The Waste Land 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, all from The Waste Land:
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 Waste Land: 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.
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.
In these days of lockdowns and revisiting old pastimes such as board games, knitting and baking, many of us* have been doing more reading. But are we enjoying our books?
*Well, not me, because I am a lifetime book addict and I can’t see how I could possibly do more reading. At least as long as eating and personal hygiene remain important.
How to be Happy with a Book PART ONE
I write books, and I love the fact that complete strangers read and review them – reviews are a kind of currency among authors. Most authors also read a lot, and a second aspect of my writing practice is book reviewing. To me, ‘book review’ = ‘book critique’ where ‘critique’ = ‘analysis and assessment of a book, including virtues and shortcomings’. In this series of posts, I want to talk more how to choose books better so that you spend more time reading books that suit you, and waste less time on the DNF* stories. This is about finding a book that makes YOU, dear reader, happy.
*DNF = Did Not Finish. A disappointment to the reader, and a cruel blow to any author…
As a reviewer, I see my task as working out which readers would like this book, and then telling them why. I don’t see the need to find fault, because I know that different readers like different things (gore, violence, swearing, romance, magic, philosophy, spirituality – you name it!). It’s a rare book, in my experience, that has nothing for anyone. I concentrate on finding out what’s good about this book, for which readers – hence the title of this series: how to be happy with a book.
As well as book reviews in print, there are also many online platforms to share our thoughts about books. Some readers check Goodreads reviews before they buy; others look at the Amazon scores. Authors sift through their reviews for good quotes to use on their book descriptions and some book bloggers check what everyone else thought about a particular book before they weigh in on one side or the other.
Reviews are not always positive, and authors are advised not to read reviews.* While it’s a fact that not every reader will love our books, we still like to see what others think.
*We do (read reviews of our books)
I read and review about 80 books a year. You might think that’s a lot, but it’s perhaps a quarter of the books I’d like to read each year. How do I choose the ones that will please me best?
Clare’s three criteria for being happy with a book:
Do I want to read this book? … cover, genre, look & feel, reputation
Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow
This post is Part One: choosing a book*
*I’m imagining that you have strolled into a bookshop or library, or you are scrolling online, just browsing for something to read. If you are looking for a specific author or title, you are way ahead.
First, look at the cover: The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover has lost most of its power now that book production is streamlined with access to high resolution images, huge banks of attractive fonts, and the growing language of cover art. You will know what kind of book it is by the look of the cover. For example, a cover that features the back view of a young woman walking away from us into a dark street will be a crime thriller. The cover with the hovering dragon will be a fantasy. The cover with the pretty blue and pink border around a scenic view will be a romance, and the cover with the little white cottage surrounded by a flower garden is probably a cosy mystery.
Add to this the helpful work of bookshop staff and librarians who shelve novels under genre categories*, and you should recognise immediately what kind of book you are looking at, even before you pick it up.
*Genres are often imposed by libraries and bookshops. Many authors, myself included, just write the next story that comes along. Then we have to propose that story to a publisher, who wants to know ‘what genre’? Good question!
You, dear reader, now have a decision to make. Do you like reading this genre? Perhaps you have never read anything in this genre and you’d like to try it. Are you going to pick up this book, turn it over and read the blurb? If the book looks promising so far, then onwards!
Next, read the blurb: The blurb is part of the cover. Often written by a marketing staffer, sometimes by a bemused author, the blurb conveys the essence of the book in a way meant to entice the reader. The relationship of the blurb to the contents is not fixed. The blurb is as accurate as the ad for your local pizza chain. Do they serve the best pizzas in your town? The answer will be different for each reader, or pizza eater as the case my be. The blurb is to ‘sell’ the book to you, not to summarise the story.
Then check out the inside: The look and feel of a book is important too, especially in physical books. The artwork, the paper weight, the font, the ink quality, the layout – all of these can have an effect on your reading experience. I find that the font and layout of e-books is important too, and the quality of the illustrations is paramount for graphic novels in electronic form. I would usually read the first paragraph too, to see if the style of writing is one I can easily engage with.
