Time for a confession

landscape of rooflines
Earlier this year, my son was the State winner for the ACT and NSW in the 2017 Somerset National Novella Writing Competition.

For those of you who said you’d like to read his novella, here it is, on the Somerset site: The Confession of Father Cosimo by William Pieper.

It’s the tale of a 16th Century Jesuit priest, who travels to the small village of Montello del Lanzigo for two reasons, and discovers that the right thing to do isn’t always clear.

Read and enjoy, and if you know any school-aged writers, you can pass on the details of how to enter the 2018 competition (with a deadline of 1 December 2017) via that first link.

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Boxed up joy for Book Week

It’s Book Week according to the Children’s Book Council of Australian and my social media feeds, which are full of adorable photos of kids dressed up as their favourite fictional characters. I’ve noticed a proliferation of commercially available costumes this year – mostly Disney, DC and Marvel trademarked apparel, with the occassional “classic” movie-styled character included, such as Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Is this new, I wonder, the marketing awareness of Book Week? Or have I been the amazing Captain Oblivious for the last couple of years? Anyway…

I’m not going to get all grumpy and whiny about how watching a movie is not the same as reading the book. We all know it. Anything which gets kids reading, though – even if it’s *shudder* princesses – is a good thing. So rock the frocks, boys and girls, or the lycra, and then read the book. All the books.

In the spirit of Book Week, and of using movies, comics, and TV shows as a gateway to a lifelong love of reading, here’s a sight guaranteed to gladden the heart of book lovers, librarians, and Whovian geeks alike.

This beautiful book box is in a quiet street in my neighbouring suburb. The front door opens to reveal a treasure trove of books, free for the taking, to suit the tastes of children, teens and adults. Oh, yeah! I love book boxes so much.

So from my happy place, I say happy book week, everyone – read, enjoy, and share the book love.

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On the shoulders of giants

With our awards for speaking about being on the shouldrs of giantsLast year, I wrote about winning the ACT Rostrum New Speaker of the Year award with my speech on the topic of Silence. I was delighted when, this year, my son entered the new speaker competition and won the award.

It did, however, mean that we had to speak in competition last night, on the topic of On the shoulders of giants. Well a picture’s worth a thousand words – and there’s the outcome: William took home the New Speaker award, and I took the plate for the 2017 Speaker of the Year.

If you’d like to read the 1000+ words I delivered on the topic – about how reading fiction lifts us to the shoulders of giants because stories are awesome and the human brain is amazing – here they are:

Let me tell you about a giant.

“Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the children used to go and play in the Giant’s garden.”

It was so lovely it made them happy, but when the giant returned after a seven-year absence, he was not happy to find them there.

“’What are you doing here?’ he cried in a very gruff voice, and the children ran away.

‘My own garden is my own garden,’ said the Giant; ‘anyone can understand that, and I will allow nobody to play in it but myself.’

So he built a high wall all round it, and put up a notice-board.

TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED

He was a very selfish Giant.”

It’s easy enough to be selfish – our own things are ours, whether they are gardens or books or ideas. But to stand on the shoulders of giants means we must share ideas, because it is the knowledge and understanding gained by those who have gone before us, which lifts us to the level of a giant’s shoulders and allows us to see further, and clearer, than we otherwise would.

The story I began to tell you, The Selfish Giant, is one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales. I thought, in speaking on the subject of being on the shoulders of giants, I would begin with a literal giant, written by a literary giant, to consider how the metaphorical giant of the great body of literature raises us up, so we can see further, and understand how to be better human beings.

I have read The Selfish Giant many times – and each time, even though I know the fate of the giant, it reduces me to tears.

How can Oscar Wilde, dead for almost 117 years, make me cry?

I know I’ll find the giant under his shroud of blossoms, at the end.

How can any story or poem, especially the ones I am familiar with, make me cry? I know that love will end, friends will betray, lives will be lost. I know that the dog will die.

It’s no surprise.

If we come right down to it, all of these stories are just strangely shaped black squiggles on a white page. What gives them such power?

We usually speak about seeing further from the shoulders of giants in relation to science. And science can help us understand the power of reading fiction. Research into the human brain says we’re primed for language, but not for reading.

So, it’s a slow process, the initial decoding of the letter shapes, and the sounds, progressing to recognising whole words, and the brain making the connection between the spoken word and the written one. But, if you’re lucky enough not to struggle with reading, if you ‘get it’ and become a fluent reader, with a good vocabulary, something extraordinary happens in your brain.

Your eyes see squiggles, but your brain comprehends not just the word, but the meaning, sometimes the multiple meanings, and the implications, and the images and the ideas.

