Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wishes for you, and me, in 2011

That you might be surrounded by friends who remind you of who you are, and have room for the yous you are;
That you might find joy in noticing daily details, like dancing cobwebs, whooshing winds, the character of the birds who live in your tree;
That sadness might sweep you clean, rather than clean you out;
That you feel those you have lost walking beside you, or that dreams of them may soothe you;
That you discover new books, new colours, new sounds that delight you;
That you find comforting perspectives on whatever haunts you at 3am;
That you might find a way to exercise kindness to all people, or at least find ways to tolerate those you despise or fear;
That kindness in general comes from you, and to you;
That you might keep increasing in curiosity;
That these things are only the beginning.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

An homage to Mike and Lili

The Centre for Youth Literature has got more teenagers into reading, connected more young adults with more books and authors, provided more thought-provoking professional development for teachers, librarians and writers, than any other program in the country.  It's been constantly innovative and constantly evolving.  (It's also delivered the most fun touring program a writer could ever hope to be a part of, but that's another story).  It's been able to achieve all of this because of the enthusiasm, intelligence, passion, love and sheer hard work of the people that have created and sustained it - the redoubtable Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, Mike Shuttleworth, Lili Wilkinson, and now Paula Kelly and Susan McLaine. 

Artswork might be rewarding, but it's hard yakka.  It's hard to see chunks of money always going to sports programs, when a sliver of the same would run a reading/writing program for years.  It's hard having to fight for and justify each crumb of funding you get, having to spend as much time applying for and acquitting grants as doing the work you're funded for.  It's hard to raise the profile of an activity so pivotally important to our sense of culture, place and self as writing in the face of newspaper cutbacks and general editorial disinterest.  And then there are the actual writers.  Writers are a notoriously whinging, tempestuous and temperamental lot: it can be hard listening to folk complaining about who got what and how someone else deserved it more, being depressed about their lack of sales or prizes, and pining for writerly utopia, comprised of time, money, a garret and/or red wine (okay, so maybe that was just me.  But you get my point). 

So people who can always find the joy in what they're doing - who manage to sustain their love for their work  - are rare and should be prized.  And people who wave the flag for the importance of YA and all who sail in her are equally rare, and are our true national treasures.

Hence my unutterable sadness that CYL is losing Mike and Lili.

Aside from her organisational feats, Lili has created and maintained insideadog, which is the best website for teenagers who love books anywhere, ever, IMHO, and is as funky and interesting as Lili herself.  Through her own blog and her thoughtful engagement with others', she makes sure we keep interrogating the way we think about YA writing, writers and everything else in between.  She's leaving to be that most elusive and lucky of creatures, a Full Time Writer.  I eagerly await the brain babies she creates.

And then there's Mike, the man who had to leave Western Australia because he hadn't read (or was that didn't like?  I forget) Cloudstreet.  Mike has been a champion of my work, and for this I have always been grateful.  He has also been a sanity saver more than once, and one of the delights of my Melbourne sojourns is coffee at Mr Tulk's with Mike.  It's a shame CYL can't bottle his fine and nuanced knowledge of contemporary YA literature before he goes.

I know people have to move on, and, after eight years, Mike and Lili have done more than their fair share for YA literature in Australia.  They have encouraged us writers to push the boundaries, write to our limits - to take pride in what we do, and make sure that we get to meet our audiences once in a while.  I know that CYL is still in good hands, and it will still run great programs. 

But still.  I'm sad.

And on behalf of those of us who've had the privilege to work with you, I want to say thanks.  As if it is enough.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What I'm reading/have read/am about to read

Note to self: don't take photos in front of curtainless windows.

The books:

Line of Sight, David Whish-Wilson
Broken Glass, Adrian Stirling
Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson
Girl Saves Boy, Steph Bowe
The Three Loves of Persimmon, Cassandra Golds
Equator, Wayne Ashton

And on the train this week, people read: Zambezi/Kathryn Fox/Jodi Picoult/Blood Born/Star Seeker/Persuasion/The West/Time.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Moments of grace

* This week I struggled with the beginning of the junior novel.  On the train I wrote opening lines, scenes, dialogue.  They clunked, or were brittle.  The words didn't go together.  Nothing worked.

Eventually, demoralised by my scrappy notes, I stopped struggling.  And then, as you might guess, it came.  A beginning.  Maybe not the beginning, but a beginning I can work with.  For me, having a workable beginning is like a composer deciding on a key signature.  If you pick the wrong one, it's never going to sound right.  Like using a minor scale to write a happy song.

*  I did two whole-day workshops this week with the Youth Literature Days run by the fabulous Fremantle Children's Literature Centre.  I love doing these workshops, although somehow discussion of the battles of writing doesn't come about - maybe because for most of these kids, they're so full of words, images and snap, crackle and pop that struggle is a way off.  But the students did great work, concentrated work.  I so wish they'd had programs like this when I was 14, 15. 16 - the luxury of guided writing, the value of hearing what your peers have done, knowing there are others like you out there. 

*  At the end of the last Youth Literature Day, a girl came up to me.  She told me about her friend, who had had a terrible home life, had really struggled with some serious, serious problems.  'Your book Skating the Edge was the only thing that stopped her from killing herself,' she said.  'My friend just wanted you to know.'