Reputation: Have you heard of this title? Heard of the author? Heard of the publisher? What about any recommendations printed on the cover or on the inside? What do these things tell you about this book – do you think you’re likely to agree with the puff statements? Maybe you’re looking for an Australian book, or a quick read, or an elevating challenge. You can usually discover quite a lot about a book without even reading its first page.
PART ONE SUMMARY:
So, we’ve had a look at the book and we should now be able to decide whether or not to give it a go. Remember, our goal is to have a happy reading experience. I don’t mind passing on a book that others rave about, if my reconnaissance tells me it’s not going to make me happy. After all, I can only do justice to 80 books a year!
Next time, I’ll look at Part Two: Is the book well written?
English writer Alec Marsh writes dramatic thrillers set in the 1930s. He’s the author of the new soon-to-be-classic Drabble & Harris adventure series. Ernest Drabble is a mountaineering Cambridge historian and his partner Harris is an old school friend and press reporter. These two have all the dash and wit they need to solve mysteries and throws spanners into the works of bad folks.
Alec started his writing career on the Western Morning News in Cornwall, and then went on to write for titles including the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Times and London Evening Standard. In 2008 he was named an editor of the year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. He is now the editor of Spear’s Magazine, a title focused on luxury lifestyle. He is married and lives with his family in west London.
Alec’s debut novel RULE BRITANNIA was released in 2019 and the second novel in the series, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, will be published this September.
Welcome to last Word of the Week, Alec, and thank you for coming along to chat about your books and your writing. Looking at your bio, I can see that you have been writing all your life. Why is writing important to you?
Alec: I can only imagine that it’s the same for a lot of writers and most people on some level. But since the earliest time I can remember I’ve been telling stories – either to myself or others, but mostly I would think to myself. And it becomes a habit that drives an urge that leads decades later to hard-drives being filled with words. So I think for me it’s pretty hard-wired.
A born storyteller! That usually goes with voracious reading. What was your favourite book as a child?
I adored Hornblower; CS Forester’s nautical series set during the Napoleonic war; I also loved – perhaps more and in very much the same vein – the Richard Bolitho series written by Douglas Reeman, under his ‘other’ name of Alexander Kent. Years later I had the pleasure of interviewing Reeman. He was exceptionally generous with his time, clearly spotted me as a fan, too, and was quietly inspirational: he told me how he would get into his car during his lunchbreaks as a young man and write with his typewriter on his knees. I’ve often thought of him since, when I’ve been sitting in Pret-a-Manger with my laptop, eating a sandwich…
Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Absolutely. I did a one day screen-writing course in Newcastle when I was a student there and learnt a huge amount in just a few hours. I still remember being terrified. Later on I was tempted by the Creative Writing MA at East Anglia university but in the end I decided I would keep working and writing around work. With my first published novel, RULE BRITANNIA, I got some advice from a literary consultancy. Books like EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel offer important advice and insight for writers. Arguably just reading the best that’s out there is the most important thing.
What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
I asked Martin Amis for his advice once at a literary festival. ‘Just keep writing,’ he said. It didn’t seem very profound in the moment he said it, or repeated it. But it was – and it worked for me. I once asked Sir John Mortimer, creator of the Rumpole of Bailey series, what the secret to a great comic novel was. ‘Making people laugh!’ he roared, laughing. Then he added an important point – words to the effect of: ‘If you can make yourself laugh while you’re doing it then you’ve got half a chance.’ And that’s true for any emotion you’re trying to generate, really.
I love your anecdotes of such great writers! Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
Not really. I work fulltime and have a young family so a great deal of my second novel, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, was actually written on the London Underground on my commute to and from work. A crowded Tube carriage is not ideal, but fortunately the book was not harmed. I’ve written in lunchbreaks, or after the kids have gone to bed. Quite often, on a Saturday morning I’ll get up early and head to a local café when it opens at 8am, and get in two hours then. That’s the best time.
How do you feel about reviews?
Be grateful for good ones and listen to the bad ones. Sometimes people go too far and make it personal. That can be upsetting. As a journalist it has made me think harder about the impact of what I write upon my subjects.
Yes, it does have that effect, which I think is a good thing. Whatever we write, we can think about the effect on readers. Has your work been compared to other writers?