You fall.

You are immersed in the story.

Your perception literally changes – MRI studies indicate that the parts of the brain used for spatial placement and physical activity are activated when you read – in other words, you know you are sitting on the couch with a book, but at the same time your brain perceives that you are in the drawing room at Longbourn, that you are on the battlements of Minas Tirith, that you are being chased in the dark on your way home from your school’s Halloween pageant.

So the act of reading about something stimulates the same neurological regions as doing that thing. Stop and think about that for a moment.

Think about the things that you will never do, would never be able to do, whether it is catch the golden snitch so your Quidditch team can win, or fight yourself free of slavers on a brig off the coast of Scotland with the assistance of a Jacobite rebel, and realise that reading lets your brain feel as if it has done those things.

Reading puts you in another person’s shoes. It lets you perceive the world through the eyes of someone who is not like you. To feel what they feel. Not just figuratively – science tells us this is happening at a biological level.

You might be thinking, so what?

What difference does that make?

That gift, that opportunity for empathy, is the moment where you are lifted, beyond yourself, and put on the giant’s shoulder.

Theory of mind is a psychology term for being able to understand that you have beliefs, desires and intentions, and that others also have them, and that theirs’ may be different to your own. Someone with a strong theory of mind has greater empathy, and is more compassionate, more likely to volunteer in their community, and more tolerant of diversity. It’s someone who can see over the walls that we build around ourselves – the selfish walls that we think will protect what is ours, but which only lead to misery.

Reading fiction develops your theory of mind. Fiction gives you greater empathy because it lets you see the world through another’s eyes.

Yes, it can make you cry – but it’s worth it.

I am not, and I will never be, a man, a king, and a hero.

But when I read the words Tennyson’s gave Ulysses:

It little profits that an idle king, by this still hearth, among these barren crags, Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race, That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me”, I do know him – I understand his longing, his melancholy, and his frustration.

I will never be a 19th century Russian landowner, but how can I read Tolstoy’s description of Levin looking at Kitty, in Anna Karenina, and not be affected by his love: “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.”

I am not a selfish giant. Oscar Wilde’s tale cautions us against selfishness, against walling ourselves off from others. We only have to look around us, at the world today, to see the danger of building walls – the danger of being selfish, and having no empathy.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Jane Smiley, described the job and ambition of a writer as being to develop a theory of how it feels to be alive.

By sharing their theories, writers allow us to go beyond our personal walls – to use the books we read to build a ladder to reach the shoulders of giants. With them, we can develop a theory of mind from many different viewpoints – male and female, black and white, rich and poor, young and old.

Oscar Wilde also said we are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Reading helps us develop our understanding of others, our empathy for them. It helps us be less selfish. Reading lets us climb out of that gutter, and onto the shoulders of giants.

And as a passionate reader, I tell you, it’s from the shoulders of giants that you get the very best view of the stars.

Fiction makes heroes of us all.

heroesA couple of weeks ago I went to an evening event for adults at the National Museum. It was the latest in their Night at the Museum series, and this one had a Heroes and Villains theme.
scarWe were encouraged to dress up, make masks, shoot Nerf bullets at the ninja balloon targets, and ‘fly’ against the green screen, as well as learn a bunch of stuff about historical heroes and villains, forensics, and much more.  I had a whole packet of fun.

Mmm – see my fake scar!

The next weekend, I was hanging out with the lovely CSFG peeps, at the Noted writing festival. We were making bespoke flash fiction for anyone who wandered up and wanted it, or passers-by could grab one of the pre-prepared stories. I had a great time, escaping off into tiny little stories, and so did everyone else.

flashfic

Thoughts on escapism have been fermenting in my brain ever since. They keep rising to the surface, executing Kraken-esque rolls, only to sink back into the abyssal depths. What keeps throwing me off, is all the memes on the theme of ‘to hell with this adulting gig’ which flit across my social media awareness.

I don’t want to talk about unicorn frappes, and fidget spinners, and the trend for immature behaviours in adults. I don’t want to discuss man-child tantrums from people in the public eye. I don’t even want to consider how sitting in the dirt making mud pies is arguably more fun than doing the dishes. Those aren’t my preferred method of escape from the trials, tribulations, slings and arrows of day-to-day life.

I like fiction.

Made-up story worlds are my access-all-areas pass for fun.

Now, that can spill over into real life with a little villainous cosplay.

But, I’m happiest reading or writing fiction. And, if I could judge from the delight on people’s faces, as they received stories written just for them, I’m not alone in that.

