Here are a few occasional comments on the twists and turns of Pat's writing life, and on the world of words which absorbs us all.
Arthur Miller was an extraordinary writer. I’ve just seen a filmed version of the Old Vic’s production of ‘All My Sons’, his play which first opened in 1947 but is as fresh and relevant today as it was then. How do you do that? I suppose it’s all about focussing on the ‘eternal verities’ – the human dilemmas that never change – which are always trotted out to explain Shakespeare’s enduring appeal.
Miller also has a knack of dragging us into worlds where we don’t want to be, uncomfortable places full of self-doubt, anguish and conflict, but compelling enough to immerse us completely in his scenarios. I have always thought his lead roles were absolute gifts to actors at the top of their game, and so it was in this production, watching Sally Field give the performance of a lifetime.
This production was part of the National Theatre Live series, which films stand-out productions in the U.K. and beams them into cinemas around the world. They are must-sees in my diary.
I recently saw the newly released film Celeste, set in the fantastic Paronella Park outside Innisfail. The photography is outstanding, and perfectly captures the brooding mood of this unique place – and the larger-than-life story is a good match for the star of the show, Paronella Park itself. It must be about a decade ago that I was there, when I was poking around North Queensland looking for fodder for my fourth novel Destination Tribulation. I was entranced – with what it was, how it came to be and what it is now. Needless to say, Paronella wormed its way into the story; here is my protagonist Annie’s response to it, out of the pages of my book:
‘Paronella Park turned out to be a sort of contemporary ruin – an uncompleted castle built by a homesick Spaniard who came to North Queensland to cut cane. After a few years he returned home briefly to find a Catalonian bride, and together Jose and Margita set about building a fantasy in the steep, secluded Queensland rainforest – a romance of grand staircases, turreted towers, tea houses, even a theatre for movies with a suspended mirrored ball. Twenty years after Jose Paronella first arrived in Australia, his “pleasure gardens” were opened to the public. Over the years it was beset by floods and fires, but the family laboured on, building and rebuilding, and planting thousands of trees which today stood proud, erect and splendid along the formal paths… It was simply enchanting …
‘… Margita could hardly have known Jose Paronella when he swept her away from home and family to the other side of the world. Nearly a century ago she found herself in the remote uninhabited rainforest of North Queensland, drawn into the back-breaking work of constructing an impossible dream – and someone else’s dream at that. The resilience of women never ceased to amaze me. I found myself hoping that Margita had fallen so passionately in love with Jose that his dream became her dream …’
Celeste should remind us all what riches our vast state has to offer the arts.
Right now I’m into collaboration. I’m working with a team to produce a small history of a property, and what’s been going on there since it was first purchased in 1859. Lots! It’s had a very interesting career so far. And we’ve all learned a lot in the process.
We’re a team of eight, all retired volunteers, which means we were all something else once: that includes an architect, a doctor, a pharmacist, two administrators, a radiographer, and a couple with interests in local history. I’m the editor (hey, that means I have the last word, as I keep reminding everyone!). Being retired, we also have many, many other commitments. Some of us have research skills, some have people skills, some have persuasive skills, some are good with photos and some have critical skills. Overall, we tick most of the boxes. That doesn’t mean we’ve contributed equally, but we’ve all done what we can. It’s been an interesting exercise, and like all team initiatives, it needs a persistent driver to keep it (and the team) on track. That’s me.
The text is complete. The proofreading is done. The photos are collected. The copyright issues are solved. The funding is in place. The finishing post is in sight. Now starts the long trudge … from inspiration to publication. I will keep you posted. Once this book is published, I will probably bury myself in my study and luxuriate in the solitary life authors normally live …
In December 2018 I – along with many other Queensland writers – submitted my books for the ‘Adaptable’ project. A joint initative of Screen Queensland and the Queensland Writers Centre, the project is seeking Queensland-based material to adapt to the large or small screen. The submission guidelines specified max 400 words, part pitch, part synopsis. With 5 books to pitch and describe as a series, that was a teeth-grinding challenge! I opted for a broad-brush account of the characters and the series and a thumbnail of each book, and finally came in at 398 words. Then I hit ‘send’ and crossed my fingers.
How did I go? I was delighted to make it on to the long list of 40, but I’m not on the short list of 25, who now have to pitch in person at a marketplace of screen professionals in March. I believe the project is looking for about five projects to develop.
It’s not just the writing that’s ‘adaptable’. What about the writers? We have to be hermits, happy to sit in solitude often for months or years, tapping away to create our imaginary worlds; then we have to turn ourselves into entertainers, marketing our books through launches, talks, media interviews; and now we have to convert to masters of the hard sell, pitching our ideas hard and fast to the tough world of film and television. Good luck to all 25 shortlisted writers! This would be a truly daunting experience for most of us.
Gravestones, birth certificates, faded photographs … that’s the stuff of family history, which has invaded my life for the last year. I didn’t know much to start with, and what I thought I knew turned out to be mostly wrong. What an amazing cast of characters I have uncovered! From the well-kept secret of g-g-g-father Joseph who was transported in 1829 for his second offence of larceny, to g-g-father seaman Richard who first set foot here as a cabin boy of fifteen on the ‘Flying Cloud’ in 1863 and ended up as a Councillor in Warwick, to the implosion of the family tree when g-g-g-mother Jane’s oldest daughter married her second husband’s younger brother (work that one out!). What a resourceful, energetic bunch they’ve turned out to be, not to mention prolific – I have unearthed hundreds of second cousins and beyond.