The author most referenced by reviewers of RULE BRITANNIA is John Buchan. Stanley Johnson remarked that with the Drabble and Harris series Buchan ‘must be stirring uneasily in his grave’. It’s without doubt true that Buchan was something of an influence – The 39 Steps, Greenmantle; these are tales of personal hazard and adventure that generate an excitement for the reader that I very much wanted to ape.
Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
When I was 17 or18 I went on a school theatre trip to see Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s then new play. I had no idea how much of a big deal it was to see it (the first run with a star cast) but I came away thinking that I would very much like to do that. I also loved Oscar Wilde’s plays as a kid – anything really that demonstrated such verbal dexterity and wit. I was also fascinated by plays like Look Back in Anger, which are really very different. As a result my first efforts as a writer when I was at university were plays. One of these won a student competition which made me think there might be something in it. I switched to fiction after reading Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. I realised that you could bring the essential freshness of dialogue to life without the need of a theatre, and perhaps therefore have a more direct relationship with the reader.
Did you always plan to write historic fiction?
No, never. In fact I set out write the next great English novel. Eventually, after several failures, I listened to an old friend of mine who had been advising me for years to write historic fiction. ‘Alec,’ he would say, ‘you’re obsessed with the past, you should write about it.’ He was absolutely right. When I began writing what would become RULE BRITANNIA I knew immediately that I was on to something.
Is writer’s block a thing for you?
Absolutely. Knowing what comes next can be difficult. Quite often you run out of track and I often find my mind needs time to catch up. When this happens I go for a run, or more likely read around the topic or setting – tangential research – is the answer. Before you know it you’re raring to go again. The secret, if there is one, is to keep thinking ahead as you are writing, but that’s easier said than done.
True! Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Alec. Congratulations in the publication of Rule Britannia, and good fortune to you for Eneemy of the Raj!
‘I’d always imagined attending a book launch would be something you’d only do if an opportunity to stick rusty nails into your cornea wasn’t available,” writes author Katy Colins in her blog #notwedordead
Luckily I read Katy’s fabulous piece about book launches before I prepared my speech for the unveiling of The Ruined Land, and laughed myself out of all my nerves. Book launches can be fun, and I have enjoyed every one that I’ve attended. Talking to booksy people about books? What could be better?!
I’m so grateful when people come to my launches. And kind of surprised. They must have run out of rusty nails…
How long should a launch speech be?
I aim for under four minutes, which for me is maximum 400 words.
Then I add a five minute extract (about 600 words), so under ten minutes in all.
Add 4-5 minutes for the lovely person who introduces me, and the official stuff is wrapped up in under 15 minutes. That’s my aim.
Here’s my latest, at 369 words, in case you’re interested.
Launch Speech for The Ruined Land
First up, some words of gratitude.
Thanks so much to Nat for those thoughtful words. I’m very appreciative of the love and support I have from my dear friends. I’m actually very grateful to have worked at UniMelb, because I met some of the world’s best people there.
My friends and family have been endlessly supportive, and I’m so glad many of you can celebrate with me tonight. My publisher, the cover designer, the editor – they’ve all been fab. As has Readings which has now hosted all four of my book launches.
A couple of special mentions – to my niece Kate, who along with Aveline my friend in London, is a fabulous beta reader if anyone wants a recommendation.
And my brother in law Bernard is responsible for the very cool maps which you now find inside all three books of the Chronicles of the Pale. He comes highly recommended too!
So. The book.
Having a book published is definitely a Dream Come True – something I imagined in primary school. But there’s a bit more to the dream than that. The Chronicles began with an actual dream in 2013, a dream of abandoned babies and refugees, people I couldn’t reach to rescue. In the dream, my German shepherd dog Dinny, long since departed, saved the day. The character Mashtuk is based on Dinny
This was back when PM Scott Morrison was the minister for immigration. I feel that now the world is much the same, or maybe even darker.
My dream became a short story, which became a novel, which became a series, which became some sort of fully populated, fully imagined world parallel to the real world. There are now even more stories there because this mirror world we live in hasn’t changed enough.
Dreams can come true, but I’d like some happier dreams.
OK, I’m going to read from the very beginning of Book 3. This is Mashtuk, the canini scout, recovering from the wounds he suffered when the ravine was attacked.
The very talented Kate Murdoch exhibited widely as a painter both in Australia and internationally before turning her hand to writing. Her short-form fiction has been published in various literary journals in Australia, UK, US and Canada.
