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Publishing, Editing, Libraries and Language. By Kate McKenzie

Book Review: We Are Not The Same Anymore by Chris Somerville

Debut Review is a monthly column that I write for the Emerging Writers’ Festival, looking at the debut books by Australian writers.

Somerville really shows off the strengths of the short story form in his debut book, We Are Not The Same Anymore. The stories reflect on loneliness, loss and longing in a quiet and intelligent way. The humour is gentle and embedded in the moments when the reader experiences familiarity with the characters situation.

The characters seem to inhabit the same world, and it is conceivable that they might cross paths during their stories. Each of the characters is dealing with something in a private manner but seem to be on the edge of breakdown. Often they have been let down by a family member, drifted away from a romantic relationship, or been abandoned.

The stories are self-contained windows into people’s lives, but together they form a cohesive whole. To propel the reader through the stories, they accelerate in urgency and slowly detach from reality. It seems to follow the trajectory of someone on the verge of collapse.

The first stories are sweet and tense. In Earthquake, we meet an eccentric father who is bewildered by cargo pants and names his dog Michael.  Snow on the Mountain brings a 35-year-old woman and her younger neighbour together on a car trip to collect firewood. There is suddenly a real risk of exposure when the woman sprains her ankle and she unable to walk very far in the snow. Even more devastatingly, she is at risk of exposure when she moves to hold her companion’s hand but is quietly rejected.

The later stories begin to feel more surreal. The quiet melancholy is punctuated by vivid and sometimes violent images. A man’s reflection in a television screen starts to have a mind of its own, a son wordlessly keys his father’s car and a woman imagines biting down through her wine glass. The final story is called Drowning Man in which onlookers watch a man drown and a classroom full of children is swept away in a flood.

Somerville is versatile in his ability to create narrators. They range in age group and gender, but always feel familiar and natural. He is able to express the vulnerability of the characters as they attempt to navigate everyday life. Their inability to cope with these ordinary situations is often internalised and potentially dangerous. I would love to see Somerville further explore these themes and style in the future.

Chris Somerville was born in Launceston, Tasmania in 1984 and now lives in Queensland. In 2003 he won the State Library of Queensland Young Writers Awards and in 2009 he was shortlisted for the Queensland Premiers Literary Awards, Emerging Author category. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, includingVoiceworks, The Lifted Brow, Paper Radio, Islet and Stilts. He has taught in the creative writing programs at both Griffith University and the University of Queensland.

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Book Review: An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman

Debut Review is a monthly column on the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog by me, looking at debut books by Australian writers.

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At the EWF Writers Conference this year, Luke Carman read an excerpt of An Elegant Young Man as part of his Sweatshop performance. Afterwards, everyone wanted to know who that crazy speed reader was. All of the readers were exceptionally good, and Carman had a particularly strong voice. He reads in a distinctive voice at a frantic pace. The words rush past you and you have to feel the atmosphere and aesthetics of the story rather than try and analyse the details. Throughout the performance, the audience would frequently laugh in surprise when they realise, a beat too late, what Carman had just said. As soon as they understood what he had said, he was already half way through the next sentence.

Later in the day, Carman was on a panel called What We Talk About When We Talk About Voice. Although his earlier performance was startlingly good, he said ‘I got into this writing thing because I don’t like speaking.’ He believes that his writing is the full realisation of his work, but the reading is part of it. He said ‘The performance is a version of it, but there is supposed to be more work on the page.’ Luke says that a strong voice comes from writing, and it comes from a writing about a strong character. At Sweatshop, he says they talk about coming to voice as a revolutionary act. He jokes that the reason he reads so fast is because he wants to get off the stage.

The performance enhanced the reading experience. I was seduced into reading the book at the same speed at which Carman performed it, which was pretty exhausting. It caused me to savour the book over the course of a few days, reading it in bursts on the tram.

