West Australian Writers

Several years ago, I was co-compiler and editor of an anthology of contemporary Australian women’s writing: Hidden Desires: Australian Women Writing, published by Ginninderra Press (2006). The process of getting the collection published took three years, and uncounted hours of work by me and my co-editor, Jenna Woodhouse. It was a labour of love. The book had a modest print run, and received very favourable reviews (see link on the title above) and sold out. But it was bloody hard work, and what I learnt was that the publishing industry is not interested in emerging writers (which most of our authors were, though we had a few established ones as well). Nor, it seems, is “the public” interested in collections of short stories. Our collection was mostly fiction, with some memoirs and a few poems. One thing that impressed me was that a high proportion of our authors were West Australian, and I can honestly say they were selected for relevance to the theme and for quality of writing alone. We had a huge number of entries (250, as I recall) and out of those we selected 43, and 14 of those were from WA.

So hold onto these three facts: emerging writers are not very marketable, nor are short stories, and nevertheless, emerging Australian writers, and particularly West Australian writers  are producing high quality work.

It’s a dilemma for a writer or a compiling editor, to be up against these contradictory hard facts. Not only in Western Australia, but throughout our country, and no doubt in others, there are budding writers on every branch, longing for their creative works to be read and appreciated, and constantly facing the disappointments of the hard commercial market, if they choose to venture into it.

One way of solving this dilemma is being bravely addressed by many writers’ centres, who not only run sponsored competitions, but offer master classes and workshops in writing, and publish the edited works of the participants. Many writers have started off their publishing career this way. I know, from having been writer in residence for a month at Peter Cowan Writers Centre in Perth in 2012, how much hard  and dedicated work is put in by volunteers to make this happen.

So I’m very happy to have  been invited to review Other Voices: a Collection of Short Stories, published in 2013 by the Advanced Writers’ Group at Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre, Perth, WA.

There are 10 short stories in this collection. Many of them are closer to memoir than to fiction, but as I often say, it’s a thin line between the two. I actually think it’s an important line, as the criteria for a good memoir are a little different from those for a good short fiction, event though they share many of the same characteristics. Some say that all writing is autobiographical. But it’s about the degree of fictionalisation in  a story. Some memoirs are written very straight, and this can work if you have a story that ties in with many people’s fears and desires, or (I hate to say) if you are a celebrity of some sort. Others are written in a more literary style, using fictional techniques, but still respecting the inner truth of the story, though facts, names, locations, events, may be played with and invented to some extent. This is my favourite sub-genre, though I’ve read many memoirs of the first kind that I respect and am glad were published.

There are 10 stories in this collection. I can’t talk about each one in a short blog, so I”ll just give snippets. They range from a moral fable, in Amanda Gardiner’s Lessons, and magic realism in Hannah van Didden’s The Gift, to real life stories of abuse, accidental encounters with difficult consequences, loss — of connection, of love, of understanding — to two biographically based stories of triumph over abuse, abandonment, and disempowerment.

I’ll give a brief snippet of two stories that stay in my mind from this collection. That Hand, by Josephine Taylor, is about a woman who had what is now known as Vulvodynia, a chronic condition where the outer female genital organs — the vulva, the labia, clitoris and vaginal opening — are painful  and hypersensitive to touch or pressure. Imagine the impact of that on a woman’s reproductive and sexual life! This story cleverly counterpoints two women, one in the 19th century, one present day, who have this condition and are being treated for it. The 19th century treatment was in effect a clitoridectomy, or female circumcision, which is now regarded as a crime in the Western world. In the story, the current treatment is for the doctor to put his fingers —his hand? into her vagina, pushing and stretching:

Contracting with the inhalation and releasing with the exhalation — you know. So  I’m breathing out, and he’s pushing and stretching at the same time and — that barrier? I can feel it relaxing!

She’s talking to her husband, who reacts defensively and wants her to try harder, or their relationship without sex won’t last.

How many women have been there?

The other story that stays in my mind is Sue Braghieri’s The Long Goodbye. The scene is a train station — where? with a train about to depart for Milan. Gerard, an elderly man, watches the crowd, and reflects that there is no-one there for him. As he turns to board the train, he sees her. She is lovely, still unbelievably young, and as they board the train together and sit down, it emerges that she is not who he believes her to be.