Of course I’m not alone in that.

Even better, reading isn’t just harmless fun – it’s good for me. It makes me smarter, gives me better problem-solving and lateral thinking skills, and helps me develop empathy. My reading is practically a public service.

It’s so good in fact, that it kind of makes me a superhero.

Which doesn’t mean I can’t have a little fun, and play the villain.

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A sensational method of immersion

fountainAppeal to all the senses is excellent writing advice, and yesterday I discovered it’s fabulous advice for curators, too.

I spent a few glorious hours at the National Gallery of Australia to see their exhibition of a magnificent collection of art and objects – aptly named treasures – from the Palace of Versailles. Marble busts, gilded Rococo statues, paintings, tapestries, furniture, fans, plates, and more – it was certainly a feast for the eyes.

But I take my hat off to the NGA curators, who have thought well and truly outside the box, and incorporated elements to appeal to all the senses.

The main doors had an avenue of urns and plants, which hinted at the sumptuous treasures within. At the exhibition entry I was greeted by a massive photograph of the Hall of Mirrors, complete with two of the gold and crystal candelabras from Versailles. It looked like I was there. Better, it smelt like I was there. The foyer is scented with an orange blossom fragrance (Louis XIV’s favourite flower) designed for the exhibition by master perfumer, Francis Kurkdjian.

It’s fabulous, and instantly evocative – the gallery equivalent of grabbing your readers’ attention on the first page.

hall mirrors

And the rest of the story did not disappoint: clever staging; brilliant use of lighting; evocative music; and audio-visual elements that added depth, sound, and movement to what could otherwise have been static displays. The manipulation of space was wonderful and subtle – a massive room revealed the scale of the carpet and tapestries, but this was balanced with smaller spaces showing domestic details.

dragonI particularly enjoyed the simulation of the garden maze – with walls covered in dense artificial leaves – as a backdrop to the lead statues, such as this dragon.

The magnificent centrepiece of the exhibition – the 1.5 tonne marble Latona fountain – has a room to herself. I entered the antechamber area – fascinating with its details of the hydraulics necessary for Versailles fountains, and display of bronze and brass piping and nozzles – and rounded the wall to … wow.

So, the stature of the goddess Latona is gorgeous. But, as the assistant director of the NGA, Adam Worrell, said in an article in the Canberra Times:

“We didn’t want to bring her as an art object, put her in a room and say, ‘Look how beautiful she is’. We actually wanted you to understand what her life has been at Versailles,” he says. “If we do our job properly, you’ll actually get a sense of standing at the Versailles fountain, looking at the sculpture. If we get it right, it’s definitely going to be the highlight of the show.”

They got it right.

The panorama image, at the top of the post, really does not do it justice. The images behind the statue flow and change, and together with the sounds, create the illusion of  bright movement, and rushing water, and all the decadent, sunlit glory of a sumptuous pleasure palace.

Magnifique!

And, just when I was thinking that the only senses left to satisfy were touch and taste, I emerged into the gift shop, and found feathers, and linens, and silks, and Moet, and chocolate, and tiny berry macarons, and a hundred similar delights.

I came away from the gallery absolutely inspired. I can’t recommend Versailles: Treasures from the Palace highly enough. The exhibition is on until 17 April.

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The landscapes of writing

panorama near PastoriaI know some people hate driving, especially long roadtrips.  I love them for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that they’re great for writing.

On Monday, I did a 7 hour round trip to Orange, which is living up to its name, and throwing in a whole extra palette of reds and golds and yellows, with its glorious autumn display. For that I had company, so my unsuspecting passenger go to be a sounding board for working through ideas on character development. Well, that’s not entirely true – the ‘unsuspecting’ part – my family are used to it by now.

For most of my recent trip, to the Clare Valley, I was by myself. I know a lot has been said about the allure of the open road rolling out before you, but I’d like to add that there’s something very satisfying about solitude + speed + very loud music. That might sound reckless, but I’m tediously law-abiding. The speed limit is speedy enough, especially if I put the windows down and scream sing Five Finger Death Punch or Nick Cave songs to fields full of sheep. They don’t seem to mind.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games and Whiskey in the Jar. I bought the worst coffee I have purchased in years from Horsham and then had the early morning torment of needing the caffeine but not wanting to drink anything that bad. Oh, don’t worry, the siren song of sweet caffeine was way stronger than the sensibilities of my taste buds. Reader, I drank it.giant koala

And then feared for my sanity when I encountered … this … thing …

But, traumatic as that was, it’s all grist for the mill for writing. There’s a lot of inspiration to be drawn from a landscape, and I drove through some beauties. One of the reasons why writers need to go to the place where their story is set, is totally not because travel becomes a tax deduction. It’s to soak up the sense of the place. This is especially awesome if you are writing something set in a real-world place which is beautiful and has great coffee.