The book is semi-autobiographical, and is written in first person as Luke Carman. The chapters form little vignettes and play out as a series of short stories.  You get a distinct sense of atmosphere as the main character negotiates his way through the western suburbs of Sydney. He is a quiet, thoughtful young man who sometimes just wants to stay home and read Whitman and Kerouac. He refers to Dylan Thomas by first name and hangs out with his imaginary friend, Tom. The rest of the time, he is surrounded by the simmering violence of Liverpool. As a narrator, our hero is very sensitive to the dynamics surrounding him. He analyses the people around him with a sort of detachment, which allows the reader to insert the familiar cultural imagery.

Carman carves out a very distinctive personality for Western Sydney. While the protagonist is at home in the west, he ventures to other places. At one point, he finds himself in the inner city and surrounded by yuppies and later, he ventures to the outback with his girlfriend. This allows the reader to make a comparison between the three Australian landscapes from the point of view of the same character.

This is a brilliant introduction of Western Sydney to the literary culture of Australia. It builds an image of a place which is familiar but new, presenting the characters with a restless energy and an intensely strong voice.

Watch the Sweatshop performance at the Writers Conference 2013 here.

Watch the trailer for An Elegant Young Man here.

Luke Carman self-identifies as an anti-folk monologist working in epi-grammatical short fiction. He hails from the Sydney suburb of Liverpool and his work has haunted the journals HEAT, Westside and Cultural Studies Review.

Interview: Boatfriends on songwriting, 80′s nostalgia and epic ninja fight scenes

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How do you bring a song from conception to realisation? Do you work collaboratively or solo?

Shanna and I have a pretty cool songwriting process in which she shall show (or email) me a riff or 2, or some other kind of basic skeletal idea and I’ll then spend a bazillion hours on piecing a song out of it. I like to think this of this process as the Mr Squiggle technique :P I’ll then send the song back to her for lyrics and critique etc. Followed by more to-ing and fro-ing.

How do the words and music interact in your songwriting?

The lyrical side of Boatfriends is predominantly Shanna’s domain. There’s generally a nice melding of the lyrical content and the music’s “vibe”. It’s exciting, however, to have my own vague idea of a lyrical idea or theme but then to receive something completely different from Shanna that’s thematically and melodically much better than my idea.

What skills should emerging songwriters try and develop?

The discipline to get out of bed at 4am and somehow record the melody you’ve woken up with from that dream where it’s the “best song in the world”. I failed to do that just the other week and it took me a few days to live it down.

What inspires you to create songs? Do you have particular songwriters or books that inspire you creatively?

With Boatfriends in particular, I often try to “summon” some of the earliest memories I possibly can and try to somehow translate that into sound. Perhaps that’s a kind of cliche thing to do as a musician but it’s a nice way to reconnect those neural pathways and remember things you may have otherwise forgot. That’s my excuse for my part in the whole 80′s nostalgia trip that’s been so popular in the last few years anyway.

As far as songwriters or books, I honestly and quite shamefully have barely immersed myself into anything new and inspiring and I 100% blame HBO. I guess my new songs are inevitably going feature a whole lot of references to meth labs and gang warfare.

Do you refresh your songwriting by traveling or do you find staying in one place gives you more stability?

Oh how I would love to be able to afford to travel, even just a drive down to Torquay for the day, but alas, I’m a struggling artist and sometimes I can’t even top up my myki. :/ So, yeah, I guess I stay in one place.

What are you working on writing at the moment?

I feel as though I’ve already spent so much of the past 8 years in a creative mindset and lifestyle and that I’ve accumulated so much work that now is just time to realise that work and get it out to the world. So unfortunately there’s very little writing going on of late, however in saying that, I just spent this morning working on beats for a track from the forthcoming The Book Of Ships album, which I play bass and write the odd beat for.

Read the rest on the EWF blog

Book Review: What Was Left by Eleanor Limprecht

Debut Review is a monthly column on the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog by me, looking at debut books by Australian writers.

Rachel was not prepared for this version of motherhood. Her mothers’ group is a space where mothers can only talk about the positive experiences of motherhood. They constantly proclaim the harms of feeding your baby formula, and the other mothers seem to hold each other to impossibly high standards. The competitive nature of the other mothers intimidates and alienates Rachel. She also feels like she cannot talk to her husband about the mounting pressure and increasing feeling of suffocation. On top of this, she is in constant physical pain caused by a broken tail bone during childbirth. All of these experiences are frightening for Rachel, but nothing compares to the fact that she feels as though she cannot control the violent, intrusive thoughts about her baby girl, Lola.