Loss of the past through ageing and memory loss are the theme of this story. When goodbye no longer has any meaning to the person you say it to.

I won’t attempt a critique of these stories, as I feel that’s not my role. I just want to introduce to you some fresh new voices, and to celebrate the fact that writing is alive and well, outside of mainstream publishing, thanks to writers centres and the many dedicated people who give their time and commitment to nurturing, supporting and mentoring emerging writers.

PS: Sue Braghieri has just sent me this note:

I have the Amazon link now for people to source our e-book.  It will also be appearing on other ebook sites in coming weeks (Kobo, iBook etc, and as an epub) – it can take two to six weeks for the distributor to upload into other formats and with other e-tailers.

 The Amazon link is:

 http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JOHVT82

 Pricing is $3.76 on Amazon.com but will be $3.99 on Amazon.com.au once it goes onto the Australian site.

 

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Art and nature

I”ve created a new blog, greetingsfromnature.net

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I’ve created a series of greeting cards from my original pastel paintings of wildlife in the region I live in. My mission is to build on this beginning, painting a series of natural scenes, and more wildlife series.

I”ve started  a painting of a lovely dawn scene at Rainbow Bay, taken by my friend Marian. Here’s the photo. It will be a wedding present for my son, so the one I’m working on is a small pilot one, then I will do a larger one for him and his wife-to-be.

Rainbow Bay at Dawn. Photo by Marian Edmunds 2014.

Rainbow Bay at Dawn. Copyright Photo by Marian Edmunds 2014.

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Love and War

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Love stories intertwined with war are a strong genre, bringing together two universal themes: love and sacrifice. By sacrifice, I mean what for me is the dominant theme of war: individual and mass sacrifice of  of youth, of life, of family, of property, of a future, in defence of what is seen as a nation’s existence. I know it is far more complex than this. There are all sorts of different ways of looking at war, from the victim or the victor’s point of view, but for me, the most deeply human and passionate theme  forces us to confront the cost of war, not in monetary or property terms, but of lives, loves, family, freedom,  youth, health, ideals,  futures. When love and war intertwine, the conflict is especially sharp and painful and poignant.

One of my favourite books is Atonement by Iain McEwen,  published in 2001. I will revisit this book soon and write a review of it. Another favourite is The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Both these great books  about the first world war have been made into films, which I enjoyed very much, but as always, I think the books are better. Another story of the first world war, which I read many years ago, is the autobiographical trilogy by Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth. It is a very powerful memoir, a cry of outrage from a young upper-class English woman who lost her fiance, brother and two close male friends in the war. Vera was a Volunteer Aid Detachment nurse during the war, and saw action at first hand. As I write, this famous book is being made into a BBC film mini-series. I can’t wait!

The one I want to talk about today is Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, published in 1993. I hadn’t read this book till recently, though I did see the BBC  TV series of it last year. It stayed in my mind at a subliminal level, and I recalled it when my friend lent me a copy of the book. I have to say, though I’d almost forgotten the series, I’ll never forget the book. It is extraordinary.

Where have I been, I wonder, that I’ve missed reading this great book till now? Why weren’t there trumpets and fanfares to wake me up to it? Why have I not read any other of his books? I must have been like Rumpelstiltskin, asleep. I’ll remedy that, and read his books one by one.  For the record, his website says:

Faulks’s fourth novel and the second in his French trilogy has become a classic of modern English literature. It is taught at school and university on both English and History syllabuses; it has sold more than two million copies in the United Kingdom and three million worldwide; in polls it is regularly voted one of the nation’s all-time favourite books.

Where to start, after such a long sleep?

I won’t summarise the plot; you can read plenty of reviews that do this. I just want to pick out a few things I love about it.

First, the title and the theme of birdsong; this is so subtly woven through you could easily miss it. It comes from the practice of miners using a canary in the coal mine to test for bad air. This signals one of the major scenes of action and drama in the book, the tunnels the British are helping to build under the trenches in France. Faulks does these scenes brilliantly, conveying the appalling conditions these men worked, lived and died in. But back to birdsong; every now and then, a real bird’s song reminds us of the greater creation outside the trenches and tunnels. For instance, when Stephen, the central character, who survives four years in the war, is sent on home leave to England (against his will) where he has no-one of his own, he takes a train into the country, and finds an inn called The Blackbird, homely and comfortable, where he takes a room and lies down to rest, falling into a trance-like state filled with lurid memories of men he’s known who have been shattered and killed. He starts up in delayed shock, shaking, in this tranquil English village. He goes for a walk:

The hedgerows were deep and ragged where he walked, covered with the lace of cow parsley. The air had a feeling of purity as if it had never been breathed; it was just starting to be  cool with the first breeze of evening. From the tall elms he could see at the end of the field there was a sound of rooks, and a gentler calling of wood pigeons close at hand. He stopped, and leaned against a gate. The quietness of the world about him seemed to stand outside time; there was no human voice to place it.

