My new book is my old book. I began in 2008 – yes, that long ago – and it was only last year that I finished it. That was after re-writing and re-writing and re-writing. A few knock-backs from publishers. Work with an editor. More re-writing. And then more. Mid-2016, my agent contacted me with the wonderful, amazing, longed-for news that it had found a publisher. There was a golden moment or two, and then a report from another editor. More re-writing.

Now, I’m in the last phase before the next phase. I send off the manuscript at the end of the month. There will be a little break and then – yes, more work. And more work until it is as good as we (the editors and I) can make it. And then at some point we will call a halt. It will be as done as it can be. The publishing company will do all the things they do – cover art, blurb, author biography and picture. There will be a release date. I might have a launch. I will be exhausted.

And don’t imagine that I am complaining. This is the work that I love. But Helen Garner said it very well, better than I could, in her collection of essays, Everywhere I Look:

Every day I work on the edit of my book. I slog away, shifting chunks of material and moving them back, eating my salad in a daze, wondering if the linking passages I’ve written are leading me up the garden path, or are sentimental, or violate some unarticulated moral and technical code I’ve signed up to and feel trapped in or obliged to. The sheer bloody labour of writing. No one but another writer understands it – the heaving about of great boulders into a stable arrangement so that you can bound up them and plant your little flag at the very top.


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The lead up to Christmas and the year’s end has been, as usual, shatteringly busy and stressful. It was not just retail madness and extra shifts at the Bookroom; our son headed to Istanbul just as news of the soccer match bombings hit us; he left just before the assassination of the Russian ambassador. When he popped into the shop on Christmas Eve, I had a bit of a cry over the wrapping paper.
So comfort reading has been in order.

In quick succession I’ve read three books by my favourite ‘Forgotten Bestseller of Yesteryear’, an American author called Kathleen Norris. Three because that’s all I have. However, I’ve looked online and there are (literally) dozens available so I’m hitting Abebooks in the New Year and can finally give Margaret Yorke, The Seagull and Storm House a break.

I’m not going to try to make a case for these novels as great, undiscovered literature. I just enjoy them. I think they’re well-written – whatever that might mean to you, it means to me that she knew her craft. The plots move along. The people can surprise you. She understood girls and young women and children.  Her descriptions of the natural world, in particular the coast (she was a native Californian and lived much of her life in San Fransisco) make me think she must have spent hours observing; they seem to ring true. So do her dreary hot little country towns, her frugal boarding-houses, her offices and department stores, no less than her homes of the rich and leisured.

‘Women’s fiction’* rather than straight romance, they deal with love, marriage and motherhood, with emotional and sexual inexperience and incompatibility (though anything sexual is written in coded language, it’s not hard to figure out) with infatuation, disenchantment, adultery, divorce. And clothes, hats, food, furniture, gardens, restaurants, waves, rock pools, eucalyptus trees, Mexican cooking, the little shaded lamps at each table in a plush tea-room, the bunch of violets on a woman’s breast, live turtles in a shop in Chinatown… All this elaboration of detail is, perhaps, why I find these books so restful. It’s like being sensuously immersed in a faraway world.

The tide was making fast: the rough, steady tide of a late October afternoon. It was brimming the pools, churning in a lather of impatient water between the rocks, lifting the satiny sea grasses in loose waving masses of purple and emerald ribbons.
There had been no sun all day, and a hard, high wind was driving in from the veiled Pacific. The air was warm, wet, heavy with salt and rain. Gulls, blown sidewise on the wild airs, peeped and careened above the brimming, roaring swift-running waves…
Kathleen Norris, born in 1880, is probably almost completely forgotten today. But she was one of the most widely read and highest paid female authors in the US in the years 1911 to 1959 – perhaps the Nora Roberts or Jodi Picoult of her day. She was a newspaper columnist and short story writer as well as a novelist, with an amazing 93 novels published in her lifetime. Her New York Times obituary described her as a ‘militant feminist’; she was active in the women’s suffrage movement and campaigned for Prohibition, pacifism, nuclear disarmament and on behalf of charities supporting women and children. When only in her teens she became the breadwinner for her family,working in department stores, offices and a library. After she married, and her books became successful, her husband took over the household so she could write. She died in 1966.