Manuscript number four started out, years ago, when I wrote down a dream I had about the sort of wedding jewellery they wore in Arlvagne, and their barren queen who longed for a child. Yes, it came complete with the country name and, no, there’s no such place, so I figured it was fantasy.

So, obviously, dragons. Check.

And a world. Bother.

My roadtrip involved 3,250 km of driving around the back of the Snowy Mountains, down to Melbourne, then west past the Grampians and over the Murray River, into South Australia, through Adelaide and up to the Clare Valley. After the weekend I stayed in Hahndorf, and then Ballarat.  From that lovely old gold-mining town I headed through Daylesford to Kyneton.

I had some great-great-ancestral types out that way and I drove past their old property at Pastoria.  I was almost lost when I missed a quick left, then right, turn over the Burke and Wills Track (ah, the irony – inept explorers FTW) and then I was paced by a camouflaged APC in Puckapunyal before I rejoined the motorway heading north again.

As I went, I thought about my story and the landscape of the world where it takes place. I noticed the way that the white trunks of the gums can catch the light and look like rows of bones, lined up on the hill. I noticed that the bark of the red mallee hangs in wretched strips like flayed skin, with the livid trunk of the tree smooth beneath it. I noticed the granite rock formations that jut out of the soil, the grass growing up to lap at their edges, and the sheep that graze among them, almost indistinguishable from the stones.

These are the rocks and bones that will make a true foundation for whatever flights of fantasy I want to add in building a landscape for the world I’m writing. It’s not the same process as writing about a real place. I don’t want to just cut out a patch of the Mallee region, or a wedge of the Macedon Ranges and slap it onto the map.

But the landscape that is emerging, as I write, has definitely been influenced by the places I drove through because the mechanics of driving – of watching the road, the other drivers, speed, steering, all that stuff – only takes up a bit of my brain.

The rest is noticing details of the landscape,  thinking about the story and, like any writer, wondering “what if…”

A new year revolution

dandelion

The year has turned so it must be time to spin around, blow a dandelion clock and make a wish.

I’ve always preferred that kind of revolution to the other, and definitely favoured it above resolutions for this time of year. I like me. I’m not perfect, but just because it’s a new year doesn’t mean I need to create a new version of me.

But there’s definitely more than just dandelion seeds in the air.  I’ve spent the last couple of days packing books. We have 30 shelves crammed to overflowing and I’ve never mastered the art of ruthless weeding. If I’m lucky I will whittle it down to 28 shelves worth of books that need to be moved.

Because it is time for a change.

I’m not particularly reliable in my  migratory habits, but it’s been seven and a half years since we came back to Australia from our second Scottish amble, and I’m tired of being this close to the equator.

So, my first change for this lovely leap year of potential and promise is a southerly peregrination – from 28.0167° S to 35.3075° S. That might not sound like much of a difference, but I’ll be going up in the world as well – from around 13 metres to 580 metres above sea level.

The chances of snow improve dramatically, I assure you.

The clarion call to adventure, in this case, does not allow me to stride out of the cottage, sword in hand, to go where the road leads ever onwards. It will take four weeks of planning, packing, and cleaning, and devouring anti-histamines in the hope I can prevent my dust allergy from making my face fall off.

And I want to have my first draft of novel #3 finished by the end of January, too. To achieve that I’ll need to think of some way that neither the villain, nor an important secondary character, are required to do something stupid in the process of reaching their desired, mutually exclusive, outcomes.

Well, packing is just like playing Tetris, right? And plotting is really just puzzle-solving. It’s all the same skills, surely?

Hmm, I’ll let you know how that theory works out.

Tally-ho, and toodle-pip!

The satisfaction of revenge

dressmaker

Forgive and forget, or at least forgive and get over it, might be good advice for our souls/karma/general state of mental health. But, you know, there’s something so very satisfying about a great revenge story.

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham is one of my favourite books. I reviewed it enthusiastically five years ago, when I picked it for my library’s online book club read of the month. I was *super* excited when I heard it was being filmed.

Ah, and what a fantastic job they’ve done of making it into a film. I loved it! It looked perfect. I was completely emotionally engaged with it – laughing at the humour, recoiling from the revolting, gasping at the transformations worked by the amazing dresses. I wept buckets at the sad bits (in fact, I started crying before the sad bits because I knew they were coming). It was a fantastic two hours and I emerged from the cinema dehydrated and blinking at the reality of the world.

