Posts from the ‘Writing’ Category
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. Read more
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.
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.
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.
September 16th, 2015
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.
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.
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.
There 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.
August 1st, 2015
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.
July 20th, 2015
Only 12 days until Long Bay is released, which brings a certain familiar mixture of dread and excitement to my chest. The dread that something which has existed primarily in my head for so long will become publicly available, and the excitement that people might actually want to read it. This is all topped with a thick icing of self doubt, where I question the quality of everything I have ever written, and wonder what on earth possessed me to publish another novel.
As a pleasant distraction from all of this angst – I was featured on the lovely Wordmothers blog to talk about my writing. It’s a great place to read about women in the writing and publishing industry and gain insight into how they work.
What else have I done? As an extension of my nervous anticipation, I cut off all my hair, thus ensuring that my appearance will never match my author photo.
Now, if only I could have placed all of my self doubt and nervousness in the strands of my hair, most of it would be swept away and neatly disposed of by now.
I’d love to know how you deal with self doubt. Have you found a way to distract yourself or even banish it for good?
The launch of Long Bay is on September 4th, at Sydney’s Gleebooks, all are welcome and to RSVP please click here.
June 16th, 2015
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.
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
May 19th, 2015
I ran in my second half-marathon on Sunday: 21 kilometres through the eerie quiet streets of Sydney with the only other sound the rhythmic breathing of others, feet hitting bitumen and the occasional shout of a spectator. Roads normally only for cars like the Cahill Expressway were closed to traffic and filled with other runners, all of us puffing towards the distant finish line. When I wasn’t focused on putting one foot in front of the other I gazed around in pained wonder. Who were all of these other people?
People crazy enough to get up at 5 in the morning on an overcast Sunday and slog through the streets of the city with thousands of others. Crazy enough to spend months logging long and shin-splinting training runs, to have eaten a plate of carbs and drunk a litre of water before going to bed by 9pm Saturday night. To have laid out their shoes and socks and shorts and sportsbras and singlets and special energy gels the night before, as carefully as a bride lays out her dress on the eve of her wedding. They are everywhere. It is strange to count myself among them. Read more
May 12th, 2015
The cover image is taken from the actual 1909 photographic prison record of the woman – Rebecca Sinclair – who I have based the story upon.
I am so glad that her piercing gaze is included in this novel, because it is part of what drew me to her story in the first place. It is a gaze unsmiling but unwavering – she is not going to look away from what she has done. She is facing the prison photographer having been found guilty of manslaughter after a mother-of-three died in her house from a botched abortion. When this photograph was taken Rebecca was 23, married, the mother of a young daughter, and pregnant with her second child. She was sentenced to three years hard labour and served out the bulk of her sentence at Long Bay Women’s Reformatory.
Long Bay will be in bookstores and available as an e-book from August 1.