Feeling trapped, Rachel abruptly leaves her baby and husband to visit India and then seek her estranged father in Germany. Adding to her feelings of being an inadequate mother, she must now deal with the fact that she has just abandoned her baby. The deserting mother is treated as one of society’s greatest moral degenerates, and Rachel struggles with this perceived burden. Rachel simultaneously needs Lola in her life, but is stifled by her. Although she is aware that she is viewed as a villain by many people, there are other people who understand that she is sick and needs help to get better. The novel skilfully deals with the complex relationship a parent can have with their own identity and with their child.

In India, Rachel meets a young man called Eli in a hostel. He says he can help her find what she’s looking for, and steers Rachel towards Germany. Although he is a supporting character, he has a strong personality and serves an important role in the development of Rachel’s character. He provides Rachel with the opportunity to make some very important decisions about her life. The main plot is interwoven with the story of Rachel’s parents, Judy and Gunther. Judy was a strong and intelligent mother who worked towards her PhD while Gunther stayed at home to look after Rachel. Devastatingly, when Rachel was six years old, Gunther left the country and did not return. The two stories mirror each other in many ways, and build a picture of family legacy and individuality. As Rachel learns more about her parents, she unravels a story of secrets and white lies. Here, an interesting dynamic is added to the novel.

The novel looks at the consequences of telling the truth, and trying to develop your identity in the context of family legacy. This is an impressive first novel, dealing with very serious issues of mental health, family and identity. The few characters are all complex and flawed and convincingly human. The novel is written with understanding and empathy for the difficulties of parenthood. Limprecht works towards humanising mothers who struggle with the pressure of bringing a new life into the world while hanging on to their own identity.

Eleanor Limprecht is enrolled in a Doctorate of Creative Arts in Writing at UTS, Sydney. She is in the process of completing her second novel, a work of historical fiction inspired by the story of a woman who was charged with manslaughter in 1909 and convicted to serve three years at the Long Bay Women’s Reformatory.

EWF Hobart Roadshow Interviews - Part 3

The EWF Hobart Roadshow was held last weekend, and I was able to finish my series of interviews with Tasmanians. You can read the final two interviews with Catilin Richardson and Susie Greenhill below. I learned so much from interviewing all of these amazing people involved in the Tasmanian literary scene. 

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I spoke to Tasmanian writer Susie Greenhill ahead of the Emerging Writers’ Festival Hobart Roadshow.

What skills do you think emerging writers should try to develop?

I think if you love what you do the most fundamental skills are intuitive – read, write – though it’s possible to forget to do both sometimes, and become pre-occupied with the  idea of just ‘being’ a writer. As well as a source of inspiration, reading for me is about being part of a kind of vast, nebulous conversation. And while there’s no reason to let it restrict or even guide you, it’s helpful to understand the context you’re writing in when you’re creating work which you want to be read, particularly if there’s any kind of political edge to your writing.

The skill I most struggle with is the ability to write freely in stolen moments and less-than-perfect places – trying to conjure the muse in the rare minutes when my little daughter lets go of my leg. I think that writerly ideal of being locked in an attic with a notebook and an unbroken expanse of time is very rare. Even the most successful writers often need to fit their art around the demands of a career, a family, relationships, study – demands which tend to grow rather than dissipate. So developing the discipline to write when you just don’t feel like writing is pretty important. Sometimes (often) it’s hopeless, but you can occasionally be surprised.

Also, be brave and try to tell the stories that need to be told, go to the places you least want to go.

Where was your favourite place growing up?

My parents’ yacht, Moonbird. A 27 ft Eventide smelling of turps and varnish. On the water there was endless time to read – in the cabin by the light of a fish handled lamp, or in a hammock strung between mast and bow. We loved her, and she took us to indescribably beautiful places. I can still remember sitting in the dinghy clinging to her rails on the night she was sold.

Read the rest at the EWF blog.