*’…it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Peaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes, ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.’ from A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

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I love Boxing Day. I love that lazy down time between Christmas and New Year. The mad rush is all over. Now, nothing much can happen. Lots of businesses and shops and institutions are shut. People are on holidays. There’s time to relax… If I could relax, that is.

I was woken this morning from my food coma by our son, who’s visiting us for a couple days over Christmas. I’d left my phone in the living room and the alarm (set for 7 am every day except Sunday) was ringing. I thanked him and thought for a few seconds about staying asleep. Yes? No? No. So many things to do…

And then, over my cup of tea, I read Saturday’s Age and an article by Christos Tsolkias, ‘A Matter of Time’. He related an incident. He’d met a friend; they’d stolen some time from their busyness to have a coffee. They talked about their plans for the coming weekend. Hers involved driving children here and there for sport and music lessons. He planned on staying in bed and reading.
‘”Ah,” she said. ‘the life of leisure. I guess that’s what it’s like not having kids.”‘
And Tsolkias followed with a meditation on leisure and guilt and childlessness. (Read it!)

Which made me meditate, as well.
Those early childhood years were at times frantic –  and I say that as a complete amateur, with only one kid. It was only then that I really got into habits of discipline and  organization and selflessly cracking on with jobs and tasks when I was exhausted. Those years coincided with being a carer for my elderly parents. I was indeed BUSY. Now my parents have gone, my son has left home – but I still, when faced with empty hours, feel a kind of panic. What needs to be done? What’s the best use of this limited time? I can’t bear to waste it!

As a younger person I had very little guilt about taking time to myself. Reading, lying dreaming in a hammock, sitting outside in a banana lounge (remember them?) listening to the birds and insects. My rather harsh judgement now is that I was a total slacker. And that I’m so-o-o much more virtuous these days.
That may or may not be so, but the pity of it is that now I find it really hard to relax. It’s hard to enjoy leisure when your mental to-do list comes with a snarling, snarking commentary. The spiderwebs have been there since Autumn. You haven’t actually cleaned the windows all year. You bought that curtain material two years ago and it’s still sitting in the linen press. And so on.


But I also know that it’s in those despised hours of indolence the ideas for my writing arrive and begin to grow. A bit of useless dreaming is not so useless after all. That’s why I find a spot of train travel so useful when I’m in the middle of a book. Marooned on V-Line, there’s little that I can do. Carting the laptop all day hurts my back. I often don’t read very much when I am writing. An hour and half from our station to Southern Cross, sitting looking out of the window is a beautiful thing.

Among my more virtuous 2017 resolutions (more t’ai chi, more gardening) is more staying in bed and reading. More hammock time.

That is, when I find time to get a new one. The old hammock disintegrated and perished years ago, due to lack of use.


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Two days ago I pressed ‘send’ and my latest children’s novel went winging its way to the publisher. I spent the day feeling very grumpy.

Not because I am particularly unhappy with the finished book – I have just the usual feeling that it’s not as good as I’d have liked, or as I imagined it could be – but because there is a huge empty place where the book used to be. An on-going project that takes months of your life has to leave a bit of a hole. I used to liken the feeling to a kind of post-natal depression. Now, with my twenty-year old son having left home (and currently travelling overseas), I think of it as empty nest syndrome.

So instead of taking a few weeks off before starting my next project  – which is working through the editor’s notes and hopefully making the last major changes to my adult novel – I got stuck in. I thought that I might need some time to make the transition from one book to another. Especially since my target audience has moved from nine to twelve year old girls to adults (and if I’m honest or realistic, the adults will most probably be middle-aged women). I was surprised and utterly delighted to find that, almost instantly, I was right back in there. I hope this augurs well for the novel!

My husband and I were reviewing our reading stats for the year (yes, that’s the kind of thing we do!) and it turns out he has read 35 books so far. I have read 76. I win! My standouts for the year were Lila and Gilead, both by Marilynne Robinson. Luminous, tender, absorbing; I finished Lila, in particular, in awe.


