Lately I’ve been finding that I really enjoy reading essays. Dipping in and out of this year’s Best Australian Essays had me searching for the earlier collections; a find of Quarterly Essays from the Op Shop (50 cents each) was a treasure trove of the longer form; Siri Hustvedt’s  A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women:Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind has me severely challenged – mainly due to my ignorance of philosophy –  but  inspired by her fierce, independent intelligence. I’m still working away on that book.
However my most exciting find was an impulse purchase from the Book Depository. You know how they come up with suggestions for you. They’re along the lines of ‘If you bought that, you’d like this’. So I did. And I did. My new crush is American writer Rebecca Solnit. I finished my bargain buy A Field Guide to Getting Lost in a few gulps, and then ordered whatever of her work was in the system from the library.
I had a day of public transport adventures on Thursday. I enjoy being in transit – good for reading and day-dreaming and making up stories – and The Faraway Nearby was a fine companion.

I’m not sure how to classify. Essays, certainly. Thirteen of them, starting and finishing with a mound of apricots from her mother’s tree. Memoir? Or a series of meditations on age, illness, medicine, travel, exploration, fairytales, family, Mary Shelley, the Marquis de Sade, Che Guevara – finishing not quite where we started, with that pile of fruit.

‘An exhilarating form of  literary cartography,’ says one of the blurbs on the back cover, quoted from a review in the Financial Times. ‘Meandering through diverse subjects…’

Diverse! Flipping through a few pages, I found leprosy, breast cancer, the reception of two polar bears who landed in Iceland (shot dead), Narnia, Chinese artists of the Tang dynasty, Wile E. Coyote and the Easter Island heads… There are so many beautiful and surprising things in this collection, but I thought I’d include these two paragraphs on subjects dear to my heart – reading, writing.

The object we call the book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another…

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the one one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no one to to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. 

‘To essay’ means to try. Some day soon, I might even essay an essay of my own.

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Book Group. First meeting is in a week’s time but I only picked up the book – The Golden Age by Joan London –  a few days ago. I was relieved when I saw that it wasn’t a tome – a neat 240 pages – because those long books are hard work if you don’t get into them. But I did.  I read it yesterday, almost without stopping.  Off to a good start.

The reviews focus on the relationship between to two young polio ‘victims’, Frank and Elsa, as if that’s what the book is about. But it’s not, really. There are other characters and other relationships, and they are all connected, delicately, intricately. Even when the connections are not central to the narrative – spun off to the side, so to speak, like that of Nurse Olive Penney and her daughter or Susan’s social climbing parents – they’ve got weight and meaning. They stick with the reader. A beautiful, grave, moving story about so many things – loss and grief, illness and death, war and peace, youth and maturity…

Here is Margaret, Elsa’s mother, in her garden:

She lay down in the grass and the moon went higher. The stars tumbled across the black bowl of the sky and the grasses rustled about her. She heard the shiftings of tiny creatures in the earth and the drone of midges. Everything was in motion. Minute by minute the garden was reverting to wildness. She felt she was lying on the heart of a great animal. it was asking for her trust. All she could do was trust.
Somewhere, a long time ago, she’d found this out, and then forgotten. Making soup, washing nappies, she had turned her back on the springs of life. Never again would she do this, never, ever! If Elsa lived…

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I am reading The Peppered Moth (Viking, 2000) by Margaret Drabble.

I like Margaret Drabble’s writing very much. Ever since I found the three books in the Radiant Way sequence in the op shop (one signed by the author) I’ve been on the look-out. I’ve found the early novels The Garrick Year and The Millstone; though she was wonderful as a younger writer, with age has come this absolute owning of the page. She plays with language, making words and sentences jump hoops and skip and spin and then sometimes returning to an almost 19th century style. In this book,  there’s a sly, wry omniscient narrator who talks directly to the reader, giving us the god’s eye view of the characters. I find this has a distancing effect, so that you don’t feel close to the characters; you don’t participate but observe rather dispassionately as their fates unwind, but that’s not a criticism.