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I interviewed Caitlin Richardson, who co-runs the Tasmanian young and emerging writers group Twitch, about Twtich’s upcoming appearances at the Emerging Writers’ Festival Hobart Roadshow and how they support young writers. 

What skills do you think emerging writers should try and develop?

It’s such a basic thing, but what I’ve been trying to learn (or re-learn) recently is how to be focused on doing one thing at a time. Reading a book from beginning to end. Sitting down to write something without getting tempted to escape to the internet the second it gets too hard. I’m ashamed to admit this, but with so much going on at the click of a button, sometimes I feel like I’ve forgotten what it feels like to become truly absorbed in one single task. This really saddens me!  I don’t think this ailment is specific to young people, but I do think we’re particularly susceptible to being sucked into a vortex of internet procrastination. There are good things about digital communication don’t get me wrong, but it’s so easy to scan over a millions things without taking anything in.  I think completely switching off sometimes can be really worthwhile.

You spent a semester studying a Bachelor of Creative Writing in East Anglia, which is quite famous for its writing degree, what did you learn there?

I was feeling a bit restless in Hobart, and I thought I may as well take advantage of that and try studying elsewhere for a while. I’d heard that the Creative Writing school at UEA was really good, so I decided to apply there. It was a really bewildering and surprising trip for me. It made me realise that Tasmania isn’t as terribly out of touch with the world as we suspect, for one thing. In the first week I bought my reader and inside it I found a Gwen Harwood poem set in a Hobart park! And then MONA opened a week after I got home which felt like this kind of magnificent, symbolic conclusion to my adventure. At the same time, the intensity of being in a different place made me produce work that I don’t think I would’ve written here. That extra bit of anonymity emboldened me to try some different things. My classmates were a lovely, eclectic bunch- lots were international students too so we were all going through this strange, illuminating experience and had the chance to write about it, which was a pretty special thing. I got goosebumps all the time…from the cold mainly, but also from hearing and reading amazing, inspiring work.

Read the rest on the EWF blog.

Book Review: Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall by Jane Jervis-Reid

Debut Review is a monthly column on the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog by me, looking at debut books by Australian writers.

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At this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival, Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall by Jane Jervis Reid was announced as the winner of Xoum’s inaugural Viva La Novella Prize. The prize is run through the publishing house’s literary magazine, Seizure. The winning novella is a wonderful and sometimes unsettling study of relationships and leaving things unsaid.

The novella is about a middle-aged carer, Jessica, who is assigned to look after a beautiful and damaged young woman, Eloise. Their relationship takes them to unexpected territory as they discover the maze of events which brought them together. Their entanglement brings up ethical issues and questions of the boundaries of relationships.

Lonely but resilient, Jessica struggles to accept her husband’s departure. She knows the right things to say to her daughter to sound confident and comfortable. She can’t hide the hurt from her sensitive and intelligent daughter. Her daughter shows the same strength of character, and eventually shadows Jessica  in more ways than her mother would have guessed.

Eloise is a former academic, but now too ill to work. She lives at home, makes art and struggles to take care of herself. Although she is still charming, intelligent and argumentative, she lacks the skills to connect with other people and cope with the workings of her own mind. She is uninhibited and sometimes cruel and violent.

The characters of the mother, daughter and lover almost seem to be elements of one person. I felt like I could relate to elements of each of the characters. Perhaps the author was drawing from her experiences, separating them and projecting them onto the three characters.

Midnight Blue seems to be an exercise in leaving things unsaid. When Jessica’s daughter brings news, Jessica’s lips opened but no words came out and tears filled her eyes. The scene ends without further elaboration, and the reader must interpret the complex emotions which lead to Jessica’s tears. Explanations are deliberately withheld in order for the characters’ actions to speak for themselves. We are never told explicitly what Eloise’s mental illness is so the readers is required to experience her moods and behaviour as a part of her character.

It’s easy to see why the judges chose this winner. It is written with restraint and the characters are deep and well-formed. This debut novella is sweet and sad and leaves you wanting more, I look forward to reading more of Jervis’s work.