*  My old touring buddy Bill Condon was one of the winners of the Premier's Literary Awards (on which subject, you really must read this).  Really and honestly, it couldn't have happened to a nicer bloke.  Bill is one of those people who has just been getting on with writing gritty, real, funny books for teenagers without fanfare.  Excellent stuff all round.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chained to the wheel

So here's this week's thing: every week's thing, come to that.  As I may have mentioned once or twice, I work full time, which leads to a very fragmented writing life.  I'm trying to rewrite the beginning of a junior book, and the more I rewrite, the more I delete.  I pick apart every sentence the moment it's on the page.  But the main problem is that I don't know where I'm going.  With the book.  With writing generally.

Maybe I should write and not think.  Maybe I should have done NaNoWriMo (when?).  Maybe I should give up this thing.  Maybe I should have become a lawyer.  Maybe I have run out of things to say. 

The usual.

And then I find this picture.

It's my great-grandmother, Isabella.  Behind her is the house she lived in for nearly forty years.  When her daughter Freda (now 95) gave me the picture, she said she couldn't believe the house was in the photo: it was shameful to be that poor, it still made her cringe to look at it.  As a young woman Isabella went to the Boer War, apparently to find her brother, and nursed on the ship on the way home. Then she married a rural widower 28 years her senior, was spurned by her husband's first family, took in washing to help, walking for miles over the hills near Roelands with baskets filled with other people's dirty laundry.   She died at 65, exhausted. 'She had a hard life, my mum,' says Freda.

And here I am, worrying about a book I don't have to write.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Eternal soundtrack

Inspired by Mike and the 'geezer jamboree'(!), I'm mulling over what music I'd want to take to the hereafter.  You're supposed to be limited to seven songs, which makes things tricky.  My seven tunes today might well differ from my seven tunes tomorrow.  Today's pick, in no particular order:

Tuxedo Junction, Glenn Miller
A Town Called Malice, The Jam
Tinseltown in the Rain, The Blue Nile (It's sheer accident these first three start with 't'!)
Sing, Sing, Sing, Benny Goodman (also handy because it lasts 9 minutes)
Dancing Queen, ABBA (you knew ABBA had to get a look in, didn't you?!)
Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan
A Day in the Life, The Beatles

 What are yours?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

When your best just isn't good enough

I don't know whether it's because of the amount of US television/music/movies our culture is saturated with, but it seems to me that Australians are becoming as obsessed with success - usually measured in tedious material terms - as any of our North American counterparts.  It's all about being a winner, fulfilling your potential, reaching your dreams.  If you don't have - or strive for - a great career, a fabulous family, and a whole pile of Stuff, there's something wrong.  (Or maybe that's just living in a big mining town, I don't know.)  We're expected to aim high, and if you miss, it's your fault.  You're not talented enough, determined enough, focused.  It's all about you.  You're in a race, and there's no dropping out. 

This attitude has become attached to writing, too.  If you don't win prizes, write bestsellers, get grants or make a living from it, there's something a bit sad about you.  You should be out there promoting, getting your name known, increasing your sales.  The more people buy your books the better, right?  Aren't you going to be the next J.K. Rowling?  Not going to do NaNoWriMo?  A thousand words a day, fifty thousand words a month - write until you're sick of your own words?*  What kind of writer are you?

So much of what is important about writing is so easily lost.  The pleasure of making a story take shape, of massaging a sentence until it is supple, of going beyond what you think you can do.  The physical delight of your hand moving on a page.  The satisfaction of printing out new pages, still warm from the printer. 

Writing is not a competition.  The point of writing for me - aside from its intrinsic satisfaction - is communication.  We're telling stories, sharing stories. 

Finding connections. 

Getting real.

If writing isn't about that, you'd be better off becoming a lawyer.** 

* I'm not dissing NaNoWriMo, but I wonder how there can be joy in it.
** I'm not dissing lawyers either.  Some of my best friends are lawyers :)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Things in spring

1.  I have started a new kids' novel.  I felt despairing after my no-more-YA pronouncement; then I had more ideas for YA novels; but I returned to despair knowing I don't have the time to bring the ideas to life.  So I took my notebook on the train, and en route to work I wrote down any and every idea that entered my head, hoping that one of them would be for something shorter and more manageable.  One was.  It has grown legs, and now I'm seeing if it will be able to run and leap. 
2.  It's planting season.  If you'd told me ten years ago I'd develop into a mad keen gardener I would have sniffed and told you you must have the wrong person. My one failed attempted at growing basil (basil!  how hard could it be?!) convinced me I was a brown-thumb.  Enter husband with mushroom-compost-toting abilities, a bunch of newspapers and giant pots, and presto, a (food) garden has been born.  (Only food - the rest looks like the overgrown jungle it is).  For the last few weeks every meal has contained our potatoes, broad beans, spinach, herbs, onions, spring onions, leeks, and the garlic isn't far away (Doust, are you paying attention?!).  The Good Life indeed.
3.  I've been cycling around the lakes in my suburb, delighted by the baby ducks and swans, the swarming insects in the trees, the abundant blue of Perth spring skies.  By the fact of being able to cycle at all, given that I couldn't for so long.  The joy of skimming over footpaths, bending into curves, pedalling through the warm air, feeling strength returning.
4.  John Lennon would have been 70 today, and I didn't need Google to remind me of the date.  He talked before he died about how life would be long, that he would have decades of creativity ahead of him.  A reminder to waste no time - creatively or otherwise.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lower Picnic Area content alert*

*This post contains references not suitable for children or the easily offended.