Kate’s second novel, The Orange Grove, about the passions and intrigues of court mistresses in 18th century France, was published by Regal House Publishing in October 2019. I absolutely love the cover! Isn’t it gorgeous?
Kate was awarded a Katherine Susannah Pritchard Fellowship at the KSP Writers’ Centre in 2019 to develop her third novel, The Glasshouse.
Welcome, Kate, and thanks for speaking with me today. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Kate: I’m an artist turned writer so I write visually. I’m also fascinated by human motivation, the complex relationship between peoples’ past and present circumstances/traumas, and their actions.
An artist! That explains a great deal. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
Hard to say but I wrote a black mass scene in The Orange Groveand that was fun both in terms of imagery and in creating a menacing atmosphere.
It must be! If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
Duchesse Charlotte: What a heinous thing to say. I am most certainly real, and if you don’t believe me I’ll throw a vase at your head and set one of my Bichons on you!
Brilliant! Well done, Duchesse! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
Kate Grenville has been an inspiration for the way in which she can, with few words, create vivid imagery and layered emotional nuance.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez has also been an influence and inspiration for my writing. His lyrical style, detailed description and romantic themes made an impact as did his ability to move me.
A couple of iconic writers there; great inspiration. Now take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Relax a little. You can direct things more than you realise. Appreciate all the positives and more of them will arrive.
Relax. Of course. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I’m on the second draft of my third novel, The Glasshouse, about a girl orphaned in the Messina earthquake of 1908 and adopted by a wealthy Palermo family. I’ve also started work on a dual-timeline novel set in World War Two Croatia and 1960’s Melbourne, told from the perspective of three generations of women.
I’m doing a number of events for The Orange Groveand am looking forward to talking with readers.
And The Orange Grove is garnering some very enthusiastic reviews. Congratulations! I have it on my summer reading list. Now finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I’d quite enjoy being Romain de Villiers, the tarot reader in The Orange Grove. Aside from his money problems, he does what he likes, has numerous love interests and moves between the château at Blois and Versailles, mixing with lots of interesting people across the classes.
He sounds very interesting indeed. Thanks so much Kate for speaking with me today. Meet you in the Grove!
The Orange Grove:
When status is survival, everychoice hasits consequence.
Blois, 1705. The chateau of Duc Hugo d’Amboise simmers with rivalry and intrigue.
Henriette d’Augustin, one of five mistresses of the duc, lives at the chateau with her daughter. When the duc’s wife, Duchesse Charlotte, maliciously undermines a new mistress, Letitia, Henriette is forced to choose between position and morality. She fights to maintain her status whilst targeted by the duchesse who will do anything to harm her enemies.
The arrival of charismatic tarot reader, Romain de Villiers, further escalates tensions as rivals in domestic politics and love strive for supremacy.
In a society where status is a matter of life and death, Henriette must stay true to herself, her daughter, and her heart, all the while hiding a painful secret of her own.
Gillian Polack is passionate about people, about books, about history. An Australian writer and editor, Gillian works mainly in the field of speculative fiction. She has published four novels, numerous short stories and nonfiction articles, and is the creator of the New Ceres universe. I first encountered Gillian’s work when I reviewed her novel The Year of the Fruitcake for Aurealis magazine. I started my review by saying that the book ‘fizzes with smart, sparkling prose and razor wit’, and finished it with this: ‘one of the most innovative, droll and appealing voices you’re likely to encounter in modern speculative fiction. To read a page of Polack is to enter a world both astute and delightful.’
As you can imagine, I’m enchanted to host Gillian today.
Welcome, Gillian, and thank you for joining me. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Gillian: My novels are not about me. So many readers read one of my contemporary novels and say “Autobiography!”
This became so common that I started playing a guessing game with readers.
“Which bits of the novel are from my life?” I asked, and now I often intentionally put something in my fiction, to keep the guessing game going. In July I said, “I should stop doing this,” but I haven’t quite decided if I should stop, or if I should still add small and unpredictable bits of my life to my fiction and see if readers will ever work out what is borrowed from reality and what is invented.
Very, very few readers guess right. The most common (and entertaining) incorrect guess is about the character who swims naked in the Murrumbidgee River. I do not know how to swim and I’m exactly the wrong person to take off clothes in a public place.
