February 16th, 2017
One month ago I deactivated my Facebook account. I had a book to finish writing by the end of January, but I also was feeling overwhelmed by the Trump presidency. It was bleak and there it was again and again on my Facebook feed.
I admit that I checked Facebook far too often during the day – often without even realising I was doing it until I was there on the page. Because I work from home, alone, Facebook was my virtual watercooler. It was where I caught up on everyone’s news, where I congratulated those with birthdays and new partners and babies and said I was there for those going through a hard time. It made me feel connected. I live in Australia but am from the US, with lots of family and friends still there, so this feeling of connection was addictive.
I first joined Facebook the year my daughter was born, 2007, because of my Sydney-based mothers’ group. We used it to organise our get-togethers, and as more and more friends joined it became a way to share baby photos and catch up on everyone’s news in a single place. Before that I had kept in touch with a dozen or so university and high school friends, mostly through emails and in person every few years. Now I was suddenly connecting with friends who I hadn’t seen since 1995, when I graduated from high school. Then friends from primary school, or people who I only met once. Work colleagues in Sydney, ex-work colleagues, mother’s group members and friends-of-friends became connected via Facebook, and my feed was filled with all of these lives which I otherwise hardly would have known.
I have always been the type of person with a few close friends. I’m loyal and love their company, but I’m an introvert and this makes me poor at maintaining lots of friendships. Facebook, on the surface, makes it easy, but I began to question whether it was real as well. Was liking a post maintaining a friendship? Would I actually recognise some of these people if I saw them on the street? If we were in the same city, would we catch up for coffee?
Is it right that I know so much about their lives? Should I be telling them this much about my own?
So I culled some of the people I didn’t really know, and I ticked a few as acquaintances. I wasn’t one of those people with 1000 friends, my number hovered somewhere around 250.
But when I caught up with some of those 250 I realised our conversations became predictable. ‘How was your holiday? I saw you went to Sri Lanka. Beautiful photos.’
‘Thanks! And how was your trip to Perth? It looked amazing.’
What’s there to talk about when you’ve seen the highlights already, scrolling down your screen? I always had friends who weren’t on Facebook, and when we caught up for dinner or coffee the conversations were filled with genuine surprises. We were actually curious about one another’s lives because we had been living them in isolation from each other – we didn’t know.
That said, now that I’ve signed off I find that people expect me, still, to know what’s happening in their lives. ‘I’m not on Facebook these days,’ I have to say, for them to fill me in. A few have asked if I defriended them. ‘Did I do something to offend you?’ one mum asked at the school gates.
‘No!’ I said, feeling awful. ‘I’m not on Facebook at all. But you can still message me. I’m sorry.’ I do feel like I need to apologise for not already knowing their news.
So I do miss out – no question – on some of what goes on in the lives of people I care about. But how much are we meant to actually know? My mother, who is retired, spends at least an hour, sometimes two a day on Facebook. She clicks on all of the silly animal videos and looks at all the photographs from everyone’s weddings. She comments and sometimes has discussions with others in the comment sections and posts photographs of all of her trips. She also reads a lot, does Zumba, volunteers for several worthy organisations, cooks delicious meals and manages her finances – but I wonder what she’d do if she weren’t spending that time on Facebook. Would she email or write letters, talk on the phone more? Would she catch up with more people or fewer?
I haven’t even gotten to the best thing about being off Facebook. It’s not that the Trump disaster isn’t constantly there for me to see – it is, I still read the news. It has to do with my subconscious, which is directly related to creativity. When I was checking Facebook approximately 20 times a day I knew far too much about an eclectic collection of people. They were people who would normally just be on the periphery of my life, but because they posted a lot on Facebook they were in my life at least once a day, sometimes more than my husband (who is also one of those people not on social media). I found myself thinking about their families at odd times, dreaming of them, wondering how they’d gone with their job interview, their breakup, their new tattoo.
I knew them but I didn’t know them – I knew that carefully curated selection of what they chose to broadly share (some people on Instagram actually call this their portfolio). They took up space in my subconscious which is now freed for the characters from my novels or short stories, or the topics or projects I want to write about. I have kept my author page, and given my mother administrative powers. I don’t see her quitting Facebook any time soon. Will I go back one day? Not sure yet. I’m still enjoying being gone.
And those friends I still find myself wondering about? I do what I did in those pre-Facebook days. I send an email, or a text. If I’m feeling especially brave, I give them a call.
December 5th, 2016
Now that it is summer here in Australia I’m reminded of how lucky I was to have two summers this year, and that I have yet to write about the research I did for my novel in the United States in July. I have taught a few seminars about researching for writing and spoken to many writer friends about this over the years, but I haven’t written about how I use different types of research while writing a novel. So here goes.
