Happy first birthday to my blog. Here’s what I’ve learnt in the past twelve months:
Blogging is fun! I had no idea when I started out a year ago whether I’d enjoy the process enough to sustain it over several months, let alone a year. I have enjoyed it way more than I’d expected, so I look forward with confidence to celebrating my second blogging birthday in 2020.
Blogging can be hard sometimes. This looks like I’m contradicting my first point, but actually no – an activity can be challenging and fun at the same time. In fact, I think the sense of achievement and enjoyment is increased if it’s also a little bit hard.
Blogging is a terrific way to establish a regular writing practice. Even at times when I have been ‘stuck’ on my other projects, sitting down at the keyboard to develop a blog post keeps me connected to the writing process. Committing to a weekly post means I’m always on the lookout for a topic, idea or experience that might just resonate with a reader.
Blogging is a great excuse to read a lot of books. My blog is not exclusively a book blog, but I do post many reviews – of books, but also an occasional movie, exhibition, play or concert. Anything that stirs the creative juices, teaches me something new, or reconnects me with things I enjoy.
So, Happy Birthday to my blog and if you have stumbled upon it in the past year, thanks for reading.
A whole day to listen to women’s stories. Told by women about women. That’s what the Heroines Festival promised, and it delivered. A day to nurture the creative in all who attended, to be part of the community of women and men who gathered to listen to speakers tell tales of grandmothers, daughters, dancers, teachers, brewers, religious hermits, refugees, immigrants, explorers and lace weavers. And many, many more.
Tea Cooper, pictured here signing her books, spoke about giving voice to women whose history has not been recorded. And Karen Brooks assured us that women have always been there: as crafts women, running businesses, performing skilled trades work- even if they were not named or acknowledged.
Little rebellions are the lovely truths we search for…women were always, always there…
Karen Brooks in the ‘Herstories’ session
Both Shankari Chandran and Monica Tan write to explore what it means to be Australian, to be part of a minority but not indigenous…what it means to live on colonised land and make a home there. They discussed their experiences and insights in the ‘Home – Lost and Found’ session.
Shankari, of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage, wrote her novels Song of the Sun God and Barriers ‘to write my way home’ and to say thank you to those that came before her for their courage and resilience. Monica (of Chinese heritage) travelled around Australia on ‘a great big road trip’ in a quest to better understand this country and to represent marginalised stories that the gatekeepers try to keep out. The result was her book Stranger Country.
Both women explored the crucial role language plays in our identity and connectedness. Language is used to express power, relationship, history and it’s no coincidence, said Shankari, that the erasure of language is a key tool and feature of colonisation.
Chloe Higgins’ debut book, The Girls, was published just two weeks prior to the festival. It’s a ‘memoir of family, grief and sexuality’ and Chloe discussed how it felt to tell her story with all its intimacies, not knowing how it would be received. I was happy to hear her say that she’s been overwhelmed by the messages of support and understanding she’s received so far.
Melissa Fagan has also published a memoir, What will be worn, in which she explores the gaps and secrets within her own family story, woven in with an account of an iconic Brisbane department store owned by members of her family for many years.
It was interesting to hear both Chloe and Melissa speak of the ‘emotional inheritances’ bequeathed within families, often over generations.
Jesse Blackadder’s session centred around the motivations prompting her to write her two historical fiction works, The Raven’s Heart (set in sixteenth century Scotland) and Chasing the Light (about the first women to go to Antarctica in the 1930’s.) Jesse said that apart from the pull of travelling to the icy continent to research that story, the thing that made her want to write about these women was learning that women had been barred from going there. Jesse said:
How can a whole continent be closed to half the human race?
