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Monday musings on Australian literature: On the Run (Aussie crime writers in America)

May 11, 2020

In yesterday’s post on the Yarra Valley Writers Festival (YVWF) crime panel, I mentioned Sulari Gentill’s intitiative which saw four Australian crime writers taking Australian crime to the USA last year. Called On the Run: Australian Crime Writers in America, it’s such an inspired project that I thought it deserved its own post, a Monday Musings post, in fact. The writers were Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott, Jock Serong and Emma Viskic, and the tour took place from over October-November last year.

Robert Gott describes the origins in an entertaining (but informative post) on the blog:

When Sulari floated her idea she pointed out that this hadn’t been done before and that Australian crime fiction was enjoying a bit of a moment in the US. She needed collaborators and it was safer to collaborate with chums than strangers, especially as we would be doing everything in the way of organisation ourselves.

Sulari, Emma, Jock and I are all friends. We’ve appeared together at writers’ festivals and launched each other’s books. We knew we could rely on each other to meet deadlines for the gruesome process of applying for grants, and for shaping our tour should the impossible happen and an application be successful.

Gott also shares some of the ideas they came up with for the project’s name: “‘Unreliable Witnesses’, ‘Roadkill’, ‘The Mobile Crime Scene’ and others that were even worse”. I think On the Run was a good decision!

The itinerary

Gott also describes the itinerary in the above-linked post:

Our first appearance in America, after a meeting with the Consul General in New York, will be at Bouchercon in Dallas. Bouchercon? I’d never heard of it either, but that’s because I haven’t been paying attention for the 50 years it’s been running. It’s a huge convention for mystery writers and readers and we’ve been given an ‘International Spotlight’, which means we have our own panel.

We thought we might have to interview each other, but Dervla McTiernan has been called in, so that’s splendid. After Dallas we’re off to Phoenix and from there we’re driving to L.A., Santa Cruz and San Francisco and we’re doing events in each of those places, so there’s plenty of scope for horror and disappointment.

Bouchercon?! So, that’s what it’s called. I’d never heard of this either – not surprisingly, I suppose, given I’m not a crime fan. Consequently, when it was mentioned during the panel, I struggled to capture its name. Was it Vouchercom or con? That didn’t seem quite right. However, now I actually had the name, I checked Wikipedia and found that:

the Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention is an annual convention of creators and devotees of mystery and detective fiction. It is named in honour of writer, reviewer, and editor Anthony Boucher, and pronounced the way he pronounced his name, rhyming with “voucher”.

Haha, so I wasn’t too far off the mark then!

Anyhow, as Gott shares in the last post, they “were away for 21 days, 19 of them on the ground” during which they did “separately and together, 26 engagements, some small, some large, some in bookshops, some in bars, some in private homes and of course Bouchercon”. A good effort. Let’s hope it carries through to longer-term increases in Aussie book sales in the USA.


Unfortunately, Gentill wasn’t part of the YVWF panel, so we didn’t hear her highlights, but here’s how the others answered Angela Savage’s question:

  • Viskic said she had a personal highlight from every place, but one was visiting the New York Public Library. (She writes in the blog, “I’m a polyamorist when it comes to libraries, but I think I’ve met my One True Love in the NYPL.” Oh Emma, you warmed this retired librarian’s heart!) She also said she was “blown away by the enthusiasm of people in Dallas” at Bouchercon. People were “so warm, and excited, desperate to read more Australian writers”. They were keen to read outside of American writers. It was “lovely to see that excitement”. Sounds like our writers achieved their goal if that was the case.
  • Serong said that New York had to be a personal highlight, which makes what is happening there now during COVID-19 “particularly awful”. However, he said, “more useful” was talking about their work Dallas and Phoenix. California was fascinating. He described the USA as, really, a “collection of a whole lot of different societies”, and writes some great reflections on the blog that take me back.
  • Gott “loved everything, including travelling with these people”! Nice, eh? A landscape highlight was the Grand Canyon.

Sulari Gentill describes the Canyon on the blog, and her description is perfect: “Your vision is not wide enough, your mind is not great enough and your soul is not deep enough to take it all in.”

