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Posts from the ‘Inspiration’ Category

Research on the road

December 5th, 2016

Eleanor

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.

The original taps on the Queen Mary.

The original taps on the Queen Mary.

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. Read more

Tin House Summer Workshop

July 20th, 2016

Eleanor

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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.13697201_10155207534304152_2399967082162832931_n 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?”IMG_7376

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.IMG_7415

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.

Easy versus hard won

March 17th, 2016

Eleanor

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.

Eilis and Jim Farrell, played by Domhnall Gleeson Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Eilis and Jim Farrell, played by Domhnall Gleeson Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

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.

Ellis working at a department store in NYC. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Eilis working at a department store in NYC. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

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.

The blind joke

February 1st, 2016

Eleanor

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.

Me, my sister Alma and my Grandpa Bob, circa 1982

Me, my sister Alma and my Grandpa Bob, 1982

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.

Snails

October 21st, 2015

Eleanor

snail-1550752-640x480When I was a girl my sister and I had pet snails.

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.

In short

October 19th, 2015

Eleanor

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 Best-Stories-2015-(print)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.

almanacxI’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.

 

To launch or not to launch?

September 16th, 2015

Eleanor

I wondered whether to even have a book launch for Long Bay – with the first book it seems mandatory, but second time around you wonder if it is a little self-indulgent. Book launches used to be covered by publishers, but now it is generally the author’s responsibility. Which explains the absence of champagne magnums and shirtless waiters. In the end, I decided it would be worthwhile because so many people helped me with the research and stories behind Long Bay and it would be a chance to have as many of them as possible in one place and say thank you.

My PhD supervisor, the very talented author Debra Adelaide, did the launching and rather than have a traditional speech we had a short question and answer session about the novel, and a brief reading where I also sang – simply because there was a song lyric in the section I was reading and I felt like it would be a cop-out to speak it. I do not have a tuneful singing voice. I apologise to anyone who was there and has sustained hearing damage as a result.DSC_9516

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I think people are smiling because I’ve stopped singing.

I was particularly glad that the Rebecca Sinclair’s relatives were there – it must have been strange for them to have a writer take their grandmother and great-grandmother’s story and create fiction with it. They were very understanding and generous, which I was so glad of.

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Rebecca’s descendants, including her granddaughter Christine Jensen (holding the novel) and great-granddaughter Annette O’Bree to the right of Christine.

Then came the best part, the wine. Or not, if you’re sitting behind a table signing books, with adrenaline making your hand shake so it looks as though a six-year-old signed them.

DSC_9537There we go. It was fun, truly. My mother was visiting from the US and I think the best part of it all was being able to say thank you to her in front of a room full of people. Because we live thousands of miles (and even more kilometres) apart I rarely have that opportunity.

So launches are not so bad, after all. A special thanks goes out to my friend Sarah Rowan Dahl for taking these photographs on the night. And to you for reading this. Just be glad I didn’t sing it to you.

Australian Magic

August 17th, 2015

Eleanor

The ceremony is on a weeknight, my children are in their school uniforms and my husband comes straight from work – meeting us at the local town hall. I am in jeans and a jumper, but people around me are dressed smartly: more suits than I have seen outside of a wedding or funeral, women in heels and dresses. We sit in rows before a podium while the mayor speaks, introducing a collection of people from local clubs and organisations who sit facing us. We each have a piece of paper with the pledge and another with the words to “Advance Australia Fair”.

On the drive over my children, aged eight and six, asked me what would happen tonight to make me Australian. We have been reading The Witches by Roald Dahl, and we joked that perhaps the Grand High Witch would come on the stage, say a spell and poof! I would turn into a mouse, or a kangaroo, or an Australian, just like them. We kept up this chatter for a few minutes until my son said, “Mum, you won’t really be different, will you?” Read more

The story behind Long Bay

August 1st, 2015

Eleanor

 

I live in the hilly Sydney suburb of Maroubra, so when I go for a run I choose the flattest route. This is south along Anzac Parade, past suburban blocks and then beside the razor wire, parking lots and concrete façade of Long Bay Correctional Centre. Look closely and you can glimpse some original sandstone walls and older buildings behind the wire. It makes you wonder about the history of the place.

Long Bay opened in 1909 as a Women’s Reformatory and was the first purpose-built institution of its kind in Australia. Many of the notorious female criminals involved in the razor gangs of the 1920s were prisoners there: women with familiar names like Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine.

Long Bay Women's Reformatory Gates. Image courtesy Randwick City library service

Long Bay Women’s Reformatory Gates. Image courtesy Randwick City library service.

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The Secret River on the ABC

June 16th, 2015

Eleanor

I was excited when I saw trailers for this adaptation of Kate Grenville’s book on the ABC. I loved The Secret River, it changed the way I thought about Australia’s history. And her book Searching for the Secret River, which Grenville wrote about the process of researching and writing her novel, changed the way I thought about family histories and combining writing and research.

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Will and Sal in the adaptation. Photo: ABC

The Secret River tells the story of one of Grenville’s ancestors, William Thornhill, who is a convict from London transported to Sydney for stealing timber. His wife, Sal, follows with their two children, determined that she will keep the family together. After a few years in Sydney William Thornhill buys his freedom and claims for his family a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River, a place which is still wild and largely unsettled. Apart, that is, from the Aboriginal inhabitants, who Thornhill and his family are both ignorant of and terrified by. This is a book about settlement and how Europeans essentially stole land which was not theirs to take and slaughtered those who stood in their way. Read more