Jesse Blackadder, in ‘The Explorers’ session
She applied for and won an Antarctic Arts Fellowship and embarked on a six week round trip voyage (exactly as those women had done eighty years earlier)
Other fascinating sessions included Lauren Chater (The Lace Weaver) and Robyn Cadwallader (The Anchoress) as they discussed women barely mentioned in the historical record: Estonian women caught between the competing horrors of Nazi and Soviet oppression, and the medieval religious hermits known as ‘anchoresses.’ In answering the question ‘What makes a strong woman?’ they agreed that:
Sometimes they are the women quietly working away, making change in the background, trying to survive, remaining true to their own beliefs and experiences.
Lauren Chater, in ‘Hearing our Grandmothers’ Voices’
It was a day filled with riches of thought, conversation and intriguing ideas. I hope I can get there again next year. If you’d like to find out more, or purchase a copy of the terrific anthology Heroines: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Poetry (ed Sarah Nicholson and Caitlan White), launched on the day, go to the website:
#Heroinesfestival #heroinesfest19 #AusLit #AustralianWomenWritersChallenge
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.
He 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.
Anna stared at him. “What the hell…?”
“Get under the table! In case it’s an earthquake…”
“Earthquake, here? That’s…”
“I’m going downstairs to see,” he interrupted.
“I’m coming with you.”
He knew better than to argue. She followed him down twenty flights in the gloomy stairwell. They exited onto the street with shaky legs.
Hand 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.
Their shiny, silver dream of owning a home disappeared into the morning light.
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.
My literary cup truly ran over all weekend.
This was my Furious Fiction entry for July. https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/
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 been here.
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.’
He smiles but I don’t see the joke.
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.
If you’d like to know more about the Female Factory and the work of the Friends to preserve this heritage, see their website http://www.parramattafemalefactoryfriends.com.au/
Another branch of my research tree: a talk and tour at the NSW State Archives & Records at Kingswood in Western Sydney.
For my current work in progress I’ve made use of the many records that have been made available online and last year, I paid a visit to the Archives centre.
But during this visit on the weekend, I got to see ‘backstage’ – beyond the reading room, to the highly secure and atmosphere controlled spaces where the precious documents are stored.
The technical details of what is kept, and how, were interesting. But I admit to a particular thrill at being up close and personal with books such as the Parramatta Gaol description books from the 1800’s, and the registers of Conditional Pardons from that period. These books would almost certainly contain the names, descriptions and other details of some of my story’s characters, based as they are on real people.
The volumes – faded, torn covers and all – impart a tangible sense of the people named between their covers: the lives they lived, their mistakes and their second chances.
I’ll be back to find more details about my characters’ lives, so today was a good taster and a reminder that, while the ease of access to historic documents via digital sources is wonderful, there’s nothing quite like the original paper, book or map to create a link between now and then.
If you’d like to check out the NSW State Archives website, go here
April’s Furious Fiction
Guidelines for this month were that each story had to include three pieces of dialogue, taken from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Anthony Burgess, and Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty.
Here’s my effort:
Mystery Flight B
“What’s it going to be then, eh?” The ticket seller tapped his foot, waiting for a response.
Rod hesitated. “What’s today’s choice again?”
“Mystery Flight A, return; or B, one way only.”
Rod heard the tumour speaking to him through his stomach wall. Take B! You don’t need to come home…
“OK… I’ll take B, thank you.”
The man looked pleased. “Good choice! Not many taking that one nowadays, but still, you never know.”
No, Rod thought, you never know.
Three hours later, he was in a cramped seat, the belts clicked, ready to fly. As he waited for the pre-flight checks to be done, he thought about his sister’s reaction when he’d called her.
He’d repeated it.
Silence. Two beats, five. A rustling as she covered the phone’s mouthpiece, turned to someone, probably Phil.
“He’s never done anything like this before,” she whispered.
“Ros? I’m leaving in a couple of hours. I wanted to say…goodbye…Not sure when I’ll be back.”
“How are you going to live, wherever it is you’re going?” Her panic zinged through the air between them. He was surprised: he hadn’t thought she’d care that much. Since both their parents had died, there wasn’t a lot holding them together. And Phil hated him. Rod shrugged. He didn’t have much time for his brother-in-law either, so that was fair.