In the blog’s closing post, Gott writes:

How did it all go? Modesty forbids declaring it brilliant, so let’s just say it was sensationally good. People came to our events. They were generous, they asked thoughtful questions, they laughed in the right places, mostly. They were intrigued when we spoke about the now well-established convention at events in Australia of acknowledging the traditional owners of the country on which we sat. The idea that a bookshop in Pasadena, sitting among neon and concrete, might actually have beneath it land once walked on by First Nation people, seemed to require a daring imaginative leap.

Gott also writes that “an Australian presence at Bouchercon, and at other large conventions, should be an inevitability rather than a curiosity.”

It was, said Savage at the YVWF panel, a real coup to pull this off. The writers added that their model was good: four works well in an American car; choose writers who have a similar outlook but write differently; and get a grant, such as from the Australia Council or the Neilma Sydney Travel Fund (about which I wrote recently).

To read all the posts written by the writers, check the On The Run tag on the blog. These people are writers – obviously – so the posts are both entertaining and informative. Well worth reading, even if you are not a crime fan/reader.

Are you a crime fan/reader?

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (online):  If I tell you I’m going to have to kill you (Crime panel)

May 10, 2020

This is my second report of the sessions I attended of the first Yarra Valley Literary Festival. I hope to write up more, but you can also check Lisa’s blog for her posts. She did not, however, attend Christos Tsiolkas – see my post – nor this crime panel. Like Lisa, I really read crime, but I am interested in the genre as a form of literature, and I was very interested in these particular writers.

Crime panel

Festival director Michael Veitch introduced the panel, appropriately, as a cabal of crime-writers. It comprised Robert Gott (who didn’t make it, for technical reasons, until quite late), Emma Viskic and Jock Serong, with Angela Savage convening, again. Good on her. Again, I had quite a bit of breaking up in my reception.

I enjoyed the panel immensely. Savage, a crime-writer herself, was spot on with the questions, and the panelists were both thoughtful and entertaining. It turned out that they – with Sulari Gentil – had travelled to the USA as a sort of Aussie crime roadshow called On the Run: Australian Crime Writers in America. More on that later, but their familiarity with each other meant that they related well on this panel.

Why crime?

Viskic said that, before publishing her first novel, she’d written two manuscripts – her burn-upon-death novels. The the problem was they were boring. The only bits that worked were the things she really likes about crime novels – the dark things.

Ex-criminal lawyer Serong said he didn’t gravitate to crime, and doesn’t see his writing as “a genre exercise”. But crime, he said, comprises “a great reservoir of human drama and characters”. He has an ambivalent relationship to crime, and is never sure whether he is writing it. Rules of backyard cricket has been described as “very noir”, he said, but On the Java Ridge is “very much about crime”.

He shared Gary Disher’s description of crime fiction “as a social barometer” which Viskic leapt onto, saying that crime offers “a great way of exploring what is right or wrong in society”. She was very funny about her own fascination with how to do crime!

Serong said his main driver is the exploration of character – and particularly of who Australians are. He said that we Australians have done well with COVID because, despite our seeing ourselves as larrikins, we are in fact “very compliant”!! Haha, I loved this. It’s helped, I think, that we’ve had coherent leadership, presenting us with a vision about what we’re aiming for – but he has a point!

What makes Australian crime fiction Australian – besides the setting?

Serong said that Aussies are doing crime differently to other countries: we are bringing indigeneity into our stories, and are exploring Australian identity in terms of how far you can push the Australian character.

He then said that outsiders would probably say landscape is what differentiates our crime. However, now we are seeing more crime set in cities and suburbs, which doesn’t reach the overseas market so well.

Viskic said that her work encompasses rural and urban landscapes, and settler and indigenous culture, that she’s drawn to urban and small town settings. She particularly likes the latter because it’s “more claustrophobic, more like family” which highlights her deaf detective Caleb’s outsiderness. She said she was always going to cover “black-white” stories. She’s not indigenous, but has indigenous family. She admitted that it’s a fraught thing to do, but it felt “cowardly not to do it”, like creating “terra nullius” all over again. Also, she said, Koori people, like deaf people, have been denied language and culture.