The wonderful and with-it Simmone Howell put me onto this blog, which contains stories of various girls' and women's First Times.  The sheer range of experience is moving, thought provoking and fascinating.  I wish I'd read it before I wrote The Virginity Book (like that title?), although I have to say, I had no shortage of source material from my friends and colleagues, which generally flowed more freely after the consumption of wine.  When the novel comes out, I'd like to collect one-sentence descriptions of FTs, so start thinking about that one.  (Yes, you'll be anonymous.  I promise).

And speaking of vaginas, watch this.  I'm still laughing.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Things various

Some thoughts:
1.  After my decision to quit YA, I thought I'd be relieved.  Instead, I felt depressed (and also really touched by the sweet responses I had from folk - thank you).  I'm not sure what kind of perversity it is, to want to do something you have no time to do, but there it is.  I wanted a resolution.  There is none.
2.  It is spring, and I have daffodils.  I planted the bulbs, and was convinced they had failed.  Then one day there were green shoots.  A few weeks after that, glorious, heavy-headed flowers.
3.  On the weekend I had brunch in a cafe in Kings Park with writing buddies Kirsty Murray and Patricia McMahon; a Health PR reunion, replete with singing and percussion; and a catchup with some women I worked with at Parliament.  Last week one of the guys I worked with at Health died suddenly, and the only good thing to come out of the shock was to make me realise how important it is to celebrate the friendships we have, to be grateful for those still with us - to make sure, in the busy-ness of days, there is time for what matters. 
4.  I have a day off today, to walk on the beach, sit in silence, listen.
5.  Kirsty suggested the novel be called The Virginity Book.  What do you think?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The end of the line

Wordle: V girls

This is the first couple of chapters of the V novel, put into Wordle (thanks to Meg McKinlay).

Neat, huh?

It seems to me as if I've been writing this novel forever, and one of the things to come out of my editorial meeting was the decision to push back (to coin a phrase) the publication date to early 2012 (as my publisher said, it's not exactly a stocking filler :)).  The pressure of day job means that I can't do the book justice otherwise, so I am both a bit sad and relieved to have some more time. And I think that unless something extraordinary happens (like Lotto), this will be my last YA novel, as I can't continue to try to write such complicated, long work amidst the rest of my life: I have run out of steam, and have got to the point where effort far outstrips rewards. I am satisfied with the YA novels I've produced, and now need to be realistic about what is possible, given all the other constraints I have. So I want to go out with a bang - and to do it right.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


I am back from Children's Book Week in Melbourne, having seen parts of the city and suburbs never before encountered, and boggled again at the variety of the place, and marvelled again at the wonderfulness of the inner city - the laneways, ACMI, the restaurants, the bookshops.  Marvelled in a less good way about how fricken cold it was, but it's Melbourne in winter, so you get that.  I had thought-provoking gigs at Beaconhills Christian College in Packenham, Thomastown Secondary College, the Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy and MacRobertson's Girls High School - the schools filled with vastly different kinds of kids, but all attentive and alert.  It was a lovely change, being able to be a Writer all week, and had productive and gorgeous meetings with my editors and publisher.  Still searching for a name for the virginity novel, so if you have one that might to do the trick, please submit (note: it's for upper high school, needless to say, and the V Girls is its working title, but we want something that captures the essence of the novel.  I know, hard work, isn't it?) 

Now I am back, cooking chicken soup to drive away what may or may not turn out to be the flu.  And yes, for those of you wondering, I did wear my mask to and from Melbourne (although removed it on the way back to talk to witty fellow-traveller Jon Doust). It worked, but gee I got some looks.  I did find out that my habit of whipping out the alcohol gel is very Noo York, so there.  Better cosmopolitan than neurotic, I always say.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Modern phobias

I'm going to Melbourne shortly, mainly to talk to mobs of kids for Children's Book Week (on which note, I congratulate my fellow writers for their success in the awards, particularly the magic-dusted Sally Murphy).  En route I will be wearing a face mask to stave off flu germs, which I've been trying to avoid at home by using vast quantities of alcohol gel and coughing-person-avoidance.  When I worked at the Department of Health, there was a bird flu epidemic scare, which prompted me to buy a water tank, several 10kg bags of rice and hundreds of cans of foodstuffs (since passed their expiry date, and into landfill. Sorry!).  There will almost certainly be a pandemic of some description in the not-so-distant future, for which face masks will doubtless be useless.  Nevertheless, my neurosis re germs knows no bounds. 

I consider my ability to catch public transport, therefore, to be amongst my greatest achievements.  Sure, I may cover my face when people near me cough into the general atmosphere instead of their elbows, and I lather my hands with alcohol gel the minute I get on or off a train, but just getting on with hundreds of other people breathing into the same square metrage I inhabit is commendable.  I do, as regular readers will note, enjoy reading over people's shoulders, which makes up for covering my face with scarves and getting scabby hands from over-washing.

Anyone else have a phobia they'd like to own up to?