He said, “I’ll manage. I’ll find something to do.”
“Well…will you at least let me know when you get there? Let me know how you get on?”
“Of course I will,” he promised. He would if he could. “Better go now. Say hi to Phil. Look after yourself, OK?”
The pilot’s voice came through the intercom. Professional, reassuring. “Good afternoon, folks. Welcome on board today’s Mystery Flight B. It’s a beautiful day for flying so be sure to take a peep out the window. Enjoy the flight.”
Rod smiled at the elderly man who’d taken the seat beside him. The man smiled back. He had a mane of snowy white hair and a long, snarly beard. He looked very…dignified.
Rod leaned back in his seat as the sounds and sensations of take-off started. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, the light had gone from outside. Had he fallen asleep? He pressed his face to the window. Gave an involuntary gasp as he took it all in. Glimmers from floating stars. Earth, a blue and white marble far below, floating on a sea of inky dark velvet. The paper-thin layer of atmosphere, once a cradle of protection, now a toxic soup that threatened all life beneath it.
The man next to Rod leaned forward to look. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution,” he said.
Rod only nodded and turned his face to the window again.
Just for fun, let me know in the comments if you worked out which bit of dialogue comes from which novel.
We’ve all heard of Markus Zusak, right? The Australian author of the runaway best-selling book of 2005, The Book Thief. It’s won numerous awards, been translated into multiple languages and made into a feature film. His new book, The Bridge of Clay, was published in October 2018, amid high anticipation. So the author would be well entitled to consider himself as having ‘made it’ in the world of publishing, surely?
I was listening to a podcast today (Writes4Women) recorded at a fundraiser for the inaugural 2019 StoryFest Festival to be held in Milton, on the beautiful South Coast of NSW. Markus Zusak was the guest speaker at this event and the talk was recorded for the podcast. You can listen to it here:
Some of what Markus Zusak says in this talk came as a bit of a surprise to me. For example, the author says:
I don’t think of writing (for me, anyway) as an art form. I’m a tradesman and I go to work and I just keep chipping away, waiting for the moment to come…but it won’t come unless you’re there, doing the work. The biggest effort can be just getting to the desk, and making that commitment and being prepared to fail. It’s a trade that you’re always working on and trying to get right…I can love the effort even if I don’t always love the result. Markus Zusak
These words are balm to the soul of anyone having more of the “I can’t believe I wrote this mess!” days than the “Wow, look at what I wrote!” ones. Just turn up. Keep plugging away. Commit. Learn to do it better. And then do it all again, on the next draft, and the next…
It doesn’t have to perfect or even very good. Be proud, still, of the effort and the improvements you make.
And actually I think this can apply to any endeavour in life. Art, music, writing, gardening, a profession, a job.
As Markus Zusak says, “Love the effort.”
Back in January I gave an update marking the halfway point of the ‘Write Your Novel’ program I’ve been working through, with the Australian Writers’ Centre.
This week my classmates and I have to submit our full manuscript for workshopping in small groups. So, we each submit our manuscript, and we have a month to read and comment on manuscripts submitted by two to three of our classmates.
A few minutes ago I clicked the ‘Submit’ button. How did it feel?
Scary – no one has as yet read my full draft. Will they like it? Hate it? Feel indifferent?
Exciting – the workshopping and feedback process in this program has been so useful to date. I just know I’ll get back comments that will help me make my story stronger.
There’s also a sense of responsibility to my classmates: to provide honest, worthwhile feedback to assist them in the way I hope to be helped along by them.
The feedback I’ve received on this program has been very worthwhile and certainly helped me to improve my writing.
As our online tutor, Cathie Tasker, has said:
It’s the arrogant authors who don’t make it.
Find the Australian Writers’ Centre programs here: