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Kate Richards has a medical degree with honours and works part-time in medical research in Melbourne. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Madness: A Memoir and the Penguin Special Is There No Place for Me?. She writes fiction, narrative nonfiction and poetry.

We spoke to Kate about why you should push your story further than you think you can, how literary theory can be taught but writing geniuses are born, and why you should read books that challenge you as a reader and challenge you as a writer.

kate richards

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Two poems in a Fellowship of Australian Writers mag when I was 16 – long, long time ago.

What’s the best part of your job?

The creation of a new world (in fiction) and attempting to find new ways of looking at the world we know (non-fiction).

What’s the best advice you’ve received about writing?

When you think you’ve pushed yourself and your story as far as you can, push it further. (Thank you, Toni Jordan!)

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Sadly, I’m unable to make a living by working in words. In order to pay the bills, I work in medical research – cancer medicine, and in mental health advocacy.

highlightThere’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Literary theory and good technique can certainly be taught, and we can all improve with inspirational teaching/mentoring and hard work, but if I may paraphrase Jack Kerouac, there’s something within the geniuses of the writing art like Whitman, Thoreau, Morrison or Hopkins that is born.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Read as widely as you can: fiction and non-fiction, poetry and plays and essays. Read across generations and cultures, read books that challenge you as a reader and challenge you as a writer. Open up your mind and heart and soul. Take risks. Listen carefully to your teachers/mentors/editors/writing peers: most will be offering excellent advice.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

ALWAYS a physical, preferably independent, bookshop (unless they can’t acquire something published overseas or out of print).

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Sorry, I just can’t pick one: Kerewin, from Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, Miss Smilla, from Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and Raoul Duke from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. If I’m really lucky, we’ll meet around a fire and drink and talk (and maybe argue a bit) in the dark all through the night.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and e.e. cummings’ poetry because both author and poet were brave enough and brilliant enough to throw all of the writing rules out the window and create something truly original in style and character – and both turned my little world upside down.


Kate Richards will speak to Dr Ranjana Srivastava, an oncologist and fellow author, [about Madness: A Memoir] at the Wheeler Centre(http://wheelercentre.com/events/event/kate-richards-madness/) today (Thursday 23 October) at 12.45pm.

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Maggie Mackellar’s first memoir, When it Rains, was a story about grief, loss, recovery and reconnection. She writes about losing her husband (to suicide) and her mother (to cancer) in the space of a year, then moving to her uncle’s farm with her two young children in rural NSW to recover. Her second memoir, How to Get There, follows a second big move, to rural Tasmania, this time as a result of gain rather than loss, after she meets a sheep farmer named Jim (in an unusual way). She explores the difficulty and rewards of joining lives, relaxing control, and making a home in a new place.

She spoke to the Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case, a fellow memoirist, about writing memoir, being in conversation with other books and writers, and why life writing is not cathartic.

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This is a book about a relationship that grew from your previous book, and a letter you received after an Australian Story appearance. Can you tell us about that?

After agreeing to do Australian Story, I got a lot of correspondence – and I also, unexpectedly, got a number of emails through my agent from men who had noticed that I was single. It was a genuine exchange, but I certainly didn’t feel very comfortable or confident in replying to them, except for one. And I tell my kids the power of the opening sentence, because this letter said: ‘Hello, I’m a 49-year-old sheep farmer from the east coast of Tasmania.’ And I thought, if only I could sum my life up that succinctly.

It was a kind of wonderful thing in so many ways, but one of the reasons I wanted to write the book was to explore the fact that so often we want the neat fairy tale ending and especially for somebody who has been through stuff. Often people who are single get this pressure to somehow be in a couple, that it makes them complete. And I didn’t want to write a book that said, Life is now perfect. Because it’s great, but it’s not perfect.

That’s one of the things I really loved about your book. You love this man, but there are all sorts of things that are really hard to figure out. Like whether you can live together after being these two independent people with independent lives and different histories and coming from different places, and you having your kids and him having his. How do you combine all of that, overcome all of that, and make it work on a day-to-day basis? That’s a much more interesting story than just things being perfect – as well as being more real.

Any memoir that succeeds, any memoir that makes you think ‘yes, you’re now talking about me’, is because there’s that kernel of truth in it. I couldn’t have done this book if Jim, my partner, hadn’t first of all basically suggested it, and then been incredibly supportive of each step of it. In this book, the way I have approached trying to get to the darker fears, the more intimate interior moments, is to use the second person, in little fragments. That gave me the chance to stand aside, to almost create another character, that was a version of myself, but a darker version of myself.

So the second-person parts are where you felt you were creating yourself as a character more? One thing I really admired about your first book as well as this book is the way you’re really great at swapping between taking us right inside your experience and how it feels, and stepping back and getting distance and observing almost from the outside. Was that something that was harder to do with the second book?

Yeah. I would have loved to have given this book another twelve months. And just put it away. But the pressures of life … and I also just needed to get it out of my system. To be totally honest, I don’t know whether I’m as successful in this book in terms of that retreat and advance that I worked so hard at for When it Rains.

I guess the more distance you have in time for events, the easier it is to distance yourself and have more layers of reflection, I suppose.

The question I often get asked with When it Rains is, ‘Did you find it cathartic to write this?’ And I think, my god, no. It wasn’t cathartic at all. It was massively hard work. Or, ‘Did you find it healing?’ No, not at all.

Because you have to relive the experience to write it?

No, it’s not that. It’s just that I don’t think you could write a book such as that unless you are healed, to a certain extent. Unless you are distant from that experience. So, this book is written much more in the experience, and that was a challenge.

Was that partly something you felt you could do because it’s something that’s not as – as you said, there are moments of difficulty in there, but it’s not a story of great difficulty and great grief like the first story is.

Yes, I think so. It’s a really ordinary story of ordinary lives, And that’s why I think people relate to it, because we all live these really ordinary moments and they’re quite complex.

how_to_get_there I wondered if your background as a historian played into the book – you write about yourself reading these histories of women’s lives, you’re reading diaries and journals of ordinary lives and interrogating them for meaning. And you do that with your own life in these domestic moments. Some of my favourite bits included your meditation on cooking.

Anybody who lives on their own knows how difficult cooking is. Now I live with a bloke who loves to have meat three times a day. And I found it really confronting to actually have to inhabit this expected role as a domestic … suddenly there’s this expectation on me to produce a meal. Really? What? I don’t know what’s in the freezer! And yet there was a part of me that really wanted that life, and really enjoyed it. I think sometimes that those domestic moments can speak to a larger dislocation.

I thought this was very much a book about reading, as well. There’s a lot about you writing almost in conversation with other books and writers, sometimes writing against them or in tandem with them.

That was one of the things I absolutely loved writing about – reading. Because I do it constantly. When you live away from the centre, it locates you in the centre. It gives you that chance to feel part of a bigger conversation. Those books about writing, I found myself drawing on again and again. I kind of felt like they were my companions, a link back to a life that I’d left behind.

So your writing community was these books about writing?

Yes. And coming from a district where it was something that I would constantly share what I was reading with girlfriends, to a place where suddenly that interaction was only happening over the internet. It’s made those reading moments I think even more important to me.

It’s really interesting the way that books pop up when you need them. I still remember sitting on the floor unpacking my books and re-reading My Friend Flicka, which I was obsessed with as a 13-year-old, and thinking, ‘How could I miss the fact that this wasn’t a horse story, this was a story about a marriage?’ It’s this really incredible book about marriage and falling in love and learning to live in a marriage and about compromise and about dislocation. And I sat there with tears streaming down my face reading about the mother, who I’d barely noticed before. In moments when you feel isolated, I think reading connects you into a sense of, We’re not alone. Everybody’s been here before.

And I guess finding something like reconnecting with an old childhood book that now gives you new things must be like meeting up with an old childhood friend and you have a whole new connection and conversation, based on where you are now. Though maybe I’m being overly sentimental …

Sentimentality’s a whole other discussion we could have. I think sentimentality’s a really interesting discussion, especially in terms of memoir. I think a lot of readers want it. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative thing. Maria Tumarkin wrote a really interesting essay on arguing for sentimentality, and saying that it’s not necessarily bad … though it’s often dissed as being feminine or somehow syrupy. I guess I’m glad it’s not sentimental, I don’t want it to be. But it’s interesting to me … one woman today, her question was, I’ve read the book, and are you happy? There’s a certain degree of ambiguity in the book, but that’s the point of it.

That life is ambiguous? You don’t reach a point where you’re happy now. Like you say in the book, you reach a point where you appreciate moments of happiness rather saying, than I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m happy.

Yeah, I think that’s it. I think a particular low point in all the publicity I’ve done was fielding a question: so, do you feel like this is a self-help book? Are you able to tell people how to get there? I didn’t even know where to start with that.

I thought it was interesting that you might think on the surface that moving from one country town to another, one farm to another, would be much less dislocating because it’s a similar sort of. But I love the way you show it is still difficult, and you show the nuances of why it’s difficult.

I thought it would be the exchange of one community for another, and it so wasn’t that. And partly that’s something about how unique Tasmania is. I often think of Tassie as being almost bipolar. It’s got incredible capacity for change and progress and connection into the new world, and it’s also got a real holding back. A sense of resistance to any change, and those two things operate against each other I think, in really interesting ways. We live in a great community, but it’s very different to Orange.

when_it_rains Both of your memoirs are really so much about place. And the first is about a place you’re so intimately connected with and you’ve got a history with since you were a child. And the second is about moving to this place that’s all new to you and you’re an outside observer.

In Australia, we don’t have as strong a tradition of writing about a sense of place compared to, say, Canada or the States, where there’s this real history of people writing about the land as part of their identity. I hope that both these books speak into that. It was really good for me to write about the place I’d moved to, because it made me an observer. And I think when you’re an observer, you become more connected.

If I was reading about things like renovating a house or life on the farm, or place – those are topics I wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to. But it made me think that it’s all in the writing, in the approach. You’re writing about these things, but it’s always about, what do they mean? And how are they connected to you in that place, or your family in that place?

I definitely think: how does this say something bigger? How does pulling down a wall and discovering the stones that were put in there in 1828 connect me to some sense of the history of invasion and the warfare that’s been fought over this land, and the fortress feeling of this house? How do I feel about living in this place now? All of those things.

I read one review of your book that said you’d revealed a lot of yourself in this memoir, but you’d held back with your children and your partner. And I was so surprised, because as someone who has written a memoir and included a lot about my child and my former partner … I thought, of course you do. Of course you reveal more about yourself than your partner and your children, because you have complete responsibility for yourself.

Yes.

But I actually thought you were really brave in that respect. Because you write about the friction with your partner and moments of vulnerability your children have, where they feel like an outsider. For me, it felt like that would take real bravery.

It was really hard to do that. The only way I did it was to involve them. Jim read the first draft of the manuscript and then said, ‘Well what about this bit, what about that bit?’ And I said, ‘Oh, you’re happy for me to put that in?’ He was really open about it. And that was terribly refreshing. Then when he read the next draft, I think he went, ‘Oh, right’.

You can never know what people are going to respond to – what they’ll criticise and what you’re really worried about that will have great results. Have you found that?

Yes, with both books. I guess that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it? You read it as your own experience and go from there. Which I love, I love the way people respond to different bits. And it becomes not mine anymore … it goes off and has its own life.

A theme of this book is accommodation of self to a relationship and the fear of losing too much of yourself in it, even while you recognise the gains. ‘Your gut says you can trust this man, you’re in the right place, you can make a new life here, but you are no longer sure where you begin or end.’

I hope I’m not alone in this – that when you enter into a new relationship, you kind of lose something of yourself. And perhaps that’s something that happens as you get older more, because you are more yourself. I think you approach a second relationship, at least I did, completely differently. You’re far more pragmatic. As I said at the outset, I really wish I could sum myself up as neatly as that sentence that Jim sent me. But somehow he seems to know himself much better in this relationship than I do.

One of the things I think you write beautifully about is making yourself vulnerable in a relationship and how hard that is, and the aftermath of grief and how that affects you. You say ‘You often hear that grief makes you stronger. I don’t agree, or not for me. I’m weaker, more aware of my fragility, more guarded about life.’ It’s another example of where you turn a truism on its head and take us inside your experience.

It’s at the heart of the book – that sense of exposing yourself. And that moment in the book where I realise – obviously, I’m constructing this for a reading audience – that I haven’t really dealt with things. What has happened in the past is affecting my present. I guess that realisation that we’re not as whole sometimes as we allow ourselves to think we are, it made me feel a lot more vulnerable. Can I do this? Can I keep doing this?


Jo Case interviewed Maggie Mackellar for Brunswick Street Bookstore in September. This is an edited version of that interview.

You can read Maria Tumarkin’s Wheeler Centre essay on sentimentality, as mentioned in this interview, at The Long View section of our website.

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While poring over cycling journals from the 1880s and 1890s, author Greg Foyster stumbled across some enlightening historical anecdotes about our city’s first ‘wheelmen’ and ‘wheelwomen’. Here, he shares how our cycling history should make us view the bicycle in a new light.

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Image by Dustin Gaffke, Flickr.

Melbourne is going through a commuter cycling boom. Census figures show a 40–70 per cent increase in cycling to work from 2006 to 2011 among the inner-zone councils (Yarra, Port Phillip, Melbourne, Maribyrnong and Stonnington). The biggest rise has been in the inner north; head down Canning Street, Carlton, on a sunny weekday morning and you’ll see hundreds of bicycles queued spoke-to-spoke at intersections.

It’s tempting to attribute this rise to modern concerns, such as increasing environmental values or health-consciousness, but the bicycle was a popular mode of transport well before the contemporary era. In fact, Melbourne experienced several bicycle booms before 1900, each one related to a technological innovation in bicycle manufacturing. By looking at what has come before, we can gain a better sense of why commuter cycling is surging today, and what role the bicycle has to play in the future.

Velocipede, 1868–72

A ‘velocipede’ was an early incarnation of the bicycle, which generally had a wooden frame and metal wheels. It was also known as a ‘boneshaker’ because it shuddered on the cobbled streets.

In Melbourne in the late 1860s, a young engineer named William Charles Kernot read reports from Paris about this wonderful new machine. One day Kernot and his engineering friends heard that there was an example in Melbourne. They travelled to an undertaker’s shop where they found this pioneer bicycle hidden among the coffins. The young men tried to get it to balance, but it kept flopping to one side. Puzzled and disappointed, one of the engineers suggested that the undertaker had probably contrived the apparatus from ‘a purely business point of view’, anticipating that its introduction would be followed by ‘a startling and desirable increase’ in mortality.

After that Kernot, who went on to become an engineering professor at the University of Melbourne, attended an exhibition of velocipedes at Richmond Park. He purchased a machine that was constructed at Sinclair’s Foundry, located on the banks of the Yarra near where Queensbridge Square is today. In July 1869, a crowd of 12,000 gathered to watch velocipede races around the MCG.

Not content with cruising around Melbourne, Kernot decided to take his boneshaker bicycle on a tour. On Monday 4 October, 1869, he rode from East Melbourne to Geelong, a distance of 45 miles. It took him eight to nine hours, and the Geelong Advertiser described the journey as ‘a feat in the history of the velocipede movement in this colony’.

Decades later, Professor Kernot was identified as one of Victoria’s first cyclists, and there was even a poem about him published in The Argus in 1895. It begins:

This is the story the pioneers,

Tell of the old colonial years,

The tale of that marvellous red-gum steed,

Professor Kernot’s velocipede.

The bicycle improved considerably over the next few decades, leading to a tremendous boom in popularity. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of bicycle poetry, which peaked with Banjo Paterson’s verse poem ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’ in 1896 and has been lying in a figurative ditch ever since.)

High-wheeler, 1875–1890s

The early 1880s was the era of the high-wheeler, later called the penny-farthing because the two different sized wheels looked like a small coin and a large coin alongside each other.

With a much larger wheel diameter, the penny-farthing could go a lot faster than the velocipede, and so in the early 1880s there was a craze to break speed records. In Australia, the road record for travelling 100 miles (161 kilometres) on a penny-farthing was eight hours and nine minutes.

Cyclists also attempted distance records. In 1884, a man named Alf Edward became the first person to cycle from Melbourne to Sydney, completing the 578 mile (931 kilometre) journey along the Hume Highway in eight and a half days.

Australia’s most famous penny-farthing cyclist was George Burston, the son of a successful storekeeper in Flinders Street. Departing Australia in November 1888, Burston and his companion H.R. Stokes travelled around the world on penny-farthings, the only Australians to do so at the time.

But what’s even more astonishing than these long-distance feats is how popular cycling was as a sport. In the late 1880s the MCG was home to the Austral Wheel Race, which is the oldest existing cycling race in the world. At its peak, it attracted similar crowds to the Melbourne Cup.

Of course, where there are competitive male cyclists, there is also bright, hideous clothing, and that was the case even 130 years ago. In 1883 Melbourne journal The Australian Cycling News published an editorial admonishing clubs for dressing their team members in ‘stockings of a hue that would gladden the heart of a circus clown’.

So the penny farthing proved that the bicycle could do two things we know it for today: it could travel vast distances very quickly, and it could persuade normally sensible and conservative white males to dress like flamboyant court jesters. It’s a version of cycling that still exists today in the form of road races and weekend rides. But penny-farthings were also expensive and dangerous, so they were limited to a small segment of society – mostly wealthy, athletic men. They weren’t a practical transport tool for the masses. That came with the bicycle’s next, and most important, incarnation.

Safety bicycle, 1884–present

The safety bicycle was basically a simplified version of the type of diamond-framed bicycles we ride today. (It was dubbed the ‘safety’ to set it apart from the notoriously dangerous high-wheeler.) After the pneumatic tyre was introduced by Dunlop in 1888, the world had a one of its greatest inventions – an efficient mode of self-propelled transportation.

The device quickly became very popular, and during the 1890s a cycling craze swept the world, including Australia. Historian Jim Fitzpatrick estimates that 200,000 Australians purchased new bicycles during the 1890s.

Unlike the high-wheeler, the safety bicycle was adopted by a broad cross section of society. In April 1896, at the peak of the bicycle boom, Melbourne journal The Austral Wheel described how a gentleman riding from St Kilda Junction to Princes Bridge passed 40 other cyclists, including ‘the Government House party, three doctors, four lawyers, several members of Parliament, half a dozen society ladies, a butcher in full costume, a carpenter with some timber strapped to his machine, a lamplighter with a long stick for turning out the lights, and two Chinese’.

But the best example of how cycling was embraced by broader society – not just wealthy athletic males – was the rise in female cyclists. By 1898 there were thousands of women cycling in Melbourne, and the best known was Lady Brassey, the wife of the Governor of Victoria. (One of her hobbies, mentioned in her obituary, was playing bike polo on the lawns of Government House.) After she was seen cycling along St Kilda Road, The Bulletin reported a big surge in requests for ladies bicycles.