And yes, I'm a Virgo.  How did you guess?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The point of writing

... is getting reviews like this:

I love to play chess, so when I went to the library yesterday and saw this book I instantly wanted to read it. I was right about the book. It was so good that I was reading till 11:30. My mum told me to go to sleep an hour and a half earlier. Being an Aussie boy it was nice to have the book being set in Oz. I am sort of like Jackson myself so I could really connect with the story. I'm kind of also like Anna as the only person I can't beat is my dad (but Ive beaten him at least 3 times out around 100). I really like this book.  Julia Lawrinson did really well.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

To the Middle Kingdom

My Aussie Chomp Famous! is going to be published in China.  For a book whose inspiration was my experience of the uber-Australian (or should that be uber-bogan) Hey Hey It's Saturday, that's not bad.  Lots of my writing friends have been multiply published all over the world: this is my first non-Amazon trip o/s.  It's a lovely reminder of the unexpected bonuses of writing.  Thank you to the Penguin mob for persisting in getting me out there.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

On the train

In a crowded train on Wednesday afternoon, there was a man hunkered down in the corner at the back of the carriage, muttering.  From my standing-up view, I could see that he looked unwell: when he opened them, his eyes were red-rimmed, and he leaned his forehead onto the palm of his hand, rocking slightly as he spoke under his breath at some times, then louder at others, remonstrating, explaining, repeating.  A man sitting two seats up from him, maybe in his late 20s, dressed in jeans and a beanie, was agitated by the ceaseless muttering: he twisted around from time to time in a (failed) attempt to eye the muttering man, and gripped his newspaper tensely.  Then the muttering man started to chant, 'Dick.  Dick.  Dick dick dick. Dick.'  It was too much for the man with the newspaper: he half-rose out of his seat, located the muttering man and said, loud enough for the carriage to hear, 'Mate, can you stop that?'

Muttering man opened his eyes and said, 'Yeah.  I can.'

Newspaper man, having now seen the state of muttering man, was stuck.  After such a public pronouncement, he couldn't be seen to be backing down, and he also couldn't be seen to be bullying a guy who was such a soft target.  'Yeah, well mate, you better stop it, okay?  I can see it's hard for you to stop, but I don't want to hear it, all right?  If you'd been someone else I would have stopped you by now.'

Muttering man nodded, and, for a time, was silent.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Being an avid diary-keeper, I have always been obsessed with dates (hence my love of Pepys' online journal), and personal anniversaries, happy (today it's xxx years since I first met my husband/moved house/published my first novel) and otherwise (today it's xx years since I fell off a horse/my friend was murdered/my mother had a stroke).  (Yes, I do wonder about myself, but I'm assuming that this obsession, like so many others, might abate with age.  At some point, there has to be too many numbers to keep track of - hasn't there?)

This time last year, I was attached to the House of Commons: the window of my office looked up to Big Ben (roughly on the other side of the top windows in the photo).  I had dinner in the Guildhall, saw the statues of Gog and Magog.  I travelled to the north of England on weekends, once to have lunch with my extended family, once to have a whooping good time with my best friend from primary school, who I'd seen once in twenty years, and who lived in a haunted, thatch-roofed 17th century cottage.

Do I feel nostalgic?  You bet.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bye, Beautiful: some reflections on race

I have been asked some questions about Bye, Beautiful and race by one of Tony Eaton's honours students.  As I said to her, it's the aspect of the novel that was most overlooked in reviews, so I thought I would provide an edited version of my response here, in case anyone's interested (yes, my one reader, I know you are!)

I apologise in advance if there is any content that offends.

My grandfather was a police Superintendent and officer in charge of the north west of Western Australia immediately before the Nookenbah dispute.  I was always brought up to think of my grandfather as ‘harsh but fair’, including with his relationship with Aboriginal people.  He talked about his respect for ‘full blood’ Aboriginal people in the North West, and apparently he had good relationships with Aboriginal leaders in all of his postings: my mother tells a story of him regularly visiting an Aboriginal elder when he was in Quairading (a wheatbelt country town) in the late 50s, to get information about what was going on in the community: when she wanted to see him, she’d come to the police house and tap on the verandah with her stick.  He spoke with some sorrow about Aboriginal men who would drink themselves into oblivion, saying, ‘Shit, I like a drink, but not like that’.  But he was also scathing about ‘half castes’ who caused trouble, and if you thanked him for doing something, he’d say, ‘I’d do the same for a black fella.’  He told me that Al Grassby, Whitlam’s Immigration Minister, came to visit his station in the north west, and accused him of being racist.  ‘Mate, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick,’ my grandfather replied.  (I would love to know why Al Grassby said that, but I guess I’ll never know.) 

So, I was left with a confused impression of my grandfather’s approach to Aboriginal people in his job.  I read the transcripts of interviews with individual policemen about their attitudes towards Aboriginal people, which were conducted after the death of John Pat in custody in Roebourne in 1981, and I’m sure my grandfather didn’t possess the kind of racism evident in those accounts – they were truly appalling.  But he was not immune to racism, and I used his response to the relationship of Marianne and Billy to explore how racism operates, even in otherwise decent people.
During the writing of the novel, I spent (thank you, Australia Council!) a lot of time in the Battye Library in Perth, reading accounts of Aboriginal and other experiences in the 1960s to get a general feel for the time and the attitudes – including memoirs of policemen who served during that period.  I read copies of The West Australian and the Merredin Mercury from the period, to see how Aboriginal people were described, if at all.  Most useful was being granted access to the existing occurrence books from police stations in country areas in the 1950s and 1960s, held at the State Records Office – because of my grandfather, the WA Police kindly allowed me to read them.  So many of these were destroyed in the late 70s (ironically, my grandfather wrote to the Commissioner to argue for the value of archiving them instead: his pleas fell on deaf ears), but the ones that exist give a fascinating account of individual policemen’s attitudes: the way they described situations involving Nyoongah people gave clear clues as to how they might have treated them in their work, and I was surprised that there was a vast difference between officers, even in the same station.

I also learned, in the course of my research, that Aboriginal people could be arrested if they were on the streets of small country towns after 6pm, and that most wheatbelt towns had reserves on the outskirts of town for Aboriginal people, and that even in the 60s there were ‘crow bars’, separate bars (or windows) where Aboriginal people could buy alcohol.  To my shame, I had had absolutely no idea about any of that.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Over your shoulder

Somebody* recently complained to me about my lack of blogging frequency.  There are good reasons for it, I promise (besides which, there's a fine balance between over-blogging and under-blogging.  In relation to the former, if you haven't got anything to say, as Segovia apparently once said, you shouldn't say anything.  Applies to writing as well as blogging, and probably many other situations besides).

But I digress.

The good reasons include starting a full-on but enjoyable new dayjob, which takes some time to get one's head around, and which pushes out writing-related concerns (at least during dayjob days).  But I'm now catching the train to work, which gives great opportunity for a) people watching and b) reading over people's shoulders (yes, I'm one of those annoying people who just has to know what is on the page of the open book/newspaper/office manual of the person sitting next to them.  I can't help myself: sorry.)  Besides the content, I love sussing what people are reading: so far this week, Anita Shreve; some book about a guy called Barry, who, going by the cover, is a footballer; Danielle Steele; a history of the world since 1945 (which was thick, but not as thick as it probably ought to have been); and some female crime fiction writer whose name currently escapes me.

It's heartening that there's still as many people on the train reading as those who have iPod buds jammed in their ears, or are fiddling with their iPhones or BlackBerries, or staring fixedly into space (or, in my case, at other people.  Again, sorry.)  But how will I work out what they're reading when e-books take over?

Oh, and in case you were wondering how Margo Lanagan (another writer with a dayjob) writes, read this.

* My one reader.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


The air is wintry clean;
The sun an idea of warmth;
The potato plants are sticking their nubbly noses above the dark soil;
I've sent off my latest redraft;
I'm staying with friends who make me laugh;
That is all, and enough.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Don't give up your day job

When young people ask me what they should do to become a writer, one of the things I say is, Make sure you find a day job you like.  Their eyes invariably glaze over, as mine did when I received the same advice at the same age.  They no doubt have the idea that publishing a book will mean that all of their problems - artistic and otherwise - will magically disappear.  That's what I thought too.  But for most writers, including some of our most celebrated Australian authors, day jobs are necessary.  You need to choose one that doesn't draw on the same pool of energy you need for writing, that's all: it was because of this I gave up teaching - at the end of the week, nothing was left over.

For the past three years, my day job has been at the Legislative Assembly of Western Australia with the wonderfully archaic title of Sergeant-at-Arms.  I only mention this now as I am leaving it to return to public-sector-land.  It has been a wonderful job - I've been the only civilian in the state with the power of arrest, apparently - and I've particularly enjoyed wielding my big gold stick (aka the mace) to announce the Speaker at the commencement of each sitting.  The hours on sitting weeks have been less lovely, and there's been a lot of pressure associated with the job from time to time, but on the whole, it has been an experience I've been grateful to have.  The bond between my colleagues, forged through the extremities of parliamentary work, is remarkable.  I will miss Parliament, and them. 

So, if you can find a day job you like, you're lucky.  To have a day job you love is something to be treasured - even as you leave it.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Proust Questionnaire

Good to have something to think about when one is awake at a ridiculously early hour on a Sunday.  Here are my answers to the questionnaire, via the fabulous Ms Howell at insideadog, who invites you to post your own.**

What is your most marked characteristic?
Insomnia (yes, I know that's not really a characteristic, but it feels like one at the moment).  Other than that, watchfulness.

What is the quality you most like in a man?
Intelligence and humour.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?

Intelligence, warmth and humour.

What do you most value in your friends?

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

What is your favorite occupation?
Writing.  Novels, preferably, but anything will do. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Dog beach.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Cruelty to others.

In which country would you like to live?
(Southern, rural) Germany.

Who are your favorite writers?
Changes by the day.  Timeless favourites: Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy.
Who are your favorite poets?
Auden, John Forbes, Dorothy Porter, Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson, Blake, ee cummings, too many living Australian poets to mention.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Hmmn.  I'll get back to you on that.

Who is your favorite heroine of fiction?
Laura Ingalls (and yes, she is fiction.  Read The Ghost in the Little House if you don't know what I mean.)

Who are your favorite composers?
Bach for relaxation, Leo Brouwer for weirdness, Ulvaeus and Andersson for joy.

Who are your favorite painters?
 Brett Whitely, Sidney Nolan.

What are your favorite names?

What is it that you most dislike?

Which talent would you most like to have?
To be able to really sing.

How would you like to die?
Painlessly, of course.  Torn between sudden and lingering as preferred, but then, who has a say in these things?

What is your current state of mind?
Generally optimistic but slightly anxious.

What is your motto?
It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.

** And here is Lili's, and here is Penni's.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

What I've been reading lately

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Shot by Gail Bell
Ciara's Gift by Una Glennon
90 Packets of Instant Noodles by Deb Fitzpatrick
Wilt on High by Tom Sharpe
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (both books)
The Boat by Name Le
Beautiful Monster by Kate McCaffrey
Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (I thought I'd read this before, but if I did, I have no memory of it)
A People's History of Science by Clifford D. Conner

Sunday, May 23, 2010

What writers want

As I ponder purchasing furniture for my first ever study, I have also been pondering what a writer needs to write.  Some writers need silence; others music; Annie Dillard reportedly papers over the windows in her study, lest she be distracted from her (glorious) work (if you haven't read An American Childhood, you're missing a gem).  It's not only a physical space in which to write that has been lacking to date; I also work full time in a demanding job, as well as being the parent of a teenager.  When people ask me how I find time to write, I often say, I don't know.  Because I don't.  I make time, obviously, either in holidays or on weekends or during insomniac hours or on trains or instead of watching television.  Maybe it's not the how: it's the why.  Why, when each hour of life is so precious, would I spend time writing, when the world would neither know nor care if I spent my rare hours of free time at the beach, or planting out my vege bed, or seeing much neglected friends and family?

Like most mid-career (shudder) authors, I've wished I lived in a culture where I could live off my writing (or wrote the kinds of books that would make it possible in this one), or had a sugar daddy, or could magically have my mortgage paid off, or could win a massive prize that meant I could dedicate myself (in my shiny new study) to writing.  Some days, it really bites that I have to expend energy where I would rather not; some days I resent the demands that mean I can't do what I love.  Virginia Woolf wrote that women writers need money and a room of my own, but I've managed without either.  Have I written The Waves?  Maybe not.  Has the pressure of working changed the kinds of books that I've written?  Absolutely.  It's no coincidence that my best novel was written when I had the year of grace afforded me by an Australia Council grant: working full time prevents me from traversing that kind of territory again. 

Because of what they cost me, I love my books like the unruly children they are, even if they're not top of the class, or the most popular, or the best looking.  I love them for their soul, their character.  They each have their friends, their circle who would miss them if they weren't there.  Each one is a product of its time: they could only have appeared when they did, and, if I hadn't seized the moment, their story would have passed unnoticed, unrecorded. 

So having a room to write in is a luxury, not a necessity.  To write, all you need is an ear attuned to the story that is only for you - and to write it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Of things past

This is the only photograph I have of my paternal grandfather, taken during World War Two.  I don't remember how old I was when I first saw it: maybe when I was about ten, when I got my first letter from him, written in all capitals on blue airmail paper, warning me to BE CAREFUL OF SHARKS and enclosing similarly capitalised newspaper headings, such as WOMAN DIES AFTER POISONOUS SNAKEBITE and TOURIST WASHED OFF ROCKS BY FREAK WAVE, clearly the only times Australia made it into the English papers in that innocent, pre-Neighbours world.  I wondered if he was demented, but wrote back all the same.  It was a novelty, discovering an extra grandparent I had supposed to be dead: nobody had ever mentioned him until my aunty took it upon herself to write to the address he'd lived in twenty years earlier, enclosing details of the grandchildren he hadn't known about, and we began getting his strange, spidery-lettered missives from the other side of the world.

When I was twenty-one I took a bus up from London to see him, expecting to meet the handsome, robust man above, and had to hide my shock at meeting a stoop-backed old man with rheumy blue eyes, living on the ground floor of the council house in which he lived from birth to death, replete with photo frames caked with dust on the mantel.  He proudly showed me the contents of his fridge ('I look after meself, you know') - a half-finished tin of Spam, a single, cooked sausage, some milk - before taking me into town and to visit some cousins.  On the way he said 'I just want you to know, I don't know anything about all that other business' - I didn't dare ask what he meant - and then pointed at the factory he used to work in, before launching into a discussion about the outrageous price of sports shoes.  I declined the offer of a dusty, upstairs bed and caught the train to Liverpool in the dusk, where I found myself wandering the streets, weeping inconsolably without the faintest awareness why.

I didn't take a photo of him.  I wanted to protect his dignity, maybe: something told me he wouldn't want to have his image taken back to Australia, in his grimy front room, surrounded by pictures of people long dead, or long gone.  But maybe I wanted the picture of when I hadn't known him to be the only one, before he became such a disappointment to those who had loved him.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bits of things

Having sent off major rewrite of the V Girls to my dear, patient publishers, my head is full of scattery thoughts and reflections, like:

1.  Last weekend I went to the 80th birthday of a third cousin, Dawnie, a wonderful, lively woman who is an inspiration re how to live.  I saw a photograph, for the first time, of my great-great-great grandfather, William Parmenter, a convict who was sent over on the Norwood in 1862, and who settled in Bunbury with his wife and children, whom he paid 3 pounds something to bring over once he got his ticket of leave. (There was also a photograph of her.)  One of his children, a twin, died on the voyage.

I also saw a letter written by my great-great uncle, also William Parmenter, in 29 June 1918, from wherever he was fighting in the war.  He was writing to his sister, Martha (whose deathbed I remember attending when I was a small child).  He said if he didn't get home soon, all his sisters would be married.  He commented that he mind that, so long as his girl wasn't married.  Then he asked his sister how Annie was: he hadn't heard from her.  Two sentences: so much sadness wedged between them.