My initial purpose of travelling to the US was to attend the Tin House Summer Workshop, but once I was well into the draft of this novel I realised how worthwhile it would be to research the gaps in my story as well. I am writing a novel about a war bride from Australia who meets and marries an American GI during World War II and subsequently moves to the US. Through Dr Robyn Arrowsmith, author of the fascinating social history All The Way To The USA: Australian WWII War Brides, I was introduced to several WWII war brides, two of whom I was able to visit with during my trip.
First I flew into Los Angeles, for the dual purpose of visiting an old friend and to see the Queen Mary,
a retired ocean liner from the Cunard line which was used as a troop ship during WWII and also transported war brides from the UK to the USA after the war was over in 1946. While the Queen Mary was never used to transport Australian war brides, the original art deco interiors were similar to some of the ships which Australian war brides sailed on. The ship is permanently docked in Long Beach now as a hotel and tourist site, and my friend (who was eight months pregnant and had a two-year-old in tow) was kind enough to share me with the ship. We stayed on board (though she had heard it was haunted). We didn’t see ghosts, but I was delighted to see that the cabins were largely unchanged, with original built-ins and taps in the bathroom for seawater or freshwater.
To write a novel I have to inhabit a character, and so much of this means imagining myself in situations they might have been in, placing myself in environments similar to those they experienced. This allows the detail of their life to creep through my imaginings. It’s a kind of talismanic research – where the things around me are what allow me to inhabit them. Just walking around the areas of the ship – the infirmary, the bridge, the engine room, the ballrooms – I was able to get a sense of what three weeks at sea on such a vessel for my character would have been like.
Once I left Long Beach behind I travelled to San Francisco, staying by Fisherman’s Wharf, where the (fictional) war bride I am writing about sailed into in 1946 from Sydney. I walked around the Hyde Pier with its historic ships and then over to the SS Jeremiah O’Brien a WWII Liberty troopship which also carried war brides at one point. The SS O’Brien was such a stark contrast to the Queen Mary – it is a utilitarian ship in every way – purely built for the purposes of war. While in San Francisco I took a tourist ferry on the harbour, simply to get that perspective of what it was like to approach the city from the sea.
Little details like what the Golden Gate Bridge looks like from underneath are important to me. The war brides I have spoken to and those I have read interviews with emphasise how the journey was such an adventure – and how it was like they were seeing the world for the first time.
From San Francisco I took the commuter train to visit my first war bride, Mrs Dorothy Pence Berry in San Jose. Her daughter Beverley picked me up from the station and drove me to Dorothy’s house. When she was 19 Dorothy met American Naval Petty Officer Roy Pence in Brisbane. They married in 1943 and she had already had her daughter Beverley when she got passage on the troop ship SS General Mann to the US in December 1944. The war was still on and she remembers the mines they dodged at sea, and the bunk she shared with her baby. At night the whole ship would be in blackout, and there were no facilities for babies, no baby food, and only 27 war brides and 10 babies on board.
Beverley prepared a beautiful lunch for us while Dorothy told me about her journey, about her memories of Australia and the difficulties she faced as a new war bride in the US. She showed me photographs and her Australian memorabilia, and it struck me how memories of a place can suspend it in time, so that it is as much that place as that time in your life that you miss.
“Australia will always be home to me,” Dorothy said, showing me her Arnott’s biscuit tins. She has imbued her children with this love, one lives in Australia, another is the president of the US World War II War Brides Association, and another has a travelling exhibition of war bride wedding dresses.
After San Jose I returned to San Francisco to take the train up to Portland for the writing workshop and to meet another war bride. First I was going to catch up with a few friends, and they were curious as to why I insisted on taking the Coast Starlight Amtrak rather than flying – why take a 22-hour train when I could take a (less than) two-hour flight? More research, I insisted, since my character took a train across the US after sailing into San Francisco. It had been many years since I took a long distance train journey and though I know it is different now, I wanted to immerse myself in that pace again – the way the scenery passes and the time takes on a different quality. The sounds, the dining cars and the restrooms and the way strangers talk to one another– no one is rushed and stressed like we are in airports or on freeways.
To prove this point, the train was delayed about six hours and no one even seemed to mind (besides my poor friends waiting for me in Portland). There was a band travelling across the US playing music on the train, a Santa Claus impersonator and a woman who was taking her stuffed teddy bear across the US and taking photographs of him in different scenic spots. The Amtrak staff were some of the friendliest I’ve met, and while it’s probably not a good option if you’re in a hurry, I loved my slow journey up the coast.