Why use fictional settings?

Serong’s first novel has a fictional setting, from “pure ignorance”. He thought a novel had to be fiction! His later books are all set in real places. He talked about research for Preservation which is set in a real place: the challenge of knowing how the rivers were then, which birds were there then, and of conveying the complex way Yuin people moved across the landscape versus his shipwreck survivors who just headed to Sydney, keeping the ocean on the left!

Viskic said that she fictionalises place for creative freedom. Once you name a place, specificity, which is important in writing, has to be right. She rarely uses fact in her fiction. But there is also the privacy reason, to avoid people feeling they know or can identify characters.

Series vs stand-alone?

Viskic always planned her Caleb novels to be a short tight series of three to five books, because events in the novels have consequences for characters, and she wanted her characters to grow over the novels. She’s coming to the end of this series, but was relieved to realise that she can come back and do another Caleb series later.

She also said that her novels can be read on two levels: the plot level, but you can also deep dive into the whys and wherefores. She’s less interested in who done it, and more in why and what happened after.

Serong, on the other hand, had not considered a series because he tends to jump around conceptually. However, Preservation is going to be the first of a trilogy, because there are more stories to tell about this 50-year period in Bass Strait history. It’s not a traditional crime novel, but colonialism could be seen as a high level crime. Stealing an entire continent is one of the great heists of all time (and it is accompanied by smaller criminal acts). There were moments of Eden, he said, when we could have made better decisions but we keep missing those opportunities. (Like, I thought to myself, the Government’s out-of-hand rejection of the Voice to Parliament!)

On the Run: Australian Crime Writers in America

At this point Robert Gott (who had convened an earlier panel) managed to join us, and the conversation turned to the crime roadshow, but look, I think I will save that for its own post. I’ll just say that Gott said it was Sulari Gentill’s idea, and that when she posed the idea the rest of them “complacently said, sure, whatever”.  However, Gentill pushed on, they obtained an Australia Council grant, and off they went.

Savage commented that it was a real coup to pull off this trip, and its success has paved the way for more. It was the first of its kind but they don’t want it to be the last, they’d like to see it as “an inevitability”.


I didn’t record all the questions but there were questions about the relationship between crime and real life. Serong, ex-lawyer remember, said he was constantly amazed at what people get themselves into. Books and screen lag far behind real life, he said. On the other had, said Viskic, in real life you don’t have to be credible. Ridiculous crimes occur. However, in fiction, things have to be believable and motives have to be clear. People don’t tolerate much in the way of coincidences for example.

Gott added that real criminals are mostly boring, not very smart, dull-witted, so the crime is more interesting than the criminal. The implication was that fictional crime is more about character.

There was a question regarding whether Australian crime is in danger of going down the ultra-violent American route. Serong thinks not. We don’t have the guns for a start. Savage mentioned here Serong’s Staunch Prize win, noting that you can write riveting crime without including horrible acts of violence against women.

Savage also said that all of them have strong women in their work. She wondered whether this was particularly Australian, or just because of our time?

What do you think?

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online)
9 May 2020, 9:30 AM – 7:30 PM

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (online): Road to Damascus (Christos Tsiolkas with Angela Savage)

May 10, 2020

Book coverToday I attended several sessions of the first Yarra Valley Literary Festival, which the organisers turned around and converted to an online event with the arrival in our lives of COVID-19. I plan to write up a couple more sessions over the next week, when time permits, but you can also check Lisa’s blog for her posts.

I was looking forward to this session, because Damascus is my current read. I also wanted to see interviewer Angela Savage (whom I’ve reviewed here, and who comments here every now and then) because she is such an engaged writer, herself, as well as a supporter of writers.