Between 29 June and November, when the war ended, William was killed.  His mother was out, the morning the telegram was delivered.  After that, she never wanted to leave the house, convinced that something terrible would happen if she did. 

2.  I've almost finished Gail Bell's Shot.  The subtle exploration of how trauma affects people is remarkable, and should shut up the people who say Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is rubbish.  Having survived twice being close to (or fearing I was close to) death through traumatic experiences (once being attacked on a beach; once having a bone-crushing fall off a horse), I'm struck by how similar my reactions were to such disparate experiences. 

3.  Next week I am going to Sydney for work.  I'm reflecting on how different it is, travelling this way, than my first arrival in Sydney in 1987, when my friend Carita and I were dropped off in the pre-dawn dark in Alexandria by a speed-affected truck driver, who had kept yanking our hands over to the wheel, to get us to steer (as a prelude, I believed, yanking my hands back, to putting our hands elsewhere).  He did, however, take a detour on the way up from Melbourne to show me the Dog on the Tuckerbox, for which I am still grateful.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Telly love

I don't have a television.  It's my daughter's fault.  I'd warned her that if we had another argument about turning the telly off, I'd get rid of it.  She argued; I called the neighbours.  After they'd taken my temperature, they took away the television, as well as the recordable DVD player and the thousand remote controls I never got the hang of in the first place (good luck with that, guys!)  My daughter has yet to forgive me, but let's face it, if you possess a computer connected to a broadband network, there's not too many reasons to grieve: all of the networks are showing their wares in cyberspace, even if the commercial ones show that irritating, non-fastforwardable ad at the beginning.  One downside: unless you get recommendations from others, you end up missing out on some cracker shows, simply because you're not aware of their existence.

So I've belatedly become a fan of Beautiful People (thanks Liz!) and Glee (yes, I was already switched on to Mad Men, thanks to Michael).  I adore tv that has witty dialogue and a serious edge (Six Feet Under's earlier series being the best example of both).  Glee veers pretty close to cheese sometimes, and Beautiful People to slapstick, but they are redeemed by the utter gorgeousness of the characters, even the hideous ones.  I also love the way both series deal with the hard yards involved in creative endeavours - and the w*nkers and poseurs who occasionally, and generally temporarily, flourish in artsy environments (the Tracey Emin pisstake on BP was brilliant). 

The reason I've actually had some time to indulge in screen is because I've had a week off the dayjob to talk to kids at Churchlands Senior High School and Penrhos College, and to finish rewriting V Girls.  I really enjoyed being back in schools again, observing the different atmosphere each one creates, the way teachers interact with their students and vice versa, and the social order that is visible even to a visiting writer.  And oh, how I loved the cerese couches at Penhros - even though they so entirely matched my top that if I'd sat down, I would have vanished (as A.J. so rightly pointed out). 

Back to rewriting (sigh).  Oh, but wait - isn't there an episode of Glee I've missed? Then I'll turn it off.  I promise.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The art of illusion

Maybe everyone in the world has seen this, except me, but it's great.  Almost as good as this.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A different story

Yesterday I met B, a bright seven-year-old with French-plaited hair and flowers painted on her fingernails.  She has been doing some writing with the help of a wonderful young woman called Imogen; I read her A Girl Who Fell Into A Book; Imogen read me the latest installment of B's Magic Faraway Tree-inspired story series.  A few years ago, B had a car accident, and she can't move independently, nor speak - not in the conventional sense, anyway.  She makes her feelings clear with extraordinary facial expressions and mouthed words, and there is no mistaking her pleasure or otherwise.  Seeing B, and all the other children where she lives, with disability of varying but generally profound severity, forcibly reminded me of how utterly vulnerable we humans are, but how irreducible the spirit.  And made me reflect on all the parents and carers of these kids, the love and compassion that is so abundant (and yes, I know there is heartbreak too, and grief).  I was reminded of a radio show I heard about the mentally ill in India, and how so many of them are taken care of by people who take notice, and provide them with food and clothing in a matter-of-fact way.  Ordinary angels.

Also, B reminded me of the power of story.  In real life, B can't run, or climb a tree, or swim under the water, but in her stories she can.  And does.  And relishes every moment - you can see it in her eyes.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

All hail arts organisations

I spent quite a bit of time working in and for writing and arts organisations back in the day, and am a proud member of the Australian Society of Authors, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and others (and I will get my act together and join the Children's Book Council soon, I promise, Jan!).  I think it's important for emerging and established artists of any stripe to be involved in the community to which they belong, and besides which, arts organisations rely on volunteers and lowly paid workers to keep ticking over.  It's good to understand that art doesn't just appear/get published/hang in art galleries/appear on your tv screen - it's the end result of creative courses/ one-room advocacy organisations/ funding bodies/ lobbying etc, not to mention the 'invisible' folk like editors, publishers, producers and so on.  It's a long way from the Romantic notion of the individual starving artist, that's for sure.