After visiting with my dear, patient friends and checking in to my dormitory at Reed College, I had one more war bride to meet in Portland. I met Mrs Joann Patterson and three of her five children for brunch at a French restaurant in Portland. She met her American serviceman, Joe Patterson in Melbourne in 1942, when he followed her and her friend out of a restaurant and then waited for her outside of the night school class she was attending. Joann joined the AWAS (Australian Women’s Army Service in the Signal Corps) and Joe was relocated to Townsville. They got to know one another by letter and he would come and find her when he could get leave. They married in 1944 in Brisbane and honeymooned for a week before having to part again. They didn’t see each other again for 16 months, until she sailed into San Francisco aboard the Monterey. He was driving across the country from Ohio to pick up his bride, but his car broke down en route and he was not there when the brides disembarked from the ship. Luckily he was able to call a friend, who drove up from San Jose and picked up Joann the day after the ship had pulled into port. Joe arrived the next day. Joann and her children and grandchildren have travelled to Australia many times, partly because her husband Joe (who was in the US Air Force) went on to become a commercial airline pilot.
Joann had me to her house at the end of my week in Portland and cooked dinner for me and three of her children, no small feat for a 92-year-old. While she had her own difficulties as a war bride fitting in to her husband’s Catholic family, she was also keenly aware that her experience was easier than many because she was able to fly back to Australia frequently to visit. Her children all feel closely connected to Australia and have kept in contact with relatives there.
While the main character of my novel is not based on either of the war brides I interviewed or any one particular story I read, I felt as though speaking to these generous and adventurous women gave me so much insight into the story I was writing, the motivations and the challenges, the implications for future generations. I was lucky to have been invited into their homes, to have heard their stories and seen their old photographs and newspaper clippings.
I can read until my eyes are tired, but to hear these women tell their stories given an extra dimension to the book I am writing – this is the kind of research that no library can hold.
Funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and the Copyright Agency Creative Individuals Career Fund allowed me to travel to the USA.
July 20th, 2016
For years I’ve thought about attending one of the many summer writing workshops in the US: Bread Loaf, Tin House, Iowa, Sewanee. I’ve studied their programs and the lists of authors and talks and envied the immersive creative community. Since I grew up (part of the time) in America I knew the college atmosphere from my undergrad days, but I moved to Australia in my early 20s and never experienced a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program. We just don’t have them here.
The Doctorate of Creative Arts which I finished last year gave me a wonderful supervisor who read, advised and guided my project, but never the intensive workshop structure which is available in the US. My scholarship gave me the financial freedom to write, but I never felt part of a community of writers, and even working from my desk at the university the other writers I came into contact with existed in the bubble of their own work. I think there is something to be gained from reading others who are still figuring things out, learning from each other’s mistakes and being pushed by their inventiveness. I love being challenged – critiqued – questioned. Being asked: what’s at stake for you here? What’s your vulnerability? How can you push this further?
So this year I made my plans far in advance to apply to the Tin House Summer Workshop, in part because of their reputation and the quality of the writers they publish, and in part because the timing fit perfectly with my kids’ school holidays. I blocked out two weeks – one to attend the workshop and one to conduct interviews with Australian WWII war brides for the novel I am working on, and visit WWII-era ships on the West Coast (more about this in a later post). Only when I received my acceptance did I start to question my decision. Was I really ready to leave my children for two weeks? What if my workshop hated my writing? What if everyone was so much more meta than me? Although I had taught workshops recently I hadn’t workshopped my own work in so long that it made my stomach flip with fear. Even though I’ve had two novels published, I still feel like every time I’m beginning again.
So it was that my first night on the campus of Reed College in Portland Oregon I lay in my single bed, the plastic mattress squeaking beneath me, the bathroom door across the hall creaking and clicking, thinking “what the fuck have I done?”
Would I just have been better off taking a week alone to write? Was I going to feel comfortable enough with a group of strangers to bear hearing them talk about my work?
I wouldn’t have and I did. I was in the novel workshop with Dana Spiotta, an author I’ve read and admired. This interview with her in the New York Times earlier this year made me think she would be a damn good teacher too (and quietly subversive – right up my alley).
I won’t go into detail of my workshop group here, just that I came to trust them and their judgement, to feel safe with them, to know that they would have insight into things which in my own work I couldn’t see. We all came from such different places, we wrote wildly different kinds of fiction, but we also had many of the same problems and structural challenges. We bonded over oddly descriptive cafeteria food and quite a bit of alcohol. I laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time.
But it wasn’t just the workshops every day: it was the seminars, panels and readings which filled me to overflowing. Sarah Manguso talking about the power of omission. Steve Almond talking about how our stories suffer from emotional cowardice – how too often we look away just at the moment of turmoil. Kiese Laymon questioning the act of representation and what our responsibilities are as writers. Alex Chee on what drives our characters and how we make this into plot. Gregory Pardlo reading a poem about his father (“like America his fist only rose on occasion”). I was struck by the joy and vitality Sharon Olds communicated when she talked about her work, about how after graduate school she decided “I will give up all I have learned if I can just write my own poems.”
How important it is to keep our roughness, our “skin in the game”, our voice which communicates our own particular vision of the world.
I took a lot of notes but hardly wrote a thing of my own when I was there. What I did was experience, fill like a sponge until I couldn’t hold another thing. Now I’m wringing myself out, clinging to each drop.
So here is my advice if you are thinking about attending the Tin House Summer Workshop, or pushing yourself into some other unfamiliar territory with your writing. Swallow your fear and do it. For me, just one day would have been worth the trip.
I was able to attend Tin House Summer Workshop thanks to funding from the Copyright Agency Limited Career Fund and the Australia Council for the Arts.
March 17th, 2016
I saw Brooklyn a few days ago and I am still in its thrall. Those neat drab streets of Enniscorthy, the mother and sister at the wharf, the transformation of Eilis (played by the divine Saoirse Ronan) from girl into woman and oh yes, that yellow dress.
But it was also the sense of being torn between two places which I thought Brooklyn communicated so beautifully, so viscerally, through Eilis’ character. Colm Tóibín wrote about the filming of the adaptation in the Guardian recently, saying it was about feeling the pull “between the easy familiarity of home and the hard-won familiarity of away”.
I’ve been waiting years for someone to say that so succinctly. Thank you Colm.
And here is my shameful admission: I have not read the novel the film is based on. I tried six or seven years ago and put it down after a few chapters. Why? I can’t even recall. I promise I will try again.
The plot of Brooklyn is an age-old one. Young person leaves home for new opportunities. They return changed, and must decide which path their life will take, pulled in two directions. They are forced to stop being a child and to become a person accountable for their own decisions. Eilis goes to Brooklyn from Ireland to find work, her sister has organised it for her through an Irish priest she knows there. She isn’t certain she wants to go but there are no chances for her at home. Once in Brooklyn, Eilis is brought to her knees by homesickness, but this abates when she meets Italian-American plumber Tony Fiorelli (played by Emory Cohen) at a dance. Called back to Ireland for family reasons, she is torn between whether to stay or return. Between the “easy familiarity of home and the hard-won familiarity of away”.
In other hands, this film could have become trite, I can almost hear the sappy violins crescendo, but luckily the director John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission) and the scriptwriter (Nick Hornsby) allowed the quietness, the focus on Eilis’ internal life and the small visual detail which was nostalgic without being twee.
This film does not have grand messages but small, familiar ones. Eilis is a woman of the 1950s and while she gains independence with her travel, this is ultimately a story about love. She is going to be a wife and mother. She is just not sure with whom.
Meanwhile she is disloyal, she keeps secrets, she has a dark moment during which she does not know which way to turn. And when turn she finally does, I realised I had been holding my breath. How close it all was. How real it felt.
Maybe part of my love of Brooklyn is because it mirrors my own struggle with homesickness, being torn between countries, having moved to Australia for love. The America I know is changed now, not least because I have changed too. But still every time I return I feel the pull. That easy familiarity. As simple as driving again on the right side of the road. Creamer in my coffee. Lemon in my tea.
At one point in Brooklyn the priest tells Eilis that homesickness is like any sickness: you get over it more quickly than you anticipate.
I would say it is more like a broken bone, even years after it has healed it will suddenly, without warning, begin to ache.
February 1st, 2016
A man came to my house today to install new blinds on the windows, and I was reminded immediately of a joke that my Grandpa Bob used to tell. I’ve always been a terrible joke-teller – I forget the punch line or some other crucial aspect which makes it funny – but this joke I remember perfectly.
My Grandpa Bob died when he was in his seventies and I was about 16. He died of prostate cancer. Before that, he was a lawyer, a cigar smoker, a martini drinker, a motorcycle aficionado and a sharp-witted, gruff, sarcastic man. His nickname for me was Dingbat, because I was a scrawny kid and when he looked up the definition of dingbat it said “object suitable for throwing”. He was not (obviously) the hugging, praising, affectionate sort of grandpa. When the grandchildren came to him freshly bathed and pyjama-clad for a goodnight kiss, he gave goodnight chokes. It sounds strange (maybe I should be telling this to my therapist?) but he’d wrap his leathery, gin-and-tobacco-smelling hands around our skinny little necks and give us the gentlest, barest little squeeze, complete with choking sounds from us and growling sounds from him. It was a superb piece of bedtime theatre and probably served to hype us up rather than calm us down, but it was Grandpa Bob at his finest.
So was this joke. Inappropriate, of course, and not in the slightest bit politically correct, which is probably why I’ve remembered it all these years.
A woman is having a shower when the doorbell rings. She gets out to answer the door but can’t find her towel, so peeks through the blinds. There, standing at the front door is a man wearing sunglasses and a shirt that reads BLIND MAN. “Well,” she thinks, “doesn’t matter about the towel, then,” and she goes to answer the door naked. She opens the front door.
The man says: “Nice tits, lady, I’m here to fix your blinds.”
I still can’t believe that my adolescent self used to recite that joke. I can’t believe I’m telling it to you. I wish I could remember if he told it to me, or if he told it to the other grown-ups and I just overheard it. I almost repeated it to the man who came to install our blinds today, but using my better judgement I decided not to.
I guess you can tell how much I adored my Grandpa Bob. He was never going to conform to anyone else’s expectations, but in his own way, he let you know how much you were loved.
December 16th, 2015
This is going to be my last post for a little while, as school holidays begin tomorrow and so ends my time to write.
Or does it? How do you write with small people around? I have always found it exceedingly difficult to write fiction when there is any possibility for distraction around me. And my children are not just possibilities for distraction, they are experts in it. They might be elbow-deep in Lego or cubby-building with sofa cushions and bedsheets, but the moment I sit in a chair and open my laptop, they hover around my shoulders, sticky fingers plucking my clothes.
“Can we watch funny dog videos on YouTube?” my daughter asks.
“Can we watch the trailer for the BFG?” my son asks.
I should have known when introducing them to the world of cute animal videos and movie trailers that I would one day regret it. This bulldog chasing his lead is a metaphor for my ability to focus while my children are home from school.
So what can be done? I have learned to just let go and not expect to do anything over these stretches of time, having discovered from experience that if I have unrealistic goals of working while the kids are home I become a cranky, short-tempered troll because I’m not doing what I’m MEANT TO GET DONE!
What I have learned is to expect little, but to keep myself attuned to possibility. That might mean keeping a notebook around to scribble ideas and scraps of information which come to me while we’re immersed in craft or cleaning out their cupboards. I do have to inform them this is MY notebook though, and please don’t scribble, draw, tear pages out for paper airplanes or write magic spells in it. I have found I’m able to take commission for a few short articles or reviews and plan to write them in the evenings or early mornings.
Another trick I’ve learned is to fill in research gaps in my writing – if there is a place or a museum I wanted to visit and it is even remotely kid-friendly, I’ll take them along. My kids have a better understanding than most six and eight-year-olds of early 20th century Sydney and the history of its transportation, gaols and police from when I was researching Long Bay. I still remember our visit to the Sydney Tramways Museum fondly. They didn’t find it quite so exciting.
Writer Ali Luke wrote (in this helpful article) that it is better to focus on the smaller projects rather than the big ones. This might be a good time to try writing a poem which has been eluding me, or to finish an unfinished short story. Is it the time to structure my next novel? Probably not.
Penn also suggests not to feel guilty, which is most important, and not to compare yourself with others who seem to be getting SO much done. I sometimes get asked how I wrote my first novel, What Was Left, while my son was two and my daughter four. When people ask how I could possibly write a novel while looking after young children, I tell them the truth.
The novel came from an idea I had floating around in my head for a year and I really wanted to explore, but every time I tried I was interrupted. And so I paid a babysitter to come every morning five days a week, from 9am to 1pm. Half of the time she was there I wrote the novel, the other half I worked on paid freelance work. Did I make money? Only enough to pay her wages! But it was a choice I made, and one I don’t regret.
Writing is an integral, essential part of me, but so are my children. The right balance will always feel elusive, but I am going to enjoy this break from writing, this unencumbered time with them. What I have realised is that they are just old enough to let me read for short periods uninterrupted. Which I will be doing plenty of in these coming weeks. Hopefully they will as well!
Have you got any secrets of writing with children around? I’d love to hear them.
November 20th, 2015
I was telling a trainer at the gym about my dog getting sick, about how he had two seizures in a few hours and we drove him to the vet hospital. They put him on anti-seizure medication and recommended we get an MRI of his brain.
“Will you get another dog, if he dies?” the trainer asked. I couldn’t believe he was asking.
There was another trainer beside us and he did a double take as well. “Hang on,” he said, “you’re talking about your dog? I thought you were talking about a person. You must really love your dog. An MRI?”
To me there was never a question. Our dog, Illy, was part of our family. We sometimes called him our first (and best behaved) child because he was almost 13 when he died. Our daughter and son are 8 and 6, so Illy was our first shared responsibility. When Illy was a tiny pup, his first night away from his mum and siblings my partner and I argued. My previous dog had slept in my bed. Simon thought that dogs should sleep outside. A tiny puppy, his first night alone, and we were going to put him outdoors? We finally agreed Illy could sleep in the laundry. He cried half the night, and I ended up on the floor of the laundry beside him. It didn’t take long for his bed to end up in our room. I compromised, Illy never slept in our bed, just beside it, and I was glad for that when he grew to be 30-kilogram dog.
As a pup Illy would wag his whole body when he was happy. He sat and waited before crossing roads, watching you expectantly, waiting for permission to cross and then bounding, barking – flying almost – across the road. He could run for hours but lay down with a grunt and a sigh at the end of the day, content to snore until morning.