Now, I must say that although I’ve really liked the two Tsiolkas novels I’ve read, I was not really looking forward to reading Damascus. Biblical times are not something I gravitate to, and I had heard that the novel contains quite a bit of violence. However, although Damascus does indeed start with something violent – the stoning of an adulterous woman – I was engaged immediately. The violence was neither gratuitous nor laboured, and Tsiolkas’ writing just got me in (again). I’ve read about a third of the novel and the subject matter, the origins of Christianity, is keeping me interested, because I’ve started to realise why it is worth reading. Tsiolkas is focusing particularly on Christianity’s commitment to equality or egalitarianism. Given the way organised Christianity seems to have lost much of its way in our times, it seems a good time to consider its founding values.

So, the conversation, but with the proviso that I did miss bits due to much of it being broken up by connection/transmission problems somewhere.

I’ll start by saying it was a lovely conversation, held between two people who obviously know each other well. That’s one of the lovely things about these writers festivals – you get to see the camaraderie that exists between some writers, and discover some of the ways they support each other. In this case, it came out that Savage had read some of Tsiolkas’ drafts and had had discussed them with him. She praised him for the time he takes with his work, for the way he honours his art.

The first questions explored some of the novel’s background. Tsiolkas said he’d spent five to six years on Damascus, and was terrified when it came out because it is quite different from anything he’s done before. However, he’s fortunate, he said, to have a supportive publisher in Jane Palfreyman, albeit she too was nervous about this one!

While he doesn’t call himself a Christian now, he did grow up with Christianity. He was interested in how much of what we know about Christianity has come through the interpretation of Saul/Paul, and he talked about his interest in Paul, from his adolescent understandings of being rejected by an admonishing Paul to his more mature comprehension when he returned to Paul after a personal crisis. That Paul, he realised, had suffered too. He said that (Biblical) Paul’s aim was to teach people how to live while “waiting for the kingdom” or eternity (which he thought was going to happen any day now.) For Tsiolkas, this has translated to “am I really leading the life that will enrich me?

From here Savage asked him about his characterisation of Paul.

Tsiolkas talked about his research. Saul/Paul was a Jew who left his faith to follow a strange scandalous religion. Tsiolkas talked about exploring the differences and similarities between Paul’s world and ours, and the challenge of finding his own way to Paul. He knew he wasn’t writing a hagiography, because the reality is that we are human. What is remarkable about the Christian story, he said, and what the Greeks and Romans could not understand, is the fact that through Jesus the sacred becomes human. However, the book also wasn’t going to be “a kicking in the guts”. It also wasn’t intended to be heretical or blasphemous (though some might see it that way!)

He needed to give Paul a battle, and so we have in the book sins like lust, greed, vanity, pride.

This brought us to the question a novelist begins with. For Damascus it was what was it in the Christian belief system that changed the world?

Savage then asked him about the novel’s structure. She loves, she said, how he structures his novels – and if you know me as a reader, you will know that structure is something that fascinates me. I have read enough of the novel to notice its non-chronological, four-points-of-view structure – which Savage called a “roving point of view” – so I was keen to hear his answer.

Tsiolkas said that structure is important to him as a novelist. It provides him with a blueprint which stops him getting lost. Voice and structure are the first things he thinks about. He was lucky with Paul’s voice, because of Paul’s letters. The three other voices are:

  • Lydia, representing the history of female participation in the church, something that was later wiped away. (Lydia, from a dye-making family, appears in the book of Acts as the first woman Paul brings to the new religion.) Tsiolkas talked about how he had wanted the female voice to be a slave, given Christianity was largely reviled because it accepted slaves, but he couldn’t find the voice and had no models from his research to draw on. He emphasised what a radical moment this acceptance of slaves was, and, as I have already noticed in my reading, he said that the novel’s refrain, “the first shall be last, the last shall be first”, makes this point. Anyhow, he struggled until suddenly Lydia came to him in the early hours one morning, and he just started writing her. I love stories like that.
  • Thomas, representing the doubter that he wanted in the novel because he, too, is a doubter. He chose Thomas from gospel of John, because, like Thomas, he doesn’t believe Christ was resurrected. Tsiolkas believes there is no eternal kingdom, that working out how to live a good life has to be worked out here and now. This idea offers another direction in which the church could have gone.
  • Timothy was Paul’s companion in the Bible. His father was pagan Greek and his mother Jewish, so he embodies “between world-ness”.