Jane Jervis-Read’s writing has been published in Overland, Eureka Street and Cordite Poetry Review. She lives on the Yarra River with three housemates, six goldfish and ten thousand flying foxes.

EWF Hobart Roadshow Interviews - Part 2

The countdown is on! Next Thursday, the Emerging Writers’ Festival will be heading to Hobart to present the Hobart Roadshow. To celebrate Tasmanian literature, I have been interviewing writers, editors and comic artists. Here are three more of those interviews.

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Rachel Edwards chats about about reading, writing and the voice of Tasmanian writing in the Review of Australian Fiction Volume 7.

What skills should emerging writers develop?

Emerging writers should read, read, read, read, read and read. They should cultivate reading with attention – and paying attention to all parts of their lives so they can crystallise their experiences for their writing – and give it to us the readers, with aplomb, conviction, creativity and strength of voice. Charlotte Wood talks about the kind of attention writers need to pay in a lovely guest blog she did for Damon Young.

Emerging writers should also consider where they submit their work to – find the journal, the publisher that seems tailored to their style, the length of the work, the genre they tend to write in.

What advice would you give to emerging editors?

To emerging editors I would say the same, your greatest foundation is the breadth and depth of your reading. Trust your instincts when you sense a work is fine – make decisions on instinct and then tease out why it is, rationally that you like the work. For me, there is a sensation that creeps up on me when I read a work, a strange rumble that means the work is good. It took a while to trust but now I do I have conviction when that sense arises. It doesn’t matter if the work is universally enjoyed by others (name one piece that is) if you know it is good, you should do what you can to have it shared.

Have respect for the writers sending you work, despite the sludgey sludgey sludge you encounter, every single one of these writers has poured something of themselves into their work.

Read the rest at the EWF blog.

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I spoke to Andrea Hoff, the international guest at the Emerging Writers’ Festival Hobart Roadshow, about comics, the Canadian writing scene and what she’s most looking forward to in Hobart.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on my first full length graphic novel. It’s a collection of short nonfiction stories based in memoir, titled “If I See You Here Again: 13 short graphic tales on the little ghosts we carry with us.” I started this project two years ago and plan to have the first draft finished by April 2014. This work will be my thesis project for my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada).

Do you have any advice for emerging writers?

There is a great piece of advice from Ira Glass, the host of This American Life. I illustrated the quote for the Emerging Writer anthology this year and I keep it posted above my workspace. It’s something that helps me keep going when the going gets tough (and oh, it does get tough). Honestly, I read it at least once a day. I think I’ll have to make a dedication to Ira Glass at the front of my first book — simply in gratitude for this quote.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” ― Ira Glass

Read the rest at the EWF blog.

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I interviewed Adam Ouston about writers’ festivals, Hobart’s literary collectives and the influence of music on his writing.

What skills should emerging writers try and develop?

I think the two most admirable (and often competing) traits of the best writers are discipline and attitude. Writing anything takes a long time and a great deal of effort: the inner exploration, getting the words down and then rearranging them. I find editing exhausting, like lugging blocks. This requires sustained motivation and commitment to yourself and the story. Nothing gets done without discipline – even, dare I say it, routine. As a kid I raced go-karts in Queensland, and all the old guys had a saying : There’s no substitute for bum in seat. Same goes for writing. (What is it with me and sitting down?) The other thing is attitude, having faith in your own voice and ideas and turning a critical eye on things you’re dissatisfied with. I think a lot of us write from a place of dissatisfaction, and it is important to allow that fire to come through. The writing itself then is an act of hope, even if it is simply the hope that we might be able to express our sense of injustice or inequality. Oh, and one more thing: meet people.

Do you refresh your writing by traveling or do you find staying in one place gives you more stability?

Funny you should ask. I’m just about to head to Europe to ‘research’ my second novel. (Hint: ‘research’ means drinking with friends and staring out train windows.) I find travel important in articulating myself to myself. I mean that literally: actually being on the move. Not that I write then, but the ideas and the feeling of something happening come then. I write when I get back. I’ve just finished a PhD on Robert Dessaix’s travel writing, and his ideas of travel and home are so interwoven that his sense of stability comes from a place of instability. A feeling of home always involves a desire to hit the road. I think I gravitated towards his work because I share this feeling. Travel mirrors the strangeness of home. And the strangeness of home is one of the major imperatives for me to write.

