook in order to help me write the best book possible. I remember describing a scene from that section that I was particularly proud of to my husband. Instead of giving me the approval I desired, he pointed out that I had missed an essential part of the plot. We argued about it for ages. I went away and sulked, then reluctantly conceded he had a point and finally, begrudgingly, I rewrote it. To this day, that scene, which features my protagonist Molly acknowledging that her son Jack must have died in the bomb blast that destroyed their home, is one of my favourites. It was clearly right to put it in. I’m not going to tell my husband that though!
Oooh, a marital secret, how exciting :-). If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
What an interesting question! (Don’t people always say that when they don’t know the answer?!) I think it would have to be an indigenous Australian girl called Rosie. Whilst I was researching the story of the child migrants, many of whom were falsely told they were orphans in order to lure them to Australia, I came across an eerily parallel account of the ‘Stolen Generation.’ These were Aboriginal children, taken from their parents as part of the White Australia policy. In my story, Jack and Rosie meet and bond through their common experience of loss. Having seen Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good, (based on the Thomas Keneally novel of the same name) and read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, I’d become fascinated by the rich spiritual life of indigenous Australians, particularly their belief in the power and role of dreams. I’ve tried to convey this through my characterisation of Rosie who sometimes has supernatural insights. Of all my characters I think she would have understood the slender line between reality and fantasy and wouldn’t feel threatened by being told she was fictitious.
That’s a really great answer – and it actually makes Rosie more real to me! But more about you: can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
I love the novels of the late Helen Dunmore. She had such skill at writing compelling human stories against the backdrop of historical events. I wouldn’t place myself in the same league as her but she is definitely a big influence. I read quite a lot of Tim Winton’s books when I was researching my story as I think he conveys the landscape and atmosphere of Western Australia so well. My central character, Molly, loses her memory so I read a few stories about memory loss such as ‘Pieces of Light’ by Charles Fernyhough and ‘Briefing for a Descent into Hell’ by Doris Lessing. I also love Maggie O’Farrell’s dexterity with words and the way she gets inside people’s minds so convincingly. Finally, Anne Tyler has an amazing ability to convey huge life issues within seemingly inconsequential events. I can only dream about writing as well as any of these authors, but they have certainly given me something to aspire to.
Ah, we have a lot of reading tastes in common! Lovely. Now, take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Ten years ago my parents had both recently died and my husband was in the middle of a decade of ill health which he was seemingly unable to recover from and which doctors were baffled by. I was trying to care for him whilst supporting our family with my job as a teacher. I’d wanted to write since I was very young but life always got in the way. My father had written text books on Photography but always had a secret ambition to write a novel. I think he passed that on to me! Although he died in 2001, I was able to enrol on my Creative Writing M.A with some of the money he left me. It was hard at times, with Paul so ill, but I managed to scrape through it, and my novel ‘The Oceans Between Us’ started to evolve.
Eventually Paul recovered and I had the space to give the manuscript more of my attention. It took me nine years before it was published but I am so glad I stuck at it. I often wish I could travel back to 2009, when life felt so bleak, and tell my former self that my dream of writing a novel really would come true, and that life really would get better. I wish my father had known how my writing aspirations would end up.
That’s a great story, and I have some similar experiences and feelings. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I have now written a second novel, ‘The Child on Platform One,’ about a mother and daughter separated by war, which comes out next March. It’s gone through two rounds of edits so I just have the proof reading to do and then it’s finished. To be honest, I don’t have a single idea for book three at the moment. I think the creative well has run dry! I am going to give myself the summer off. We have our son’s wedding to prepare for and my daughter and her husband are having an extension built so I have a feeling they will be bringing our two adorable granddaughters to stay with us on and off through July and August so I will have plenty to keep me busy. I am hoping inspiration will strike by the autumn though so that I can get writing again. I think I would miss it if I didn’t.
Oh, yes, I do hope there’s more to come! And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I am currently obsessed by Eva, the protagonist of my second novel. She is a musical prodigy living in Prague during the late 1930’s. Later, when she is taken into a concentration camp, she uses her musical talents to mount a defence against the Nazis. I don’t have a musical bone in my body but I am fascinated by the power of creativity to triumph over adversity.
What a great creation, and a good choice. Thank you so much Gill for sharing with me today on Last Word of the Week.