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fasterI have been reading finished a book called Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg (author of The Power of Habit). If I was shelving it, I’d hover between ‘Business’ and “Self-Help’. The author has all sorts of surprisingly interesting things to say about how businesses are run and how management can empower workers in such a way as to benefit them both, and so forth. Interesting, but not particularly relevant to me, right now.
But he also had a section on creativity. And it was really, really helpful.

Here are a few lessons from the book:

Creativity often emerges by combining old ideas in new ways.

Be sensitive to your own experience. Paying attention to how things make you think and feel is how we distinguish clichés from real insights. Study your own emotional reactions.

Recognise that the stress that emerges amid the creative process isn’t a sign that everything is falling apart. Rather, creative desperation is often critical: Anxiety can be what pushes us to see old ideas in new ways.

Finally, remember that the relief accompanying a creative breakthrough, while sweet, can also blind us to alternatives. By forcing ourselves to critique what we’ve already done, by making ourselves look at it from different perspectives… we retain clear eyes.

These points were useful to me during the writing of my current book because:

  • There’s been a lot of anxiety and I’ve thought it was a very bad thing. But it’s a good and normal thing, you need anxiety to write well, perhaps even the anxiety of a deadline.
    And I actually know that if I do not make the deadline, the world won’t end – I can ask for an extension. So that particular ‘anxiety’ is a bit of a paper tiger. The anxiety is really around ‘is this book any good?’ That’s a fine and good anxiety. It’s probably essential if I am are going to keep on writing.
  • The ‘new things from old things’, is relevant, too. All books are, in a sense, new from old. My current project combines fantasy and Gothic romance and an insanely complex mystery. New ideas and plot directions and tweaks keep pinging up all the time because of the hybrid madness of it. Above all, it’s fun.
  • And yes! Yes! Yes! The relief that comes from finding some sort of ‘answer’ to a story problem can blind me to the fact that it isn’t an answer at all, or doesn’t really work or needs major tweaking to work.

All very useful stuff for the writer!

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bttm-front-196x300The Book That Made Me, edited by Judith Ridge, is a collection of 32 stories from (mainly Australian) YA and children’s writers. The royalties from sales of the book all go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

As Judith Ridge says in the introduction, there’s a growing interest in writing, and in writers’ lives. (As an aside, I wish there wasn’t. My life has never been extraordinary, except inside my own head – no larger-than-life adventures, no dreadful traumas, no exotic locales – and has consisted for years now of a lot of sitting on my bottom in front of a screen, which should not be of great interest to anybody). Thinking about the authors whose work she loved and admired, she began to wonder about their formative reading. Which book made them fall in love, made them understand, made them laugh, made them feel angry or safe or challenged. “Made them readers, made them writers –made them the person they are today? And so I asked them.”

32 writers – people like Fiona Wood, Kate Constable, Shaun Tan, Markus Zusak, Simmone Howell, Alison Croggon, Cath Crowley, Simon French, Ursula Dubosarsky – when asked, “What is the book that made you?” give readers much more than a title. The books that made them give an often intimate and moving glimpse into their lives. In nearly every one, I felt a spark of recognition and fellow feeling. Reading and enjoying the various memoirs and essays in the collections made me wonder, of course, what I’d have written if I’d been asked.

well-done-secret-sevenPerhaps I could say the Magic Faraway Tree and Secret Seven series ‘made me’; but though they were certainly the books that turned me on to independent reading, they’re not the ones that have stayed with me. I hope I’m not being a book snob here – I think of those Blyton books with great affection, and know they provided that important first step.

The book that made me? It’s actually a difficult question. A book? The book? I think I will ask myself a slightly different question. Which book has stayed with you? It will have to be plural, as well. Which books, for like many of the writers in this collection I was, as Fiona Wood puts it “addicted to books”. Though I was happy and loved at home, with imaginative, understanding parents – an artist father and a frankly ‘bookish’ teacher mother – life out in the world of school and friends was often challenging, exhausting, incomprehensible and at times simply miserable. I had trouble learning to read, but as soon as I mastered the art – thank you, Enid Blyton! – books were a constant for me, whether delight, diversion, distraction, escape or consolation.