From the horror he has been living and reliving, he steps into this quiet world, and finds himself overtaken by passionate affinity for this creation. He is brought back from the living and un-living dead to a sense of oneness with creation, and forgiveness and desire to be forgiven.

His body shook with the passion of the love that had found him, from which he had been exiled in the blood and flesh of long killing.

But, of course, he has to go back to war, and is immersed in the long last struggle, which he survives through sheer determination against almost impossible odds. It’s hard to write about it in this summarised way without making it sound melodramatic. Well, it is, but in the pure sense of the word. Melos means song or melody. A melodrama was originally a sensational, romantic drama interspersed with song and orchestral music. Birdsong is this (minus the orchestral music, unless it’s the guns of war), but it is tragedy too, and it even has comedy, in some of the scenes with the soldiers, a rich range of characters, mostly from working class backgrounds, whose stoical service in action is counterpointed with sharp and poignant memories of  their loved ones and letters from home, and whose interactions are Shakespearean in their realism and humour.

There’s much more to say about the book but no space here except for the briefest mentions. It begins in Amiens, where Stephen has a passionate affair with a young unhappily married woman. It moves to Flanders, and then to the Somme. The war scenes are far the biggest, and for me, the best part of the book. There is a sub-plot (aside from the romance) which leaps two generations, to Stephen’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, in the 1970s. This complicated sub-plot hinges on her finding Stephen’s diary, realising he was her grandfather (he didn’t know he and his lover from Amiens had had a child) and taking on a quest to recover his story. The book closes on a note of redemption. I found this sub-plot complex and intrusive into what was for me the far more convincing and compelling main story. I would have preferred the granddaughter’s story to be another book, and for this book to end after Stephen has been liberated from the tunnel he was trapped in, by a German soldier on the morning of the day the war ended. The two men find a common bond in this act of deliverance, and Stephen returns to his battalion.

He felt the dry, turned earth beneath his boots as he picked his way back towards the British lines. A lark was singing in the unharmed air above him. His body and his mind were tired beyond speech and beyond repair, but nothing could check the low exaltation of his soul.

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Bringing History to Life

I’ve just spent an entertaining half hour reading some online reviews of Hilary Mantel’s two Booker prizewinners, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I know it’s not good form to read others’ reviews before you write your own, but I did this because it’s nearly two months since I finished Bring up the Bodies, straight after reading Wolf Hall, and short of rereading the books, (though I plan to re-read Wolf Hall as soon as I get my copy back from my daughter) I needed a refresher. It was fascinating to see how these books have polarised their readers. For every reader who raves about them, there is one who loathes them or thinks they are ambitious failures.

I did read Bring up the Bodies last year, in a library copy, and liked it well enough to finish it but was not captivated. When I was going on a long plane and bus trip at Christmas time, I bought Wolf Hall at the airport, thinking that it might put the sequel in context. I was captivated. I hate train and bus trips, but the time passed easily for me as I turned the pages. And when I got to my destination, I kept reading whenever the family was not my centre of attention. Not my usual practice of reading for about an hour before sleep, but every chance I got, morning, noon and night. I finished it while I was with my family, and rushed down to the bookshop to spend the book voucher I’d been given, and bought the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I liked it much better the second time around, and it kept me content on the long journey home.