Now I’ll be looking for clues! What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
I am stumped every time someone asks me my favourite book, because I’m not good at choosing just one. I’m like that with most things. Favourite food. Favourite season. All difficult. My favourite scenes, plural (for each and every novel) they’re the scenes that take me into the book, every time. In my perfect world, every single word of fiction I wrote would do this to me. I’m working on that.
It’s very hard to pick favourites, I agree. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
I wanted to give you the response of my very political character in The Wizardry of Jewish Women for she would argue gloriously and precisely and with much passion to prove her existence. Then I thought of giving you the answer Melusine would give from The Time of the Ghosts. “You’re not from this universe, are you, dear? Let me make you some coffee. If you’ve the time, I’d like to ask you if you’ve seen someone who might have travelled your way.”
These are not the most interesting answers, however. My mindwiped alien (in a perimenopausal human body) in The Year of the Fruit Cake would on some days be very distressed that she’s considered fictional, on others she’d discuss it rationally and at least once a week she’d hurt so much that she didn’t understand what you were trying to say. On her best days, she’d look at the evidence, work out the mathematics behind it, and agree with you. Most of this doesn’t show in the novel, but she’s an exceptionally courageous alien and every day she doubts her reality, she handles that doubt with style.
As you handled that question with style! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
So very many books…
I’ve known I was going to be a writer since I was eight. Since before then, actually, because I was eight when I made my big decision. I wasn’t taught to read until I was five, so every book I encountered before I was eight was critical. I read Enid Blyton and I read Edith Nesbit. I read Mary Grant Bruce and Elyne Mitchell. I read the complete series of lives of famous scientists my family owned, and I read history books about the Holocaust. No book I was able to read was banned, and I went from John and Betty (the first book I ever read – I remember learning to read with it, and then I remember helping my younger sister when she learned to read) to reading everything within reach in no time at all.
My biggest shock in between eight and thirteen was The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy (which was shelved in the children’s section until I asked a librarian to explain some critical plot points), and it was one of the books that taught me I didn’t want to write like another writer.
By the time I was thirteen I was reading Tolkien and Tolstoy and Dickens and every single science fiction and historical fiction and fantasy writer I could get my hands on. I had run out of books in the children’s section of the library, you see, and was given permission to borrow books from the adult section.
I can’t imagine life without books. What I knew when I was eight was that this was my playground and my life. That it was all the writers (except a certain few) who inspired me, not any single one. They still do. I have six piles of books to read and when I finish answering these questions, I’m going to start one of them. Today I want to read a book by Meg Keneally and one by Nick Larter. Yesterday, my reading was Kyla Ward and Jeanette Winterson. Tomorrow’s reading is Jo Zebedee and I want to re-visit Ruth Frances Long and maybe, if there’s time, read another Meg Keneally, for a friend just pointed out I hadn’t read her favourite Keneally novel yet.
There are a lot of books by Irish writers on my reading piles this week because of my research – I use my research as an excuse to find new writers. I never want to lose that spark that made me need to write, nor my love of the books of others. Each and every one of them inspires my own writing.
What a fantastic list and a great approach to reading. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
I’ve had a scary-bad ten years. So much near-death. So much being physically incapable of doing things. I’ve found a way of surviving, and so I’d like to please tell me back then:
Life is going to throw shit at you. It will be foul and smelly and will never stop. Turn it into fertiliser and grow flowers. The earlier you start doing this the less you will hurt. The shit won’t stop, so you will have plenty of fertiliser. You’re going to grow an amazing garden.
My garden is flourishing. Like all gardens, this takes hard and constant work. This week I’m growing roses.
Resilience and determination combined with creativity – perfect for gardens and life. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
Three things. I always have a novel happening, and I’ll talk about that in a moment (my summer novel).
The real writing world contains problems for writers like me: I’m a niche writer (many readers love my work, but have trouble finding it, because big publishers do not often take on voices like mine) and I am physically not capable of pushing my barrow much in public (disability sucks, and living in Australia also has its limitations). Next for me, therefore, is trying to find ways of getting my books to the people who want them. I want people to enjoy my books and that means being visible. That’s the hard work bit of what comes next for me. Trying to be visible. Several publishers are helping me with this and I have novels coming out in at least two countries.