There was a time, before we had him neutered, when he lifted his leg on anything – including people, small dogs, and potted plants. I’ll never forget the day at the Glebe Street Fair when, after watching a capoeira demonstration, Illy lifted his leg and urinated on a tanned, bare-chested Brazilian man’s white capoeira pants. The man was not pleased. We were mortified, but laughed later at the expression of horror on the guy’s face, watching the spreading stain of yellow on his pristine white pants.
Another time, when Illy was just a little puppy and still in his chewing phase, we had a houseguest come from the US, travelling on a British passport. This man was not a dog person, and probably didn’t appreciate sharing space with a boisterous, sharp-toothed pup. The night before he was leaving we all went out to dinner and left Illy at home. We came home to discover that Illy had chewed the man’s passport – not just chewed it but actually ripped out and chewed up the page with the photograph and identification information. We still took the guest to the airport in the morning but the customs officers refused to allow him to travel. He had to stay another week while getting an emergency replacement for his passport. I remember how careful he was to put his belongings in a place where Illy could no longer reach them during the rest of that week.
The story of Illy’s birth is as extraordinary as he was – he was born on December 10 2002 to my mother-in-law’s dog Piglet on a farm on the South Coast of NSW, near Milton. That was day Piglet disappeared from the house. She returned several days later, her belly loose, teats hanging low. Where were the puppies? Eventually, my mother-in-law followed Piglet to a wombat hole where she had decided to give birth, where eight small, pink, squirming puppies were carefully dug out of the dry, hot, tunnelled earth.
Piglet was a good mother after that incident, and she dutifully fed them in a pen protected by chicken wire to keep out the foxes and wild dogs. At Christmas we came to stay for a week and I was given a small, red collar and the offer to choose one of the pups. I chose the fattest, greediest boy.
This was Illy, and he moved back to Sydney with us when he was old enough, carefully shredding our once lush garden at Glebe and keeping us constantly entertained. He graduated from puppy preschool at the local vet, and we joined a doggie playgroup at the park when he ran into its midst, grabbing a bag of Schmackos out of someone’s hand and wolfing it down, packet and all.
He settled down after puppyhood into an extraordinarily gentle and well-behaved dog, his only escapade when he would leap, Dukes-of-Hazzard style, through the window of our neighbour Mark’s car when he drove past the house. Mark used to take Illy for walks with his dog Oi, so small wonder Illy jumped through his car window every time he heard Mark’s car drive past. Fortunately Mark was tolerant and often let Illy join him for a drive, whether or not he had been taking Oi for a walk.
There was also the occasional incident with a birthday cake/roast leg of lamb/butter dish left too close to the edge of the bench top which disappeared, but no dog was perfect. We learned to keep temptation out of reach.
When I became pregnant I noticed how Illy became more protective of me, following me from room to room, lying as close as possible. When our daughter was born he immediately took on the same status as protector to her. In photographs he sleeps with his chin on her play mat, or sits watchfully nearby as she learns to crawl. He loved the pram because it meant we were going on a walk, and my only frustration was when he would bark with excitement, waking the baby I’d just spent ages trying to get to sleep.
When we moved to Maroubra and our second child was born, Illy took it all in stride, in spite of the proliferation of bindies in our new suburb and the tendency of our son to attempt occasionally to ride him – shouting “yee-haw horsey”. Illy endured, and enjoyed the many treats dropped beneath high chairs and by clumsy children at backyard barbecues. He knew where to position himself beneath the kitchen table and as a result I rarely had to sweep between mealtimes.
When the children started school I was glad for his companionship while I wrote, the sense that the house was not completely empty and I had an excuse to get out for little walks frequently. He and I shared companionable silences, and when I had to read a passage aloud he was kind enough to keep his eyes open, most of the time.
Besides the usual hearing loss, arthritis and stiffness, Illy seemed to be ageing well, until the day when he began fitting. We had all the tests run to make sure he hadn’t been poisoned. His MRI did not show a brain tumour, so his seizures were assumed to simply be late onset epilepsy and he was medicated. The medication made him thirsty, hungry, and weak in his back legs. He had always been well behaved (within reason), but suddenly he was sticking his head in the trash bin, grabbing food from the kitchen table and weeing in the house. The medication never fully controlled his seizures, it just made them less severe, so we were woken at night once every week or two by the guttural sound of him fitting. It was a low, throat constricting sound, something between a growl and a howl.
Simon and I would stumble out of bed to find him downstairs, on his side on the wooden floorboards, his legs paddling spasmodically and his body shaking. He would be completely unresponsive to us. We would surround him with towels. Along with urinating on himself, he was often foaming at the mouth with drool, sometimes blood because he’d bitten his tongue.
