Friday, June 27, 2014

Writers in conversation

This blog has been sadly neglected this year, but for a good reason (well, good for me, anyway!). I'm studying again and the course work has consumed my every waking hour, almost. Between that and the reading for my topic, and working to pay the bills, even my recreational reading has suffered. It seems that gone are the days of reading 2-3 novels a week!

But I'm gradually returning to the world of reading and creative writing and imagination and story, and what has really helped is going out and simply listening to other writers talk about their craft. Last night was the best possible example of how inspiring it can be to hear a writer talking honestly and in depth about what and why they write. It was our VU Writers in Conversation event with Helen Garner.

You may not know Helen's work if you live outside Australia, but she is reknowned here for both her fiction and nonfiction. It seems that everything she writes causes controversy, and yet when you listen to her talk about her works, you wonder why. It's because of the depth of her writing. She tackles subjects that other writers might shy away from, and does it with such intensity that I think people shy away from what she reveals.

Her most recent novel I have read is "The Spare Room", which is about two women, one of whom, Nicola, is dying of bowel cancer and comes to stay in Helen's spare room. Nicola is pursuing alternative therapy and Helen ends up getting quite angry with her for a number of reasons. It's quite a confronting book about death and choices and the effects of both of those things. I think you would have to read it to understand why some readers reacted so negatively to it, but for me the key is Helen Garner's unflinching portrayals of characters.

When it comes to her nonfiction, she has again caused furores over both "The First Stone" and "Joe Cinque's Consolation" (do a search on either or both to see what I mean). Regardless of what you think of these books, Helen's nonfiction is as deeply affecting as her fiction. She talked last night of the experience of writing "Joe Cinque's Consolation" and how close she became to Joe's parents. Her re-telling of a huge literary lunch in Sydney, to which she took Joe's mother, was heart-stopping.

And her ability to then put these events into words on the page is astounding. She also spoke about meeting a Turkish man on a railway platform who showed her photos on his phone of his brand new baby, and how she ended up talking to him and becoming friends with him and his wife. It was hardly a surprise when she confessed to the audience that she "has no boundaries" and that maybe this is a fraught thing, but I think it's why she is able to write the way she does. She doesn't hold back, she doesn't hold people at arms-length.

All the same, we were fascinated to hear that her new book, out in August, is about Robert Farquharson (follow this link to read a summary). She has spent eight years on it, which is a monumental task. I came away from listening to Helen feeling inspired and in awe. I plan to read "Joe Cinque's Consolation" as soon as I'm able, but I know I'll be thinking about many of the things she said for some time to come.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Writing retreat notes #2

Week 2 of my May Gibbs residency. This week I’m going out each day to do writing and poetry workshops with kids in schools. I’ve been out near Ipswich, up towards the Sunshine coast and learned to work a TomTom navigator! (If you’re not going to be the driver, then the next job is navigating, of course.) Rather than stop me writing, this makes me more determined to write as soon as I get back to my retreat apartment.

It’s great to work with the kids – many of whom “hate” writing because they don’t know how to do it – and give them a bunch of tools for both poetry and story writing. Get past those initial blocks and we start having fun. And producing a lot of writing. I’ve mostly been working with Grade 6 and 7, and been glad to see plenty of volunteers busting to read their writing.

As for my own, I started keeping a writing diary, for several reasons. One was that I didn’t want to get home and think – what on earth did I actually write? So I know that as of today (Day 11) I’ve written about 11,000 words of two different novels, about 18 poems and a picture book. More importantly, I’ve done a lot of thinking, staring out at the church roof next door and the buildings in the distance. I’ve also done a fair bit of walking, to counteract the effects of writing on a laptop.

A retreat is definitely worthwhile considering. I know writers who book themselves into a motel or hotel for a weekend or a week, or go and stay at a friend’s holiday house. Others go away with fellow writers and use each other as “prods” to keep writing. Anything that takes you into a writing space is worth doing.

Life is over-full. For those of us who communicate for a living, the very things we use every day – the internet, email, phones – become the things that intrude into all our leisure time, the time we might use for writing, and suck it away. I’ve been internet-connected while here, but it has been so much easier to turn it off, to turn the phone off, to give myself quiet time with nothing else to do but create.

If you’ve been wanting to take some time out to write, now is the time to plan it. It’s funny how when you are on a May Gibbs retreat/residency, every time you explain it to someone, their eyes light up and they wish they, too, could do this. Well, all I can say is – do it. Find a place to stay for a week or a weekend, book yourself in, plan ahead with your writing project and GO!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Writing retreat notes #1

When I think of a writer’s retreat, I have this place in France in mind. It’s on the side of a hill overlooking a valley, the village is medieval and full of old stone buildings and painted shutters and pots full of brightly flowering plants (you know the kind), and the sunlight and fresh air and ambience lead to me writing these amazing novels in no time at all.

