My Furious Fiction https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/ entry for August. The requirements for the month’s competition were all adjectival! Our story had to include these words and phrases: shrill, piercing,cold and greasy,ink stained, sweet and pungent,scratched and weather worn, shiny, silver. Using this many adjectives in a 500 word story is harder than you’d think!
My story is a little ode to the Sydney building industry in 2019.
ZIPPER by Denise Newton
The noise was shrill, piercing. Anna sighed and pushed aside her uneaten toast. “God, I’m so sick of that sound.”
Blake nodded in sympathy. The work in the apartment upstairs was unrelenting. Drills, nail guns, electric saws. Lucky for noise regulations, or they’d be at it day and night.
“Not long now, I hope.”
Anna just shrugged and Blake knew she was right. The people upstairs were very strange. He looked down at his plate. The fried eggs, that had smelt so delicious earlier, had turned cold and greasy. His stomach turned.
When they’d seen the ad, they’d been so excited. Their dream of purchasing their own home could finally come true. The asking price was within their reach. Hell, it was far below what they’d budgeted for. They’d grinned at each other and he’d called the agent straight away.
They should have known better. Hadn’t Mum always told him that when something seemed too good to be true, it usually was? But their excitement got the better of them and they signed the contract two days later. The vendor, a short man in an overstuffed suit, had signed with ink- stained fingers, as though this was the last of a long series of contracts he’d signed that day. Perhaps it was. Each one as dodgy as the last.
So. Here they were, enduring the constant assault of noise from the building works above, the croaking pipes, the ominous rumblings from somewhere in the building, that always began in the deep quiet of early dawn.
“Like the building is haunted,” Anna said, only half joking. She’d made a pot of herbal tea and she passed him a cup, a sweet and pungent brew that he found strangely relaxing. Anything to take his mind off the mistake they’d made in buying into this building.
began to ready himself for work, collected his coat, and tied the laces on his
scratched and weather-worn boots. He’d just kissed Anna goodbye and was making
for the front door, when the floor moved. It actually moved, right under his
feet. The jolting was accompanied by a louder version of the rumbling that woke
him at night. A grinding, unearthly sound. He froze.
stared at him. “What the hell…?”
“Get under the
table! In case it’s an earthquake…”
“Earthquake, here? That’s…”
going downstairs to see,” he interrupted.
“I’m coming with you.”
knew better than to argue. She followed him down twenty flights in the gloomy
stairwell. They exited onto the street with shaky legs.
in hand, they gazed, incredulous, at the huge crack that had appeared in their
building. It looked like a giant zipper. An ugly, misplaced zipper.
shiny, silver dream of owning a home disappeared into the morning light.
‘Australia rides on the sheep’s back.” So I was taught in primary school social studies classes in 1960’s Australia. Wheat was also at the heart of our national agricultural economy, until a decade or so later when mining took number one place in the commodity pecking order.
Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’ suggests that it is time we dismounted from that metaphorical sheep and stepped aside from the wheatfields, at least in part, and consider transitioning to an agriculture that is more sustainable and in harmony with this continent’s often harsh environment. With crops and livestock that the original occupants and custodians of this land were long familiar with.
I’m a relative latecomer to this book, and I’m aware that since it’s publication there have been some criticisms of the author’s research and arguments. None of those criticisms detract from the overall power of the book’s message, which is that our nation has not had an honest account of our history – both pre and post invasion/colonisation. Not only that, but the history that has been disseminated about Aboriginal people’s lifestyles and cultures has often been inaccurate. Pascoe argues that there is compelling evidence that contrary to the ‘hunter/gatherer/nomad’ stereotype, pre-invasion Aboriginal nations practiced forms of agriculture, aquaculture, harvesting and storage of various grains and seeds, and built dwellings. Not to mention the complex systems of law, justice and spirituality.
While the latter has been recognised to some extent in recent decades, Pascoe argues that Aboriginal people engaged in practices that the European colonisers, settlers and explorers should have recognised, but usually didn’t. Instead, permanent dwelling structures were dismissed as ‘humpies’, careful management and harvesting of resources described as ‘hunter-gathering’ activities. He asserts that:
‘Settlers and explorers were united in their assumption of superiority and entitlement… ‘
‘Colonial Australia sought to forget the advanced nature of Aboriginal society and economy, and this amnesia was entrenched when settlers who arrived after the depopulation of whole districts found no structure more substantial than a windbreak, and no population that was not humiliated, debased, and diseased.’
Dark Emu p. 11 & 114
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that Pascoe draws heavily (some have argued, selectively) from the writings of early European settlers and explorers. Accounts from well known figures such as Sturt, Mitchell, Burke and Wills, describe the lifestyles and practices of indigenous people they encountered in ways that contradict the ‘hunter-gatherer’ images of First Australians.
Something else I enjoyed was his descriptions of the yam daisy, or murnong, (Microseris lanceolata) a staple of the First People’s diet, which grew in abundance along river banks and was carefully managed and harvested for thousands of years, but which quickly became extinct in areas settled by Europeans. I recalled Kate Grenville writing about this plant and its importance to indigenous diets in The Secret River and In Search of the Secret River. Until then, I had no knowledge of this plant, and the important role it played in pre-invasion Australian life. So it was with pleased recognition that I read Pascoe’s account of it in Dark Emu.
For me, the power of this book lies in the argument that our nation must move past the collective amnesia and blindness of the true history of our continent and its inhabitants. As Pascoe concludes:
‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral well-being and economic prosperity.’
If you enjoy an author who never seems to write the same book twice, I can recommend the works of Jock Serong, a Victorian based author who has to date published four books. I have read three of these so far and I can honestly say that the only thing they have in common is the quality of the story telling.
Quota, Serong’s first book, also published in 2016, is the one I’ve yet to read. It won the Australian Crime Writers Association’s Award for best debut novel (and it’s next on my TBR list.) In the same year, The Rules of Backyard Cricket appeared, which (while there are certainly criminal elements within the story and some of its characters) is also a meditation on the role of sport in Australian society and, more especially, Australian masculinity. Then in 2017 came On the Java Ridge, a stark and heart-breaking look at the ‘problems’ posed by asylum seekers for our politicians, for our moral compass as a nation, and for those who are at the front line of the tragedies that play out in the lives of those who seek safety from trauma and brutality. Lastly, Preservation, published in 2018, is a retelling of a true historical story, with the flavour of a psychological thriller. Four novels, no two alike, but all the work of a writer in superb control of his craft.
So, to The rules of backyard cricket. This is the story of two boys, Darren Keefe and his older brother Wally, raised in the hard-scrabble inner west Melbourne suburb of Footscray in the 1970’s by a tough and loving single mum. The novel opens with Darren reflecting on his life and on the series of choices and events that led to where we first meet him – in the boot of a car, bound, gagged, and with a bullet in his knee. Immediately, we think this will be a crime novel, right?
Yes…except that so much of the story involves the brothers’ lives in the world of sport, specifically cricket. While they start their cricketing trajectories together in their scruffy childhood backyard, their paths diverge: Wally (the older, driven, disciplined and focused brother) becomes the captain of the Australian test team, while Darren (the younger, charming larrikin) experiences early success but due to some spectacularly bad choices, ends up with his cricket career in tatters. And yet, Darren goes on to become something of a media celebrity and commentator, proving that even very bad behaviour can be forgiven by the public in certain arenas of life – and in Australia, sport is most definitely one of those arenas. Here’s a quote from the book:
“Sport goes to the heart of everything. If you can reach inside it and f**k with its innards, you’re actually messing with society . . . Bigger than drugs. Bigger than hookers and porn, because people shy away, they can smell the desperation. But the same people will go on consuming sport long after they know it’s rotten to the core. They’re insatiable.”
From ‘The rules of backyard cricket’ by Jock Serong.
We know that Darren ends up in a sticky situation, though. Each chapter opens with a reminder of this, zooming back to focus on Darren in that car boot as he ruminates on all the actions and events that put him there. We watch as his life becomes a train wreck, and Darren is sufficiently self aware to offer a critique of his choices and behaviours, so that we feel as if we are offered an insider’s view of it all.
In a Goodreads interview, Serong offers this:
On one hand “the book is about men and Australiana and sport, but on the other is … about family and brothers and in a subtle way it’s a story about women. I wanted to think critically about men and sport and how those men behave in the public arena, to look at how it is that happens and why as a society do we encourage it. ”
This weekend I had the pleasure of being one of a big team of volunteers at the very first independent Writers Festival in the Blue Mountains. Presented by Varuna the National Writers House, and held at three venues in Katoomba, it was a success both in terms of tickets (most sessions were sold out) and great enjoyment.
Some stand outs for me, in no particular order:
Philosopher, academic and writer Chris Fleming’s candid, and often hilarious, account of his years of drug addiction and recovery. I didn’t expect to enjoy this one, to be honest, but it was wonderful.
ABC radio’s Cassie McCullagh’s chat with Chris Hammer about the inspiration behind his crime novel ‘Scrublands’
Hearing about the special working relationship between a best selling author (the wonderful Melina Marchetta of ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ fame and many, many other books) and her editor at Penguin Random House, Amy Thomas, as they chatted with James Valentine from ABC radio and TV.
Tim Flannery describing an ancient Europe and a pre-history when hippos swam in the Thames
Hearing about the experiences of two women which led to the writing of their extraordinary memoirs about family: Vicki Laveau-Harvie (author of the Stella Prize winning ‘The Erratics’ and Jessie Cole, author of ‘Staying’, interviewed with humour and sensitivity by Benjamin Law.
An insightful and informative panel discussion illustrating how a work of fiction goes from manuscript, to agent, editor, publisher and eventually lands in a book store near you.
And my last session for the weekend, a beautiful discussion between Blue Mountains poet and songwriter/singer/musician Kate Fagan and Tishani Doshi from India. Tishani is a poet/novelist/dancer (can you see a theme here of multi talented people?) who performed several heart stoppingly gorgeous and powerful poems as well as an extract from her latest novel. Such a treat.
As with any festival there were hard choices to make with multiple sessions on at the same time. Ones I missed included a talk by Patti Miller and Leah Kaminsky, a film screening with Clarence Walden and Alexis Wright, a live conversation with Behrouz Boochani (on Manus Island) and Markus Zusak in conversation with Rosanna Gonsalves.
Another lovely feature of the festival was the ‘Social Book Nook’ corner of the comfy lounge at the glorious old Carrington Hotel, where attendees were invited to talk books.
The story parameters for the month were: 500 words or less, the story was to be set on a train of some sort, something had to be frozen, and there had to be three sentences of three words in a row.
CRAMMED by Denise Newton
The stench is terrible. I know my faeces and urine are
mixed in with the rest. But that’s hardly my fault. Rounded up, taken against
my will, crammed into this carriage with dozens—no, hundreds—of my fellows.
I’ve stopped counting the sunsets and sunrises, so I can’t tell how long I’ve
I don’t care about the hunger but my thirst is
ferocious. The roof of my mouth feels as if it’s lined with gum and my tongue
is stiff, almost frozen in place. When I look at the faces of my companions, I
can tell they’re suffering in the same way. Hot and thirsty. Deafened by noise.
So terribly frightened.
We travel in what seems to be an endless straight
line, in the heat of days, with orange sunlight slipping in like razors through
the bars, and then through tunnels of night. Sometimes we stop and I hear
crunching footsteps and muffled voices outside. I don’t know what they want
with me. What their plan is. Or where they are taking us.
In the dark, I close my eyes occasionally and try to imagine I’m somewhere else. I do try. I think about the lush grass at the edges of the house paddock, the cool of it beneath my legs. I think about the river and the blue bowl of the summer sky. But then the dark presses in against my face and I open my eyes wide in terror, open my mouth to cry out, but shut it again because really, what use is it? There’s no one to hear my pain and fear except those squashed in here with me. So I remain silent, listening to the complaints and groans and snuffles of those nearby, and the roar and rumble of the engine up ahead. We hurtle on through time.
Wait…are we…? Yes, I think we are slowing. Gradually
the speed drops and the engine shifts down with a whine. It takes a long time
but eventually my companions and I lurch forward, then settle back as we come
to a halt. We look at each other. What’s next?