Piecing their stories together (with the aid of the invaluable Trove and Ancestry) has been an exercise in sleuthing, full of surprises and a lot of fun. We’ve produced a little publication for that side of the family, with copies for all the agencies which have been so helpful along the way – family history is all about standing on the shoulders of others. That’s been keeping me busy this year.
A couple of years ago The Australian Dictionary of Biography requested me to write the biographical entry for Professor John Willett, the first Vice Chancellor of Griffith University in Queensland. I had worked there in management for most of his tenure in this position, had known him well and admired him immensely. My first instinct was to decline: as the ADB is the definitive source of information on prominent people in Australia, this would be an awesome responsibility for a person of his stature. It turned out I was the latest in a long line of former colleagues they had approached who felt the same. Years earlier I had written another entry for the ADB on a Brisbane headmistress so in the end I agreed, because I knew what was involved and I felt we owed him so much.
I have never put such an effort into such a short piece of work, which was supposed to come in under 1000 words. The ADB finally published all 1800 words of the article I sent them with a note pointing out that he had not lived a 1000 word life – they couldn’t find anything to edit out either!
The ADB, housed at the Australian National University in Canberra, brings out a new volume every two years; it is produced in hard copy for libraries (although I believe this is being phased out) and is of course also available on-line. It is invaluable to researchers. There is no payment to authors, many of whom are employed as academics. What motivates the rest of us? I suppose it depends on the subject you’re asked to research. In this case, I felt it was an honour.
Christmas is almost here again – I hope yours is a very happy one, followed by an even happier new year.
Have you seen the film ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas?’ – which relates how a broke Charles Dickens badly needed to make some money in a hurry, and ran up his enduring classic ‘A Christmas Carol’ in a few weeks to get it published for the Christmas market. He made it – just!
Any writer would relate to how this book came into being – the writer as bowerbird, the writer as voyeur, the writer trying to fit these jigsaw pieces together, the writer being haunted by partly-formed characters who refused to do what they were told, and eventually the writer as businessman. Writing fiction is a baffling process for some of us. It’s never clear to me exactly who is in charge!
Enjoy the festive season and find time to keep tapping …
My sixth novel ‘On the Edge’ has been out and about for over six months now, and readers’ responses are trickling back to me. This is a fairly simple tale set in Townsville; it’s a chronological narrative that follows the fortunes of a few characters who have been unfortunate in life, exploring the consequences of the choices they have made. Told in the third person, it deploys few of the literary weapons from the arsenal available to fiction writers. That’s probably because it started life as a short story before it decided it ought to be a novel.
Most readers tell me they engaged with the characters and enjoyed the book. Some found it hard to put down (music to my ears – that’s always my goal), but I know a few who didn’t make it to the end. One criticised the dialogue as ‘too American’; others found the dialogue realistic. Some mentioned how they liked the ending; others mentioned that they hated the ending; some thought the action could have been stronger and more violent; others found it unnecessarily cruel.
How does that old song go – ‘different things to different people’? It’s a reminder that we all read in the context of our own lives and values, and – as many book club members have discovered – that often means we might as well be reading different books!
Feedback and criticism are very important to writers, but there comes a moment when you just have to remember that it’s your work, and in the end it’s your call. You can never please all the people all the time.
What indeed? I only wish I had the answers for the increasing number of self-publishers who are coming my way. Suddenly writing the book seems like the easy part. Getting your work out there demands a completely different set of skills, not to mention cast-iron confidence and nerves – and preferably lots of money you don’t need! These days it’s not just self-publishers facing these problems: I understand established publishing houses are now discussing their authors contributing to more striking covers, better paper stock etc etc – to give their new book the best chance.
It is no accident that Bryce Courtney has been one of Australia’s biggest selling authors. That’s because he was a highly successful advertising executive – over time, he became Creative Director of three major Australian advertising agencies. He made a mint. He was able to pay for adverts for his books on the backs of buses trundling around all our capitals. He gave away at least 2,500 copies of each of his books to admirers, to pass on to their friends. And look at the result!
Some people are much better at selling than writing. Others (myself included) are the reverse; we come out in a cold sweat at the mere mention of ‘publicity’. So we just do the best we can. These days I’m happy for my books to be stocked in libraries and to be sold off Amazon. Money trickles in, so I know my readers are out there, and I can get on and write something else. That suits me fine.
Swimming with sharks
In recent weeks a number of first-time authors have come my way, wanting to discuss ways and means of publishing their manuscripts. These days technology can make authors of us all, particularly retirees, and I applaud their commitment and enthusiasm. However I have been concerned at the ‘deals’ out there for the unwary, and how easy it is for the inexperienced to be sucked in to a publishing contract which costs a lot, seems to promise much, but in the end delivers very little.
Some of these operators are based in the U.S., but Australia has its fair share. They’re good at making the simple tasks associated with publishing sound more complicated and expensive than they are; they seem to fall short when it comes to delivering a useful manuscript appraisal, and affordable editing services – not to mention any distribution mechanism (eg ‘we will give you the tools to approach local publishers with your book’??? – in other words, it’s up to you to trudge around bookshops trying to find a decision-maker who is prepared to stock your book).
So be careful! Check the cost and the promised output very thoroughly. Ask if they can put you in touch with a couple of their current clients, and get their views. Assess whether you’d be getting value for money. If you belong to your local Writers Centre, seek their advice; they hear the best and worst from their members.
But don’t stop writing!