Hmmm. Anyone who writes knows even an inspiring French village doesn’t necessarily lead to outpourings of words and masterpieces. But all the same, the idea of a retreat is entrancing. It means you get to go somewhere that is not your home, and you get to shut yourself away from the world. You may not write thousands of words, but you are there to write, so stuff happens.

I am on Day 6 of my writing retreat in Brisbane (warm Brisbane while my home city shivers in early winter freezes) and to be honest, every day here has been different. Every writing day, I mean. The idea that I would come and sit in my chair every day for 8 hours and churn out words has not happened. But that doesn’t mean nothing has happened. Plenty has.

It took me a couple of days to get used to it. The peace and quiet, I mean. But also the idea that I had nowhere to be, no one to answer to, nothing urgent to do for other people or work. It was just me and my imagination and my laptop. I had taken the advice of someone else who had done this retreat* and brought several projects. The one I really wanted to finish? Done on Day 1. I’d spent the last two weeks trying to find the time and headspace to write that last chapter and suddenly, in one day, I was finished. I was a bit stunned.

So what next? I thought. I spread things across my large table and dabbled here and there, but mostly I just sat and thought. Words came, slowly. One project is a verse novel I have been working on for two years. It’s a big challenge, this one, and it’s been going very slowly. This week I’ve clipped pages and notes to the slat blind in front of me, and that has helped – to see it in note form all around me. 

I also had some picture books in mind, and worked on one the other day, without much success. Then I went to an amazing exhibition called Falling Back to Earth and suddenly something entirely new and different emerged. I’ve also been working on something new and experimental. This is normal for me – to have several projects going at once – but usually at least two of them are in “resting” mode. At the moment, all of these things are spread around me, and I work on whichever one is rolling around in my head and wanting attention.

Because this is what a retreat can do. Suddenly, instead of a head crammed full of other stuff with a tiny space for writing, it’s like this empty hall with a dusty floor and sun beaming through the high-up windows, waiting for dancers to come and dance, or practise, or do some pirouettes and grand jetes maybe. You put the music on and invite them in, and your head is full of dancing.

*This retreat is a May Gibbs Fellowship, and every year children’s writers in Australia can apply to have a residency in another city in order to have time to write.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Write now with Tim Thorne

Five days until the Beaconsfield Festival of Golden Words and today's Q&A is with poet Tim Thorne. He's a multi-award winning poet with more than a dozen collections published.

1.  What is your latest book? Tell us a bit about it.
The Unspeak Poems and other verses, published by Walleah Press. It consists of the title group of poems, based on Stephen Poole's concept of "Unspeak" (a real-life version of Orwell's "Newspeak") along with other poems I've written over the past six years.  It includes some light verse.

2. What is your best time of day for writing? Why is that?
  It used to be very late at night, but as I get older I get tired earlier, so now it tends to be afternoons.

3.  What books would you recommend to a new poet starting out?
Any of the technically great poets, both for enjoyment and to learn from.  Plath and Keats are the first I'd list, but the important thing is to read as widely as possible.

4. What is the strangest question you have been asked by a reader? What was your response?
 "Why did you write about my life?"  This from a complete stranger after I'd read in a pub in Orange.  She'd wandered in from another bar and heard a poem about a homeless teenager.

5. What do you enjoy most about literary festivals?
 Hearing other poets read/perform their work.  I'm not a great fan of panel discussions.  I do have a poem sequence in my new book called "At the Literary Festival" which is pretty much my take on the phenomenon.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Write now with - Christina Booth

The Beaconsfield Festival of Golden Words - never heard of it? That's because it's a brand new literary festival for Tasmania, taking place 14-16 March!

Today's Q&A is with Christina Booth, a children's writer and illustrator, who will be appearing at the festival.
1. What is your latest published book? Tell us a little about it.

My latest book is called Welcome Home.  It is a story about a boy and a whale. Inspired by an event that happened in my home state of Tasmania, the story follows a whale as she swims into a river and tells her stories to a young boy. The stories are both joyful and sad. The young boy learns of the history of whaling and why the whales were driven away. He wonders if he can make amends for the past and encourage her to stay. 'Sorry,' he tells her but she swims away. Then in the early dawn people gather on the shore and watch as she swims and plays in the water, but not on her own. 