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I will not waste words summarising the plot, as there are so many reviews out there that do it well. Suffice it to say the central character of these two books and their projected sequel is Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s secretary who became his right head man and chief headhunter. Cromwell has been much maligned by historical accounts, whereas his rival, Thomas More, Lord Chancellor after Cardinal Wolsey, has been sanctified. Mantel gives us Thomas from the inside, taking us into his private, domestic life, his inner thoughts and calculations, as well as his scruples and regrets. By the end of Wolf Hall, I had fallen for him, and could imagine that if I had lived in his world, I would have literally done so. One of the most endearing things about him is his passion for his wife and daughters, all of whom he loses to the fever when the girls are young. He does not marry again, though he thinks about it sometimes, and it’s hinted that he is not entirely chaste. But mostly, he is too busy to give his heart or carnal desires free reign. He is warm-hearted and loyal to those he loves, including Henry, sometimes at his own expense. But he is a cunning manipulator, and when he appears to give way, he always has a Plan B. In other words, he is mostly ahead of his rivals and enemies. But his nemesis is Henry, who, as history tells us, discards him when he has no further use for him, and has him executed. But that is for Book 3.

Why do I like these books so much? I have never read anything like them. I’ve read other historical fiction, including books of the Tudor period, but none have had me spellbound as these ones did.  The main criticism reviewers have  is of the use of ‘he’ to mark who’s speaking, without identifying who ‘he’ is. This is very noticeable in Wolf Hall, and I think Mantel was much criticised for confusing her readers. So in Bring up the Bodies it is less obvious, and is often modified as ‘He, Cromwell’. I found I got quite used to it after the first few pages, and  knew Thomas’s voice and ways of thinking so well that I knew when it was his point of view and when it was not. I felt I was inside his head.

Cromwell is not a sweet man, or even perhaps a good one. He is dark and ambiguous, with a filing cabinet memory and steel will. He is an astute observer of character, ruthless when he needs to be, capable of violence, but he has his own code of ethics, and does what he needs to do to keep Henry happy and to maintain order and peace in the realm. First it means sidelining Katharine, Henry’s first wife, and manipulating the church and the constitution to enable Henry to have Anne Boleyn as his wife, crowned as queen. Then it means getting rid of Anne  by finding men who who will appear to be guilty of treason and cuckoldry, even if they are not. Here he is at the trial of the men:

He gathers himself, gathers his papers; the judges wish to confer. The case against George [Boleyn, Anne's brother] is flimsy enough in all truth, but if the charges are thrown out, Henry will arraign him on some other matter, and it will go hard with his family… And no one has denounced the charges as incredible, at this trial or the trials that preceded it. It has become a thing one can believe, that these men would plot against the king and copulate with the queen….

Another thing I love about the books is the sensuous details of life —sights, sounds, smells, textures. Here is a description of one of Thomas’s residences, when he is at the height of his powers.

These are sounds of Austin Friars, in the autumn of 1535; the singing children rehearsing a motet, breaking off, beginning again. The voices of these children, small boys, calling out to each other from staircases, and nearer at hand the scrabbling of dogs’ paws on the boards. The chink of gold pieces into a chest. The susurration, tapestry-muffled, of polyglot conversation. The whisper of ink across paper. Beyond the walls, the noises of the city; the milling of the crowds at his gate, distant cries from the river. His inner monologue, running on, soft-voiced: it is in public rooms that he thinks of the cardinal [Wolsey, long dead], his footsteps echoing in lofty vaulted chambers. It is in private spaces that he thinks of his wife Elizabeth. She is a blur in his mind, a whisk of skirts around a corner. That last morning of her life, as he left the house he thought he saw her following him, caught a flash of her white cap. He had half turned, saying to her, ‘Go back to bed’: but no one was there. By the time he came home that night her jaw was bound and there were candles at her head and feet.

There are many superb passages like this, jewels among the more active, pragmatic prose of dialogue and events. The outside world and Thomas’s interior world are fused in  a miraculous hologram wherein the past is present, immediate, so real you can imagine stepping into this world and becoming part of it.

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Big Books, writer’s block, Kindle and e-books 2014

Back in December 2012, I wrote a blog titled as above (without the 2014). Now it’s time to write a second edition of it. This is the year of miracles for me. See my previous post, 2014: The Year of Fulfillment. What’s happened so far: I had a wonderful trip back to Western Australia to re-bond with my family over there, and came back refreshed and inspired. I have found my focus more strongly with my writing and my editing, and am continuing my journey in pastel painting (more on that another time).