For a while, a teaspoon of peanut butter with a half tablet of his medication hidden inside was the magic cure to bring him out of these seizures. We’d place the teaspoon beside his nose, speaking gently to him, and after a minute or two he would start sniffing rather than groaning. Then his eyes would blink, focusing, and he’d struggle to sit up. He’d devour the peanut butter sloppily, still groggy, sometimes trying to eat the spoon as well. Then he would struggle to his feet and start stumbling around the house like a drunkard, bumping into furniture, glassy eyed, barking at nothing. His hyperactivity after a seizure was often as distressing as the seizure itself, since it was generally 1 or 2 in the morning.
Still, when Illy wasn’t having a seizure he enjoyed his walks, particularly taking the children to school in the morning, and he loved mealtimes and ear scratches. He wagged his tail and curled up at my feet when I wrote. His ability to hold his urine was deteriorating, but we let him wee on the balcony and flushed it out with water, or he would bark at the front door. The children were patient with him and learned that since he couldn’t hear any longer, if they wanted him to come they had to stand somewhere he could see them or pat him to get his attention. They loved it when he still rolled around on their carpet on his back like a puppy, all four legs in the air, head askew, tongue lolling out in a doggy grin.
We were away for a weekend and Illy was being looked after by my brother and sister-in-law when we got a call on Sunday. My brother-in-law said that Illy wasn’t looking well, he was refusing to take his tablets. They tried it with bread and butter, cheese, lamb, crushed in raw egg, and still he was not having it. Also his tail was between his legs and his back legs seemed particularly weak. We hurried back from the Blue Mountains, and he seemed glad to see us. He came upstairs from the garden and urinated on the balcony. He ate a little bit, took his medication, and fell asleep on the floor.
He did not eat his dinner that night and through the night he was restless, going outside, trying to wee and unable to. In the morning I realised that he was dripping urine everywhere as he walked around the house. I followed him with a towel and I tried to put him outside but he just barked at the front door, so finally I gave up and let him in, convincing him to lie down rather than drip around the house. The kids were ready for school and I told them to say a nice goodbye to Illy before they left, as he was sick and might have to stay at the vet for a few days. They gave him gentle pats under the kitchen table, he licked their faces in gratitude. After dropping them off at school I came back and took him to the vet.
It was our regular clinic but a vet I had never seen before. He was kind and listened carefully. He took one look at Illy and seemed very concerned, and then asked me to come back to help them get x-rays. I calmed him while they x-rayed his bladder. They couldn’t find any kidney stones but it was uncomfortably full. I told him of Illy’s medical history, and he said he was worried. “We have to operate right away, but I can’t guarantee that it would fix this problem,” he told me. “And that other problems wouldn’t come.”
I told him we’d been thinking about when would be the right time to euthanize, and he told me he thought this might be the right time. I called Simon. He agreed with the vet, and I asked him to come. Twenty minutes later we were in a consulting room with Illy, who had just had a needle to relax him and make him sleep. He fell asleep while we stroked him, after feebly munching a few last treats from my hand. Then the vet came in and inserted a cannula, giving him a last overdose of barbiturates, which would stop his heart. We watched him take his last breaths, snoring a little then stopping forever. It was one of the hardest things, leaving him. His body on the floor of the vet clinic, completely still. His tail which would never again thump.
There is little to prepare you for the passage of such a dear companion, as much as you might have come to expect it and know it will come. I had told myself many times that Illy would one day die, I had told the children as well, but I still feared and dreaded the day. That afternoon the house seemed empty. I sent out messages, posted to Facebook and was grateful for all the calls, emails and texts I received in return – people around the world had known and loved this dog. I sorted through photographs and picked out ones which showed him in every stage of his life, often they were photographs of the children or other family but he was there, sticking close, always in the background.
Together Simon and I walked to get the children from school at 3pm, dreading how we would tell them. We told them in the front garden, before we came into the house, and in the house I had the photographs out. We looked through them together, laughing and crying, telling our favourite Illy stories. They went and told their cousins and came back telling us more stories. The time Illy had eaten someone’s fish and chips on the beach; the time on a walk where he had eaten his own poo.
Photographs and stories are all that we have now – besides an empty water dish, a dog bed which needs a wash and a frayed collar and lead. My son, who used to ride Illy and shout “yee-haw” said: “I miss him so much. I feel empty, mum.”
My daughter said: “What will we do without him?”
I really don’t know. But I had to say something, so I said: “We’ll think of him. We’ll cry, sometimes we’ll laugh. We’ll love other dogs, have other dogs, but none will take his place. He’ll always be your first dog.”
“Picture him running through a field,” a friend posted on Facebook when I wrote of Illy’s death.
This is how I picture him instead. He’s flying through the air, paws outstretched, landing in the passenger seat of our old neighbour Mark’s pale blue 80’s Corolla hatchback. Only Mark’s not driving, I am, and I turn to him. His mouth is open in a wide doggy grin.