I have always wanted to write a book that looks at the issue of whaling. It is a gruesome and violent topic and quite political and very difficult to approach appropriately in a book for young children. When a southern right whale swam into Hobart's Derwent River and had a calf, the first born in what was once a thriving whale nursery in nearly 200 years I knew I had a story. I have approached the effects of whaling from a historical perspective and asked myself, how did the whale know it was safe to come back? Do whales tell their children stories like we do? Can a whale forgive us? I like to start my story writing with a question.

2. What research did you have to do for it? Is research different for illustrators? If so, in what way?

I researched information about southern right whales and the history of whaling during the early European settlement of Australia and New Zealand. I watched a lot of documentaries, read books including journal entries of whalers from the time and looked at a lot of pictures of whales. I collected as many images of whales as I could and researched about their behaviour and anatomy.  I visited a few museums and researched quite a bit online.

My research is very much the same as an illustrator as it is for my writing though I do have to collect and study a lot of visual aspects, not just to have descriptions right in words but to have certain important aspects correct in my illustrations. If you understand the anatomy of the animal you are drawing and painting, even if you are simplifying it or morphing it in some way then you will capture the essence of what makes that animal unique. A lot of my illustration research is spent doing studies and sketches of animals to learn how to make them move and sit, stand etc, in certain environments and situations. I am inspired by the way Beatrix Potter studied to draw her animal characters. She drew them anatomically correct and then she dressed them. My whales aren't dressed though!!

3. What is your best time of day for illustrating? Why is that?

I have a crazy life, lots of people coming and going in my house which is where my studio is. I find that once I have settled into the studio and focused then any time is the best time. Sometimes I go up to turn off computers for the night and find myself distracted and working again. It puts me into a time bubble and before I know it everyone else has gone to sleep and hours can pass by. Because I am a mum the best time to work is any time I can grab to do so.

4. What is the strangest question you've ever been asked by a child reader? How did you respond? 

Not many odd ones but one child wanted to know what language we spoke in Tasmania. I answered with a question that had the group chatting for a bit about what they thought (they were quite young and lived on what I affectionately call the 'Big Island'). 

5. What do you like most about literary festivals?

I love festivals, the word itself engages the essence of fun and celebration. I love literary festivals because they celebrate what I love to do and offer the opportunity for everyone to engage with the idea of using words and pictures to tell stories. We hear from the great writers and also from the potentially great and we learn from each other. Humans are naturally designed to tell stories and to gather together so when I attend a writing festival I feel very at home and love listening, telling and doing. I love having the chance to meet new people, my audience (they are not a figment of my imagination, hooray) and to share any skills  I have with others and learn new ones as well. I love to learn.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Write Now with - Tristan Bancks

Next week is the Beaconsfield Festival of Golden Words. Tristan Bancks is one of Australia’s most active children’s authors, and an advocate of the internet as an essential writers tool. In demand at schools and libraries around the country for his exciting writing workshops for youngsters, Tristan is leading two of his story safaris and his popular Imaginarium session at the Festival.

1. What is your latest published book? Tell us a little about it.

TWO WOLVES, out 1 March. It’s a crime-mystery novel about two kids, Ben and Olive Silver, who are ‘kidnapped’ by their own parents. They are told that they’re going on a holiday but, after a couple of run-ins with the police, they realise that their parents have done something wrong. They need to become detectives within their own family and work out what their folks have done and what they are going to do about it.

2. What research did you have to do for it?

I read lots of articles on abducted kids and criminal parents. I learnt how log rafts are built and what rabbit hunting is like and I learnt about Norfolk Pine trees and police car antennas and I re-read My Side of the Mountain and Hatchet and White Fang and other wilderness novels that I love. Lots of details that I tried to get right. I took five years to write it so I take full responsibility for any discrepancies.

3. What is your best time of day for writing? Why is that?Definitely mornings. I am clear-headed and energised and ready for action. Afternoon is much better for logistical stuff. Then a late-night burst of ideas if I allow it. (Often no sleep afterwards.) 

4. What is the strangest question you've ever been asked by a reader? How did you respond?
‘Do you like pie’? I, of course, responded in the affirmative. 

5. What do you like most about literary festivals?Interacting with kids, meeting other writers and illustrators who invariably have an interesting take on the world. Telling stories verbally is fun and bringing them alive with images, video, anecdotes etc. It’s a nice excuse to stand up occasionally, too. Writers sit for waaaay too long each day / month / year.

Thanks, Tristan! I know what you mean about too many hours at the computer. Two Wolves looks great - can't wait to read it.