There’s a clang of chains and the dull thud of ropes
being unfastened and dropped to the ground. A metallic clunk and the sun spears
through the back door as it is lowered. Men appear, shadowed against the light.
Men with hats and boots and dusty trousers. They move us out, two at a time
down a ramp. The air trembles with their shouts and our cries. I blink in the
harsh light. The road train stands there, all three trailers with their high
bars and many wheels. Our prison, for however long it took us to arrive here.
One man calls to the others. His words carry across the thick dust to my ears. ‘Load ‘em onto the ship,’ he shouts, ‘this lot are headed to Indonesia. Good lot of beef rendang here.’
I’ve heard a lot about the importance of having an occasional – or even regular – ‘creative date’. An immersion into a realm of creativity that you don’t usually encounter in your day-to-day life or even in your own creative pursuits. An experience to get the creative wheels turning, perhaps in new directions or with renewed enthusiasm. After a recent foray into the world of theatre, I am totally convinced by this argument.
I went with six of my female ‘besties’ to Parramatta Riverside Theatre, to see a new Australian play, Forgotten, written by Cate Whittaker and produced by Captivate, the creative and performing arts program for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta.
Forgotten is inspired by the stories of convict women who were sent to the Female Factory, from where they could be assigned as convict labourers, or perhaps be married, or – as happened to many – be punished further. The story centres on the 1827 ‘Riot’ when the women went on strike to demand proper rations, because their allotted rations had for some time been siphoned off by the son of the Factory Matron at the time. Half starved, desperate and forgotten by colonial society, they staged a riot, staring down the constables and the militia sent to quell their rebellion, and breaking out of the Factory walls to run through the township of Parramatta in search of food.
While a contemporary press report about the ‘riot’ described the convict women as ‘Amazonian bandetti’, I don’t imagine the women were especially physically strong given their circumstances, however their determination and resilience must have been great to allow them to take this action, which could accurately be described as the first industrial action by women in the country since colonisation.
Mark Hopkins, the Head of Captivate, describes them like this:
…young, predominantly Catholic women who found their voice in collective action in the face of opposition and systemic oppression…
Mark Hopkins, in Forgotten program booklet
There were several other ‘riots’ at the Female Factory, usually in response to reduced rations or an increase in punishments such as the hated head shaving. Perhaps later women incarcerated there drew strength from the stories they must have heard about this first action taken by brave and desperate women.
The majority of cast members were students from Catholic high schools in the Parramatta area, with some roles performed by Captivate alumni, with one or two teachers in the mix as well. Their performances were wonderful: portraying the circumstances of young women around the same age as themselves, but in a very different time and place.The production was supported by The Parramatta Female Factory Friends (the playwright is a member of this group as well as a Colonial historian and teacher). The production was simple but evocative of the harsh and uncompromising setting of the Factory.
So, how did this experience work for me as a ‘creative date’? During the play, I laughed a few times, I seethed at the unfair and unjust treatment meted out to these women, and I cried some tears. I was glad to see their stories presented on the stage – and in this way kept alive, not forgotten after all. The story resonated particularly because this era, and the Female Factory itself, feature in my work in progress – historical fiction set in convict-era NSW. Seeing these portrayed through words and action on a stage sparked some new ideas and thoughts about my own work.
And, last but certainly not least, it made me recommit to the promise to my characters to tell their stories – so that they, too, are not forgotten.
So, what can you do to celebrate? Visit your favourite bookshop of course!
If you are lucky enough to have a bookshop reasonably close to you, perhaps you could post about it on social media, help spread the word, and share why you love it.
Do they hold special days, author talks, book signings, celebrations? Are the staff super helpful in finding and choosing just the perfect book for a special person or occasion? Are the displays particularly inviting? Or maybe they have rare, old or specialist books that are hard to find elsewhere? Some stores go all-out to engage kids – especially around this time of year when it’s National Book Week.
Post a link, a photo, and share the love of bookshops.
Melissa Lucashenko has just been awarded the 2019’s Miles Franklin Award, one of Australia’s premier literary prizes, for Too Much Lip. It’s the first novel from this author that I’ve read and I’ll be looking to read more of her books, such is the quality of this one.