The novel I’ll be working on this summer is not going to be angry. It’s going to give some of my characters some happiness. Also, I’m going to try to not kill anyone off.
How am I going to achieve these things? I’ve noticed a lovely theme that goes through some types of teen fiction and through some Korean drama, where people find happiness with each other, as a group. I would like to give this happiness to adults who travel, each of them alone, to another world. I want them to come back changed, but with each other.
This is quite different from my third activity for the next little while. Poison and Light will be released very soon, and I need to help it on its way. It’s about the last artist from Lost Earth, it’s about the way we hide in the past when we can’t face the present, and it’s about life on a distant planet. Life with highwaymen and swordfights and amazing publishers. My favourite part of it right now is the cover art: Lewis Morley didn’t just design a street scene: he built it and photographed it. My world lives.
That sounds awesome, Gillian. Finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I would be someone else’s fictional character. I don’t know whose, but I know precisely what. I’d have all the things I’ve missed out in this life: beauty, health, perfect eyesight, fabulous romance, awesome clothes and strange magic that changes the world. I suspect I’d be the somewhat sarcastic heroine of a steampunk Regency novel.
I can see it! And I want to read it! Thank you so much for sharing with me today, Gillian, and more power to you.
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.
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!).
Today I’m jumping up and down with excitement as the cover of Susan Allott’s debut novel The Silenceis revealed. The Silence will be released in April next year.
I’ve been lucky enough to have Susan answer a few questions, too, about her writing process and the story behind her novel, a suspenseful mystery about a missing woman, marriage, emigration, children, and especially secrets. The Silencehas been compared to both Jane Harper’s The Dry and Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours.
I can’t wait to read it.
Welcome, Susan! At last, your cover is here, and it looks wonderful. Covers are so important. Can you tell us something about the process for you? Who gets to design and choose the cover – do you have input? And what about the title – was that your choice?
Susan: My covers were done by the in-house team at Harper Collins, one designer based in the US and one in the UK. The US cover came through first and I thought it was beautiful but I did ask for some changes. I had a very specific image in my mind of what the houses on Bay Street look like, and it bothered me that the houses on the cover weren’t exactly as I’d described them in the book. The designers went away and made the changes I’d asked for and when it came back the houses were accurate, but the cover was no longer beautiful! It was a good lesson. I realised the cover needs to evoke the book rather than depict it in a literal way, and it needs to be attractive to potential readers.
When the UK cover came through I loved it immediately. It’s so intriguing and inviting: exactly the kind of book I would pick up in a bookshop.
The title was my choice but it took me ages to come up with it! My book is about a woman whose disappearance goes unnoticed for thirty years, but it’s also about Australia’s ‘forced removal’ policy which continued for decades, and most white Australians were somehow unaware of it. We were trying to find a title which brought those two elements together, but nothing was quite right.
In the end I went back through working titles I’d used before I found a publisher. One of these was ‘The Great Silence’, a quote from W.E.H. Stanner’s famous lecture which describes a ‘cult of forgetfulness’ around the history of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I played around with it a bit – ‘The Long Silence’? ‘The Huge Silence’? – but of course the more powerful title was the simplest one. I sent an email to my editor and agent: ‘How about The Silence?’ And they both replied ‘I love that.’
It was such a relief, that we’d found the right title, but also that we’d held out for one that really worked instead of compromising. It’s so right for the book, I can’t believe we didn’t think of it sooner.
Do you have a favourite task in writing, such as scribbling ideas, fleshing out scenes, inventing characters, visiting locations, editing? If so, why?
I get the most pleasure out of editing. I do a lot of deleting, rewording, deleting again, over and over until it finally works. My happy place is sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, reworking what I wrote yesterday and making it shine. I have to force myself to push on and write new material. I think it’s because the first draft is often so flat and clichéd that it dents my confidence. I need to get over that. I do know that even the best writers’ first drafts are appalling.
I’m going to ask you to play favourites: who is your most beloved character in your own writing, and why?
I think I’d have to say Mandy, the character whose disappearance is central to The Silence. She’s a 1960s Australian housewife who doesn’t fit the mould. Her husband wants nothing more than a brood of children and she is secretly taking the Pill.