Savage, noting that it’s not a blasphemous book because it has such a respect for the values, asked about its reception. Tsiolkas said the way people have engaged and have wanted to have a conversation about it has been heartening. He’s been “blown away” by people’s generosity in responding to it.

There was a Q&A but I’m going to end on Tsiolkas’ wonderful answer to the question about his personal faith, because it’s an answer that is more broadly applicable I think. He said that the only answer is to hold doubt and faith together. If you know me, you’ll know that this sort of almost paradoxical answer suits me to a T.

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online)
9 May 2020, 9:30 AM – 7:30 PM

Shokoofeh Azar, The enlightenment of the greengage tree (#BookReview)

May 9, 2020

Book coverI bought Shokoofeh Azar’s novel The enlightenment of the greengage tree when it was longlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, for which it was also shortlisted. However, it was its shortlisting this year for the International Booker Prize that prompted me to finally take it off the TBR pile.

Born in Iran, artist and writer Azar was still a child when the Islamic Revolution started in 1979. She grew up there, and, as an adult, obtained work as an independent journalist. However, after being imprisoned three times, she fled Iran by boat, ending up on Australia’s Christmas Island, and was eventually accepted as a political refugee by the Australian government. She has written a children’s book and two short story collections, but The enlightenment of the Greengage tree is her first novel. Like many first novels, it feels autobiographical, though given the narrator is a ghost and Azar is clearly still with us, it is not exactly autobiography!

The story chronicles the lives, experiences, and reactions of a family caught up in the chaos and brutality of post-revolutionary Iran. This family comprises father Hushang, mother Roza, son Sohrab, daughter Beeta, and another daughter, the above-mentioned ghost narrator, Bahar. Following the 1979 Revolution, they flee Tehran for the remote village of Razan, which was untouched for years by the revolution, until it came there too during the Executions of 1988.

While the story is roughly linear, it does slide around a bit, so you need to keep your wits about you. It starts in Razan with Roza’s attainment of enlightenment “at exactly 2:35pm. on August 1988, atop the grove’s tallest greengage plum tree”, the same moment at which her son Sohrab is executed amongst hundreds of other political prisoners in Tehran. This, of course, is told to us by thirteen-year-old Bahar who, we don’t discover until chapter 5, had died in a fire set in her father’s library in 1979 by Revolutionary Guards.

Now, the book is described on its back cover as magical realist, but this is term I have been uncomfortable about ever since hearing Alexis Wright question it. I fear that with our rationalist Western minds, the description “magical” can carry a hint of condescension. Alexis Wright said that “Some people call the book magic realism but really in a way it’s an Aboriginal realism which carries all sorts of things.” Toni Morrison has spoken similarly. Azar, on the other hand, embraces the term, describing it like this: “People of old or ancient cultures sometimes seek the metaphysical solution for realistic problems”. That makes sense. I also rather like this description in Wikipedia by Mexican critic Luis Leal. He says “to me, magical realism is an attitude on the part of the characters in the novel toward the world” or, to be more specific, toward what happens to them. I guess it’s really a matter of a rose by any other name, and that the issue is less the term, than how we readers understand or approach what we read?

So, when I tell you that Roza finds enlightenment at the very top of a greengage tree, that the ghosts of 5000 executed people confront the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in his bedroom, that Beeta becomes a mermaid and joins the merpeople to escape the sorrows of the world, that forest jinns place curses, or, even, that the novel is narrated by a ghost, I am accepting that this is how the characters experience their world.

The enlightenment of the greengage tree is, then, the story of people in extremis. The background is the repressive regime, but the book’s ambit is much bigger. It’s about life and death, love and loss, and how those play out in brutal, politically-charged times. While “most people”, says Hushang, “wanted to get used to everything”, his family heads to the jungle town of Razan, where they think, foolishly as it turns out, they will be safe. When the revolution does reach them, the people are unprepared, and are left

wondering how they’d ended up in a game whose rules they hadn’t written. The game of aggressor and victim. A game in which it didn’t take long for the victims to become the aggressors; become victim aggressors… it wasn’t long before they forgot their myths and dreams, their history and balance …

With Sohrab soon arrested, our family soldiers on, each reacting to the brutality they confront in their very different, beautifully differentiated, ways.