Anyway, I'm about to step back into the ring, having been nominated for the Board of Management of writingwa, the Board of which I chaired when it was in its previous incarnation, the State Literature Centre.  Those of you interested in writing and reading in Western Australia know that we've got a swag of challenges on the table at the moment, not the least of which is ensuring the continuing funding of books in libraries and the support of writers and literature organisations in general.  So I'm looking forward to working with advocate extraordinaire Sharon Flindell to see what we can do to put writing front and centre in WA.  Watch this space!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What I'm grateful for

Bad things have been happening to a lot of people I know lately.  It's hard to know what to do at such times, apart from send good thoughts to the afflicted people, and be grateful that at this moment, I have been spared the random awfulness of events.

In the spirit of Anita Heiss, then, I list the things I am grateful for today:

The crisp autumn weather, and the bed of newly planted leeks, onions, broad beans, spinach and broccoli that appreciate the gentle light;
The sleeping teenagers safely in their beds in the room next to me;
The fact that the Virginity Novel character rewrite is going well (well, is going!);
Some of my writing buddies had way too much fun at the Bologna Book Fair;
These two:

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A little oasis of time

As a full time employee, the joy of Easter is not about religious significance, although as a member of a family full of Catholics and having grown up with flurries of church attendance, I'm not altogether insensible to this. No, to me a clump of public holidays means some time to get some serious writing done.

This brings with it more or less equal portions of joy and pain. In relation to the first, the sheer joy of writing never leaves me: it is a kind of meditation, of time out from the clamour of obligation, of the pleasure of making stuff up, mind, world and fingers-on-keyboard mystically linked. The painful part is always: is it any good? Am I going to have to rewrite this (again)? Why couldn't I have written Tender Morsels? Or Liar? Or any other loved book that is already in book form?

The other thing about writing that dements me is how very much of it is made up of rewriting, mainly because I mostly fail to get a manuscript right in the first proper draft. The number of dead-ends and false starts/middles/ends I have unwittingly sent my plot/characters/novels down are legion. I like to think that this is because I am so pushed for time that I don't have time to hear the gears grinding (as Margo Lanagan wonderfully puts it) before it's too late and I've been foot to the floor all the way down the aforementioned cul de sacs until I skid to a halt in front of the wall I should have seen from the turnoff. But the truth is probably that this is a very annoying but apparently inevitable part of my writing process.

I mention this because I am rewriting holus bolus one of the characters from the virginity novel (as yet untitled - nothing quite fits yet. Any (more) suggestions?) As I said to the Bunbury ECU students I met a few weeks back, it's rare that I write a novel in which I don't start off by sending a character down the emotional salt mines, before realising that the narrative has disappeared down the same hole.

One day, I just might learn, and save myself a pile of grief. It's not looking likely.

On a more earthy note, we finally have some rain that is not in the form of flash flooding, or disguised as panel-denting hunks of hail. Reason for rejoicing indeed!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Ten Best Books ... sort of

I hate best-of book lists. I can never include all the things I want in them, and they give you the impression that number 1 is better than number 10, or that those not on the list aren’t loved as much as those on it. Reading is not a ranked activity: it’s too rich for that.

Nevertheless, thanks to Persnickety Snark, it’s interesting to think of the books that made a big impact on me as a teenager, and so I include these as a beginning, rather than an exhaustive, list (of ten lines, rather than ten books!):

• Second Star to the Right and Hey Dollface by Deborah Hautzig
• Narziss and Goldmund by Herman Hesse
• The Collector and The Magus by John Fowles (even though I still can’t work out what the hell The Magus was about)
• Carrie by Stephen King
• 1984 by George Orwell
• The Little House on the Prairie series (which I re-read every few years even now, and each time find it an enriching experience)
• Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner (why, oh why did Judy have to die?!)
• A Patch of Blue by Elizabeth Kata
• The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
• A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry

It tells you a lot about Australian publishing in the mid 80s that there is only one Australian author on that list. And yes, it's not strictly YA, all of it, but it's what floated my boat way back when.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Chess Nuts in reviewland

It's always nerve-racking to receive your first reviews for a book - almost as nerve-racking as wondering if you're going to get any. So I was very pleased that Chess Nuts has had two great reviews, last week by Jane Barry in The Courier Mail and this week by Susan Hewitt in The West Australian's West Weekend magazine.

Jane Barry commented:

Lawrinson addresses a salient topic in her writing. Why can't teenagers feel free to pursue different interests and not worry so much about losing face with their peers? Over the years towards maturity, how many opportunities are lost, or passions suppressed, just for the sake of worrying what others will think? She also writes with a clear understanding of the intricacies of chess and the almost complete absorption it demands. References to famous quotes from chess masters appear throughout, lending an air of credibility to the author's research. A good book for any teenager, especially those who need prompting to follow their own interests.

Hewitt says:

This book is aimed at primary school kids, and even those who can't read it themselves will find it easy to engage in the story. All the lessons about acceptance and getting on aren't daggy or teacherly, they just kind of work themselves in.

It's interesting that the two reviewers have a different take on the audience for the novel: I think it's because kids read differently, it would entirely depend on individual interests and reading levels. Hence the madness of the age-banding proposals that were (are?) being debated in the UK.

On another note, it's delightful that The West has entirely modernised its reviewing of books, thanks (I believe) to new books editor Will Yeoman. At last!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Changing sites

I am changing blog-sites, in the hope I will get a little more functionality from this one, and in response to Sarah Dessen's concern that LiveJournal might fold. Who knows, I might even be able to post more frequently.

Previous blogs can be found here.