The story revolves around the Salters, a Bundjalung family from a fictional small town in northern NSW. I know this region as a holiday destination, with rolling green hills inland and beautiful beaches along the coast. So it was sobering to read about the other side – the darker side – of places like this.
Kerry Salter had escaped the hopelessness and despair of the area to live in Queensland. She’s back – briefly she hopes – to say goodbye to her proud grandfather, a respected elder of the family and community, whose own life has its darker corners. Pop dies and Kerry longs to get the hell out of there again, but family business and conflicts get in the way. Secrets are revealed, the long threads of inter-generational trauma untangled, and wounds are healed, made afresh and healed again, before the story concludes.
There is a plot by a local corrupt real estate agent and town mayor to sell off a piece of ancestral land to be thwarted, arrest warrants to be dodged, and a long lost sister to meet again. Not to mention sorting out her feelings for Steve – a school friend from long ago who is now the local gym manager and boxing trainer – and who is not only male, but white into the bargain. As someone who considers herself a lesbian and who has vowed to never get involved with a white fella, this all serves to confuse and unsettle Kerry.
The characters are all complex, not always especially likeable, but compelling. I cared a great deal about this family. And Lucashenko’s skillful revealing of their past and present traumas, their lives lived as outsiders even on the land of their ancestors, helped me to understand more of the experiences of Australia’s First Peoples. I enjoyed the way the author wove in words from the Bundjalung language through the dialogue. This is especially timely as 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
To finish, here is a beautiful quote from the novel that spoke loudly to me, involved as I’ve been in researching family history and stories:
And that’s what graves are for, the realisation dawned on Kerry. They distilled your family history. They took what your ancestors did and who they were and gave it to you in one place, so you could go there and think about your lives and learn the lessons you needed to learn in order to keep on going.
If you have read some of my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m a fan of historical fiction, especially fiction based on or inspired by real historical people and events. Mary-Anne O’Connor’s latest book, In a Great Southern Land, fits this bill nicely.
Set during the Goldrush times in Victoria and NSW (the mid nineteenth century) it follows the stories of two Irish newcomers to the colony: Eve (who arrives on a convict ship) and Keiran (who with his brother, sister and brother-in-law, arrive as free settlers.)
The book is a romance and we see the blossoming of love between the two main protagonists, with inevitable barriers placed in the way of them achieving their heart’s desires. Of course there is a happy conclusion. Because it is historical fiction, the plot complications arise from the times in which the story unfolds: the social, political and economic factors at play at this period of Australia’s history, including the poverty and hardship experienced by poor Irish farmers which drove many thousands to seek a better life elsewhere, the need for workers in the colonies due to the winding down of convict transportation to Australia, and especially, the feverish flocking to the goldfields of NSW and Victoria in search of the sought after ore.
I loved the fact that the characters and story were inspired by the author’s own Irish ancestors. It’s so important these stories of our forebears are told, not only to keep the stories themselves alive, but also to signal our beginnings as a modern nation. In these arguably much easier times, it is hard to imagine life before electricity, clean running water, accessible medicine, education, motorised transport, electronic communication devices and nearby grocery stories. The women and men who lived in the 1850’s had none of these things, yet still managed to love, laugh, establish families, argue, hold grudges, have fun, make music, learn, travel and earn a living. Just as we do today.
A big part of the plot of In a Great Southern Land centres on thestory of the Eureka rebellion, when miners banded together against the injustices of the colonial authorities, ultimately facing off at the doomed Eureka Stockade. This battle is up there with Ned Kelly and Gallipoli in terms of iconic Australian history, but I sometimes wonder how many Australians know much about it or about the injustices that sparked the rebellion. Mary-Anne O’Connor has deftly woven these events in and around the stories of her characters and it makes an effective climax for her novel. There are some coincidences that perhaps stretch credibility a little, but all in all this is a satisfying novel, firmly placed in a very Australian context, with deep Irish roots.
I’m fascinated by the world of book design. I’m not a designer, nor is any part of me artistic, but I am very admiring of the beauty and power of a good book cover and design. Similarly, I love book titles: the way a few words (or sometimes just one word) can sum up a book’s essence, it’s very heart. Anyone who has struggled with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of writing a book synopsis – summarising a whole novel in 500 words, give or take – will know what I mean when I say that the ability to choose just the right title for a work is one to be admired.