Over 50% of the novel is set in the 1960s, before Mandy disappeared, so we get to know her well. I wanted her absence to be felt in the chapters set thirty years later. Hopefully she comes across as complex and relatable, as flawed as we all are. She’s been in my head a long time.
Can you tell us something about yourself that you think readers should know?
The Silence began as a story about my experience of living and working in Sydney in the late nineties. More specifically, my experience of failing to love Australia, while everyone around me seemed so happy and at home. The book I tried to write was about a young British woman called Louisa who, like me, left Australia to return to the UK. Then she got home and wondered what was wrong with her. That experience of overwhelming homesickness was my starting point. But the story didn’t come to life until I started exploring the world Louisa had left behind: her husband Joe and their neighbours, Steve and Mandy. I wrote against my own experience, describing Australia through the eyes of people who loved it and called it home.
I fought the idea of setting the book entirely in Australia for a long time. Funnily enough, I met an Australian man in London a few years later, and went on to marry him! He encouraged me to keep writing. We visited Australia a few times over the years and gradually I accepted that my story was there. In part the novel is about the experience of migration, and how liberating it can be to make a new home on your own terms, even though that didn’t happen for me.
Are there any particular writers or books that inspired you on your own creative path?
The biggest influences for me while writing The Silence were Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, and Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara – the book and the film. Tim Winton too of course, I’ve read everything of his including his memoirs. Oh and Evie Wyld is incredible. The trouble is, these wonderful writers can be slightly intimidating and I spent a few years thinking my writing wouldn’t be good enough until I sounded like them. I think I took a long time to accept that my own voice was ok. I read a lot of non-fiction too while I was researching. The stolen generation storyline was inspired initially by a passage in a book called Australia: a biography of a nation by Phillip Knightley. There’s a section in that book about an Australian policeman who used to come home from work, sit at the back of the house and cry. I knew I wanted to tell his story.
What would you say is the most difficult barrier to overcome in writing a novel and having it published? Do you have advice about that, or a good story of how you got there?
I think the hardest thing is to keep going, especially when you’re aware of how hard it is to get published. For me, the challenge of writing alongside the demands of work and family life sometimes felt insurmountable. My advice would be not to fixate too much on publication as a goal, especially not in the early drafts. Write primarily for yourself and try to write the kind of book you love to read. If you love your book and enjoy writing it, that will come through on the page.
I’d also caution against giving up the day job too soon. Time is not always your friend. I never had enough time to write for the first few years, when my kids were little and I was working. I wrote whenever I could find a spare hour in the day. (Sometimes it was only twenty minutes.) It gave me an urgency when I did sit down to write that may not have been there otherwise. Writing was always the thing I did when I should have been doing something else. My me-time.
That said, I think it was a gift from the Universe when I was made redundant at the end of 2018. I had an agent by that stage and she was keen to submit my manuscript before the London Book Fair in March this year. The months I spent writing full time in the run-up to submission were completely immersive and I’m not sure I’d have managed it if I’d still been employed. I might have found the time somehow but I wouldn’t have had the headspace.
And the book did sell in the run-up to the Fair! I don’t like talking about luck, when really it’s sheer stamina that gets the book written in the end, but I do feel very lucky that I had that period of time to finish the book just when I needed it.
What was the most difficult scene to write in the novel – you don’t have to give away spoilers!
There’s a scene about a third of the way through where Isla, my protagonist, starts to question her long-held loyalty to her father, who is suspected of murder. I needed to show her range of emotion while also managing the plot and the logistics of the scene. The hard part always is trying to be subtle, but not so subtle that the reader loses the thread of where the character is coming from. I’m pleased with that scene now but it took forever and I drank an awful lot of coffee.
What are you most looking forward to in your writing?
I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the new book, which is set in London this time. I want to get the sense of momentum again, where the hours go by and I barely notice. Other than that, I’m not sure if this is strictly ‘writing’ but I want to hold the published copy of The Silence in my hand and flick through the pages. I can’t think of anything more exciting.
That will be a wonderful day indeed. Congratulations, Susan, and I’m looking forward to holing a copy too – and reading it!
The Silence by Susan Allott will be released on April 30th 2020.