I have just discovered the novels of Liz Byrski, who had an impressive track record in journalism and the media before she took up fiction writing. Based in Western Australia, she’s an older writer who focusses how people, particularly women, live the later years of their lives.
I was intrigued to read that she was inspired by just one novel: ‘All Passion Spent’ by Vita Sackville West, first published in 1931, tells the story of a widow in her late eighties who is finally free of obedience, dependents and obligations, finally able to buy the house she always wanted and to live the life she always wanted. I remember reading it many, many years ago, and the mixed emotions it stirred – glad for the widow but appalled that she had to wait (and live) so long to reach for her rainbow. As with many of the Bloomsbury novels, it was a parable.
And so it has been for Liz Byrski. Sackville-West’s parable has by now inspired her to author ten novels about contemporary Australian women negotiating with husbands, lovers, children, grand-children, parents, in-laws, siblings, friends and work colleagues to take some time out of their busy lives, to try to remember who they are, to try to shape a different future.
All of which goes to show that inspiration for writers may not be very far away. You just have to recognise what you can do with it!
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.
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.
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.
Family history, I am learning, is full of surprises, not least that one branch of ours stretches back to Ireland – news to us all. Aiming to tackle my total ignorance about the Irish in Australia, I picked up a battered book called just that by Patrick O’Farrell. By the time I finished the second paragraph of the introduction, I had to collect my breath: what an intellect! Here are a few of the excerpts that had my head spinning:
… ‘Precisely who, and what, shall be called up from the ranks of the dead? Those Irish and that Irishness that came to Australia? that Irish Australia they found and made there? their descendants?’ … ‘an elusive complexity rules …’
… ‘The Ireland of 1900 was a whole creation away from that of 1800’ … ‘these were ambivalent, ambiguous people, thinking Irish, talking English; hating the tyranny, serving the tyrant’ … ‘each arriving Irish generation brought a new phase of Irish experience, its Ireland frozen for it at the moment of departure’ …’within Australia a procession of Irish histories, Irish comprehensions, proceed at once’ …
Rich reads are not always easy reads, and Professor O’Farrell’s history is no exception. This is a book to be savoured, certainly not skimmed.
Why do we do it? With bombs exploding randomly around the world and cars ramming into innocent pedestrians, why do we persist in leaving the safety and comfort of home to breathe different air, meet different people and see different sights? Despite the interminable flights to get from here to anywhere, Australians are just unstoppable. With the advent of the northern summer it’s on for young and old Down Under – the backpackers, the car renters, the train travellers, the bus tourists, the passengers on cruise ships – we’re off!
Not all nations share this enthusiasm for travel. The southern Europeans have always seemed to prefer to stay home. Over the years I have watched the changing tourist scene with great interest – the rise and fall of American and Japanese tourism (is that about money?), now replaced by a surge of Chinese and Indian travellers along with growing numbers of Korean groups.
So what drives us? Adventure? Curiosity? Escape from routine? Wanting personal insights? The wish to be gobsmacked? Whatever it may be, the itch is still with me and once again I am packing my bags … and my camera …
My website has been down for nearly a fortnight. My longstanding and (up until now) very reliable website host reported that one of its servers had collapsed. They were working on it, they said; it was their problem, so there was nothing I could do. This drove home to me how very interdependent we are in these days of connectivity. As an author who sells work on-line, I rely on a team – some are known and visible to me, but most are neither. These are the people who provide the expertise behind the website platforms, behind the amazing infrastructure of e-books, behind the internet payment systems; they convert my books from Word into mobi files which load onto Amazon and Smashwords. Most of them work for services which operate for twenty-four hours a day, so most would have their share of unsociable hours. All of them are highly skilled.
Whether I know you or not, whether we’ve ever communicated or not, you’re all vital to my world of interdependency.
What is kitsch? My photography group didn’t know the answer to that one, when we were dreaming up our next topic of the month. Well, back in 1980 Barry Humphries wrote a book on it. He ought to know – his early manifestation of Dame Edna Everidge was one hundred percent kitsch, before he started taking her (and himself) so seriously.
The most common, if somewhat laboured, definition is something like: ‘art, objects and design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way’. That doesn’t mention that it can be just a bit of fun.
Humphries did include a few learned quotes on the topic, including a lengthy one in French(!). D.H. Lawrence had the last word: ‘All creative art must rise out of a specific soil, and flicker with a sense of place.’ That brings me straight to the photograph above of the Big Pelican on the Noosa River foreshore, perfectly placed to mirror its surroundings with tongue in cheek and eye on the flocks of pelicans following the fishing boats and hanging around the jetty.
I believe the same goes for writing: an authentic sense of place defines the characters, their actions and reactions, their options and choices. It is part of who they, and we, are.