Coinciding with advances in the feminist movement, the safety bicycle changed the lives of Australian women. It allowed them to travel unchaperoned, extended their world beyond the domestic sphere, and gave them a legitimate reason to stop wearing restrictive forms of dress, such as the corset. Some female cyclists advocated the wearing of ‘rational dress’, or bloomers, considered quite radical at the time.

We can also thank the safety bicycle for the modern Australian road map. In 1896 champion cyclist George Broadbent published one of Victoria’s first detailed road maps based on his many years of riding around the colony.

Historical lessons

What do these bicycle booms from the past tell us about cycling’s role in the present, or its potential for the future?

There are two lessons. The first is that although the bicycle is now relegated to minority status, considered a toy for teenagers, a hobby for so-called MAMILs (Middle-Aged Men In Lycra), or a vehicle of last resort for reprobates who’ve lost their licence, it has the potential to become a transport tool for the masses. That’s what it has been in the past, and could be again.

The second is that economics, rather than social or environmental values, will prompt this shift. The safety bicycle rose to popularity because it was a convenient and cost-effective way to get around, not because it was aligned with a particular world view. In the battle to convert commuters, pragmatism trumps idealism. If the bicycle is to rule the streets again, it should be promoted as an apolitical tool, rather than a badge of environmental enlightenment.


Greg Foyster is the author of a cycling memoir, Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race.

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21 October 2014

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highlight When Annabel Smith embarked on creating her interactive digital ebook The Ark, she realised how wedded we still are to the old-fashioned p-book … and the obstacles (in terms of technology, distribution platforms and publisher attitudes) that lie in the way of writers wanting to harness the possibilities of interactive digital media to tell their stories.

Five years ago I began writing a contemporary iteration of an epistolary novel: a story told through digital documents including blog posts, emails, text messages, news reports and conversation transcripts. From its earliest days, the possibilities of interactive digital media – of a book that was more than just a book – were always at the back of my mind.

In May 2012 I was awarded one of five inaugural Australia Council Creative Australia Fellowships for Emerging Artists to make real what I had imagined: to create an interactive multi-media app to accompany the ebook of The Ark.

As I began the process of developing the enhanced ebook and app, I discovered that though the media loves to create the impression that paper books are a dying breed, and that before long all our reading will be digital and enhanced with audio-visual bells and whistles, the reality is quite different.

A wide range of classics, from Grimms' Fairy Tales to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, are available as ‘apps’. But on closer examination, they are often revealed to be basically ebooks with a few extra options, such as changing the font and background colour. So-called apps for popular contemporary fiction such as the Hunger Games and Twilight series are equally disappointing in their lack of any true interactivity or bonus features.

The Touch Press edition of T.S. Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land is often cited as a great example of what digital books can be, containing notes by Eliot, a video performance of the poem that syncs to the text and an audio reading by the poet himself. Children’s books also seem to lend themselves well to these new forms. Interactive language texts, history books, cookbooks and other works of non-fiction are being enthusiastically received by readers. However, when it comes to adult fiction, publishers seem to be proceeding with caution.

In 2010 publisher Little, Brown released an app to accompany Iain Banks’ novel Transition and Canongate followed suit with an app for David Eagleman’s short-story collection Sum, which contained an audio version of the text, read by celebrities including Emily Blunt, Nick Cave and Stephen Fry, as well as videos of Eagleman discussing the book’s themes, origins and impact.

However, after this initial flurry of activity, publishers seemed to get cold feet when it came to enhanced digital books. Their strategy seemed to lean towards investing heavily and very infrequently in ‘gold-standard’ apps/enhanced ebooks rather than creating more modest options as part of an ongoing engagement with the digital possibilities of literature. Extensive searching throughout 2012 did not yield a single publisher who was producing enhanced ebooks or apps for literary fiction.

This did not deter me, as I was confident that the technology existed to self-publish The Ark as an enhanced ebook/app and distribute it via Amazon and other channels that support self-published books − another assumption that turned out to be wrong.

Each of the document types in The Ark have a unique appearance, featuring logos and layouts developed over months of consultation with graphic designers. At a glance, readers know exactly what type of communication they are viewing. In preparing to convert the ebook for key platforms, I discovered that most of the biggest-selling e-reader formats such as .mobi for Kindle, and .epub for Nook and Kobo do not easily accommodate graphic layouts. I was advised to either strip all the design elements from my novel and present it as plain text, or to publish The Ark as a ‘fixed layout’ book. This second option, which initially sounded promising, turned out to be untenable when I learnt that on Amazon, fixed layout books could only be categorised as graphic novels, or children’s books.

I was not prepared to compromise on what I considered to be a unique and fundamental element of the novel. I therefore elected to bypass Amazon altogether, and publish The Ark as an interactive PDF.

The PDF (which can be read on Kindle or iPad) links to an app which enables readers to dive deeper into the world of the novel by viewing animations of the bunker setting, listening to audio recordings of dialogue from the novel, and accessing deleted scenes and other bonus content. In addition, readers can continue to develop the world of the novel by commenting on blog posts from it, and submitting fan fiction in a wide range of formats.

Reviewer Lisa Hill comments that The Ark is the first interactive novel she has read that ‘offers more than just clicking to see a few pictures or jumping to another chapter’ and blogger Ben Lever praises the app for ‘playing with notions of how we consume books in the 21st century’. Author Jane Rawson describes it as a ‘great concept, delivered ingeniously’ and expresses a desire ‘to see more adventurous books like this published in Australia’.

In a review in The Saturday Paper, The Ark is criticised for failing to deliver ‘meaningful interactivity’. The anonymous reviewer suggests ‘It won’t be long before readers are treated to refreshingly immersive and responsive digital books – The Ark, though, falls short of this aim.’

I suspect that the level of interactivity hoped for by the reviewer in The Saturday Paper might be a long way off. There’s a range of limitations to digital innovation: those imposed by ebook software and distribution channels, publishers’ reluctance to embrace and invest in digital literature, and the prohibitive cost and challenge of authors creating these works independently, as I did.

Though there are now some publishers, such as Atavist, specifically geared to enhanced digital literature, all the notable cutting-edge ebooks released so far have been one-off projects, outside the traditional publishing and distribution model.

My experience with developing The Ark has taught me that digital literacy is still very much in its infancy. Before it can come of age, a number of important industry changes must take place: publishers need to take some risks, investing in the development of high quality, true enhanced ebooks. Distributors need to change their narrow guidelines. And software developers need to make their applications more flexible. Only then will readers be treated to genuinely groundbreaking digital literature.


The Ark is available now.

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Asylum seekers, poetry and mental health

How do asylum seekers care for their mental health while in detention centres? One surprising way is through a Facebook poetry and writing group, run from a kitchen table in Castlemaine. Around 100 asylum seekers take part. You can find out more about it by watching the below video, produced as part of the ABC’s mental health project, Speak Your Mind.

Writing Through Fences from ABC Open Central Victoria on Vimeo.

Poland’s crooked forest

In western Poland, there’s a forest where the trees grow in strange curves, reminiscent of fairy tale illustrations of a haunted wood. What makes them grow like that? No one quite knows, but there are a few theories – from a unique gravitational pull to enemy tanks during World War II, to a deliberate man-made experiment.

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Lynch’s LA (and it’s happening again …)

David Lynch has been in the news and all over the internet lately, with the news that Showtime has commissioned a new series of Twin Peaks, with Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost firmly at the helm. It’s got critics reflecting on Lynch’s early status as a pioneer of the ‘golden age of television’ – something Anthony Morris wrote about for us last this year.

And there’s a timely essay in the LA Review of Books reflecting on David Lynch’s three LA movies: Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.

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Why boring research is important in preventing Ebola spread

When the Dallas nurse who treated the first US Ebola patient contracted the disease, infection prevention experts were unsurprised. Why? Because infection prevention is a science of tiny, banal-seeming details, and it’s starved of research funding as a result.

If there were more infection-prevention research, the nurse in Dallas (and probably the one in Spain, who may have contaminated herself doffing her gear) might not have become infected. Hospitals would not now be wondering whether any of their procedures can protect them against this unseen threat.

Media editor goes undercover at Australian university

The new media editor of the Australian, Sharri Markson, recently went undercover at University of Technology and University of Sydney, attending lectures and getting hold of course material. She was concerned about the way media students are taught to question the power and intent of media companies, calling it ‘indoctrination’. Junkee has reported on it, interviewing UTS journalism lecturer Jenna Price.

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Drew Barrymore plays a journalist who goes undercover at a high school in Never Been Kissed, a film Junkee refers to.

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Nic Low is an author and artist of Ngai Tahu and European descent. His fiction, essays and criticism have appeared in the Big Issue, Monthly, Griffith REVIEW, Lifted Brow, Art Monthly and Australian Book Review, and until recently he ran Asialink’s international writing program. His first book is the short-story collection Arms Race.

We spoke to Nic about loving the undo button, talking writing with Alex Miller, raising our kids on a diet of stories, and accidentally writing activist literature.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

At the age of ten I wrote disastrously bad film scripts about a man named Tom Blood. They remain locked in my parents garage. The first thing to actually make it into print was a strange story about two elderly sisters returning to their childhood home to dig up something buried in the garden. The idea came from a habit I developed during undergrad: in the library I always sat at a desk that already had books on it. I’d open them at random and read a few pages before starting work. One day I chanced across a whole stack of books that were about, of all things, viking burials, and wrote the story on the spot.

What’s the best part of your job?

I do most of my writing in a little mud-brick cottage out in the Castlemaine National Heritage Park. The best part of the job is waking up to the bush and the birds with the knowledge that I get to spend the whole day making up stories.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst part is that moment when you read back over something you’ve been working on for weeks or months – something you know is so very close to finished – and you realise that the last change you made, however small, has killed it. (Undo button? I love you.)

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Finishing my first book Arms Race. I’ve been working on it for a few years now and at times it was tough going, so it’s a real highlight being able to finally share it with family and friends, seeing it in bookshops and getting messages from readers.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I once went to visit Alex Miller to ask him if he wanted to take part in a project. We both live in Castlemaine, so I dropped into his house for a coffee. I was a touch hung over, and I was delighted when he offered me a beer. We spoke for a long time about writing, and he said something that’s stayed with me ever since: whatever happens, just keep punching.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

arms_race There was a review of Arms Race on New Zealand Radio National from a critic named Paul Diamond, and he described the book as ‘activist literature’. It came as a surprise because that wasn’t my intention when I sat down to write. I was just curious about questions like: what would happen if an Aboriginal mining company got a permit to dig up the Shrine of Remembrance in search of gold? But then when I thought about it, it was more of a surprise that I hadn’t thought of it before. It’s a book of polemical, satirical short fiction. Of course it’s activist literature!

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I love a good argument, so there’s a parallel universe in which I make my living as a lawyer. I defend murderers, have a wardrobe full of slimline Italian suits, and when I throw a party, cases of whiskey turn up on my back porch unasked.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

The common answer is that it can’t be taught, but it can be nurtured and supported, and my own experience doing a Masters bears that out. That said, I think we focus too much on the question at a tertiary level, when it’s as kids that so many of the habits that make good writers are formed. If we raise our kids on a diet of stories, encourage them to read and think and write creatively, and engage generously with the wider world of ideas, then I think we’ll see a lot more quality writing down the track.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Do it! Write as much and as often and as wildly as you can. Experiment. Make mistakes. Fail spectacularly. Enjoy it. And go to the National Young Writers' Festival in Newcastle. It’s a train-smash of enthusiastic, supportive, creative kindred spirits, and it’s one of the reasons I’m a writer today.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

I’m fascinated by tales of apocalypse, so I’d sit down for dinner with Dr Robert Kerans, the enigmatic hero of J.G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World. We’d drink vintage champagne and eat cold tinned beef atop a ruined luxury hotel, and stare in silence across the tropical lagoons of what might once have been London or Paris. I’d ask Kerans why he was so deeply enamoured of the end of the world. He would sip his champagne and give a small smile.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I’m terrible at mosts and bests and favourites. At primary school I remember arbitrarily choosing a favourite colour (blue) and a favourite movie (Top Gun) and a favourite song (Highway to the Danger Zone) so I’d have something to say when asked. So the most significant book in my life is Yesterday’s Weather by Anne Enright. She manages to pack more emotional resonance into one story than most of us manage in a lifetime. For a writer like me who tends to focus on ideas rather than characters, that resonance in her work is a constant source of inspiration.


Nic Low’s first book is Arms Race (Text). He was a guest of the Wheeler Centre’s Next Big Thing series.

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Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize last night for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, inspired by his father’s experiences as a prisoner of war. Last year, Ramona Koval interviewed Flanagan about the book at the Wheeler Centre. Their conversation ranged across the process of writing and researching the book, insights into the writing process, and what it’s like to talk about such a deeply personal book after it’s published.

In this edited extract from Ramona Koval’s interview, Flanagan explores that family inspiration and the link between growing up with his father’s stories of his experiences as a prisoner of war and the creation of the novel. He also describes going to Japan during the writing process to interview former camp guards, and the way his father found a kind of release from his experiences. This extract is in Richard Flanagan’s own words.

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When I came to write this novel, which has been twelve years in the writing for me, I chose the title The Narrow Road to the Deep North – which I’m sure many of you will know is the title of one of the most famous works of Japanese literature, written by the great haiku poet Basho in the seventeenth century.

My father’s experience and that of his mates was one of the low points of Japanese civilisation and I wanted to use something of the forms and techniques and ideas of these high points of Japanese culture to explore this very low point.

The stories he told us were funny stories, but they were always tinged with a pathos and a great humanity. They weren’t stories of horror and they weren’t stories of hate. I can’t remember when I first heard many of the stories. You have stories as a family. You grow up with them, and over time, like a seed that grows into a tree with exotic fruit, they start to acquire more and more strange meaning to you. And I guess I’ve been turning these stories over in my mind ever since I first heard them as a little kid in the kitchen.

He didn’t present it as heroism. He presented it as love and humour and fraternity. What people do when every other vestige of humanity is stripped away from them. What mattered to him was not your achievements, but how you treated other people. The people you were at school with, the people who lived around you. How you treated the poorest and weakest, that’s what mattered. That’s how we measured you and that’s how you had to measure up.

I won a Rhodes scholarship and I went over to tell my parents. I saw my mum and I said ‘I’ve won a Rhodes scholarship’. She said, ‘You’d better go see your father and tell him’. He was down the backyard turning the compost. I went down there and I said ‘Dad, I’ve got some news for you.’ He didn’t bother turning around; he said ‘what is it?’ I said, ‘Dad, I’ve won the Rhodes Scholarship.’ He said, ‘If you should meet with triumph or disaster, treat these two imposters just the same.’ And that was it. I said, ‘Okay.’

And he was right: it wasn’t a big thing. When I’ve had hard times – and I’ve had plenty of those – and when I’ve had defeats and failures, he made me realise they were illusions too. So that’s the sort of bloke he was. And I think he acquired all that from the experience of the camps.

Above: Watch Ramona Koval interview Richard Flangan at the Wheeler Centre.

Within every human breast consists the universe and contained within each of us is infinite love and the most murderous impulses. The Japanese, the Germans, us – we are all the same in this. We contain the beauty of Basho and the horror of the death railway. Surely that’s the point. That we are capable of both things.

I went to Japan in December last year, when I’d nearly finished the novel, to meet with the guards who’d worked on the death railway. And about five minutes before I met one, I realised he was actually the man who the Australians in my father’s camp, which was Weary Dunlop’s camp, knew as The Lizard. And he was the Ivan the Terrible of that camp. He’d been sentenced to death for war crimes after the war. He was the only man my father ever spoke of with violent intent. (Dunlop records in his diary, how he waited with a rock to kill him. And on this particular day the Lizard didn’t take the path he normally took.) The Lizard had his sentence commuted and then he was released in a general amnesty in 1956. He was a Korean. He actually went on to form an association of ex-Korean war criminals with the marvellous slogan, which we will recognise in Australia, of ‘moving forward’.

I hadn’t expected to meet someone from my father’s camp, far less the Lizard, who I didn’t know was still alive and was now going by his Korean name. And I met him in this office of his son’s taxi company in an outer suburb of Tokyo and I met a genial, courteous and generous old man who wished to try and atone for his past, although he couldn’t quite name his past completely. He was vague on some of the details of the past of the camps. But nevertheless, there was something genuine in his intent. And I was completely undone to sit in a room with this man.

My father, who was the gentlest man, said he dreamt of bayoneting him again and again for what he had done to the other men. There’s a thing in the book, which my father told, of him draping intestines around him.

I didn’t go to him in a spirit of accusation or a spirit of that sort. I wan’t there for vengeance. I was there because I wished to know his story. And his story was that he grew up in occupied Korea. His family suffered a lot of brutality. He was essentially press-ganged into being a guard at the age of fifteen and he went off to a training camp where they were beaten remorselessly. They would line all these Korean recruits up in two rows and they had to slap each other on the face, and I got him to slap me to show me how they did it. They had to slap and slap as hard as they could. At the end of the first day, he entered a deal with the guy next to him that they’d go soft on each other. And the Japanese officer who was overseeing the training came up and beat him as hard as he could around the kidneys with a steel rod so that he pissed blood that night. And he said, the next day I hit the man opposite me as hard as I could.

You have to sort of try and understand that. You have to understand how societies teach people that goodness and a lack of empathy are the same thing. We’ve seen that in Australia, where we have the cruel to be kind policies with the refugees. These things are a slow path over decades that finally can lead to great evil being done by people who in other circumstances aren’t evil.

Everyone I met said sorry. And you have to take that in that spirit: they’re willing to meet with you, they say sorry. I returned to Australia and within a few hours, my father rang and asked me what had happened. I told him that I felt people carried a shame and a guilt, and although they weren’t fully owning up to things, I felt it was genuine. He suddenly couldn’t talk, which was unlike him, and hung up the phone. He was getting very old and frail by then. He was ninety-eight.

Later that day, his mind was still very sharp but he lost all memory of his prisoner of war experience. And it was as if he were finally free.

I went back to the Thai–Burma railway with my brother Tim. We asked Dad to come – it was ten years ago – and he said, ‘I was lucky to get out of there once. I’m not going back’.

In the final years, I did spend a lot of time with my father, just talking about very simple things. What the actual hoes were like, how they sharpened the chisels. How do you burn a cholera corpose? What was the cholera compound actually like? Also, very abstract things. What is love? What is war? What is death? The novel was a way of being with my father.


Read Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams' interview with Richard Flanagan in the Guardian.