 The Peppered Moth is really an imagined biography of Margaret Drabble’s (and A.S. Byatt’s!) mother in the character of Bessie, a clever working class girl from a Yorkshire mining town who won a scholarship to Cambridge but didn’t go on to have the brilliant career that she and everyone else would have expected. She married, had children and made everyone in her life unhappy. A disappointed woman, she was highly intelligent but harsh, angry and manipulative.In her after word, Drabble writes:
My father died in December 1982, and my mother shortly afterwards, in April 1984. After her death several friends – mostly novelist friends – suggested that I should try to write about her. Use your mother’s blood for ink, one of them urged me. So I tried, but it wasn’t easy. I think about my mother a great deal, uncomfortably. Night and day on me she cries. Maybe I should have tried to write a factual memoir of her life, but I have written this instead.

Drabble explores the effect of the ambition and the disappointment on Bessie’s husband, children and grandchild, taking in genetics and evolution and inheritance, old age and memory and decay, class and gender, history and geography. There’s not much she doesn’t take in, actually; she asks many questions about mothers and daughters that reverberate through the generations.

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Lewis. Morse. Midsummer Murders. Vera. Poirot. Miss Marple

Yes, British crime is my guilty little not-so-secret. I love it. And I can be quite productive, too – two or three nights in front of a movie length episode and I can knit a couple of beanies or a cowl (with cables).

But there’s a worse confession to come.

I’m hooked on Seinfeld. I never watched it regularly back in the day (it ran from 1989 to 1998) but the discovery of a boxed set in an Op Shop for a paltry eight bucks has led to quite an addiction. I could argue – I will, dammit! – that a well-made sitcom can be a beautiful thing. It’s both astonishing and inevitable when all the disparate plot elements converge; watching the end of the ‘Fusilli Jerry’ episode of Seinfeld the other night, I felt like cheering “Bravo!” as sex moves, a motor mechanic, the wrong license plate, an eye job and a fusilli pasta sculpture all came together with a bang at the proctologist’s office.

Actually, there’s more, and I’m blushing somewhat. It’s Sex and the City. I don’t know quite what to say about my current thing for this show. Though I must have seen the odd glimpse, I never watched an entire episode in its day (1998 to 2004) and in fact would have snottily labelled it as ‘trash’ if I’d been asked for an opinion. One of my worst movie experiences ever (on a par with Twilight, where I was quite audibly muttering “Let it be over, let it be over” for the last hour) was Sex and the City on the big screen. It was a fundraiser for breast cancer at our local theatre, a women-only event full of squeals, giggles, air-kisses, pink, pamper-packs, frocks, heels and flutes and flutes of bubbly. I may have been going through a particularly dour and kill-joy phase, but I hated everything about that night. But now I am appreciating the female-centered stories, the gorgeous friendship between these four very different women as they drink their Cosmoplitans, and – yes – the clever writing.

So, that’s the set-up for this episode. Things will converge. You’ll see. Here goes.

I recently re-read Anthony Storr’s Solitude. Storr was a British psychiatrist and author; this book, originally published in 1988, is a challenge to the idea that it’s only through interpersonal relationships that a person can find fulfilment, happiness or indeed, become a psychologically healthy human being. He looks at creative people – writers, composers, artists and so on – to show that work can truly be, if not ‘the’ then certainly ‘a’ love of your life. And it’s not just the extraordinary people he talks about. Though it’s common to mock ‘anoraks’ and nerds, solitary hobbies and interests – ranging from stamp collecting to pigeon fancying to gardening and fishing – sustain many productive, happy, fulfilled individuals who do not have spouses, families or intimate others. They may or may not even have close friends, but they are not to be pitied or pathologised. These people have found a way to living their own lives. But there’s an enduring bias and suspicion against people who prefer solitude – against introverts, you could say. Storr passionately defends such people – talented, genius, and not so. They have a right to simply be themselves. And they often bring great gifts into the world.

It’s a fascinating book, and my only disappointment with it is that so few of his examples are women. Beatrix Potter and a few saints get a guernsey, that’s all. For women and solitude is a huge topic. I think I can safely say that – in general – you need solitude to create. I’ve even seen writing described as ‘the art of the room’; if you can’t bear to be alone, it’s not for you. And yet women, because of socialisation, cultural norms, their roles as care-givers and mothers and perhaps also their physiology (those tend-and-befriend hormones) and their genes, seem to be set up for very little alone time.