Which books have stayed? I was going to try to keep it at ten, but a dozen is old school which, really, suits me best. These are books that I read and re-read when I was in primary school. They’re still on my shelves; they’re worn and a bit tatty but they glow for me with a kind of golden aura of use and love.
In no particular order:
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
Little House in the Big Woods by
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Mistress Masham’s Repose
by TH White
The Children of Green Knowe
by L M Boston
The Little White Horse
by Elizabeth Goudge
Little Women
by Louisa Alcott
The Midnight Folk
by John Masefield
Anne of Green Gables by
L M Montgomery
The Secret Garden
and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Seven Little Australians
by Ethel Turner
The Good Master by Kate Seredy

The Book That Made Me ed. Judith Ridge Walker Books Australia $19.95




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dsc_3175_01dsc_3156dsc_3157dsc_3216Plum blossom, jonquil, japonica, grevillea…

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family_skeleton_chosen_grandeThis exquisite cover adorns Carmel Bird’s latest novel. It’s a sly, witty and sinister tale of family stories and family secrets, past sins and modern manners. It’s partially narrated by the skeleton in the cupboard – it insists on telling us that it still has its own teeth – who lays bare the lives of the O’Day family and in particular that of the matriarch, Margaret. Margaret, a widow of unassailable virtue and good works, gets her turn, too, in her memoir ‘The Book of Revelation’.
Things are going along in the usual way for the large, wealth O’Day clan, with births, deaths, marriages overseen by Margaret –  until a distant cousin and keen genealogist Doria Fogelsang arrives from the US. Her investigations threaten to reveal a secret, hidden in plain sight, that will overturn Margaret’s whole life. What will Margaret do? The skeleton sees all…

This is Carmel Bird’s 30th published work. Round of applause! Though Carmel and I have become friends here in Castlemaine, I first encountered her through her ‘how-to’ classic Dear Writer, and later the marvellous novels Red Shoes and The White Garden. What caught me then – and now – is her distinctive narrative voice, which can be mordantly witty, even cynical –  and ravishingly romantic all at the same time. She’s lost none of her edge. Family Skeleton contains her signature mix of beautiful, supple prose, shrewd observation and grim (Grimm?) exploration of death and life.


Here’s me selling books, and Carmel signing, at the recent launch at the funeral parlour’s refreshment rooms in Castlemaine.

Family Skeleton by Carmel Bird, UWA Press, $32.95

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photoTwo friends of mine, Anne Myers and Andrea Gillum – fantastic emerging writers I met at Varuna, the Writer’s House in Katoomba, NSW – have stories in the 2016 edition of Award Winning Australian Writing. All sorts of competitions are represented – poetry, life writing, short fiction, microfiction… It’s a surprise package of all-sorts, great to dip into and discover. From the Foreword by Sam Cooney:

...being a writer is wholly about taking what’s in front of you, whether it’s IRL or in your mind, then adding flourishes and deleting some boring bits and twisting a bit here and turning a bit there, then doing whatiever if is you can do with that piece – submitting it, publishing it on your blog,etc – to obtain some of the glory you desire, and maybe a bit of bonus catharsis, too. What I mean is: being a writer is doing very silly things, taking unwise risks, in order to be party of something larger…

I can remember the thrill of seeing my first short story published in an anthology (it was the last, too, but that’s because I more or less stopped writing short fiction).  On Wednesday I needed a very light and slim book for a train journey and I chose a book of short stories by Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen. I don’t know if she’s much read today, though a couple of her novels – The Death of the Heart, In the Heat of the Day – are published in the Vintage Classics series.

In her preface to Encounters, written nearly 30 years after the collection was first published, she writes:

The importance to the writer of first writing must be out of all proportion to the objective value of what is written. It was perhaps more difficult then than now to disentangle what was there, on the page, from the creative excitement which had given it birth. There could be but one test of validity: publication. I know I shaped every line in the direction of the unknown arbiter: there was still the sensation of ‘showing up’ work. When I say that had I not written with the intention of being published I should not have written, I should add that I did not so much envisage glory as affirmation.

Not glory: affirmation.
Realistically, there isn’t much glory for most writers. Nor money.
But there is affirmation in being, at last, out there. On a page (of any kind) and –  in ways you may not be able to plan or predict or foretell – in your reader’s life.

Award Winning Australian Writing 2016 edited by Chloe Brien, Melbourne Books $29.95

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