Which is pretty much the same effect the book has on me – the immersion just lasts a little longer.

I particularly love two things about this story. The first is that it doesn’t box itself into being just one thing. If you want a rom-com with a happy ever after – er, no. If you want a serious examination of the dark recesses of humanity – look out, Mad Molly’s made the hash brownies a little stronger this time. But it is romantic, and comedic, and tragic – sometimes at the same time. And that’s great storytelling.

The other is that Tilly’s sewing skills and eye for fashion can transform the way the women of the town look, but she can’t change what they are really like. A fabulous dress does not make you a nice person. Old secrets are raked up and resolved, but Tilly is not forgiven, and not accepted. Not because there’s something wrong with her, but because there is something wrong – something closed off and soured – about the people of Dungatar.

They forego their opportunity to transform. And so it’s up to Tilly to force that transformation in an incredibly satisfying revenge scene.

The director, Jocelyn Moorhouse is said to have decribed the movie as Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven with a sewing machine”, and that’s pretty much perfect. 

So if you’re in the mood for a gunslinger in Dior, I highly recommend you go and see The Dressmaker. And, if you really want a treat, read the book too.

An enticing, genre-blending book

glamouristsOnce you start messing with your genres, things can get confusing.

You know what Dr Spengler said – “Don’t cross the streams.”

So should a writer stay well inside the lines, genre-wise?  Well, you may also recall that, actually, crossing the streams worked out fine, and I like to think that genres are there to be played with. Still, it can be tricky knowing what to call your chosen genre once you’ve done a bit of blurring and blending.

That’s why my writing inspiration for today comes from Mary Robinette Kowal, whose Glamourist Histories are fabulous historical romance adventures with a dash of magic. Or to keep it simpler, urban historical fantasies. I like it!

I’ll be chairing a panel at GenreCon in Brisbane at the end of the month (you know you want to be there: go on, buy your ticket!) and this very talented author will be on that panel. So I thought I’d better catch up on the series. I had read Shades of Milk and Honey a couple of years ago, but the series is now up to its fourth, so it was time to get a reading wriggle on.

I’ve just finished the third, Without a Summer, and it was delightful. 1816 was called the year without a summer, because a massive volcanic explosion in Indonesia in the previous year continued to mess with global weather patterns, and caused widespread crop failures and heightened social unrest. It also caused bicycles to be invented and the guests at a house party on Lake Geneva to resort to telling each other ghost stories to pass the time, inadvertently creating a whole genre, but that’s another story.

Jane Austen’s books of the time give almost no acknowledgement of the political and social environment in which they occur. Although influenced by Austen, Without a Summer ties the story into the time in the best way, and seamlessly incorporates magic by having public blame for the bad weather fall on the coldmongers, who are able to manipulate folds of glamour to cool things –  but not to the extent of ruining the weather.

It was an intelligent, well told story, with engaging, flawed and likable characters – as well as a wonderful villain. I very much enjoyed reading it, and I am looking forward to meeting Mary. In fact, the only flaw with the book was on the otherwise gorgeous cover:

1916 failOh, dear. Enough to make an author weep.

Speaking about an author’s voice

annieb Last week I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet Annie Barrows, who was a co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Her new book, The Truth According to Us is set in 1938 in the fictional West Virginia town of Macedonia. It looks at how stories create different versions of the truth, and how the past is mostly stories that have been told over and over.
Annie talked about how, when she studied writing, there was a lot said about an author’s voice – on finding what it was about the way you told a story and the stories you chose to tell, that was unique.
Of course, she threw that out the window when she came to complete the story of Guernsey – she had to tell the story the way her aunt would have told it. As she’d grown up with her aunt and her mother telling her stories , that was something she could do, and do so seamlesly that readers can’t unpick where Mary Ann’s storytelling stopped and Annie’s began.
This got me thinking … you can read a lot about an author’s voice and the cultivation thereof. About how it needs to be originl and authentic. How it should have authority and a distinctive style.
But I think if I sat down at a keyboard to write, while consciously thinking about my voice, I would silence myself. Overanalysis would equal writer’s block. The books that I’ve read, the things that I’ve seen, the people that I’ve known – all of that influences the stories and the way that I tell those stories – but not consciously.
Could I tell someone else’s story their way?
It’s an interesting question. Annie’s experience of finishing her aunt’s book made me wonder if I’m close enough to anyone elses fictional heartland to write with their voice.
I don’t think I could, and that made me admire even more what Annie Barrows has achieved with her writing.