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Last week, we hosted an event with former prime minister Julia Gillard, in which she spoke candidly with Kate Langbroek about a range of issues. The two dominant subjects of reflection were the gender question and how that affected her performance (and experience) as prime minister, and how the leadership change from Kevin Rudd unfolded – and affected her prime ministership.

Today we publish part two of the edited extracts from the conversation: on Kevin Rudd and the leadership. Gillard talks about Rudd’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader, the lessons for modern leadership in general, and how you ‘never get to run the control test’ in politics.

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I did get Kevin in some ways very right and in some ways very wrong. Like all of us, in some ways Kevin’s a mix of strengths and weaknesses. And I talk in the book about the amazing strengths – his campaign effort in 2007. Talk about work ethic. We did amazing things in that campaign. And his leadership of ‘Kevin 07’ … many of the policies he did design personally. And no one will ever outwork him. He’s an incredibly hard-working person. So, incredible strengths, and he brought some of those into government. That work ethic got us through the global financial crisis. That model of leadership really worked then. But it didn’t work continuously. And it was falling apart for him in 2010.

A lot of us went to a lot of effort to shield people from that and to make sure that the government continued to function and that the stresses and strains and paralysis and some of Kevin’s difficulties (particularly the change of the opposition leader and the defeat of the CPRS and Copenhagen climate change negotiations letting the world down). He found mobilising incredibly hard in 2010 and we did shield people from that.

Lessons for leadership in the modern age

I think in many ways, if you take the personalities out of it, there are some lessons in here about leadership in the modern age. There are times of crisis where the command and control centralised model of leadership is still the one, you still need it. In our defence force for example, you still need that model. When people are out on operations you need to know who to look to, get the command from.

And during the global financial crisis when you were literally weighing up over a weekend: Could we face runs on our banks? (Not because there’s anything wrong with our banks – there’s nothing wrong with our banks. But because the world was in this psychosis flowing from the global financial crisis and the markets are in meltdown.) In that incredible moment of crisis, Kevin, who preferred a command-and-control model of leadership, really shone. But day-to-day, in the world in which we live, where everything’s too big, too complex for one person to continuously be in the centre of it, where power is distributed, where it’s not necessarily command and control (it’s collaboration, it’s teamwork, it’s welding people together through a common purpose) – Kevin couldn’t adjust to that speed.

And I don’t think he’d be the only person like that. I think there are a lot of people in a lot of organisations who’ve learned their leadership skills in an earlier age or have got that predisposition and are still trying to make it fit but it just doesn’t so much anymore.

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‘In politics, you never get to run the control test’

I was never frank in the moment with the Australian people about why I ended up prime minister. And because I created a vacuum, using proxy forms of words like ‘a good government lost its way’, it was easy for people to insert their version into that vacuum. Faceless men and factional manoeuvring and all the rest of it. Like in every Labor election contest, of course there’s the involvement of factional players. But that wasn’t the reason here. This was about paralysis in government, breakdown in government, and ultimately my sense that the relationship between me and Kevin, which had helped me prop the whole thing up, had frayed. I never offered a complete explanation of that. It was my decision and I made that decision for two reasons: one of them political and one of them personal.

And the political reason was, do you really go to the Australian community and say: There are months of absolute crap here. Let me old it up to the light so you can see it as we’ve seen it. Now, if you wouldn’t mind going out in the next election and voting for us, I’d be very grateful. Is that the proposition you put?

The thing about politics is you never get to run the control test. So we can’t put ourselves back in 2010 and run the experiment.

The other reason is personal. Kevin was pretty miserable in those last few months as prime minister. He’d then taken one of the hardest blows you can take in life. I know what it’s like to get piffed out of the prime ministership; it’s not a good feeling. Do you add to that sense of hurt by then touching on all the sore spots and saying, this is why we did it? So, out of respect for him, out of a political analysis, we used a proxy form of words.

‘I hadn’t been stalking for the leadership’

But in terms of my ongoing reception by the Australian community, I think it’s partly how I got there, undoubtedly. When I got there, it was a big, big shock because I hadn’t been stalking for the leadership. So if you do the comparison with the last time federal leaders changed in office, from Bob Hawke to Paul Keating, there wasn’t the same sense of shock. No one would have woken up thinking: I’d never have imagined that’s going to happen! Paul Keating running for prime minister … I’d never have thought about that.

There also wasn’t the same withdrawal from the field. Bob Hawke, with very hurt feelings, basically took himself right out of politics. Kevin didn’t do that. There was this sense by the Canberra press gallery that they’d missed it all. That there was this vast conspiracy they hadn’t uncovered, which wasn’t true. So they always went looking for the next vast conspiracy even though they largely weren’t there.

‘A little bit of gender in it’

And I think there’s a little bit of gender in it. I wouldn’t want to over-put that.

The good woman/bad woman stereotypes. Lady Macbeth. It kept a prism over me. When Paul took over from Bob, you wouldn’t pick up your newspapers and routinely read: Prime Minister Paul Keating, who knifed Bob Hawke, today said about the economy, it’s a banana republic … You don’t pick up your newspapers or look at the media today (and admittedly it was a change in the leader of the opposition) and read: Tony Abbott, who only defeated Malcolm Turnbull by one vote, today said …

That stayed with me and stayed with me very heavily. And it did make a lot of the rest of it very difficult.


This is an edited extract of the conversation from last week’s event with Julia Gillard (interviewed by Kate Langbroek) at the Regent Theatre.

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Last week, we hosted an event with former prime minister Julia Gillard, in which she spoke candidly with Kate Langbroek about a range of issues. The two dominant subjects of reflection were the gender question and how that affected her performance (and experience) as prime minister, and how the leadership from Kevin Rudd unfolded – and affected her prime ministership.

We’ll run edited extracts from Gillard’s side of the conversation on these topics over the next week, in two parts. Below is part one, on what Gillard calls, in a dedicated chapter of her book, the ‘curious question of gender’. In her own words.

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I try to unpack this very curious question of gender. I want it to be a conversation-starter.

One of the things I talk about is how appearance ends up mattering. And it’s not just all about the air time that gets filled with what you’re wearing, what you shouldn’t be wearing, whether it suits you, Germaine Greer’s comments. That’s a daily pain, but … what I try and deal with in the book is that it ends up being more than this time-wasting thing. It ends up being a judgement thing because people think they can diagnose what a woman is like, who she is, what her character is, by what she’s wearing.

Judging a woman’s character by her clothes

I think any leader standing next to Anna Bligh during the Queensland floods would have come off second best, because she was remarkable. I watched her in Canberra one day, she was giving a conference about the floodwaters, she was wearing a suit. I flew up the next day to join her at a press conference, I put on a suit. Anna had decided to wear workwear in case she went out to an evacuation centre – so, boots and jeans and a workshirt. As it turned out, she didn’t have time to go out to evacuation centres to see people and I did. I went out in my suit. And it wasn’t an issue. When I was meeting people in evacuation centres, they were just pleased to see you. But the judgement was, we can tell everything about what this woman is feeling and thinking by what she’s wearing: she’s wearing a suit, she’s obviously cold and not engaged in this natural disaster. Indifferent to people. We’ve got it all pegged now, based on what she’s wearing.

It’s that, where appearance and profound judgements about women all become one and the same, that I’m asking people to think about. I think if we’re honest with ourselves, there’s a voice in all of our heads that calls on us to make those judgements. It’s in all of our heads. But we’ve got to let it not drag us to really weird and adverse places about women leaders.

For all those future women leaders

Inevitably when I talk about the book, there’s a focus on gender and that’s good, because I want to provoke a million discussions. I do also want to say, because I am conscious that there are young women listening, that across a broad sweep of the book, and the broad sweep of my experience as prime minister, that there’s far more upside than downside. There really is, but I would like us, for the next woman and the woman after that, not just in the prime ministership but leading big companies and ultimately leading our defence force and in judicial positions and civil society positions that are immensely important, that for all of those future women leaders, we should try and work through some of this so that it doesn’t roll out in the same way again. I’m an optimist that we can do that, that we can think our way through it. But I wanted to put my experience down to help push that discussion.

The image of prime minister has always been a man in a suit

I thought when I became prime minister there would be a flurry on the positive side and on the negative side about being the first female prime minister. Many women would celebrate, some men – perhaps some women, but overwhelmingly men – would be a bit anxious. There would be a settling-in period about images of a woman being a leader.

All our lives, we’ve looked at images of the prime minister talking and that image has been a man in a suit. I thought there would be a settling-in period as people saw that that was a woman doing it. I thought the maximum wave of the reaction would be immediate, then it would dissipate. And as the months went on, and I just did a job, people would get more and more used to it and there would be less of that gendered stuff. And I called that wrong.

The gendered insult as instrument of criticism

What I found over time was, it got worse − because when you’re making big important and divisive decisions, the convenient instrument of criticism often became the gendered insult. And that’s why it got worse.

As I made political decisions – and people can argue about their merit or lack of merits, that’s national politics and a national policy debate, that’s good – but the frame of the criticism was more ‘ditch the witch’ than ‘carbon pricing: a good thing or bad thing? Please discuss’.

I think that next time round, we can’t say that the burden for dealing with all this is on the woman who is the leader, whether that’s in politics or somewhere else; I think it’s on all of us.

And I think what really would have changed some of the temperature of that debate for me is if credentialed third-party voices from all sorts of perspectives. From men particularly – women and men, but I’m imagining in my head if, at the time of ditch the witch, a leading Australian businessperson (a man) had said … even if the run-up to him saying it was ‘I don’t agree with carbon pricing, I didn’t vote for Julia Gillard in 2010, I’m not going to vote for her in 2013’ … we do not conduct our national conversation like this.

’It’s because Hillary’s a woman’

We’ll potentially have a real-life case to watch if Hillary decides to run for president. I’ve got no special insight, I’m not here to break global news. But if she runs for president … some of the things that have happened to Hillary last time were incredibly gendered. That’s not particularly a criticism of President Obama, but the various campaigns and how they rolled out. I watched all of that and I know a lot of people active in American politics. And there was this sort of stream of commentary that went ‘it’s just because it’s Hillary – Clintons, they’ve been around forever’.

It’s not because of Hillary, it’s because Hillary’s a woman. And if Hillary runs in the forthcoming presidential contest, we’ll get to watch a big democracy, a very important democracy, deal with this. And I really hope that in what appear to be very extensive preparations for a Hillary bid, that part of those extensive preparations is thinking about these people, these voices – not just Democrat voices, but voices of reason – who could come in at the right minute and say, ‘whatever else you might say about the merits of electing Hillary Clinton president, don’t have our democratic conversation like this’.

And if that happened very visibly in America, given its status in the world, I think it would have huge reverberations right around the world. I think it’s possible.

Is there something comedic about a woman prime minister?

I do a comparison with the treatment of John and Jeanette Howard in the book. Clearly, Tim and I weren’t the stereotypical modern couple in a number of ways.

I don’t think we’re unrepresentative of Australia overall. People have different relationships at different stages of their lives and there would be a lot of women and men who find each other at the kind of age Tim and I found each other. Tim’s obviously got a family from a past marriage; there’d be a lot of people in that position. We weren’t the norm, the gender roles were different, and the not being married and all the rest of it. But with all of that, I thought there was a cruelty in a lot of the commentary.

And even things I sort of rolled with at the time, things like the ABC comedy show about me and Tim … I don’t mind having a laugh and I thought the first episode was quite funny, having Katter and the rest of it round to the Lodge. But with the benefit of hindsight, you do look at it and think, unless they are making one now about Margie and Tony Abbott, is there something inherently comedic about being a woman prime minister?

If this is funny, presumably it can be funny no matter who the prime minister is.

Your responses: via Twitter


This is an edited extract of the conversation from last week’s event with Julia Gillard (interviewed by Kate Langbroek) at the Regent Theatre.

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Olive Kitteridge HBO series

Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, has been adapted into an HBO miniseries that will premiere next month – and it looks promising. The cast includes Frances McDormand (in the title role), Richard Jenkins and Bill Murray, and it’s scripted by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright). Here’s a peek at the trailer.

The scientist who discovered Ebola is worried

The Guardian has run a fascinating interview with Peter Piot, the researcher who discovered (and named) Ebola in 1976. He traces the discovery of the virus in a Belgian lab, his trip to Africa as part of a team to help track it down … and the moment he developed all the symptoms and feared for his life. He urges the need for new strategies, to prevent it becoming a pandemic.

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Gone Girl: book vs film

Over at the Readings blog, they’ve gone Gone Girl crazy (try saying that aloud!). Crime book specialist Fiona Hardy and digital marketing manager Nina Kenwood went to see the film together, and have published their post-cinema debrief. And Nina has produced an in-depth comparison between book and film, assessing the strengths of each in a number of categories. The winner? Book!

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Inside the brain of a psychopath … who’s also a neuroscientist

A neuroscientist who accidentally discovered, mid-research, that he’s a clinical psychopath, gives a fascinating insight into how his brain works, from both a personal and a scientific point of view, over at the Atlantic. He also makes a convincing argument for why children can and should be recognised and diagnosed as psychopaths at an early age, to prevent them from becoming violent.

Why the mental health of astronauts matters

What’s the biggest challenge for successful space missions – including the coming attempt to colonise Mars? Among them is a problem both seemingly simple and insanely complicated: the mental health of astronauts. More than one space mission has been called off due to astronauts' psychological problems. And it’s not just hallucinations due to cosmic rays or lack of exercise for gravity reasons. ‘Studies have found that many basic mental abilities, like attention, task switching, bodily co-ordination and problem solving seem to work less well in space.’

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highlight Simon Barnard was born and grew up in Launceston. He spent a lot of time in the bush as a boy, which led to an interest in Tasmanian history. He is an illustrator and collector of colonial artefacts, and his new book is A-Z of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land (Text Publishing).

We spoke to Simon about writing making more time for cuddles with the dog, approval from Nick Cave, and what he’d be doing if he wasn’t working with words … (thieving).

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It would have been some regrettable schoolyard juvenilia for the Launceston Examiner.

What’s the best part of your job?

Time to think. Cuddles with the dog.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Too much time alone. Lack of conversation.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Approval from Nick Cave was very nice. But acceptance from Text Publishing has been life changing.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Best: Never get comfortable.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

A masseuse recently told me that my shoulder muscles felt like ‘gritted teeth’!

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Thieving.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Perhaps not. But I’d hate to discourage anyone from trying.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

It’s only worth doing if you can only just do it. In other words – never get comfortable.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

I guess it would be Captain Ahab. Not not much of a gabber, perhaps, but he’d fry a mean fish!

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book. Published in 1959, arguably the first ‘graphic novel’. For me, it redefined my perception on how words and pictures relate. I find it so impressionable that I can no longer read it.

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We asked Cate Kennedy, editor of Australian Love Stories (Inkerman & Blunt), to share what makes a particularly Australian love story – and whether there were any common themes or subjects that stood out when she was going through submissions for the anthology. She also reflects on what makes a good love story – and why love is great material for dramatic storytelling.

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I think we do our best work out there on the edge of vulnerability. If it feels risky or exposing to write it, it’s probably because we’re telling the truth, and I love the places that takes us in stories, and what it asks of us. Conversely, as readers we all have an inbuilt bullshit detector when it comes to what you might call the emotional integrity of a piece of writing. If we detect a hint of manipulation, posturing or falseness, we’re generally out of there like a shot.

Love is at the core of our emotional lives, so naturally it’s great material for the interpersonal push-and-pull of dramatic storytelling, but it has to feel earned, I think, rather than plagiarised from somewhere else.

Scientists are fond of telling us about the chemical mayhem caused in our bodies when we fall in love – the dopamine racing round our brains as infatuation blooms, every song on the radio uncannily about us and our love affair unique in all the world, and so on. A great side-effect of this chemical reaction, for writers, at least, is that it knocks our perceptions sideways, making everything seem fresh and crystalline and significant.

We’re more volatile and take more risks, all the sensory detail of our world seems to light up. We recall whole conversations and narrative events (ask anyone who’s ever sat through a friend’s endless sad monologue of love-gone-wrong) – and for the duration of our infatuation we experience an intense, heightened, literally heart-felt awareness.

This is exactly the state writers strive for to create inspired fiction, so really, our love stories should be our best, most idiosyncratic work.

I had a talk with a marriage counsellor once who said something I’ve never forgotten: that her sessions were always full of seething women and baffled men. Seething and baffled – it seems awfully simplistic but most married heterosexual Australians I mention it to give a hollow, rueful laugh. I suspect it’s universal, though, rather than just Australian – although I think I can safely generalise and say Australians are a pretty laconic bunch, which makes for great elliptical dialogue and an ocean of unspoken subtext in our love stories!

There were a number of themes that struck me on reading these hundreds of stories, not all of them to do with ‘the war of the sexes’ or the inevitability of joyous infatuation eventually morphing into something else.

I was moved by the number of stories that involved older couples struggling to maintain equilibrium in a world where the rug had been smartly whipped from under them by Alzheimer’s disease. I could only include one or two in the final anthology – striving, with my ‘editor brain’, for a coherent and balanced collection of diverse pieces – but it was a subject that is clearly central to the emotional lives of many Australians. Untimely death through cancer or war, and how love endures despite it, was another strong theme.

We’re deeply affected by the landscape, it seems, and many stories dealt with memories of growing up and growing old in the country where love is tried mightily by floods, drought and rural hardship. Other landscapes that are clearly etched into Australian consciousness are those in other countries, either birthplaces where early love was thwarted by migration, or destinations where incidental love affairs, glorious and unfettered, become symbolic of a whole, encapsulated era of youthful freedom. It’s true, I guess, that some one-night stands seem more meaningful than years of a dull marriage, but these stories did seem to constitute a common theme – the yearning to travel, the glamour of elsewhere, the perfection of an exotic locale and attractive stranger.

Hundreds, it seemed, dealt with the stultifying suburban world of partner, kids and mortgage, and many turned very skillfully on the seemingly small incident which is clearly the final straw for the unhappy narrator.

One other theme struck me, and that was the number of stories which dealt with coming out and the transformative, shocking thrill of the first gay sexual experience or declaration of love. And I loved the stories which dealt, unsentimentally and without self-pity or self-aggrandisement, with nursing a scarred or broken heart yet deciding to step out again into the ring, ready for further punishment.

Love! Who knows its mysterious reasons? You just have to take your hat off to the writers who gamely do the same thing on the page, and who manage, on some level, to equate the yearning need to connect with each other with the capacity to create a piece of beautiful fiction about it.


Australian Love Stories is available now.

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Melissa Cranenburgh speaks to Favel Parrett about her latest novel, When the Night Comes, and how it came to life, revisiting the 1980s Hobart of Parrett’s childhood and resurrecting the well-loved Antarctic supply ship, Nella Dan.