Solitude made me want to re-read more recent companion or complementary book – Susan Cain’s 2012 Quiet; the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. And there’s where worlds began to collide. And the disparate plot points converge…

Cain’s description of the American extrovert ideal gone wrong matches….Donald Trump! And in my last night’s episode of Sex and the City one of the girls going into a swanky restaurant spied – guess? Yes! The Donald. (I agree, it’s not quite as neatly amazing as Fusilli Jerry, but I thought it brought a few very disparate elements together).

But on to more serious matters. That the President of the United States can be a movie actor or a reality TV star or a celebrity says something important about the United States. Cain explains that, beginning in the 1900’s, industrialisation began to change the culture. ‘America had shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality… In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined and honourable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private…But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans stared to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining… Susman famously wrote, “Every American was to become a performing self.”

The American extrovert ideal, according to Cain, has come to mean that quiet has become unacceptable. The gifts that the introvert may bring to the table –thoughtfulness, consideration, focus, insight – are not wanted. Put simply, the vocal, gregarious, fast, assertive, decisive person (dare I say, that’s it’s usually a man?) is perceived to be a better leader and decision-maker, more intelligent and more able. There is plenty of evidence that this is not the case. They may even make worse leaders – rash, impulsive, big on style, short on substance. Hello, Donald.

So here you have it – British crime, beanies, sit-coms, solitude, American cultural history, …and  Trump! Reminds me of a little game I used with creative writing students years ago. I’d put a bunch of random nouns on slips of paper into a hat and get them to draw three, then write a story.

If only the Performing President was fiction.


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I looked at the date on today’s paper and saw with astonishment that it’s already the 21st. At last, I’ve stopped having to think when writing 2017 but it still seems like the year hasn’t really begun until school goes back in. I’m not quite back in the old routine; there are no school buses thundering past as I walk down to work in the mornings; lots of relaxed folk wander around the town and into our bookshop. It’s very pleasant, this holiday feeling.

Death Takes a Holiday was the title of a 1934 Paramount picture,  but it never does, does it? Yesterday’s events in the Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall were shocking and horrifyingly random. I was in the Mall only the day before. It makes me think that anything can happen, to anyone, at any time. And does.

Part of the shock is because Australia is still such a safe, peaceful and lucky country, only – going on the results of opinion polls – Australians don’t seem to feel that way.  I don’t think I’m imagining this, but people seem increasingly under stress, fractured, impatient.
I think to myself, often, that we are animals – human animals – very clever animals, but that we have come to the very edge of our animal nature  being able to keep up with our cleverness.
We have made this mad and terrible world for ourselves. There are too many of us all jammed in together. There are too many distractions (our animal nature loves novelty, and grasps at it eagerly) and too many toys.  So many of us are unwell, drugged, addicted, or hate- and  and fear-filled.
We were at the newsagent yesterday and looked briefly at the cover of a magazine called Conspiracy Theories. It was amazing and gobsmacking, but I actually couldn’t bear to look at it for long. As my husband quotes, ‘People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts’ but the publishers of these paranoia magazines don’t seem to care. All kinds of nonsense is cynically peddled as fact. Facts aren’t allowed to get in the way of a good, rabid opinion. Hate and fear sell. Oh, dear.

As a counterbalance to despair, I rummaged around and found something I’d written to comfort myself when feeling just like this around twenty years ago.


Breastfeeding my baby at daybreak to birdsong,
I know this is real
As gunshots and flesh wounds in ghettos in warzones.

The papers send waves of it –
battles, a slaying,
a car-crash, a coup –
to drown the bird
the tree and the dawn.
I know it’s the real world.
It’s gritty, it’s hard.
Sharp edges, harsh textures – but more truly real
breastfeeding my baby at dawn with the birds?

At daybreak, my baby, his soft cheek, my son.
Bike tyres. The thud of the paper that lands at our door.
Leave it.
My baby, your soft face, my real world.
It’s real.





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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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