Roza leaves home early in the novel because:

… she wanted to lose herself.  She didn’t want to sit in her newly rebuilt house and look at the freshly-painted walls, and the new furniture and carpet, and imagine how Sohrab was killed or how I suffered as I burned.  She didn’t want to think about the future and what other calamities might befall Beeta and Hushang.  She wanted to run away from herself, from her fate.  She didn’t want to be wherever she was.

Beeta, on the other hand, who had stayed and struggled, eventually transforms into an aquatic creature, “so as to experience and live life with a freedom that had been impossible as a human”. Meanwhile, Hushang, who also stayed, reads. He had “a thirst for reading”, a desire to be “connected with the world’s thinkers”, to distance himself “from the contemporary world of intellectual midgets that had overrun his country.” Eventually though, his reading brings him to “contemporary Iranian history; the place where all his questions turned to bottomless chasms”.

History is, in fact, a constant thread in the novel, one that is pored over from every angle – including an attempt by the people of Razan to discard it altogether. Azar shows, graphically, the damage done by those regimes which try to quash people’s past, their heritage.

Late in the novel, there’s a confrontation between Hushang and his brother Khosro who had taken a mystical path. Hushang is furious, arguing that “this mysticism game” had done nothing against the various atrocities and traumas, and criticising “smart people” like Khosro for hiding “in the safety of temples instead of doing something to fight the corruption and injustice.” Khosro, though, believes, probably realistically, that nothing can be done to avert the ongoing destruction of Iranian culture. He argues that “all I can do is not become tainted by something I don’t believe in.”

The enlightenment of the greengage tree is a wonderful read if you like books which pose these sorts of fundamental questions about how to live in difficult times. It could be a grim read, given the brutality contained within, but it’s not. It’s tragic, of course, but it has a sort of unsentimental, slightly melancholic tone that doesn’t weigh you down. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, Beeta tells Bahar that “imagination is at the heart of reality”. A perfect description of what Azar has done in this book.

In the front matter, Azar expresses gratitude to the Australian people for accepting her “into this safe and democratic country” where she can “have the freedom to write” such a book. We, however, should be grateful, in return, to have such a creator in our midst.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

Challenge logoShokoofeh Azar
The enlightenment of the greengage tree
Translated by Adrien Kijek*
Melbourne: Wild Dingo Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780987381309

* Translator’s name is a pseudonym; the European edition was published with translator as anonymous.

Writers in Residence: An Online Festival

May 6, 2020

Program BannerWith information coming from every which way, I’m not sure how I heard about the Writers in Residence online festival. Organised by The Writers Bloc and inspired by Isol-Aid, its aim was to “ask some of Australia’s most exciting emerging writers to read from their new books” and share “what they’ve been reading in isolation”.

It ran from 5pm to 9.40pm on Monday, and involved 14 writers, each on for 20 minutes. All interviews were conducted by Geoff Orton, an English and Geography teacher and a founder of Writers Bloc. The format was that each writer provided some background to their book, did a 10-minute reading from the book, and shared some isolation reading.

I only managed to hear 6 properly, as 5-9.40pm is a pretty difficult time-frame, but I enjoyed what I heard. It looked like there were 50 to 75 people viewing throughout the evening. Here are the writers I watched …

5pm: Shannon Molloy

Book coverMolloy’s book, simply titled Fourteen, was published in March. It is an autobiographical coming-of-age memoir about being a gay teen. It is set in Yeppoon, in regional Queensland, in 2000. Molloy admitted that his story is harrowing, but believes it also has a strong message of hope. He wants kids “to know there is an end in sight”.

