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:
In last week’s post I mentioned being at the Cobargo Folk Festival recently, and having the pleasure of meeting Gabrielle Stroud after reading her book ‘Teacher.’
At the same festival, I had another of those wonderful moments of serendipity. Also on the festival program were several performances of “The Good Girl Song” Project. A song cycle called “Voyage”, it was written by Helen Begley, based on research by Liz Rushen and eyewitness accounts of the voyage.It presents in musical and theatrical form the story of young single women who emigrated from England to Australia, in the 1830’s. The show was performed by Helen, Penny Larkins, Penelope Swales and Jamie Molloy.
I just loved this presentation. It was Australian history, brought to life. The hopes and dreams of poor women searching for a better life, who sailed halfway round the world to be met by several thousand men on the Sydney dock. The colony was starved of eligible young women, at that time in it’s history. So did the women receive a warm welcome? Hardly. They were greeted by jeers, catcalls and filthy remarks from the assembled men. Imagine the women’s distress and disappointment. And the resilience they needed, in order to lift their heads, endure the humiliation and jeers that their ship was a “floating brothel” and walk down the ship’s gangway, to somehow make a new life in this strange land.
The show brought me to tears. It evoked thoughts of my own ancestors, some of whom I am writing about in my current fiction project. Some arrived as convicts, others as free passengers, but all of them would have experienced the hardships of the voyage here, and the same trepidation as they stepped ashore.
To hear more about the project go here:https://vimeo.com/130713977
or visit their Facebook page:https://www.facebook.com/thegoodgirlstory/
You know the story is working when the story is leading you, rather than you leading the story. Arnold Zable, author.
In a previous post I wrote about enjoyment I’ve had with the research process. (It’s on my ‘Books and Projects’ page if you’d like to see it.)
One of the surprising pleasures of writing for me has been the process of discovery. I’ve had a general idea of my characters, major events in their lives, and where they end up (some of these dictated by the historical records, as my major characters are based on real life people from the 1800’s)
Within those broad parameters, it’s been astonishing, and great fun, to sit at my keyboard and have ideas just develop, as if from nowhere. I’ve heard some writers say their characters ‘tell them’ what they’ll do and say. I’m not sure that applies to me, but I have to say there have been times when, after writing for an hour or so, I have to admit ‘I didn’t know that was going to happen!’
As a new writer it’s easy to either get anxious about this, or get carried away by it. Overall I prefer to stick to my general plan, but it’s fun to allow a bit of leeway and explore roads and lane ways that open up unexpectedly. It doesn’t mean that all of these make it past the first draft, of course. But it’s fun, certainly.
I think I ‘m coming to see the writing process as more like consulting a map. I know where I’m starting, and where I want to get to. In between, I can take the most obvious route, but I can also take interesting little detours or twists and see what comes of them. Being open to the possibilities is the thing.
Kind of like life, don’t you think?
Last year I wrote a post about a new online program I was about to start with the Australian Writers’ Centre, called ‘Write Your Novel.’ I’m now almost half way through this six month course and I’m pleased to report that it is proving to be a worthwhile venture.
When I began the program I had a first draft manuscript of over 119,000 words. Yes, I know, far too many words. I knew I needed to redraft, edit, cut and whittle away a whole lot of those words…words that I’d sweated over and celebrated as the word count mounted. Odd, now that I’m celebrating as the word tally goes down…
Anyway, as this was my first novel, I was a bit lost as to how to set about this (mammoth) task. How to critically examine my story’s plot, structure, characters, dialogue, description. How to make sure all the parts work together to make a satisfying whole. What are the themes of my story and how to ensure they shine through? And of course, how to tighten the language.
This is where the ‘Write Your Novel’ program has been invaluable. I’m in an online classroom with eight other aspiring authors. We have an online tutor, Cathie Tasker, an editor with many years of experience in publishing. Cathie gives each of us feedback as we take turns to submit segments of our manuscripts. And, we all workshop each others’ work and provide feedback on what works well and what needs more work. Already I have learnt so much – from giving feedback and receiving it, and reading the comments given by my classmates on others’ work as well.
I’m happy that I’ve already trimmed over 14,000 words, mainly through tightening language, deleting those pesky repetitious or unnecessary words and checking my overuse of adverbs! And I’ve been able to write more convincing characters by getting closer to their point of view.
Lots more work to do, of course. But I’ve been pleased at the things I’ve learnt so far and confident that I can keep applying this to my writing, even after the program finishes.
To find out more about the ‘Write Your Novel’ program or other classroom and online courses at Australian Writers’ Centre, go to their website: https://www.writerscentre.com.au/
(I promise I am receiving no payment of any kind for this mention! I spent ages online trawling through writing courses and was happy to discover the AWC, so I’m sharing the love. 🙂 )
I’ll be back in another few months to update my progress.