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Favel Parrett

Back in the 1980s, when Favel Parrett was a young girl growing up in Hobart’s Battery Point, the now-busy tourist area was still a quiet, cold, sometimes eerie place. ‘Back then, the whole [area] was totally in decay,’ Parrett recalls. ‘There were no cafes, there were a few galleries and … there was never any one around.’

But another memory of that time in Hobart came to the fore when Parrett, now in her early forties and living in Melbourne, found some black-and-white pictures that used to be on the walls of her childhood home. One of them was a picture of the Danish supply ship, Nella Dan, which would dock in Hobart for four or five days at a stretch after visiting the Antarctic research base, Casey.

On the back of the picture, someone had written ‘Nella Dan, our ship. Isn’t she a beaut.’ It was penned after the ship had been scuttled. For Parrett, the memories all came back. ‘You’d see her come in and she was beautiful, and Hobart seemed different when she was around.’

Parrett’s mother had formed connections with Nella Dan’s Danish crew over six or seven seasons and Parrett remembers the parties on board, the Danish pastries, the smell of ‘real coffee’ and being awestruck in the presence of the sailors. ‘They used to come to our house and use the phone and leave money … And some of them used to cook for us,’ she says. ‘And to me as a kid they were like these giant strange creatures.’

Then things changed. ‘I remember hearing about the fire and I remember people crying in our house. And I remember people being really angry and wearing these T-shirts saying, “Nella Dan crew will never surrender.” I didn’t really understand why there was a fire, what had happened … and so I just started writing that day. I thought: I just want to know.’

The resulting book, When the Night Comes, is awash with these memories. The narrative, a beautifully spare collection of distilled scenes, is built around the connection between a young girl, Isla, who lives with her little brother and somewhat absent mother, and one of the Danish sailors, Bo – who works in the ship’s galley. On shore, Isla’s life is bleak – she looks after her brother and weathers the cold realities in Hobart. But through Bo she connects with life on and beyond the oceans.

Isla’s mother remains on the fringes of the story, more present by her absence. The sense that she is out of her depth – a young woman, alone, trying to raise two children but not really succeeding – is just alluded to. Delicately painted through the lens of Isla. Parrett says that much of the way in which the mother came into being is through her writing method: being so completely in Isla’s point of view, we see her mother as Isla would.

‘What she’s really focusing on is her brother, and the two of them struggling,’ says Parrett. ‘And this man, who’s kind and a bit exciting … as long as he keeps coming she doesn’t really want to know about their relationship, the mum and Bo. So how then do I write more about the mum without going out of character? Well in fact that question never came up because it’s organic and it just comes in pieces …’

When the Night Comes, even more than Parrett’s Miles Franklin shortlisted debut, Past the Shallows (2011), is a novel that focuses on the importance of small moments. ‘I write in scenes, and I don’t write in order and I don’t know the story,’ says Parrett. ‘I draft 10, 12, 15 sometimes 20 times. And the scenes are entities on their own, like a short story … And then they just all end up on my floor and hundreds don’t make it to the book.’

While Parrett has drawn on her own experience as a child in Hobart, her vivid portrait of Bo’s life aboard the ship was the legacy of a lot of research: spending time in Denmark, meeting with old Nella Dan crew members who would still tear up when talking about their beloved ship. ‘There are Danish sailors all over the world who have written to me, sent photos, I’ve just had so much help.’

Parrett, as part of a writing grant, experienced first-hand life aboard a ship bound for Antarctica: Aurora Australis. ‘I was determined not to love her like I love Nella. So I was, like: not going to like her, not going to like her. But two weeks in you’re like patting the bulk in the middle of the night, going, “Good girl”. So they keep you safe, it’s warm, you sleep so well, everything you need is there and you become this tight-knit group.’

This feeling of ‘being in a body, carrying you all’ was so strong that when, after six weeks aboard, it came time to disembark in Hobart, Parrett felt grief-stricken. It gave her insight into just how strong the connection must have been on board Nella, with its camaraderie among the crew and passengers. ‘She went through the biggest seas there are, 26 years she kept everyone safe … thousands and thousands and thousands of people.’

Now, in Parrett’s fictitious rendering, Nella Dan breaks through the ice once more. For some, it will be a homecoming.


This interview was first published in The Big Issue Australia. Melissa Cranenburgh is the magazine’s associate editor.

Favel Parrett will be speaking at Montalto winery for our Good conversation. Great wine series this Friday 10 October.

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Five Islands Press is offering its inaugural Ron Pretty Poetry Prize this year, named in recognition of its founder’s contribution to Australian literature through his own poetry, his teaching, and his publication of 230 books of poetry by other poets. Ron was the founder and managing director of Five Islands Press between 1986 and his retirement in 2008.

Sydney poet Brook Emery, whose first three books of poetry were published by Five Islands Press, sat down to interview Ron about his publishing and poetry careers – and his ideas on what makes a good poem, the place of poetry in Australian culture, and the pleasures and frustrations of poetry publishing.

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Ron Pretty

Ron, I’d really like to talk to you about poetry rather than publishing but there are some things we should touch on first. What were the pleasures and frustrations of running the press?

How long have we got? There was a great deal of both. The pleasure of bringing new work to the market place, work I enjoyed, whose quality I was confident about. Quite a lot of this was by poets I felt had been unfairly neglected – I published some terrific older poets for instance – or because they were working in unfamiliar territory, or because they were new poets struggling to find a publisher for their first book. The New Poets Series was a particular pleasure for that reason. So many of these poets have gone on to become significant figures in our poetic landscape. Frustrations? Oh God. Never having enough time to do things properly, especially in publicity and marketing. Looking back on it, for much of that time I was publishing too many books each year, but it was hard to say no to fine poets who seemed to have few other publishing options. The difficulty of getting reviews and the occasional bitchy one that came along. The parochialism that meant that it was hard to get an audience for a Western Australian author in Sydney. The constant battle to stay afloat financially … I could go on …

Let’s move away from Ron Pretty as publisher to Ron Pretty as reader and writer. How long have you been reading poetry and how did you come to start writing it?

As in most things, I was pretty much a late starter. I can remember being caned in third class for not being able to recite the second stanza of ‘I Was a Pirate Once’, and I don’t think any poetry made much impression on me again until I reached uni. My main interests in those early years were history and fiction, in that order. I was writing short stories, some of which made their way into school magazines … but when I got to Sydney Uni – after a couple of years teaching in the bush – W.B. Yeats opened my head with a meat cleaver. ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is still probably my favourite poem. And for a number of years afterwards I was writing bad imitations of him. He is still probably lurking in some of what I write. But after uni I went to Europe, and for a year in Greece I was reading the Europeans – Seferis and Cavafy, Brecht, Pasternak, Rilke, Supervielle … That year was when I really started writing seriously. When I got back, I caught up on some Australian poets – Fitzgerald and Stewart, Tranter and Forbes, Gwen Harwood (she was a terrific poet). Then there was Neruda and E.B. Brathwaite – his trilogy Rites is stunning. Lately I’ve been working my way through Carolyn Forche’s anthology Against Forgetting and the Ecco Anthology of International Poetry – terrific anthologies, both of them.

What do you look for in a poem? What excites or impresses you?

So much could be said about this. For me, I want the poem to surprise, but I also want it to satisfy; the surprise should be neither facile nor imposed, but come naturally from the area of experience being explored. I want the poem to challenge me. I want the language of the poem, the imagery of the poem to be lively, fresh and appropriate to the subject matter. That’s not just a matter of avoiding clichés (of language, of emotion, of experience), but of finding new angles, new ways of exploring the experience, new ways of expressing the results of that exploration. I want the poem to have unity so that the language, the imagery, the tone, the movement and structure of the poem all reinforce one another. I want the level of difficulty in the poem to be appropriate to its concerns: I don’t want it to be simplistic or facile, but neither do I want it to be obscurantist or difficult for its own sake. If the poem is layered, I want the layers to be consistent with one another and supportive of one another. I want the poem to open out to me. If it is challenging, I am prepared to read it several times, even many times; but as I read I want to find new insights, new connections, so that in time I will understand it, even if only viscerally. I am not satisfied if I come away from a poem perhaps appreciating its brilliant language or structure or sound patterning, but having only an imperfect sense of what the experience is that is being explored. And I want some variety in the poems I read: I don’t want every poem to be deadly serious; I want playfulness sometimes, and humour, and whimsy as well as satire, irony, anger, elegy, distress …

How do you work?

Since we moved back to Wollongong, I’ve developed a set routine. Three or four nights a week I go out onto our back verandah to write – it overlooks a cemetery, Kembla Grange Race Course and Lake Illawarra. I have a pad, a fountain pen, a bottle of red and, if it’s a still night, some candles. I wait till something, usually a line, comes to me, and I follow it. And I write three or four first drafts a night, sometimes. In the morning I read over what I’ve written and usually discard a lot of it. Anything that looks as though it might have potential I’ll start re-drafting; I usually have at least six or seven drafts, sometimes more than twenty. And even then, when I come back to the poems a week or so later, I still find I throw a lot of them away. It’s a wasteful method, but every now and then you get something worth keeping; and there’s always the surprise, the pleasure of discovery of what’s hovering there, that’s what keeps you going even if, later, it turns out to be not much good.

How many poetry books have you written? This might be an impossible question but do you a favourite poem or two of your own?

I’ve written six full-length collections and four chapbooks. I don’t know about favourite poems. Sometimes I think I’d like to put out a ‘Selected’ of no more than about 20 poems, but I get bogged down when I try to work out what they should be. I’ve got a soft spot for ‘Night of the Bonfire’ because it was the first poem I published – in Southerly – but it’s a bit ragged around the edges … ‘Theseus at 80’ and ‘Da Capo’ probably would be among current favourites, but it changes with my mood …

And finally, the Czech poet Miroslav Holub said somewhere that he dreamed of a day when people read poetry as naturally as they read the newspaper or go to the football. Do you have a hope for the future of poetry?

In your dreams, Miroslav. I am frustrated by the fact that there is so much poetry happening at present, but most of it is hidden from the majority of Australians. I don’t think poetry is so much an unpopular art as an unknown one. So many people don’t know how to respond to it because they’ve had so little exposure to it since they left school, where many of their experiences with it were not happy ones. There’s plenty of poetry on the web, of course, but only those who know about it go looking. Wouldn’t it be nice if every newspaper carried a poem every day, if every radio station read a poem morning and night, if television featured it as a matter of course. It’s a dream, of course: that the commercial imperative will somehow, some day, be transformed into a humane one, but it’s a dream I’m happy to share with Holub.


The $5000 Ron Pretty Poetry Prize will be awarded to a poem of no more than 30 lines. The closing date for submissions is 30 November 2014. There is an entry fee of $20 for the first poem and $10 for subsequent poems. The competition will be judged by Ron Pretty. Details and entry forms can be found at the Five Islands Press website.

This conversation between Ron Pretty and Brook Emery was conducted in September 2014. An extended version can be found on the Five Islands Press website.

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Children’s and youth literature expert Judith Ridge has had enough of under-informed and ‘insulting’ critiques of children’s and YA books. Responding to Helen Razer’s recent anti-YA argument in Crikey’s Daily Review, she’s come up with ten tips for writing about books for children and teenagers.

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Image by Enokson, Flickr.

I came late to this week’s brouhaha over Helen Razer’s anti-YA diatribe in Crikey’s Daily Review because when it hit the interwebs, I was actually spending the day with children’s author Stephen Measday and twelve 9-13 year olds at a writers’ camp we delivered this week at the day job. That’s what I do. I work with kids and teens who love to read, and who love to write. I’ve been doing it for nearly 30 years, one way or another, and in the course of that time, I have read thousands of children’s and young adult books, and I’ve written about them quite a lot, too. Books by writers from all around the world, everything from wordless picture books through the simplest series fiction for reluctant readers to challenging literary fiction for older children and teenagers. It’s a huge field, and a broad church, which includes books for young people of all ages, from pre-literate pre-schoolers through to sophisticated older teenagers. And it’s one that attracts some of the most rigorous literary study from academics all around the world.

But there’s one thing it has – or ought to have – in common with any other art form, literary, visual, performing, whatever. And that is, you don’t get to, with any credibility, write about it unless you’ve read it.

So I’m not going to critique Ms Razer’s article on that very basis – I haven’t read it. Because, seriously, why would I. (Plenty of other people have, though, and I will link to their responses at the end of this post.) Because I’ve read maybe dozens of similar uninformed and insulting arguments about children’s and youth literature, and the people who read it – including its primary audience, kids and teens. So I feel like I’m in a position to offer would-be commentators on the topic a few words of advice. So here they are:

Top Ten Tips for Writing about Books for Children and Teenagers

  1. Read the books. No, not just The Fault in our Stars or Hunger Games or whatever happens to be on the bestseller lists at the time. Read widely, read historically. The first books published specifically for children emerged in the 18th century, so you’ve got some catching up to do. Start now, and maybe in a few years time you’ll have the basis for some informed commentary on The Latest Big Thing.

  2. Children’s and YA are not interchangeable terms. Children’s Literature and Young Adult Literature have well-examined and defining tropes, themes and forms. Yes, there are grey areas, but you won’t be able to write authoritatively about them until you know the parameters. Start with some of the excellent introductory academic texts on the subject: Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer’s The Pleasures of Children’s Literature or Michael Cart’s From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature.

  3. Do not patronise the readership. Young readers can be remarkably acute, astute and critical in their reading. And if you don’t actually like children and teenagers, then you won’t be sympathetic to their literature, so find something else to write about.

  4. Don’t assume they read the same way adults do – they don’t. And don’t generalise about what all young people do or do not like.

  5. Try and find some points of reference beyond Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Same goes for writing as if J.K. Rowling invented the ‘witches at boarding school’ genre. You are simply demonstrating the limits of your research and reading. In other words, see Point 1.

  6. Be aware of the implicit sexism in your dismissive attitudes towards children’s and young adult literature. Despite the public profile of a handful of male writers, the field has long been dominated by women at every level; writers, publishers, teachers, librarians. This is not always reflected in awards or magazine feature profiles, but it’s the truth, and like all female-dominated professions, it attracts a lack of respect at best and out-and-out contempt at worst.

  7. If you know your stuff, you may well be in a position to make some actually important and well-founded criticism of literature for young people, such as: the lack of cultural diversity in books for young readers, the heavy gendering of books, fat-shaming in kids’ and YA books, the lack of representation of characters with disability, and shamefully, in this country, the lack of LGBTQ characters and stories. Deduct points, however, if you ever entertain using the phrase ‘political correctness’ in your review/opinion piece/brain fart.

  8. Remember that reading is a democratic pastime and stop being a fascist about what people can or should read. The truth of the matter is, there are more books now for readers of all ages, abilities and interests, and that is something to be celebrated, not condemned.

  9. None of this is to say that children’s or YA books should be above thoughtful, critical analysis and discussion. On the contrary, those of us who have made children’s and YA literature our life’s work wish above all else that the books were treated with the same critical respect and rigour of any other form of literature. Honestly. Why else do we bang on about the lack of review space for them? We’re not masochists. We’d rather be reading.

Which brings me to:

  1. Read the damn books. Thanks.

Look. I get it. We’ve all been guilty of bluffing at some point in our careers, but the truth is, you never get away with it, and when you’re taking someone’s good money to do so and trashing the status of a whole artistic and professional field you know nothing of and care less about? Shame on you.

Here are other people’s takes on Razer’s piece:

Danielle Binks in Kill Your Darlings.

Ellie Marney at her blog hick chick click


This is an edited extract of a piece that ran on Judith Ridge’s blog, Misrule, yesterday. You can read the piece in full there.

Judith Ridge has written about children’s and youth literature for journals such as Viewpoint and Magpies, Australian Book Review, Publishers Weekly (US), Australian Bookseller and Publisher, The Horn Book (US) and The Age. Since 2007, she has been Project Officer on WestWords: the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Project.

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Sam Vincent takes an objective look at both sides of the whale wars – and at what humans, especially Australians, have invested in saving whales. He also traces our historical involvement with the whaling industry, which preceded ‘the sheep’s back’ as the primary driver of our postcolonial economy.

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Image: denisbin, Flickr.

My hometown, Canberra, turned 100 while I was writing my book, Blood and Guts: Dispatches from the Whale Wars. There was birthday cake, candles and a 34-metre-long flying whale with massive mammaries and too much lipstick. Skywhale sailed into our lives with the irrational excitement of those people who camped outside the Apple store the other night to get their iPhone 6 before everyone else. Weeks before her unveiling, rumours begun circulating on social media of test-flights over Mount Arapiles; the promotional photos showed a poker-faced she-Leviathan with five saggy teats hanging off each flank like panniers off a packhorse.

When the balloon finally flew over the city whose centenary she had been commissioned to celebrate, War of the Worlds-like hysteria prompted one bystander I know to pull his car onto the median strip and alight for a gander. I still can’t decide what she most resembles: a bunyip on heat, or Sophie Mirabella.

In explaining why she had chosen a whale to represent a city whose only beaches were created when a sheep station was flooded in 1963, sculptor Patricia Piccinini wrote:

My question is, what if evolution went a different way and instead of going back into the sea from which they came originally, they [whales] went into the air and we evolved a nature that could fly instead of swim. In fact coming from a place like Canberra where it’s a planned city that’s really tried to integrate and blend in with the natural environment, it makes a lot of sense to make this sort of huge, gigantic, but artificial and natural-looking creature.

There were knockers, sure. Self-anointed arbiters of culture railed against Skywhale’s $350,000 price tag and perceived sexualisation; a much re-Tweeted criticism was that she’s ‘terrifyingly nipply’.

But for a generation of Canberrans who yawn at the stereotype of us all being garroted by APS lanyards, Skywhale seemed to foster an unfamiliar kind of fuzziness: a warmth in the belly not common in our city; a realisation that Canberra was beginning to exist in its own right. Civic pride, I believe it’s called.

In early March this year, four days before Canberra turned 101, Skywhale gate-crashed the national hot air balloon festival and crash-landed in suburban Belconnen, making a boob of herself and spawning the immortal Canberra Times headline, ‘Crippled nipples a sag state of affairs.’

A homesick friend wrote on Facebook from the 11th arrondissement: ‘I love Paris but I do miss my Skywhale City.’

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The Sea Shepherd’s Steve Irwin, docked at Williamstown.

My focus here isn’t Skywhale, but she seemed a strangely apt place to start. Because just as Skywhale came to embody Canberra’s self-confidence as it celebrated its centenary, I believe whales (sea whales that is) have assumed a totemic role in how we see ourselves as a nation.

It is true that the anti-whaling movement has broad global appeal. In the late 1970s calls for a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling became the cause célèbre of environmentalism, rooted in a need to conserve whale stocks, but also increasingly a question of morality as more was learned about the social, behavioural and intellectual capabilities of the great whales.

The history of commercial whaling – a sad tale of overexploitation over several centuries – had become a parable for humanity’s capacity to destroy its surrounds. By the 70s, particularly for countries that no longer had a consumptive use for them, saving whales had become, in the neat words of University of Sydney political scientist Charlotte Epstein, ‘shorthand for saving the planet’. By saving whales, we were saving ourselves. Sidney Holt, one of the architects of the 1986 moratorium that is still in place today, wrote on the eve of its implementation that ‘saving whales is for millions of people the crucial test of their political ability to halt environmental destruction’.

But increasingly, Australia is at the vanguard of the struggle. In the last ten years Australia has replaced the United States as the leader of the anti-whaling bloc at the International Whaling Commission. A 2010 poll conducted by UMR Research found that 94 per cent of Australians surveyed were opposed to Southern Ocean whaling and 82 per cent thought their government was doing too little to stop it; subsequent polls have suggested a similar level of support for Sea Shepherd within the Australian community. It was our government that decided to take Japan to court over the legality of its so-called scientific whaling program in the Antarctic, JARPA II. Talking tough on whaling has become one of the few bipartisan environmental issues in Australian politics.

But why do we care so much? Why did a high-school acquaintance of mine take to the internet on 11 March 2011 to call the Japanese tsunami ‘karma for killing all those whales’? Why does the mere arrival of migrating whales in our waters warrant news coverage, and why do their occasional strandings prompt communities to drop what they’re doing and head to the beach to hold vigils and commandeer tractors from local farmers to try pushing them back out to sea?

The question wouldn’t need posing if Australia’s environmental policy was consistent, but it’s not: as of 2014 Australia ranks fifth-last on the Climate Change Performance Index, which assesses what the world’s top 58 emitters are doing to curb emissions. Australia clears more native vegetation than any nation in the developed world and digs up coal as fast as China and India can buy it. And yet, this behaviour does not preclude our whale advocacy. In Anna Krien’s account of the Tasmanian forestry wars, Into the Woods, she is repeatedly told by timber workers and industry spokesmen of their chief export market: ‘Fuck the Japs.’ ‘The Sea Shepherd are my heroes,’ one tells Krien. ‘I’m right behind those guys. But leave us alone – we’re sustainable.’

I thought I’d find the answer to my question by spending the summer before last living on the Sea Shepherd flagship, the Steve Irwin, as it engaged in its annual game of high-seas cat-and-mouse with Japan’s Antarctic whaling fleet. But Sea Shepherd, in my experience, is not representative of the Australian community. Most Australians are not, like one deckhand from Melbourne I befriended (and just about everyone else on the Steve), militant vegans who consider the killing of any animal morally indefensible; most Australians do not, like a Scouser engineer I encountered, consider whales superior to humans; and most Australians would not, like the Hungarian cook I met, think it fine to head to Yarralumla the next time Japan is commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima to accuse its ambassador of genocide (when I politely suggested she choose a different day to protest she scoffed and said ‘Why, for the whales it is their Hiroshima.’)

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Most Australians are not, like the young ecologist from the Gold Coast I met, particularly interested in upholding what they believe to be international law; they are not former whale researchers like the American officer on the bridge, nor self-appointed whale bodyguards looking for a fight, like the deckhand from London I met who spent his spare time watching Vietnam War movies.

And if whaling, in the words of many of the Steve’s crew, is no longer a conservation issue but one of ‘compassion’ towards our fellow ‘sentient beings’, then our national stance is no less hypocritical. During the course of researching my book, I interviewed Malcolm Fraser, the prime minister in office when Australia’s last whaling station, the Cheynes Beach Company of Albany, Western Australia, lowered its harpoons. Fraser cited a more liberal era than today’s for the community opposition to Australian whaling that made him act. But when I asked why, if that were the case, Australia’s whale advocacy has dramatically increased in a supposedly less liberal era, he frowned and said:

‘In some ways we’ve got a strange environmental movement or a green movement in Australia. People care more about whales than they do about refugees or asylum seekers. That’s not necessarily a distinction which anyone should be proud of.’

It’s a valid point, when you think about it. Why do we welcome migrants from the Southern Ocean but detain those from the Indian Ocean? Is grey-skinned prey arriving from a hunting ground more worthy of refuge than brown-skinned dissidents fleeing a killing field? Are they acceptable because they stick to the ‘humpback highway’ rather than, to quote the Federal Member for Lindsay, Fiona Scott, clog up the M4? But then, is this issue even about whales anymore?

According to the WWF, up to 300,000 cetaceans (that’s whales, dolphins and porpoises) die annually as result of entanglement in fishing nets, but we don’t make a fuss about that. Hundreds more are thought to die from ship strikes. There are also the less tangible impacts of human development: the on-hold James Price Point LNG hub – unpopular in Broome but backed by WA premier Colin Barnett – was to be built smack-bang in the world’s biggest humpback calving ground. And whales have far more to fear from our failure to curb climate change – ocean acidification and melting ice being but two killers of krill – than from Japan’s harpoons.

The reception I received and the questions I was asked upon my return from Antarctica, just for sharing the same mess as Sea Shepherd’s leader Paul Watson, suggest that the Australian community regards Sea Shepherd with a mixture of admiration for its crewmembers’ goal and jealousy at their commitment to pursuing it. Sea Shepherd allows Australians a kind of vicarious outlawry that Hunter S. Thompson, writing about the Hells Angels in 1960s America, called ‘a fascination, however reluctant, that borders on psychic masturbation’. But Australians cared about this issue before Sea Shepherd entered the fray.

Geography, I think, plays a part. Australia’s population is concentrated on its east and southwest coasts – the same coasts that humpback and southern right whales visit on their migrations. Seeing whales, then is not a foreign experience for many Australians; indeed, it is possible, even probable, that if you live in even the most urban pockets of these coasts you’ve seen them migrating.

They are thus a part of the outdoor furniture of our bronzed Aussie self-image – and increasingly so, as humpback numbers in our waters are currently growing by around 10 per cent annually, with perhaps 20,000 migrating up the east coast during the winter of 2014 and closer to 30,000 up the west (the latter thought to be the world’s biggest population). That it is mainly humpback whales choosing to visit our coasts – a species blessed with charismatic characteristics that make anthropomorphising them easy – probably helps boost Australian views of ‘whales’ in general. I wonder how we’d view whales if it were only the less acrobatic species, like pilots or bowheads, visiting our waters?

But just as that Scouser engineer I mentioned on the Steve Irwin hadn’t seen a whale until he was saving them, Sydney author John Newton encountered his first leviathan only midway through writing A Savage History, his whale-loving chronicle of whale hunting, published last year. It was while reading Newton’s book that I found a more compelling answer to the question of why we care so much about whales. It doesn’t so much have to do with what we think of whales but what whales make us think of ourselves.

Newton writes three times in the space of one chapter that Australia was the ‘last English-speaking’ country in the world to end commercial whaling. He could’ve told us we weren’t the last country to hunt whales in the Southern Hemisphere (we pipped Peru and Chile to the post) or even in the neighbourhood (whales are still hunted off the Indonesian island of Lembata). But those lagging behind don’t seem to count, because Britain, New Zealand, the United States and Canada all beat us. Newton seems embarrassed: Australia is living up to its reputation as a colonial backwater, a culturally cringe-worthy nation of rednecks lagging behind the times. Because what is it to speak English? To take up the white man’s burden, colour the map pink and spread light where once there was darkness? It’s to be civilised. And civilised people don’t kill whales.

Much is now made of the fact that in the Western societies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, a happy transition has been made from whaling to whale watching. It’s a powerful metaphor for how we have shifted our interactions with our surroundings in general – from exploiters to adulators. Moreover, it is presented as the rational one: Paul Watson frequently points out that, given their importance to the global tourism industry, whales are now worth more money alive than dead. Indeed watching these swimming superlatives contributes $300 million to the Australian economy every year.

The evolution in the way we think about whales in this country especially presents a powerful symbol of the notion of progress. Whaling played a fundamental role in Australia’s very foundation: it wasn’t until 1833 – a full 45 years after white settlement – that wool overtook whale oil as the largest-grossing export of the Australian colonies. If my grandparents’ generation rode on the sheep’s back, then their grandparents first clung to the whale’s fluke.

Whalers, historian James Boyce tells us in his book Van Diemen’s Land, were de facto colonists, explorers, ethnographers; they operated in parts of Australia that the Union Jack was yet to reach. They are the very embodiment of the myth that Australia is a nation of pioneers. Fast-forward 200 years, and the descendants of those whalers were correctly judged by the Rudd government to care enough about whales that spending at least $20 million to pursue Japan’s Antarctic whaling program in the International Court of Justice was not just uncontroversial, but a politically popular move. I’d wager that in plenty of countries such a decision – expensive, diplomatically risky, of minor conservation importance per se – would be questioned at least; here it was met with strong public support. For the Daily Telegraph, the legal action was ‘historic’. This ‘heartening’ decision, the Age opined, ‘not merely fulfils a long-standing commitment: it proves the government is prepared to get tough with Japan’. ‘We do not believe whaling is required in the modern world,’ the then environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said in 2007, the year Rudd was elected promising to take the whalers to court.

But then, I’d seen this language before, in an email sent to the Steve Irwin’s captain Sid Chakravarty and later pinned on the vessel’s notice board:

Hi Sid and All,

Thank you for your news. It is so good knowing that you are down there in the Southern Ocean amongst the whales to protect them. You represent a change in human thinking, regard and respect for our fellow species – and so ourselves – which parallels other changes in recent centuries like the emancipation of slaves, education for all children and recognition that we are related to all other life on Earth (and were not made separately).

The great slaughter of the whales of the last three centuries is over and it is the Japanese whalers that sail against the course of human history while you go with the fair wind of empathy from all the future of human thinking. The world wants you down there and wishes you all success.

Yet you inevitably face a formidable and violent fleet of whalers intent on bloodshed and driven by both money and power. Stoking their boilers is the perverse idea, which some people never grow out of, that they are closer to supremacy over nature if they kill other creatures bigger, faster or more mysterious than themselves, no matter how unthreatening, amiable or technologically innocent these creatures may be.

I wish you great success and am proud to be working with you. On this tiny, life-filled planet none of us is very far apart. Though you are beyond our visual horizon, your presence and life-saving work in the Antarctic is inspiring countless hearts with its audacity it’s [sic] morality and it’s [sic] statement about how we may secure the safety if [sic] the whales and, by extension, the future of all life on Earth.

We await your news,

Best wishes,

Bob Brown

Note that there’s not one reference to conservation, the Southern Ocean Sanctuary or international law. For Bob Brown there is only one trajectory for humanity, and it is Sea Shepherd (and, by extension, its main supporter base: the Australian public) that holds the course. A savage history has made way for a civilised future.

To help me sort through this ‘civilised’ thread of whale protection, I emailed Tom Griffiths, director of the Centre for Environmental History at the ANU and one of this country’s foremost thinkers on how our view of the environment has changed over time.

‘I’m not sure that the first possible answer – familiarity with charismatic creatures – is persuasive,’ Griffiths replied. ‘But the second one is much more convincing to me – that whales are a potent symbol of our nation’s ecological enlightenment, transformed from first dominant economic resource to subjects of our salvation. Many of the early whaling stations are now embraced within national parks, another symbol of that same moral “progress”. There is something uncomplicatedly green and good for Australians in looking after whales.’

Social anthropologist Adrian Peace goes further, arguing that whales have become both metaphoric and metonymic of Australians’ relationship with nature at large. For Peace, what is being expressed in ‘looking after whales’ – whether it’s on the beach at 4am, on the high seas, or in court at The Hague – is the belief that (and I quote) ‘ours is a country which is “rational”, “progressive”, “informed” and “intelligent” in the way it thinks about Nature as symbolised by the whale. When that Nature comes under threat, ours is a society which is humane, responsive, and, in a word, civilised, in the way we unassumingly but with deep conviction go about our business.’

In an email to me, Peace suggested whale advocacy provides an anchor for an Australian identity cast adrift in a globalised world. ‘It no longer makes sense to talk about an Australian middle class,’ he wrote. ‘The relatively homogeneous middle class of old has become hugely differentiated, fragmented and diversified as a result of rising prosperity and full-scale commodification.

‘For this reason, old icons and symbols [he cited mateship as one] have lost their influence and appeal to these rising new classes. Their place has been taken by novel signs and symbols which are not directly tied to material conditions but are notably emotive in character, and those connected with environmental issues are most prominent of all.

‘What’s important about this ensemble of new symbols,’ Peace continued, ‘which range from recycling to whale totemism, is that they can be made much of without the middle classes having to modify their (over/ excess) consumption practices in the slightest. In fact, they can be conveniently used as a legitimation for increased consumption (more and newer household goods through to enviro-holidays, including whale watching), rather than cutting back across the board.’

To paraphrase Adrian Peace, and to conclude, whaling, once the economic backbone of this country, has become that most trite of adjectives: ‘un-Australian’.


This is the adapted text of a talk Sam Vincent gave at the Wheeler Centre in September 2014.

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Sophie Cunningham attended Portland’s XOXO Festival around independent digital culture last weekend, and she’s reported on it for us – and reflected on the way that so many of the burning issues of digital culture also resonate for her as a writer.

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XOXO is a small festival around independent digital culture that has, in the three years it’s been going, developed a big reputation. It was started, with the help of Kickstarter, as an alternative to SXSW. It’s also a way of distinguishing the work independent producers do from the massive corporations of Silicon Valley and the like. The fact that it’s set in Portland certainly helps create that sense of difference.

Most events took place in a disused warehouse that had been painted in festival colours and been set up for some 750 participants. The car park beside the warehouse hosted Portland’s famous food trucks (there are 400 of them across the city) that sold everything from Khao Man Gai to Korean BBQ, and fried egg sandwiches. The emphasis on food was a considered one; the organisers have described food carts as an equivalent to indie art and technology. ‘The barrier to entry and costs are low, letting you experiment with new ideas and build a following without falling into deep debt.’ I was even more won over by the herd of urban goats that lived in a paddock down the street.

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The Portland-based organisers, Andy Baio and Andy McMillan, first met via Twitter and see one of the roles of the festival as enabling real-life meetings of like-minded people who have first met on social media. There were a series of informal social events, organised thematically: Story, Arcade, Music, Film & Animation, and Tabletop. At these various venues, people got to see and play games in development, drink, listen to bands, watch films and just hang out.

The Andys (as they are known) are white men, in a largely white industry, but they demonstrated a serious commitment to diversity. Last year only 22% of the conference attendees were women; this year more than 40% of the attendees identified as women, and women gave 6 of the 16 talks. They had less success with people of colour, as attendees or presenters – while they didn’t have exact figures for the first two years, anecdotal evidence suggested that this year’s figure of 13% was only a marginal improvement. There were strict codes about sexual harassment and one attendee was asked to leave the conference when he ignored those guidelines. There has been a growing understanding that events need to be supported in this way and the fact that one of the speakers, Anita Sarkeesian, has been the focus of vicious online campaigns and death threats underlined exactly why festival organisers and participants need to be clear on these issues.

The social events were set around two days of a relatively formal conference, though the style of the presentations was different from most formal conferences. Presenters spoke about making things. What does it take to turn an idea into something that people can buy, share, or take part in? How can these ideas turned into ‘things’ become sustainable businesses of a sort? Should that even be their goal? This year the intensity of the questions were ramped up a notch. How can you work independently and not give way to financial ruin or depression? What if things go wrong? Given that failure is more likely than success, how do you cope when it’s your turn to fail?

Speakers were asked to provide some kind of context to what they do, or, if you like, a ‘story’. In some cases this meant talking about what they’d made, but in others, speakers focused on the link between their personal and professional lives. The talks will become available online over the next few weeks. Here’s a brief recap of some of them.

The first speaker, Kevin Kelly, was also the oldest. In his sixties, Kelly is the founding editor of Wired and a former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Review. While his story of travelling in the 1970s and building his own house might be a familiar one, his talk gave me a clear sense of the way the counterculture has fed into digital culture. Gina Trapani, founded Lifehacker. She talked about 9/11 and the impact that had on her as a young woman in New York: her heightened sense that life is short. She talked about the realisation that our worst moments can lead to our best work, as well as the difficulty of having one project end and needing to find the momentum to begin another. I was particularly interested in Ethan Diamond’s description of the business model for Bandcamp, which allows musicians to stream and sell their music directly to fans.

There were speakers that considered (or enacted) the performance of a private self in a public forum. Jonathan Mann has recorded a song every day since January 2009. That’s more than 2000 songs. Break-ups, gastro, politics. You name it; he’s sung about it. His talk demonstrated that persistence itself is an art form, and becomes strangely moving in the process. Justin Hall described what it was like, in the mid-nineties at the age of 19, to have 27,000 people check in with him daily to read about his exuberant sexual life, drug-taking and his father’s suicide. (These days, he noted ruefully, he has an audience of about 270). What was fascinating was his growing understanding of what it meant to have an audience and the implications of that for his friends and family.

Of course there can be a neatness to the narratives speakers create (at this conference, and in events like TED talks) and Darius Kazemi, the founder of Tiny Subversions, upended that, in a satirical presentation that needs to be seen, not described.

Anita Sarkeesian, the creator of the Feminist Frequency video series, had the most confronting story to tell. Her project, Tropes vs. Women in Videogames, has been met with a sustained campaign of violent threats and abuse. She talked about the more ‘subtle’ attacks on her, such as identity theft, disinformation and defamation. (As if to underline her point, the next day there was a guy approaching people and handing out pamphlets about Sarkeesian and the danger she posed to men and gaming in general.) She walked off the stage to a standing ovation.

The final speaker, Paul Ford, was both charismatic and unassuming – a hard combination to pull off. He’s a writer of essays and has one novel under his belt, was an editor at Harpers Magazine (which he also took online), and is a computer programmer, a teacher and commentator. He pulled together many of the conference’s themes, talking about his personal battles and the ways that his work as a blogger, designer, writer and developer both helped him manage these issues and contributed to them. He also talked about the relationship between time, ideas and the internet.

As he spoke I thought about the way the internet both saves and wastes time. The way moments can be captured, stored, and searched, ad infinitum. Is it good for a writer to be able to capture the recent past? Does it free up our memories or does it leave us drowning in information? Much of what was spoken about resonated with issues I face as a writer. It was incredibly refreshing to be surrounded by so many people thinking and talking about the world they were engaged in making.


Sophie Cunningham’s latest book is Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy.

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01 October 2014

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Our third and final group of Hot Desk Fellows for 2014 begin their work at the Wheeler Centre today. As is customary, we’ve invited each of our six talented writers to share an introduction to the projects they’ll be spending their time on.

The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships offer recipients a desk at the Wheeler Centre for two months, and a $1000 stipend, courtesy of the Readings Foundation.

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Mark Twain (or Samuel Langhorne Clemens, to his parents) is said to have completed much of his writing in bed. There are currently no plans to bring Hot Bed Fellowships to the Wheeler Centre.

Susie Anderson, After the Pelican, (Poetry)

After the Pelican refers to our family’s totem animal, I am a descendent of Wergaia/Wemba Wemba people from north-western Victoria. Generally in my writing I explore distance in both physical and emotional senses, with an emphasis on nature and how this impacts understanding of our selves and worlds. Using a copy of a 1969 survey of the Victorian Aboriginal languages in north-western Victoria, I intend to write prose poems about rural Victoria and these ideas of cultural and emotional displacement.

Louis Bravos, Kyoko’s House (Translation)

A translation of Kyoko’s House, one of only two novels by Yukio Mishima which have not been translated into English. It tells the interconnected story of four young men who represent different facets of the author’s personality. It is, I believe, Mishima’s most international novel, and among his most modern, despite being from early in his career.

André Dao, Revolution and Other Love Stories: A Novel (Fiction)

Following the death of his grandfather, André tries to piece together his grandparents’ love story. Married for 60 years, separated for 20 through war and prison, their story is also the history of modern Viet Nam. But as André shuttles between Paris and Hanoi – and finally, home, to Melbourne – he re-opens old wounds and wakes old ghosts.

Eli Glasman, Untitled, (Fiction)

This novel features a young man with Crohn’s disease, who is hiding the severity of his illness as he is afraid to get a colostomy bag, while at the same time attempting to build a relationship with his mother who suffers from Bipolar. The novel will explore the way in which the illness of both the mother and the son isolate each one from the other.

Emily Stewart, Today and Avatar Poet, (Poetry)

These are two distinct writing projects that I have been developing in tandem over the past year. ‘Today’ is a list-poem which explores the idea of an endless present, drawing on the work of modernist authors such as Gertude Stein as well as the performative texts of contemporary artists such as Tim Etchells. Avatar Poet is a collection of assemblage poems that I have been writing over the past year. Each poem is constructed using only the words from a given page, and the page numbers increase – for example, the first poem in the series comes from page 1 of Chris Kraus’s Summer of Hate, and the second poem comes from page 2 of Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip.

Claire Rosslyn Wilson, In Pursuit (poetry)

In Pursuit will be a collection of poems inspired by Australian-based visual artists who look at themes of movement and migration. Visual art has enabled me to see cross-cultural communication from different, and sometimes unexpected, points of view. This collection will reinterpret these viewpoints through my poems.


Join us at The Moat on Monday 1 December for a special edition of The Next Big Thing – where our third round of Hot Desk Fellows will read from some of the work they’ve completed during their fellowships.

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Faster pasture

Don’t have a cow, man. Technology Review this week spoke with Andras Forgacs about his plans to ‘brew’ meat in cell-culture vats. Forgacs is the CEO of Brooklyn-based startup Modern Meadow. As he explains in this short interview:

The company was founded to expand the ideas from biomedical tissue engineering: if we can grow skin, can we make leather? If we can grow muscle, can we make meat? We’ve now done so—and are working with chefs and leather artisans to perfect our materials.

Artistic foresight

If you didn’t see that one coming, perhaps you should pay more attention to artists like Slovenian native Maja Smrekar, a ‘bioartist’ collaborating with scientists to produce informed visions of possible human futures.

In a profile on io9, Annalee Newitz explains that the artist’s relationship isn’t a one-way street; through her work, she actively contributes to pioneering research.

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Maja Smrekar’s ‘BioBASE’ explored what would happen to native crustaceans in Slovenia’s Lake Topla once an invasive species arrived – due to warmer waters caused by a nearby power plant.

Creativity unlocked

Earlier this month, New Yorker archives editor Joshua Rothman put forward a compelling account of our creativity fetish – including the ways in which we currently define and measure this ineffable phenomenon, and how it made the journey from abstract quality to concrete outcome.

How did we come to care so much about creativity? The language surrounding it, of unleashing, unlocking, awakening, developing, flowing, and so on, makes it sound like an organic and primordial part of ourselves which we must set free—something with which it’s natural to be preoccupied. But it wasn’t always so; people didn’t always care so much about, or even think in terms of, creativity.

Skin-deep digital journalism
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Jeremy Meeks: Not a professional model on a $30,000 contract.

Writing for Playboy, Luke O'Neil articulates what’s become an increasingly common argument – that digital journalism lacks standards. The internet’s preoccupation with viral content, combined with a lack of negative consequences for poor reporting, means that ‘the real threat we face is a world in which parody, such as found in The Onion and Weekly World News, becomes indistinguishable from reality.’

Oh, and remember Jeremy Meeks – aka ‘sexy mugshot guy’ or ‘hot felon’? Several news outlets reported that he’d snared a US $30,000 modelling contract. Did any of them bother to try and verify that information? No prizes for guessing this one.

Whistles blown

Late this week, landmark amendments to national security legislation were passed by the Australian Senate – and are subsequently expected to pass in the Coalition-dominated House of Representatives. The Guardian summarises the proposed changes and explains some of the ramifications.

Not so long ago, we hosted a Fifth Estate discussion with whistleblowers Thomas Drake and Jesselyn Radack. In part of the conversation, they discussed their views on potential changes in Australian privacy and security law. You can watch the full video online.

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Click to watch the Fifth Estate: The Whistleblowers.

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Melbourne author Kirsty Murray writes fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. She has published over a dozen books. Her latest is The Year It All Ended, a work of historical fiction based at the juncture of World War I and the birth of the Jazz Age.

We spoke to her about working with difficult material, the unique pleasures of writing for younger readers – and checking in with Balzac from time to time.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I was a nerdy, bookish kid who read the dictionary for pleasure and constantly thrust my writing beneath the nose of anyone who would give me the time of day. I gravitated toward every publishing avenue I could find from the school magazine in primary school to co-editing my high school year book just so that I could see my bad poetry in print.

But by the time I was in my twenties I’d lost confidence in my trajectory as a writer. I had three kids by the time I was twenty-six and though I scribbled story ideas in secret, I was overwhelmed by adult life had no idea of how to break into publishing. Occasionally I submitted badly formed short stories to magazines which were duly rejected.

Then, when I was starting to feel pretty desperate about ever being seriously published, I enrolled in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing course and from there I stumbled into editing work fairly quickly. I began to freelance and had articles published in newspapers and magazines but none of that felt particularly satisfying and I couldn’t say I felt ‘published’.

KMurray_manEaters In 1997, I signed my first publishing contract for a junior non-fiction title with Allen & Unwin in their True Stories series. Although the book, Man-eaters & Bloodsuckers, wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned as being my big break into publishing, I learned a lot from the project and it provided a springboard into seriously writing for younger readers.

A year later, Rosalind Price, the commissioning publisher of Allen & Unwin’s children’s and young adult list, goaded me into submitting the synopsis for a novel (Zarconi’s Magic Flying Fish). On the strength of the outline and the first chapter, she gave me a contract and an advance. I can still remember the euphoria I felt when I stepped out of Allen & Unwin’s office in Rathdowne Street, Carlton. I almost levitated into the blue winter sky.

What’s the best part of your job?

Simply writing. Being inside the story and on the page with my characters is like an out-of-body experience where nothing else exists but the words. I love that feeling.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Sitting for long stretches at a time. It wreaks a terrible toll on the body. I try to vary my work environment and have experimented with standing at a raised desk and working on a couch propped up with pillows but essentially being still for long stretches at a time is extremely unnatural and bad for your health.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?

I think I’d find a different answer to that question on any given day of the week. In 2007 I spent several months in India as an Asialink Literature Resident at the University of Madras. It was the beginning of an enduring connection with India which has influenced my understanding of Australian literature and our place in Asia.

Writing The Year it All Ended also felt deeply important. It was an incredibly grueling book to write because it involved filtering a lot of grief and trying to make sense of the lives of a generation of young women who lived through very traumatic times. I feel like I broke through to a new level of understanding of how to work with painful material and yet make it (hopefully) cathartic and uplifting for the reader.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?

In the early 1990s I did a masterclass with a Booker Prize winning author, Bernice Rubens, at the Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales. Rubens offered much sound advice but the single piece of wisdom that she imparted that has been most important to me was that every writer should consider reading as much a part of their job as writing. She recommended putting aside a couple of hours of every day to read. Serious writers take reading seriously.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I am often surprised and also very humbled by the impact my stories have on younger readers. Recently I received an email from a girl who had lost her father and she wrote about how she wept when she read The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie. She wanted me to know me how important the novel was to her.

Other kids have written to tell me they’re in love with a character I created, that they love my characters like their own brothers and sisters, or that they’d never finished reading a novel until they came across one of mine. It doesn’t get much better than being told you are a kid’s ‘author hero’. I don’t know any authors of fiction for adults that receive fan mail that’s quite as emotional as the kind of responses that authors of fiction for children and teenagers receive.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Starving. I’m neither qualified nor capable of doing much else.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Every art form can be taught. Writing is no different to any other human endeavour. In many respects, it’s among the easiest arts to teach. Humans are hard-wired to appreciate stories. There are no physical restrictions (unlike most of the performing arts) other than the ability to sit for extended periods.

But you can’t teach temperament and success in any artistic pursuit requires a degree of pig-headedness that not everyone possesses. You have to like your own company and have the stamina to persist when the work becomes arduous. Writing can be lonely and isolating, despite the fact it’s a form of communication. In every sphere of the arts, there are people who have a natural facility that speeds their progress. But having a natural gift doesn’t guarantee success if you aren’t committed to serving the very long apprenticeship that is required of all writers and artists.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?

Read. Read widely and deeply. Buy books, borrow books and share books. Try to understand what it is that makes a story appeal to you. Unpick the occasional story but make sure you don’t kill the pleasure that books yield. Be self-critical of your reading and keep a reading journal.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

One of my deepest pleasures is browsing in physical bookshops. Reading is not just an intellectual activity but a tactile delight. Browsing online can never replace the excitement of feeling the weight of a book in your hands, inhaling its scent and cherry picking juicy passages of prose. I also value the advice that accomplished independent booksellers can provide.

That said, I buy books online occasionally, though I try and source them locally first. I have a policy of buying all my Australian books from local booksellers and I believe it’s important to support Australian booksellers, writers and publishers. It’s a great time to be a reader.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Is it self-absorbed to name a character I invented? Tiney Flynn from my latest book, The Year it All Ended, is seventeen years old in the novel but I’d like to meet her again when she’s a more mature woman. She was born in 1901 so by the time she reached her fifties she would have lived through two world wars that shaped the 20th Century.

KMurray_TheYearItAllEnded Tiney is loosely based on one of my great-aunts and my grandmothers. I wish I’d asked more questions of the women of that generation. It’s only now, after living half a century myself, that I have an understanding of what I’d like to ask them. I imagine Tiney’s political and life perspective would be epic by the time she reached middle-age.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

There isn’t a single book, but there are many writers. I don’t discriminate against genres nor whether the writing is pitched to a child or an adult. When I like a book, I tend to read as much of the author’s work as I can lay my hands on.

I’ve always been fascinated by writers who produce a large body of work such as Balzac. I adored all his novels when I was a teenager, though I didn’t fully understood them at the time. These days I make a point of re-reading Cousin Bette and Old Father Goriot every ten years to check my latest benchmark of emotional development.

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highlight The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

During her Fellowship, Bernadette Hince worked on The Grand Polar Dictionary. Her project is an attempt to document the culture and practices of Arctic life, past and present, through its language – some of which is now fading or extinct. Today, we take a glimpse at her work in progress.


First there are the words for animals — beluga, arvik, ukjuk. White bear, whitefish, Eskimo dog. Animals mean meat and blubber. Blubber means oil, light, warmth. Skin, gut, fur, sinew and bone mean sewing thread, needles, clothing, shelter, dryness, windows, tools, containers, boats, hunting equipment. In the Arctic, animals are life itself.

There are words for plants — reindeer moss, salmonberry, Labrador tea, tiny creeping stems of arctic willow. Their twigs burn. The fruits are edible. The leaves make tea, or can be preserved in blubber until winter time, when they are served as greens for the table.

Language words. Greenlandic, Inuktitut, Skolt Saami, Evenki, Yup'ik, Chukchi, Tlingit. I once believed that all people of the circumpolar Arctic shared a language and could understand each other. Now, I am not sure.

People words. Klondiker, Eskimo, Inuit, oiler, explorer, kayaker, angakok, shaman, kabluna, cheechako. Sourdoughs are Alaskan old-timers, kablunas are Europeans who do not belong. Everywhere in the world we have words for people who belong, and people who do not.

Words for fire in the sky — northern lights, auroral zone, curtains, streamers, magnetic midnight. When I was ten, someone in the family took the Southern Aurora to Sydney. We drove our station wagon full of children to Spencer Street station. The night train had silver carriages with roomettes, twinettes, and a dining car. I could not believe how sophisticated it was.

‘What’s an aurora?’, I asked. Until that moment, I did not know how badly I needed to see one.

Above all, words for the crystalline heart of the Arctic — ice words. Shuga, frazil, grease, candle ice, pancake ice, sea ice, sina. Breaking-out, freezing up. Pingo, thermafrost, frost smoke.

Men who sailed in Greenland’s cold waters also went south towards an uncertain Antarctica, taking the ice and snow words of the Arctic with them — weightless stowaways across the equator, boat words, asylum-seeker words rafting up on Antarctic ice, looking for different animals to cling to, different ice to belong with. Climate change refugee words. Arctic sea ice is melting so fast it could disappear in 30 years.

Language is the archive of history, said Emerson, who knew (as dictionary makers do) that a single word can hold a whole history of human exploration and our treatment of the natural world. Take ‘penguin’ —in fact we can take it as far as a word can go, from one polar region to the other. The first penguins were the northern hemisphere’s now-extinct great auks, Pinguinis impennis, large black and white flightless birds. They looked so similar to the birds we now call penguins that when Arctic sailors and explorers saw the southern hemisphere birds, they used a name they already knew for creatures who were like the birds they already knew. The word is so firmly naturalised now in the southern hemisphere that it seems native.

I am surrounded by these words when I work on my dictionary of Arctic English. It is so absorbing that when I sit down to do it, cares fall away. I write in a dry, unpopular inland city in southeastern Australia, far from the globe’s northern polar regions. But words can take me there.


Find out more about Bernadette Hince’s Grand Polar Dictionary in a previous Dailies piece, in which she revealed some of the process and method of working on the project.

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highlightThe Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Aurelia Guo’s The Weather Report is a performance poetry series of found and self-authored fragments, taken from the internet, daily life and social interactions. Here are two of the poems she worked on during her time as a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.

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highlight The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Laura Woollett is working on a proposed collection of short stories, The Love of a Bad Man, spotlighting the women who have stood by some of history’s most sinister men. Whether mistresses, accomplices, or victims themselves, these women have something in common: they have all felt the allure of evil. This is one of her stories, ‘Eva’.


According to my sister Ilse, there’s a Jew in Vienna who spends all his time listening to bored women talking. They lie down on a couch with their backs to him, plucking at their blouse buttons and going on about all sorts of things: their dreams, their memories, their childhoods.

‘Why?’ I ask Ilse.

‘For enlightenment,’ she says. ‘Of course, you wouldn’t know anything about that.’

Ilse is working for a Jewish doctor when she tells me this. His name is Dr. Marx and he’s an ear, nose, and throat specialist. He lets her sleep in a room next to his office and she stops going out with young men, spouts off about apnea and sinusitus whenever she gets the chance. When things start changing and Dr. Marx has to move to America, Ilse’s eyes are red for weeks. She looks at me like she hates me and says it’s all my fault, that things could be different if I wasn’t so ignorant.

Sometimes I think about that Jew in Vienna when I’m lying around, waiting for Him. By the phone in my little brown-roofed villa. On the terrace beneath the bright umbrellas. Smoking in my suite at the Grand Hotel. I think about my head opening up and everything spilling out of it in a multi-coloured jumble, like clothes on the floor when I’m dressing for dinner. My dreams. My memories. My childhood. All of it falling together until I’m enlightened.

*

It begins on a couch. In the drawing room of his Prince Regent’s Place apartment, with Him in mourning and me giddy from a half-bottle of champagne. He won’t drink, but I’m determined to cheer him up. I lean on his arm on our way out of the restaurant and, in the Mercedes, blink at him with serious eyes. I tell him I’d do anything to see him happy.

It is quick and less painful than I expect. Embarrassing in its quickness, like a fish leaping into a rowboat, thrashing about, then sliding back into the deep blue water. His face turns red, like I’ve heard it does when he makes speeches. Once he has caught his breath and buttoned up, he rises from the couch. I hike down my dress and start pulling on my stockings, but they’re full of runs. He touches my golden head and tells me he’ll buy me new ones. He tells me I’m a good girl.

*

I’m three weeks into my job at Mr. Hoffman’s photo studio when He first sets eyes on me. Standing on a ladder to reach some files on the top shelf and wearing a skirt that’s hemmed too short. He stands at the front of the shop, wearing a shabby raincoat and talking to Mr. Hoffmann in a low voice. I feel them looking at my legs.

I don’t recognise Him from his photographs. I don’t recognise any of the men who come in, though I see their faces every day in the darkroom and hanging up around the shop. But after I come down from the ladder that day and he asks for my name and kisses my hand, I start paying attention. I can’t say why, but I feel I have to.

Every time He comes into the shop, he makes a point of talking to me. It surprises me that he takes such an interest, him being so much older and serious-looking, me the youngest girl at work and still plump from my convent school diet. But when we start talking, I find out he’s not so serious. He likes to eat cream cakes and marzipan. He likes to go to the theatre. He likes to pay compliments to pretty girls, me most of all.

‘How lovely your complexion is, Miss Eva! Like peaches and cream.’

‘Those stockings look very nice, Miss Eva. You have the legs of a dancer.’

‘Miss Eva, you should be in front of a camera, not behind one!’

One day, He brings me an autographed photo of himself in uniform, looking mysterious and thoughtful. I show the photograph to Ilse when I get home from work and she laughs so much I want to slap her, then tells me solemnly that I can’t let Papa see it. ‘You know how he feels about radical politics,’ she says. Together we lift up the lining of my underwear drawer and hide it beneath my schoolgirl wools and cottons. For now, I can only dream of satin and lace.

*

Sometimes my papa says I’m a good girl. Other times, he says I’m bad, wayward, a disappointment. I can be good for getting a B in German. I can be bad for getting a B in German. I can be good for looking pretty. I can be bad for looking pretty. I can be good for playing sports like a boy. I can be bad for playing sports like a boy. It’s so hard for me to keep track of what’s good and what’s bad, I’ve given up trying.

Ilse never gets in trouble with Papa. Neither does my little sister Gretl, who’s still at the convent. It’s always me who seems to get Papa worked up. One night at the dinner table, I ask Papa if he’s heard of Him, just to see how he reacts. ‘

That man? He’s a charlatan, a fool who thinks he’s omniscient. He says he’s going to change the world. Not likely!’

Ilse and I stuff our cheeks full of potato so Papa won’t see us laughing, and are quick to go our own ways once our plates are cleared. I think she’s sneaking out to call Dr. Marx. I shut the door to our room and lie down, closing my eyes until I can see His face floating above mine. I see his face and it’s like lying in a field of forget-me-nots, under a full white moon, at the height of spring. I say his name and feel bad, delicious.

*

He often has to go out of town for business, to the capital and other places. Sometimes, months pass without me seeing him. This is okay before what happens on the couch, but afterward, I assume things will be different. I wonder what the point of it all is − his compliments and gifts, his dates with me to the theatre and opera and his chalet in the mountains − if he has so little need for me. I stop being plump.

He had a niece who lived at his Prince Regent’s Place apartment before we become lovers. She was pretty and plump, and wore the latest fashions from Vienna − clicky heels and fur coats, beautiful silk dresses. One day, when he was off working somewhere else, she aimed a pistol at her chest and shot herself dead.

I remember this alone in my parents' house, waiting for a phone call that never comes. Unlocking Papa’s war pistol from its dusty case and pointing it where I hurt most, then jerking it away right before it goes off. Ilse comes home first, finds me dizzy in a puddle of my own blood. She calls one of Dr. Marx’s friends and he fixes me up in the middle of the night. We pass the whole thing off to my parents as an accident.

And Him? He flies back immediately, promises me an apartment of my own, close to his.

*

Papa and Him first meet when I’m on tour with his publicity team. I set up equipment for my boss and sometimes get to take photos of Him myself, making speeches and holding his hand up to the crowds. The crowds are always full of women, who give off a smell and yell out crazy things − that they love him, that they would die for him, that they want to bear his children. I’m not jealous of these women. They’ll never get as close to Him as me.

We stop at a lodge outside town. I tell my parents to be there for lunch, though our convoy doesn’t arrive until after four. Papa is civil. He hails him, and afterward they shake hands. ‘Your daughter is a very good girl,‘ He tells Papa. Papa says nothing. He knows exactly what this means.

*

I don’t want to be ignorant, but politics are so boring to me. Every time I try to get through the book He wrote before he became famous, my mind turns into a dumb wall. It’s the same with the newspapers, which I only skim for pictures of Him. And music. How I’d rather dance to fast jazz or slow, moony American love songs than listen to the stuff He likes: Strauss, Verdi, Wagner, Wagner, Wagner.

He doesn’t mind if I’m ignorant. I can sit in the sun and read Oscar Wilde, flick through fashion and movie magazines, and he’s happy. He says it’s better for a woman to be soft, sweet, and stupid than intellectual, and I’m not one to dispute this. I’m not like Ilse, always trying to sound smarter than she really is.

*

He gives me the brown-roofed villa after I take too many sleeping pills on purpose. My papa won’t visit me there, but Mama and Ilse do. We drink nice wine and I show them the flagstone patio, the table tennis set, the high garden walls that no busybodies can see over. I show them all the artwork on the walls inside, including some watercolors that He did himself a long time ago. I show them the brand-new TV set, which gets broadcasts straight from the capital. I tell Ilse she’s welcome to move in with me along with our little sister Gretl, who’s coming home from convent in a few weeks. She isn’t interested. Dr. Marx is still in town, running his practice.

He gives me two little black dogs to keep me company in the villa, which follow me around as eagerly as Gretl does. He gives me a monthly allowance and I spend it on pretty things from Vienna and Italy: crocodile leather, silk underwear, shoes by Ferragamo. Nowadays, I don’t work unless He is going somewhere and wants me along as an assistant. Instead, Gretl and I lie on my bed during the day looking at patterns and catalogues and picking out what will suit me best.

Sometimes I think of hurting myself again: not only when He is out of town for too long, but also when he’s in town and taking his discretion too far, cold-shouldering me in public and telling everyone that he’ll never marry, that the only woman in his life is Germany. I think of doing it with poison, like Madame Bovary. But then I remember the fairytales I grew up with, how everything happens in threes. Three is serious. It’s life or death.

*

In summer, Gretl and I hitch rides in the mail truck out to Lake Konigssee, where the waters are the same deep blue as His eyes and icy with reflected snowcaps. There are always bronze-backed young men by the lake who we have fun with, men with cornsilk hair and names like Rudi, Heini, Bruno. They flick us with their towels, dunk us underwater and bear us up again in their strong arms.

He isn’t jealous when he sees pictures of me in my swimsuit with the young men. He says it’s good to see me having fun, making the most of the long summer days. He says there’s nothing more virtuous in the world than young, healthy, German bodies having fun in the sunlight.

They are German men, His men. I don’t forget this, even when they grab me by the wrists and ankles and swing me into the water, so I hit its surface with a hard, thrilling slap. My heart breaks as pleasure ripples through me, a murky bubbling and a pure mountain sky. They help me up and I know it’s all just innocent fun, that their bodies belong to Him as much as mine does.

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How Stephen King teaches writing

There is a wonderful interview in the Atlantic with Stephen King about the art and craft of teaching writing. Given that his memoir/how-to book, On Writing, is one of the most oft-cited writing handbooks that people swear by, it’s not surprising that this interview is so packed full of good advice and insights. (‘They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.’)

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Hollywood’s iconic ‘ Crying Indian’ was actually Italian

You’ve probably seen Iron Eyes Cody before. He starred in that iconic 1971 conservation ad, where the Native American paddles down a rubbish-strewn stream in a canoe, surrounded by smog, and stops to shed a single tear as more rubbish is tossed at his feet. It’s been satirised by The Simpsons, listed as one of the top 50 ads of all time, and ‘helped reduce litter by 88% across 38 states’. Cody appeared in several Westerns as a Native American between the 1930s and 1980s – but in 1996, he was revealed as a second-generation Italian.

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Why tech giants like Steve Jobs are low-tech parents

One seemingly contradictory headline that’s been making the rounds is the news that Steve Jobs was a ‘low-tech’ parent – his kids didn’t have iPads, and he limited their use of technology. Apparently, this is something he had in common with other heads of technology companies. Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, says his kids complain about the limits he sets, but ‘we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.’

A wedding dress made of divorce papers

Move over, Project Runway! A 15-year-old school student, Demi Barnes, has crafted a wedding dress out of divorce papers. She says she intended it ‘to emphasise how important the sacred institution of marriage is, especially in the face of ever-climbing divorce rates’.

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Professor Dumpster makes a home

Professor Jeff Wilson, dean of Huston-Tillotson University’s campus in Austin, Texas, lives on campus … in a 36-square-foot dumpster he’s turned into a home, sanctioned and supported by the university as part of an ongoing sustainability-focused experiment called The Dumpster Project. ‘We could end up with a house under $10,000 that could be placed anywhere in the world,’ Wilson said at the launch, ‘[fueled by] sunlight and surface water, and people could have a pretty good life.’

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Interior: Professor Jeff Wilson at home in his dumpster.

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19 September 2014

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Samuel Wagan Watson is an award-winning Indigenous poet and professional raconteur. Born in Brisbane in 1972, he is of Munanjali, Birri Gubba, German and Irish descent. Samuel’s first collection of poems won the 1998 David Unaipon Award. His fourth collection, Smoke Encrypted Whispers, won the 2005 NSW Premier’s Award for the Book of the Year and the Kenneth Slessor poetry prize. His latest collection is Love Poems and Death Threats.

In a delightfully innovative response to our usual ten series of questions, Samuel has written a thoughtful and enlightening piece that answers them all, and traces his development, inspiration and approach as a writer: being inspired by Marvel Comics, falling into poetry, weird critical responses, and his background as a working-class writer within a family of writers.

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Thank you for sending me these questions because your timing is brilliant! I’m currently a writer-in-residence at the University of Canberra; Faculty of Arts and Design, and I’ve been answering questions like this all week in these awesome surroundings. The air is chilly but the environment is incredibly warm. I’m not sure if it’s the spring wattle blooming everywhere, like the sun started dropping bits of skin into bushels of trees, or that maybe this academic environment is spiked with an air of truth serum, because I’m feeling completely honest at the moment.

Poetry is not my passion. Poetry is simply the only component of my writing that is apparently viable for publication. My prose, in the early 90s, was simply ‘terrible’ according to the editors of some of Australia’s leading literary magazines. The first short story I had published was back in 1983 in an anthology of the best writers in Queensland primary schools. The editors of the anthology, though, felt my work was also abysmal. My teachers at the time kind of agreed, but I was the only kid in that senior year who kept a journal.

The best thing about being a full-time writer is that my environment changes weekly and I have the opportunity to meet and work with people who are at the coal-face of our industry. This week I’m in Canberra and the positiveness of the faculty stands out in the students. Everyone here has a manuscript in progress. This faculty’s staff are mostly working-writers who seem to have a literary life away from academia. So, I’m blessed to be in such a place.

Which leads me, mid-way into answering a question, to look into another question… Can writing be taught? I don’t believe it can be. You either inherit the skill or you are mentored. Mentoring is very different from teaching. Here at CU, there seems to be more of a taste for mentoring. I’ve spoken with young writers who carry an air of someone who has been nurtured and not indoctrinated in the ABC’s of Shakespeare!

The worst thing about my job has struck me while here, though. I’m a freelance writer, which means I’m basically my own boss, which means that I do struggle a bit compared to a salary earner. And no one whom I’ve worked for in the last month has paid me yet! Usually when I’m broke, the old-school working-class spirit that I was born into makes me put the pen down! Here though, I’ve been well kept and have seriously put some dints into reams of paper with a fine-point pen.

love_poems_and_death_threats So, the interrogations here have been wonderful. Everyone keeps asking me how I write and I tell them honestly… I don’t know? The only book to have ever made a true cognitive smash to my cranium was a Stan Lee/Marvel Comic back in 1988 – The Punisher War Journals! I was a kid who was finally handed the keys to the sacred chest of creativity. I spent a good deal of my meagre fortnightly wages in Brisbane’s comic and music stores. I also remember bringing home a copy of The Dead Kennedys’ Holiday in Cambodia. I was like Dr Frankenstein hiding in my room with headphones on, covertly conducting dark experiments of creativity.

I grew up in a relatively cool household, so I don’t know why I felt the need to hide my music and comics from Mum and Dad. Dad is a published author and playwright and my sister is also an award-winning writer of crime fiction. Back when I was a kid, though, in a working-class high school, we were taught that anything artistic was effeminate and a trait within yourself to be ashamed of. That’s probably the worst advice I’ve ever been given by a so-called teacher.

The best advice that I received at that time was to keep a journal and to this day I’d have to say that it has helped me maintain a good pace in the writing game.

I wouldn’t even start to contemplate how to live my life in another way though. Between 2008 – 2010, I suffered a couple of brain haemorrhages which left me partially paralysed for around six months. And even though I couldn’t speak properly and had to learn to hold a pen again, I never once thought that the game was up! I perceived my predicament as a ‘holding-pattern-phase’ and an obstacle that was just in the way of writing another manuscript. I could still type with one finger, so I could maintain my work as a copywriter in radio. I got better … fathered a beautiful little boy … and published another manuscript. At the time it seemed like the only sensible thing to do.

When I wrap up my residency here at CU, I’m flying home to Brisbane and jumping on a boat to North Stradbroke Island. My brother has become chef-de-cuisine in a nice little place overlooking the Pacific. To research my next book I’ve volunteered as his dishwasher for a week. So who knows; when the writing ends, I could have a great career as a kitchen hand?

My diary for the next year is almost full and I wouldn’t mind lending some more hands-on work in my role as an ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which is an incredibly cool cause. (I think I learn more from the kids about my writing than they learn from me?) And I think, even as an established writer, that it’s healthy to keep learning. I wasn’t ready for university when I was in my 20s and basically I’m ashamed that I wasted the time of the English department at a university whose press now publishes my work. The ethic here at University of Canberra really impresses me and I feel I am ready to achieve a degree and hopefully become a qualified mentor in creative writing. Mind you … I’m still to find a writing style of my own that I can be content with. And that is a warning to other aspiring writers – You all have the ability to become your own worst critic!

While we’re on that note, the weirdest thing a critic has ever said about my work is that one of my poems ‘clearly illustrated my sexual ambivalence’(???) WTF? I wasn’t even getting sex at the time when I wrote a poem about the sad remains of a crow on a stretch of desert highway in rural Queensland. Do I have any sexual ambivalence now as an established writer … I still don’t know. So to wrap this up, I’m not a literary gourmet, I’m more a gourmand, and would put a comic book before me any day over Tolstoy. I like bookstores and dislike the way e-books have really wrecked a few of my own books for the audience, as my poetry is lineated differently on a Kindle. If I had the chance to catch a hearty meal tonight, on one of my last nights in Canberra, with any of my favourite characters, it would have to be with Bender from Futurama. I’d take that Teflon-coated sinner to a bar where all of Canberra’s right-wing journalists drink and spur him-on to ask them all to kiss his shiny metal ass!

Amobarbitol has been used by certain governments and regimes as a psychoactive medication to obtain information from subjects who are unwilling or unable to provide information otherwise. My last piece of advice to writers is that you don’t need anything to capture an audience but pure, fresh ideas and that an audience needs to be listened to … in our game, the customer is always right!


Samuel Wagan Watson’s latest collection is Love Poems and Death Threats (UQP).

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Jo Case reflects on the defining themes of Kylie Ladd’s new novel, Mothers and Daughters: the complexities of female friendships, 21st-century adolescence, and the divide between black and white Australia. It’s all set against the stark tropical beauty of Broome, where Kylie and her family lived for a year.

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One of the things I love about Kylie Ladd’s novels is the way she uses them to explore the things we talk around, or straight-up avoid, in real life. And she does that through characters who feel real, like people we can imagine knowing – or even being.

The women in Mothers and Daughters, Kylie’s fourth novel, are long-standing friends: they met as parents when their children started school, and bonded through netball training and classroom reading, school drop-offs and Friday afternoon drinks. They cherish each other, but they don’t always like each other – not in every moment, and not even at every stage of their lives.

Fiona internally sighs when Caro turns a transaction at the Qantas desk into a long, chatty conversation with the clerk. Morag is both envious and a little judgey at Caro’s immaculate grooming for the plane trip – but compliments her to cover it up. They all indulge in the occasional silent commentary on each other’s parenting.

But they also support each other in their worst moments – from drunken follies like Fiona vomiting in the hotel pool to major life upheavals (which I won’t reveal). They love each other despite knowing their flaws, and even to some degree because of them. Fiona, who flashes her breasts at a young man who tells her she’s too old for him and consistently comes out with the most prejudiced statements, is appreciated by the progressive Amira (and the others) for her very outrageousness. ‘She was wicked Fiona. She did and said things the rest of them would scarcely dare think. She was their collective id.’

And – I think this is perhaps the real test of a friendship – these women argue and make up. They make mistakes and forgive each other those mistakes.

It’s this complexity – and Kylie’s willingness to create characters for whom love and affection bump up against irritation and resentment – that makes them real. This is female friendships as I recognise them. And it’s refreshing to see those complexities on the page.

And this is reflected in the relationships between the women’s teenage daughters, too – perhaps more intensely. Teenagers are creatures of change, of transition. Naturally, this means their friendships often are too; not all childhood friendships make that transition to adolescence. And even if they do, they’re often altered in some way. In Mothers and Daughters, Kylie traces those shifting alliances and identities, and the way girls can grow apart and pull back together. She looks at the role of personalities and circumstances in that process. And she beautifully explores that duelling urge and reticence to grow up, particularly in the character of Janey, the gorgeous popular girl you love to hate as a reader … but are also lured into empathising with as you see the insecurities and uncertainty that prick below the surface. (No mean feat.)

Kylie is a writer of great empathy; that quality is at the heart of her novels, I think. And it’s deeply attractive. Empathy is one of the reasons we read; to enter other lives, other people’s heads, and find out what it’s like to be them. And when we experience things through the perspectives of characters we can identify with, those characters give us a valuable window onto other experiences.

Something Mothers and Daughters does especially well is to look at complexities of various kinds, and try to understand them.

Friendships, as I’ve said.

The relationships between mothers and daughters, of course: including resentments, misunderstandings, the generation gap, second-hand ambition, pride, embarrassment, camaraderie and love.

Sex. Childbirth. Getting older, as women – and becoming less visible in the world.

One of the big things Kylie tackles in this book – and I think she’s very brave to do this as a white Australian writer – is the divide between black and white Australia.

Kylie spent a year living in Broome with her family, and it’s an experience that profoundly affected her. She’s written about her personal experiences and observations elsewhere, and the way that living there forced her to see what a divided country we are, the cultural differences that exist. The gaps in opportunities and resources available to black and white Australians. And the casual racism that exists, everywhere. The assumptions we make. And the political correctness that can mean we avoid making observations for fear of getting it wrong, or being racist ourselves.

What Kylie does in Mothers and Daughters is refuse to not see. She draws on her experiences in the north-west of Australia and describes life in a remote community from the inside, from various outsiders’ points of view. And some of what they see, and how they interpret it, is confronting. Amira, the teacher who is working in the community for a year, and her daughter Tess, are the characters with the most understanding of, and affection for, it. Bronte, one of the teenage girls, is entranced by Aboriginal art and deeply touched by stories of the Stolen Generation. At the opposite end, there is the starkly racist Fiona (Bronte’s mother), who uses words like ‘boong’, believes some of the Stolen Generation were probably better off without their mothers and gets annoyed by ‘all the fuss’ over Sorry Day. And then there’s Caro, who develops a crush on a local Aboriginal man in a way that uncomfortably merges with exoticism.

Some of what Kylie’s characters say and do is shocking. Some of it is racist. Some of what she observes about the Aboriginal community where Amira lives and teaches reflects stereotypes: kids who don’t attend school, teenagers who get pregnant. But some stereotypes have a basis in observed truth – even if what causes them is deeper and more complex, and they form only part of the picture. And when we pretend they don’t exist at all, we’re not genuinely engaging with the issues. And how do we confront prejudices if we don’t acknowledge they exist? It is uncomfortable to read some of these passages on the page, but it gets us thinking about our own attitudes and assumptions. This is a good thing.