The excerpt he read described the annual coral spawn, which he sees as “the best metaphor for Yeppoon”. I understood this to mean that Yeppon is “pretty” but is also “a bit off”. (Apparently coral spawns give off a smell.)  He described how he “became a pastime for bored kids”. “I was there to taunt, to abuse, to bash”, he said.

To write his book, he drew on memories, talked with his mother and siblings, and listened to bad pop music from the era! Pop music, he said, was a way of accessing the outside world, of escaping.

5.20pm Katherine Tamiko Arguile

Book coverArguile’s debut novel, The things she owned, was published in late April. Describing herself as “from all over the place”, Arguile, was introduced by Orton as a Japanese-British-Australian artist and journalist. She explained the title of her book. The things are objects which the protagonist, Erika, inherited from her mother, Michiko. Erika is half-Japanese like Arguile, and the novel draws from her own experience. However, as she stressed, The things she owned is a novel, and Michiko is nothing like her own mother.

The novel is about Erika coming to terms with the death of her mother, which she gradually comes to accept by discovering the stories associated with the things her mother owned. Apparently, the book was the creative component of a thesis for a course at the University of Adelaide. Her research was about “grief and objects”, which is a topic other viewers, like myself, would love to have explored more.

Arguile noted that the things in the book are things she herself owns. These non-fictional objects anchored both her and the story, she said.

Orton commented on the role of the ocean in the book. Arguile replied that it hadn’t been something she’d planned but she’d realised later its strong presence. She referred to the Jungian understanding of water as “something unseen, something that lies underneath the conscious mind”. Makes perfect sense for a book about grief.

5.40pm Leah Swann

Book coverSwann’s novel Sheerwater, which was published in March, is garnering a lot of reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. (I’ve reviewed her short story collection, Bearings). The novel starts with a mother driving with her two young sons. They witness a light plane accident, to which the mother goes to see if she can help. When she returns to her car, the boys are nowhere to be found.

Journalist and speechwriter Swann said the idea had come to her during a road trip some time ago, but that, as the mother of young children at the time, she wasn’t prepared “to go there”. Understandable! When she did decide to do it, she found it easy to write the first draft. She just kept writing, seeing where it would take her. The first draft was 130,000 words, with the final book, four or five drafts later, being around 70,000 words. Like Arguile, she doesn’t plan her books. What she loves about writing is discovering things.

I did note her lockdown reading: Meg Mundell’s We are here (Affirm Press), which she described as “beautiful essays by people who have experienced homelessness”; and Meg Mason’s Sorrow and bliss, whose publication has been delayed until September, because of COVID-19 I believe.

7pm Pip Williams

Book coverThe dictionary of lost words, published in late March, is Pip Williams’ debut novel, though she has written other books. She was one of the reasons I was keen to register for this event as I gave this book to my mother for Easter. She, a retired lexicographer, loved it.

If you’ve heard of the book (see Lisa’s review), you won’t be surprised to hear that she was inspired by Simon Winchester’s The surgeon of Crowthorne. Williams said that she saw that the OED (Oxford English dictionary) was a completely male endeavour, that the lexicographers, contributors, and workers were mostly men, and most of the literature they referred to was by men. It made her wonder whether “words mean different things to men and women, and if they do what does that mean for the OED?”

She talked a little about the OED, and her research (which included reading a lot of the OED). After her reading, Orton asked whether she’d found any “hilarious” words. She had, of course, but decided to share some interesting ones. For example, “teen” used to mean “vexed”, “irritate”, and “teenful” meant “causing trouble or sorrow”. Has this played a role in our word “teenager”, she wondered! She discussed the word “bondmaid”, which went missing from the dictionary, and she shared the word “anythingarian”which describes a person with no belief in anything. Perhaps I, a self-described wishy-washy person, is an “anythingarian”!

Her lockdown reading included another Affirm Press novel, Rachael Mead’s upcoming novel The application of pressure.

7.20pm Sophie Hardcastle

Book coverArtist and writer Hardcastle’s novel Below deck, was published in March and is her first novel for adults. It is divided into four parts, with the last being set in Antarctica. Hardcastle had had, she said, an artist’s residency in Antarctica. She wanted to write a work that explored “climate change and our relationship with the natural world.” She thought that a story of the body being violated could work as a metaphor for the environment being violated. The rest of the conversation, however, didn’t really discuss this aspect further.