I had what seemed a setback, when my Macbook Air stopped charging; I rushed it up to the Mac man at Coolangatta, he tested it and came to the conclusion there was a faulty sensor pad (it was just out of guarantee). He said repair would cost more than a new one, as the Mac air is so slim and compressed that parts and labour are prohibitive. So after having a hissy fat, with mental air blue with f-words, I bit the bullet and bought an iMac, plus a 3 year extended guarantee (as the iMac has the same characteristic of compression into a slim space as Macbook Air). I love it! Why did I stick with a laptop for so long? Cramped screen, battery needing recharging all the time; and as for its intended purpose, to be light and transportable, I find travelling with a laptop a liability: security, fear of dropping it, cumbersome to carry, light as it is. Now I can happily edit on a big screen, have two files open at once without one sitting behind the other, and I can watch movies my son has downloaded for me on a nice screen with great sound. I can easily take it into my bedroom where I have a comfortable reclining chair, to watch. What about having a computer when I travel? Next step is an iPad, which I’ve resisted till now. My hairdresser, a gorgeous woman, has been urging me to get one for a year. In her mind, it is higher on my list than finding a soulmate. I think she may be right. And I can carry it in my handbag. Which you can’t do with a soulmate; and you can’t turn him or her off at night.

And what else? My friend Marian, the writer, who is  hosting a birthday soiree for me, told me about Pandora, an internet radio station. Choose what music you like, she said, and I”ll set it up for you; you can have several stations and switch from one to another. I’d never heard of this, and usually I resist new technology, but this makes more sense to me than an MP3 player.

Next step? I guess it will be getting an iPhone so I can tune into my Pandora stations when I’m driving. And…. I need a GPS so I don’t get stressed out when I visit my Brisbane daughter, navigating through the motorways and then the tangled roads to her house. Wonders will never cease!!

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2014: a year of fulfillment

I’m back, after a long break, and a few epiphanies. Back to a hot, sultry summer, without the hoped for rain that, this time last year and the year before, saw this lovely region so saturated the rivers were flooding.

First, I want to say how reassuring it is to find that, although I haven’t posted a proper blog since before Christmas, my visitors keep coming, and those nice bars on my stats graph have stayed modestly high. Thank you to all who read my posts, and follow my blog.

My vision for this year is to live this life to the full. Part of that is embracing my writing and my painting, and continuing my editing practice. This last is easy for me — I do it well, I have many satisfied clients, and a lot of them return to me. It is safe and secure and I feel good when I’m doing it, it keeps me in food and the good things of life, and I miss it when I don’t have work on my desk. It keeps my marbles polished, and I am happy that I can help people get their work published, complete their degrees, and express themselves in the best possible words.

The riskier side of me is my own writing and my painting. I came to writing in earnest about 15 years ago, when I went back to uni and started to write my life story, and found a way of understanding it that made sense. I had a romance with writing for a few years, especially with the journey of understanding the deeper forces that had shaped my life, and it was transforming for me. I completed two higher degrees, and started my editing practice. But I wanted to be a published writer too; that was part of the romance. I have published several essays and memoirs, and I am an editor for a life writing journal. But I’ve had some near misses at getting my book-length memoir published, and became quite disaffected with the commercial publishing scene.

Last year, though, towards the end of the year, I formed a small writing group with a couple of friends, and have resurrected my memoir of childhood, and started to interweave it with my mother’s story (fictionalised, drawing in part on her (unfinished) hand-written memoir, and mostly from my memory and imagination.  My friends have encouraged me to continue with this, and I will.

The other breakthrough for me has been discovering the joy of pastel painting. My year of wildlife painting with a local teacher taught me a tremendous amount, but I felt very dependent on my teacher’s help and judgement. Finally, the cord was cut, when I felt he went too far in instructing, criticising and forcing me to revise my work. Shades of my mother! So I quit, and have completed two paintings since then, both admired, and the last one my best yet. So I am now going solo, and will join a community arts group for support and inspiration. and I will start selling prints of my work online, and work up to an exhibition.

Yesterday, I had an epiphany about my purpose in life; it is to express myself, my gifts, to the full, to seek outlets for my creative work, and to live, not to other people’s expectations, but to the full of my own self, the gifts I was born with and the wisdom I have gained.

Today I celebrated by making an offering to the creative spirit that is in me and that informs the whole universe, and bought an indoor plant, a pot to house it, and a small table to put it on. It will be the first of a few new inhabitants of my house of creativity.

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,300 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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