Read the rest at the EWF blog.

For the full Hobart Roadshow program and to book, visit the EWF events page

EWF Hobart Roadshow Interviews - Part 1

Over at the Emerging Writers’ Festival Blog, I have been interviewing the writers, editors, musicians and comic artists who will be participating in the EWF Hobart Roadshow. The interviews have all been super insightful and interesting so far. We have covered everything from the Tasmanian literary scene, podcasting, comics, music, and travel. Here are snippets from the first three interviews.

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Josh Santospirito was up first. We spoke about about making comics in Tasmania.

How did you become a comic artist?

I always wanted to become a comic-artist when I was a kid … so, of course, I became a nurse. Then, one day, I suddenly felt the calling of the brush. Which is a bit like when a person hears the call of God and becomes a man of the cloth, except the cloth is more like an ink-brush, and the priesthood is swapped for the siblinghood of comic-makers … and, in fact, there is no siblinghood, because making comics involves sitting in a room by yourself for years on end. Anyway, I rediscovered drawing as an adult as a way of investigating, hunting, diarising, reinterpreting interesting things. I started drawing The Long Weekend in Alice Springs and it just grew and grew so I had to finish it.

What skills should emerging comic artists try and develop?

I reckon its important to also master concepts from other mediums – particularly graphic design, advertising, poster-design, film, prose. In comics these skills really help with layouts of comics, which helps convey the information and meanings and emotions of the story, and it’ll make you a better person generally. A better person!

Read the rest at the EWF blog.

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Next up was Gary Chaloner, who talked about podcasting and the Tasmanian comic scene.

Do you refresh your work by traveling or do you find staying in one place gives you more stability?

I’m not a big traveller. I have been around, the States, Canada… but I’m content to stay on the farm down here in Tassie and plug away at my various comics projects. I’m too old for travel. My eight-legged walking frame creates havoc at the airports and my false teeth upset the kiddies when I inadvertently spit them out.

What skills should emerging comic artists try and develop?

The skill of handling rejection and criticism, plus the ability to willingly develop your own style. Don’t be scared. As far as style goes, its great to learn from the masters and absorb what they can teach you, but no-one ever really got anywhere by ripping off someone else’s style. So be brave and develop a unique voice. In doing that, you’ll invariably have all kinds of people getting in your face. So develop a tough skin. Take the good advice, brush off the bad.

Read the rest at the EWF blog.

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Finally, I spoke to short story writer and poet Ben Walter, who also works at Fuller’s Bookshop (pictured above). He discussed about the Tasmanian writing scene and what he will be getting up to at Emerging Writers’ Festival Hobart Roadshow. 

What skills do you think emerging writers and poets should try to develop?

I suspect it’s more about habits than skills, like developing a deep and abiding interest in and appreciation for other writers’ work; if you’re not a reader, I don’t see how you can be a successful or even marginally happy writer. Or cultivating a certain ruthlessness in ensuring you set apart regular time to write, even if that means working less and surviving off a couple of dollars and a broken pie. To discover strategies that help you press through anxiety, self-doubt and constant failure. For much of this, I feel that a spirit of generosity towards other writers is a pretty good place to start.

I also think it is a very excellent idea to learn how to keep chickens.

Where was your favourite place growing up?

Probably my bed, where I could slouch the days away reading; or perhaps the couch in front of the television when the cricket was on. I found relating to other people troubling, and for me these were safe, interesting and comfortable places.

I still gravitate to these locations, but I now find that walking in the mountains has mostly overtaken them as a source of peace and contentment.

Read the rest at the EWF blog.

There will be many more interviews coming up in the next few weeks before we head to Tasmania for Haloween! I will post more snippets when they are published. 

Book Review: Floundering by Romy Ash

I have launched a new series on the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog, called Debut Review looking at the first books of Australian authors. You can read the first review below.