Indigenous author Anita Heiss, in her latest novel, Tiddas, has her characters talk about what makes the Great Australian Novel. Some of the things they talk about include: that it should challenge the reader’s values as Aussies. That it should entertain while providing a message. And that it should definitely include Indigenous themes and characters.

Kylie has done all of these things in Mothers and Daughters. She doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but she poses the questions.

It is confronting and challenging to do this. It is easier as a writer not to write about these subjects, so you can avoid any danger of being called out as prejudiced, or plain wrong.

But folding Indigenous themes and characters into stories of everyday Australians and Australian life is, surely, Reconciliation in practice. It is a risk, but I commend Kylie on taking this risk, on writing the world as she sees it, and inviting us to think about why we are the way we are. What we should celebrate, what we can do better. As women, as mothers and daughters, and as Australians.

What’s more, she entertains us thoroughly along the way, with the seeming ease of a writer who is a practiced and proven storyteller.


This text was delivered as a launch speech at Fairfield Books earlier this month.

Kylie Ladd will be one of the authors at The Next Big Thing, here at the Wheeler Centre, in November.

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17 September 2014

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highlight When we think about China, we think of it as of the world’s leading polluters, and biggest obstacles to keeping climate change to habitable levels. But while it’s the world’s leading producer of power and source of carbon emissions through burning fuel, it’s also leading the world in the production of renewable energy, including wind turbines, solar-photovoltaic cells, and smart-grid technologies.

And as the scale of Chinese manufacturing has grown, costs have correspondingly dropped.

What does this mean for Australia? Most obviously, that we could follow China’s example and make renewable energy a priority. But it also means that China, one of Australia’s biggest customers for our coal exports, is becoming less reliant on our coal, and may import less of it in the future.

China’s ‘mammoth green energy system’

‘While the rest of the world has been fixated on China’s build-up of black, fossil-fuelled energy systems, the country has been quietly building a mammoth green energy system, based on water, wind and solar power,’ write John Matthews and Hoa Tan on The Conversation. ‘China’s renewable power capacity now exceeds that of every other country.’

In Australia, around 75% of our energy is produced by burning coal. This makes us one of the highest polluters, per capita, in the world.

But there is good news, too.

Australia’s opportunity to transition to a ‘decarbonised economy’

An August report by the Australian Energy Market Operator found that, for the first time in history, Australia will need no new coal or gas power capacity over the next ten years. The Climate Council (formerly the government-run Climate Commission, now independent and crowd-funded), has called for Australia to begin phasing out inefficient power stations.

‘A step change in the rollout of wind and solar power, combined with battery storage, will help the renewable sector to begin the heavy lifting in the generation of Australia’s electricity, whilst simultaneously helping to achieve deeper emissions cuts,’ wrote the Council’s Tim Flannery and Andrew Stock.

They believe that we now have the opportunity to transition to a decarbonised economy, without sacrificing our energy security.

Wind and solar capacity grows in SA and ACT

According to Flannery and Stock, South Australia’s wind farms have produced enough electricity to meet a record 43% of the state’s power needs during July of this year, making the state a world leader in wind capacity. (It accounts for 28% of the state’s electricity generation). The ACT is on track to make 90% of its power from wind and solar by 2020. By 2013, 1.1 million solar PV systems were installed across Australia.

‘This growth has been assisted by the falling costs of renewable energy, with wind projected to be 20-30 per cent cheaper by 2020 and solar PV is expected to halve in cost.’

Clean energy future versus support for coal industry

In the US, president Barack Obama has introduced environmental rules that will cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30% by 2030. He has said that ‘a low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth’.

Here in Australia, prime minister Tony Abbott has said he can ‘think of few things more damaging to our future’ than leaving coal in the ground and that the current government doesn’t ‘believe in ostracising any particular fuel … For many decades at least, coal will continue to fuel human progress as an affordable energy source for wealthy and developing countries alike.’

But while the government has committed to supporting the coal industry, the groundswell support for renewable energy is already creating change, slowly but surely – from the crowd-funded existence of the Climate Council to the record-making decline in energy demand. And renewable energy costs are set to continue to plummet – and its technology to improve – driven partly by the rise in its use and investment in countries like China and Germany.


You can ask the experts all about Australia’s renewable energy future in our Question Time event, Renewable Energy, next Wednesday 24 September at 6.15pm. Free, bookings recommended.

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Crime writer Andrew Nette looks at the evolution of the true crime genre in Australia, from literary approaches by Helen Garner and Anna Krien, and serious works of journalism by Robin De Crespigny and Matthew Condon, to ‘hit and run’ books. What can a good true crime book explore, beyond the crime? And why is the genre suddenly so popular?

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In her latest book, This House of Grief, Helen Garner examines the case of Robert Farquharson, who on Father’s Day 2005 drove his car into a dam off the Princes Highway near Geelong, drowning his three young sons. It is among a number of recent works that demonstrate how true crime writing has changed over the last few years.

Others are Anna Krien’s Night Games: Sex Power and Sport, which won the 2014 Sisters in Crime Davitt award for best true crime book, and Robin De Crespigny’s The People Smuggler, ostensibly a non-fiction story about the experience of an Iraqi asylum seeker, which took the 2013 Ned Kelly crime writing award for best non-fiction. Matthew Condon’s Jacks and Jokers is another example. The second instalment of a trilogy about police corruption in Queensland from the sixties to the Fitzgerald Inquiry in 1987, it has the feel of an ambitious alternative social history rather than a piece of true crime writing.

‘In terms of definition,’ says veteran true crime writer Lindsay Simpson, ‘true crime is a literary rendition of a particular crime which pays homage to veracity by researching the crime across multiple sources, including interviews and primary source documents, while at the same time engaging the reader through its narrative.’

in_cold_blood Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), his investigation into the 1959 murder of a Kansas farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife and two of their four children, is often credited with pioneering the more literary end of the true crime genre. Despite allegations Capote took liberties with the story, the book has had huge critical impact. It took Capote five years to research and write.

At the other end of the spectrum are more lowbrow and sensationalist offerings. These hark back to the time when true crime was the preserve of lurid magazines and pulp books. Written and turned around quickly, these books often feel cobbled together from newspaper clippings or existing interviews and are designed to capitalise on the public’s fascination with a particular crime or series of crimes.

This House of Grief arguably has a foot in both heritages. Farquharson’s crime caused widespread shock and revulsion and gripped public attention. But Garner’s telling has won praise for the literary quality of the writing and its nuanced observations. Add to this a dash of good old-fashioned courtroom drama. ‘You won’t read a better description of the rarefied air of an appeal court,’ wrote the Saturday Age’s Cameron Woodhead in a recent review. ‘The twists and turns of this true crime story are, in Garner’s hands, more engrossing and dramatic than any thriller.’

‘I think good true crime is about profound realities like crime and punishment, justice, and ultimately resilience for those left shattered in its wake,’ says Melbourne true crime writer Vikki Petraitis. ‘Is [a book] true crime simply because there is a crime in it? Mostly, these questions are answered by the publisher and which shelf the book appears on. What I do know is that good true crime should have a wider application and make people think long and hard not only about the crime, but its broader implications. When Phil Cleary wrote about the provocation law (which allowed men an ‘excuse’ in the killing of their partners) it helped push for a change in the law.’

night_games In addition to good writing, books like Night Games and The People Smuggler also deal with issues not usually thought of as being in the remit of traditional true crime: the finer points of sexual consent or issues around asylum seekers and people smuggling, ‘crimes’ in which the guilty party and the nature of their crime are unclear.

‘My sense is that there are still quick hit-and-run books and more serious and thoughtful ‘literary’ works, as there have always been,’ says Wollongong University professor and co-convenor of the Sisters in Crime, Sue Turnbull.

What is undeniable is that the publishing environment for true crime has changed. As Simpson recalls: ‘When Brothers in Arms [the book she wrote with Sandra Harvey about the about the Milperra bikie massacre] was published in 1989, there was no true crime section and we were told that many bookshops were confused as to whether to sell it as fiction or non-fiction.’ This confusion, she believes, resulted largely from the fact there were so few books like it. ‘In the past two decades, true crime writing has grown steadily as a genre in Australia, rivaling crime fiction.’

Why is true crime in its various guises so popular?

line_of_sight‘Firstly, the age-old and worldwide fascination for deviance,’ says Perth crime writer David Whish Wilson, whose 2010 crime novel, Line of Sight, is based on real events surrounding the unsolved murder in the seventies of South Perth brothel owner Shirley Finn. ‘Secondly, plain old marketing. As a popular genre, the books seem to be everywhere, especially at airports. Finally, and most importantly, while the subject matter is non-fictional, a good true crime writer uses the skills of creative non-fiction as a means to take disparate facts and events and bring the whole thing to life by way of effective characterisation, strong visual language, and an ability to order the various facts and events in the best possible way.’

One factor that could be driving the new breed of true crime books is the increasingly diverse backgrounds of those writing them. While Simpson comes from a strong investigative journalism background, Garner is a novelist and screenwriter and de Crespigny a filmmaker. John Safran, author of another acclaimed true crime work, Murder in Mississippi (which won the Ned Kelly award for true crime last weekend) was a filmmaker, radio broadcaster and cultural commentator.

And there are more resources available to those writing true crime. Writers can now access post-mortem reports online. Pictures of the accused, their victims and their families are often splashed across the media. Transcripts of investigations, financial records, material that used to be the preserve of working journalists, are now more freely available. ‘What this will do to the genre is yet to be evaluated,’ maintains Simpson. ‘It detracts from the old-fashioned ‘shoe leather’ approach of getting out of the office and doing your research.’

‘Journalism is still the best training ground for the true crime writer,’ says Melbourne true crime author Adam Shand, currently working on a book about the life of criminal identity Mark Chopper Read. ‘You start off with whoever will talk to you. That’s the bottom line. After that it’s really a question about journalistic method. If you have worked in a media environment you get used to the idea that you have to have multiple sources. Whatever you are told you have to try and cross reference with a document or some other source.’

‘A lot of true crime writing really is simply basic journalistic craft,’ agrees Condon, who has interviewed over a thousand people for the first two books in his planned trilogy. ‘Go out and find other people and try and verify incidents from different angles.’

Not that subjectivity doesn’t have a part to play in good true crime writing. Garner often writes about how the events she is covering have impacted on her. Others, like Chloe Hooper, author of The Tall Man, choose to write from a first-person narrative.

WHERE_IS_DANIEL ‘True-crime writers take a side and we use very persuasive language to build our cases,’ notes Petraitis. ‘When I wrote about serial killer Paul Denyer in The Frankston Murders (1995), I was never going to be sympathetic to him. I offered him the opportunity to talk to me, but was secretly relieved when he refused. I didn’t want to accommodate whatever excuses he would invariably come up with for killing three young women.’

Simpson’s latest book, Where Is Daniel? is about the disappearance of Daniel Morcombe while waiting for a bus near his Sunshine Coast home in September 2003. Written with his parents, Bruce and Denise, Simpson was not only deeply affected by the story, she became a small player in the saga by echoing their criticisms of aspects of the ten year police investigation, the largest in Australian history.

Condon briefly became a media participant in his own story when disgraced former Queensland police commissioner Terry Lewis, who was working with Condon on the story, severed all ties soon after the May 2014 release of Jacks and Jokers, and demanded the return of thousands of confidential files and documents.

Condon has also found himself becoming a magnet for stories, tip-offs and documents from people across Queensland who, up until the publication of the first book, Three Crooked Kings in 2013, were too scared to come forward. ‘A lot of people [have] felt there was just enough passage of time to for them to think, ‘what the hell, I’ll tell you what happened’.


Some of the quotes in this article were drawn from the panel session, ‘True Crime Truths’, which took place August 16 as part of the National Non-Fiction Festival.

Andrew Nette is a Melbourne-based writer and reviewer. You can follow him on Twitter @Pulpcurry.

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When we colonise Mars

Apparently, humans colonising Mars is now a plan, not a dream. NASA has announced that we’ll have an astronaut on Mars by 2035, with plans to establish a permanent presence. And MarsOne, a Dutch non-profit with plans to establish a human colony, is choosing astronauts from the 200,00 who’ve applied to live there; they’ll start even earlier, in 2024.

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Elif Batuman on awkwardness

Elif Batuman looks at the importance of awkwardness in American culture, from Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm to Adam Gopnik’s reflections on sexual, intergenerational, and socioeconomic awkwardness, and a controversial new Taylor Swift video.

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Custom-grown vegetables

What’s the next step in food fashion? The Atlantic predicts that organic-everything and molecular gastronomy will be followed up by a collaboration between growers and chefs, in which chefs can ask the plant breeders who provide farmers with seeds to engineer plants that meet their requirements.

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Photo: Andy Roberts, Flickr.

An author interviews her editor, copyeditor, agent and publicists

Over at The Millions, author Edan Lepucki (whose book California made it big after Stephen Colbert declared it the book of the summer) has interviewed various people who were instrumental in making her book a success: her editor, copyeditor, agent and her two publicists. The result is a fascinating insight into the process of creating and promoting a book, and a welcome exercise in bringing the back-room operatives of publishing into the limelight.

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LGBT teens made homeless by religious parents

Rolling Stone has gathered the stories of LGBT teens who’ve been rejected by their religious parents and made homeless, some of them struggling to keep up a facade for their classmates. It’s situations like this that mean LGBT people make up roughly five percent of the youth population overall, but an estimated 40 percent of the homeless-youth population.

‘There is a psychological reality that when you’re an oppressed group whose very existence is under attack, you need to create this narrative about how great it is to be what you are’ … from day one of the Stonewall Riots, homeless kids were not what people wanted to see. No one wanted to see young people coming out and being cast into destitution. It didn’t fit the narrative.

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12 September 2014

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Rebecca Lim is a writer and illustrator based in Melbourne, Australia. She worked as a commercial lawyer for several years before leaving to write full-time. Rebecca is the author of 15 books for children and young adult readers. The latest is The Astrologer’s Daughter (Text). Rebecca was a guest at this week’s The Next Big Thing.

We spoke to her about ‘channeling voices’ when you write, creating ‘strong, quick-witted female protagonists who aren’t necessarily nice, likeable, tractable or pretty’, and why her best writing advice comes from Kate Bush.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I was lucky enough to win the Mattara Junior Poetry Prize in 1983? 1984? Back in the days when I used to fancy myself a bit of a poet (until I realised how impossibly hard it is to write truly great poetry!). I think the poem made it into the anthology for that year.

What’s the best part of your job?

I call it: ‘channeling voices’. When the writing is just flying and you’ve gone completely off-road from what you intended to do that day – but it’s working – it’s the best feeling. Nothing really compares.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I’m more of a people-watcher and stealth eavesdropper, so the publicity aspect of writing I’ve sometimes found challenging (to the extent that I should probably pop a few beta blockers before I get behind a microphone but, somehow, I usually muddle through and the world does not end).

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

I’m grateful to every publisher and every editor who has taken me in and worked with me. Each working relationship I’ve established with some of the best publishing/writing/editing minds in this country has been significant and educational and greatly cherished. In the age we live in (does that make me sound dinosauric?), having any one want to even read or publish your work at all is a fist-pump moment.

But if I had to name the most significant moment? I’d have to say that as a three-time reject entrant of the Vogel Awards, getting a letter out of the blue one year from Allen & Unwin extracting part of the judges’ analysis of one of my manuscripts was like being hit by lightning. These lovely people had taken the time to write to me and tell me ‘You can actually write’ – you’ve got … something – and it actually gave me the guts to quit my day job to see if I could work something decent up. I’ve never gone back to my old job (sorry old job).

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

My parents can’t understand where any of this has come from so they don’t dish out writing advice other than to tell me I should go back to being a lawyer (!) My publishers and editors have largely been kind and generally leave me to my own devices, only mildly but firmly pointing out sentences where I’ve repeated myself with words of emphasis or gone sick with the italics.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

astrologers_daughterJust recently, I stumbled across a New Zealand critic taking me to task for my sarcastic teen female protagonist in The Astrologer’s Daughter using words like ‘boobs’ and ‘rack’ to describe her own body. She said language like that would feed into girls having ‘poor body image’ issues. And I have to say, I was utterly gobsmacked. The character – Avicenna Crowe – is the world’s biggest cynic and realist and she is using them in a humorous and ironic sense to describe a part of her anatomy she finds, in all honesty, a bit of a nuisance.

Now, people who are familiar with my books – from toddlers (the Ladybird book Bravest Princess Ever) to young adults (the Mercy series) – will know that I am a fierce champion for strong, quick-witted female protagonists who aren’t necessarily nice, likeable, tractable or pretty. To say I’m promoting ‘poor body image’ issues is to say you’ve completely missed the point of my books, frankly.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Writing prospectuses; two words which speak for themselves. I realise that would still be ‘working with words’ but the words would need legal, marketing and financial sign-off, and have no inherent beauty to them when taken as a whole.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Things like writing to deadline, grammar and the art of self-editing can definitely be taught. Having a fresh ‘non-you’ pair of eyes looking at your work is absolutely invaluable, in my view. Things that make perfect sense to you because you’ve read them 50 times and have every character’s back story in your head will not necessarily make sense to a third party. Having someone say: ‘I think you need to make the connection between A and B stronger because I just don’t see it’ is a gift.

That being said, however, you need to be a little bit mad to be a writer. And I use that term with the greatest affection and with no pejorative intent toward anyone. To live in this world but hold all these others in your head, peopled with fantastic beings? Not everybody wants to do that.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

In the immortal words of Kate Bush, ‘Don’t give up’.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. (I’m sorry, I’m sorry).

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

It wouldn’t make for comfortable eating, in all likelihood, but I’d love to sit at supper with Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon and Kim Harrison’s witch/bounty-hunter, Rachel Morgan. There would probably be instant disagreement about ‘people of action’ versus ‘persons of cool intellect’ and I’d probably have to stop them all from literally killing each other and the food would go cold, but it wouldn’t be a dull evening.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

In terms of children’s books, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story was breathtaking to me as a child in terms of its scope, language and visual beauty (both the imagery in the story and the book itself. The hardback edition I own is like a mass-market Book of Kells with multi-coloured font and pictures).

Books I’ve returned to often include: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Stories, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride and anything by Peter Temple for the language, the ideas, the ability to inject beauty and humour and clear-eyed truth into situations that aren’t inherently beautiful at all.


The next edition of The Next Big Thing, an event that introduces you to some of the writers we think are ones to watch, is our Hot Desk Edition, where the writers currently occupying the Wheeler Centre Hot Desks will share from their works in progress. Join us on Monday 15 September.

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