Lately I’ve noticed some interesting trends in both book design and title choice.
Firstly, design. I’m focusing here on two main genres – historical fiction and contemporary fiction. Not crime, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, thrillers. These genres have their own very distinct styles and typical cover images and colours. Browse a book store or library shelves for a while and you’ll see this. A current trend for historical/contemporary fiction of the kind that I read – typically by women authors, many Australian ones – is for covers redolent with gorgeous flower motifs. Here are a few examples:
Aren’t they beautiful? I’ve not read Tess Woods’ Love and Other Battles or Kayte Nunn’s The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant as yet, but I can speak to the other two as being lovely novels inside their lovely covers. These are good examples of the trend for flower-adorned covers. It is definitely a ‘thing’ right now, and one which I am enjoying. I love these kinds of cover images and the beautiful design features which often continue right throughout the novels.
Now to book titles. A trend I’m noticing here is the tendency for titles to say something about a protagonist in terms of either their own profession/occupation, or that of a family member. Examples of this are: The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (this one also belongs in the ‘beautiful cover design’ category – see image below) The Post Mistress by Alison Stuart The French Photographer by Natasha Lester The ZooKeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn (another ‘lovely cover’ winner) The Orchardist’s Daughter by Diane Ackerman The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
I don’t know the reason for these trends. Publishers and editors have a major say in how a book is styled and what it is called. Most probably these are fashions, and fashions come and go: remember a while ago when it seemed like every second book published had ‘girl’ in its title? (Gone Girl, Girl on the Page, Girl in the Window…) I’ll wait with interest to see what will be the next big thing for book names and designs.
The story (500 words or less) had to have a ‘party’ of some kind in it, as well as a ‘button’, and include the words ‘The air was thick with…’ Australia had not long concluded a Federal Election so I guess that theme was foremost in my mind. Here’s my entry:
I Care by Denise Newton
for the I Care party?’ The volunteer’s
face was hopeful. She clutched narrow black and white leaflets close to her
chest like a protective shield.
people pass by her on their way into the polling place. Some shook their heads
in a curt dismissal. Others gave an apologetic smile. Most simply ignored her. None
took the proffered paper. I was intrigued. She didn’t falter, even when a young
man made a rude gesture at her with his finger and knocked the papers from her hand,
scattering them like clumsy confetti on the ground. At that point, I stepped
across to help her pick them up.
She gave me a wide smile as I held out the leaflets to her.
don’t mind me saying, it looks like no one’s interested in your party,” I said,
as gently as I could. Why was she persisting in the face of such apparent
do you bother?” My question was blunt, but I wanted to know what drove this
young woman to volunteer her time on a chilly election day, standing in a
blustery wind that nipped at the edges of comfort.
well…” she undid a button on her coat, before slipping some of the leaflets
into an inside pocket. “I want people to know there’s a point to it all, you
my head, bemused. “A point?”
get all riled up about things. I just want them to know that some people care.”
about them.” She smiled at an approaching couple, and held out a leaflet. They
sidled past. Her smile didn’t falter.
does your party promise to do?”
don’t promise to do anything. Just care about people.”
to chuckle. “Don’t all parties promise that?”
course not. They promise to build roads, or employ nurses, or turn back boats. No
one promises to care. But the I Care party—that’s
the only promise we make. Everything follows from that.”
examined her. She didn’t appear to be psychologically disturbed, but then I was
no expert. Perhaps the I Care party
was a cult of some sort? She was dressed normally, no weird hippie gear, and
she didn’t look undernourished, as I thought a cult member might.
would you do if your party won a seat?”
a small shrug, as if the answer was obvious.
care, of course!”
I gave a
little shake of my head. “OK, well, nice to meet you. And—er—good luck.” I held
out my hand. She shook it, her blue eyes crinkled in another smile.
her then, entering the polling place to cast my vote. The air was thick with
the odour of antagonism, carefully hidden beneath a screen of civility.
voting cubicle, I watched in disbelief as my pencil marked a ‘1’in the box next
to the I Care party candidate.