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Floundering by Romy Ash tells the story of a mother who loves her two boys, but lacks the skills to care for them. Eleven-year-old Tom and adolescent Jordy live with their grandparents until their mother, Loretta, returns to take them on what she thinks will be a summer holiday. They travel across the Nullarbor to the west coast of Australia with no food and not enough petrol. When they arrive, they spend several days living in a caravan surviving off baked-beans, surrounded by families celebrating Christmas. Loretta is increasingly absent and unwittingly leaves her sons in more danger than she could have expected.

The novel is told from the point of view of a young boy called Tom. He is not a adult-in-a-child’s-body, he is a normal boy who has been forced to take on responsibility for himself. He can’t multiply large numbers in his head like Matilda, but he does pick up his mother’s discarded cigarette butts on more than one occasion. However, he has developed survival skills beyond his years like being cautious around sand dunes and knowing what the symptoms of sunstroke are.

He still has a child-like curiosity which his older brother, Jordy, is self-consciously shrugging off. When Tom wants to play with a tennis ball, Jordy just ‘rolls his eyes and sits down, hunches over his knees’. Jordy doesn’t view life with the same wonder and sincerity as Tom. When Tom tastes some salt from a dry salt-lake, he thinks it tastes like salt and vinegar chips, but Jordy says it tastes like dirt. One of Tom’s most endearing habits/neurosis is saying sorry to nearly everything including a dead fish.

This book felt eerily like my own memories. All of the imagery is clearly rendered and so familiar, but the tragic level of neglect was new. I remember the sticky car seats, drying off sandy feet, salt-stiffened clothes and the sound of the screen door of a caravan. The difference is, on my family holidays, my parents would smother me in sunscreen and carry a backpack full of food, water and first aid. In the novel, Tom and Jordy go for hours without eating and days without brushing their teeth or having a drink of water. Tom is constantly dizzy and has what he calls ‘desert mouth.’ He notices his brother’s sour breath and sun-damaged skin. Later in the novel, he wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound of his mother’s car leaving and he doesn’t know if she’ll be back.

The reader understands the reality of what is happening to the children. The tension in the book occurs between what the child sees but doesn’t understand, and what the reader understands is happening. To be able to tell a story with such adult themes through the eyes of an ordinary boy is a huge achievement. The child is so sincere, and the story is so dark. You genuinely care about the two vulnerable boys and all the children who are in a similar position.

Tony Palmer from Penguin talks Book Design

Last week I was lucky enough to attend lecture by Tony Palmer from Penguin Books Australia. He took us through how to format a beautiful ebook for the iPad, how to design text and how to design a book cover.

eBooks for the iPad

Tony pointed out that 80% of the Australian ebook-reading market uses an iPad to view their ebooks. This means it is very important as a book designer to know how to work with iPads.

You need a different set of skills to design publications for print and iPad. The biggest change is that the designer must let go their control over how the ebook looks. The iPad user is able to change the font size and type to any number of options and your publication must remain readable. 

The other restriction is that you are only given two rectangles in which to insert your content. The designer cannot adjust anything outside these borders.

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Image source

Text Design

Unsurprisingly for a lecture on text design, Tony started with a crash course on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fonts. However, he then went on to say that he doesn’t like to use the word ‘kerning’ because it is not specific enough for his needs. He likes to specify whether there is a problem with ‘word spacing’ or ‘letter spacing.’ And this is the way that InDesign refers to it as well.

He also said that there is no magic equation for choosing the correct typeface, spacing, leading and grid. It simply comes down to experience and intuition.

For the large swathes of text used in books, Tony recommended a serif font like Garamond or a san-serif font like Rotis.

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Book Cover Design

Here are four book covers that Tony created for Penguin:

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The first three covers went through the usual stages of briefing, development, crash, redevelopment and commitment. The one on the right was an entry to a prize, so he didn’t have to go through any stages involving the client. This was because he was acting as his own client. This particular book cover simply went from the development to the commitment stage.

His main point when talking about book cover design is that he works for the client. There is no ‘Tony Palmer’ style, he simply makes what he is paid to make. Thats the deal. If the client wants a thriller cover, they get one. If they want an ‘artsy’ looking cover, they get one. If they want a children’s book, then thats what they get.