October 21st, 2015
We were living in Berlin, West Berlin, because the wall still cleaved the city in two. My father was working for the U.S. State Department – he was a Public Safety Advisor and did things like negotiate prisoner trades between East and West. We had a brick house with six bedrooms across the street from the Botanical Gardens. Before moving to Berlin my parents separated, my father had been having an affair, and he moved out of the house. We were going to live without him, just the three of us, my mother, sister and I. We were going to be fine. But then my parents reconciled and we were all moving to Berlin, packing our life, leaving our friends and home and beginning again in a different part of the world.
Next door to our new house lived a white-haired couple in a place resembling a castle – with actual turrets. The woman, whose name I have forgotten, was very kind and had a beautiful garden with ponds and an aviary with parakeets. She grew gooseberries, plump green globules which – if eaten raw – caused the whole face to pucker. In the front of her house she grew lilies of the valley. She showed me how the tiny white flowers clustered and were protected by dark green, shiny leaves. She would bend down to instruct me to smell them, they were sweet but not cloying, a ethereal fragrance.
While gardening this neighbour collected the snails and gave them to us one day in a cracked glass terrarium which her children had once used, long ago. “You might want to cook them, in butter,” she said to my mother, smiling.
My sister and I insisted we would not. We would keep them as our pets. There were at least ten or fifteen snails in that terrarium, some large, some small, all with shells in varying shades of brown. Simply to watch them climb the glass wall was entertaining, the ripple of the muscle in their single foot as it moved, propelling on its own slime.
We took them out one by one, letting them climb us. They left shiny trails of snail mucous along our arms and legs. Snails are curious creatures, once they have figured out you are not a threat they poke out of their shells, tentacles first, then those long stretchy bodies, and explore. Touch a tentacle and it shrinks, but then extends again, seeking what it just repelled from.
We gave them lettuce and let them try different garden plants, watching their reactions, noting their favourite meals. If you are very, very still and quiet you can hear a snail crunching its dinner. There are few more delightful sounds. It is also a pleasure to lie in the grass with a snail slowly climbing your body, imagining yourself a mountain – a slime tracked island of eight-year-old girl. As for snail poo – it’s not even disgusting. Just black odourless pellets to flick away.
Snails make good friends when you have none, as do books, and elderly neighbours. But gradually my sister and I made friends with other children and moved beyond our backyard. I don’t remember what happened to the snails, but fortunately the terrarium had no lid. I imagine them escaping and making a slow trek back to the neighbour’s garden, to her beautifully tended plants and ponds. Our garden was the low-maintenance kind designed by embassy staff – a few thorny rosebushes, a swathe of lawn and hedges with prickly leaves – designed to repel rather than attract.
But I remember those snail bodies rippling against the glass, leaving shiny paths on my skin, showing me my own power, the things we see when we are still.
Now, in Australia, snails find their home in my mailbox, they seem to love the combination of damp, dark and junk mail. They make quick work of Domino’s flyers and coupons for maths tutoring, leaving paper pellet poos in their wake. I can’t bring myself to remove them. I just know that I have to collect the important mail within a day or so if I don’t want to find it riddled with holes, masticated by a ravenous snail mouth.
And I dread coming home, in the dark, and hearing that sickening crunch on the garden path. In the morning, a fragmented shell, a shrivelled body already black with tiny ants.
They always remind me of that time, the upheaval of my small world, the sense that everything can change in the blink of an eye.
Step carefully, they say. Don’t forget the power you hold.
October 19th, 2015
I’ve been lucky over the past few months to speak to various gatherings of people about how I came to write Long Bay, and while I love meeting readers and talking books, I become anxious about all of the time spent NOT writing. A little voice in my head begins asking: Is this it then? Will you never write another book?
So it was with relief that I received news that one of my short stories, “On Ice”, originally published in the journal Kill Your Darlings has been selected for Best Australian Stories 2015, edited by Amanda Lohrey. I was particularly thrilled to see Lohrey editing the collection, as not long after moving to Sydney I read Camille’s Bread and recognised in it something I hadn’t found yet – a novelist’s reflection of the city and people I was in the midst of. She created such a compelling and half-familiar world that I emerged from that novel with a deeper understanding of my new home. I have enjoyed other books of hers since but Camille’s Bread left the deepest impression on me.
I’m also very pleased to have a short story, “The Arizona Bar”, in the final Sleepers Almanac, the gorgeous Sleepers Almanac X. I am always amazed at the skills of Lou Swinn and Zoe Dattner but they have outdone themselves in curating, editing and designing this collection.
Finally, I am finding time to write again, in fits and spurts, and a new exciting project is always the best thing. Get back to me when it’s time to rewrite and I promise not to be so chipper.
Best Australian Stories 2015 will be out November 1. Sleepers Almanac X is out now and available in bookstores and online.