Asked, whether the story changed as she was writing it, she said that the bones of the story stayed the same, but because it’s a book about trauma, about the way the body remembers trauma, this did come out more during the writing. She wanted, also, to explore, the myths around rape culture. Orton briefly mentioned synesthesia, which both Hardcastle and her protagonist have, but there was no time to discuss this.

Hardcastle’s lockdown reading included Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Jenny Offill’s Weather (which reminded her of Max Porter, she said.)

7.40pm Laura Jean McKay

Book coverMcKay’s novel, Animals in that country, was published in late March. It’s another I had bought as an Easter gift, because, not only did it seem appropriate for the times, given it involves a flu pandemic, but it sounded innovative and feminist. Right up Daughter Gums alley! The novel does have talking animals, including a dingo called Sue! McKay had spent time in a Northern Territory wildlife park as part of a writer-in-residence program, and got to know some dingos here. Sue was apparently inspired by an actual dingo.

McKay read from the part of her book where the human protagonist first hears the animals talking, which happens just as a flu is whipping through the country. At the time she was writing it, she feared her idea was a bit too speculative, but as her publication date drew nearer, well, she realised not so much!

McKay’s lockdown reading included Ling Ma’s Severance (which is about a pandemic) and Ronnie Scott’s The adversary.


A well-conceived COVID-19 event. The writers I saw were thoroughly engaging, and Orton managed the technology with aplomb. Will these sorts of events continue post COVID-19?

Writers in Residence: An Online Festival
4 may 2020, 5:00 PM – 9:40 PM
ZOOM Online, organised by Writers Bloc


Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (2)

May 4, 2020

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists award is announced annually to coincide with the opening of the Sydney Writers Festival. Of course, there is no live festival this year, but awards announcements can still go ahead can’t they? I have posted on these awards before, but that was 2013, so I figured I could feature them again, particularly since this year’s winners were all writers of short story collections – and, interestingly, all women.

The Best Young Australian Novelists awards were established in 1997 by Susan Wyndham, the newspaper’s literary editor at the time. Its aim is to recognise emerging writing talent, so is open to “writers aged 35 and younger at the time of publication of their nominated books”. It is called a “novelists” award, but the award is made on the basis of a specific book, which is why writers, like Sonia Hartnett below, can win more than once. I should note, too, that despite the award’s name, short stories have been allowed since 2009.

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light, book coverIt is not the richest award – though $8000 this year for the winner and $1000 for each runner-up is not bad either – but it carries a good deal of kudos. It has also done well over its 24 years in identifying young writers who have gone on to become serious names in the Australian literary world. Past winners, with links to my posts, include:

Book coverIf you look at the Wikipedia link in the paragraph above, you’ll see that the number of awards made each year varies. In 1997, ten awards were made, but most commonly it seems that around three to four are announced. This year, it was three, as Jason Steger reported. They are:

  • Alice Bishop’s A constant hum (winner)
  • Joey Bui’s Lucky ticket
  • Josephine Rowe’s Here until August. (Rowe has won before for her collection A loving faithful animal, which I’ve reviewed.)

The judges were SMH’s Literary Editor Jason Steger, plus two previous winners, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Fiona McGregor. Steger reports that:

What distinguishes the collections are the strength of the voices and distinctiveness of their characters. The stories are firmly rooted with a solid sense of place and at their hearts a strong sense of compassion for the predicaments of the protagonists and what they are experiencing.

They are all collections I have on my radar, but not in my physical TBR, which is a shame given I like short stories. Anyhow, Steger says that they also made two honourable mentions, Kathryn Hind’s Hitch (about which I’ve written before) and Carly Cappielli’s Listurbia (which I don’t know).

Other emerging writers’ awards

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeWhile SMH’s Best Young Australian Novelists is one of the best known emerging writers awards, there are others. Many, like this one, are age-related, such as The Australian Vogel Literary Award which was won this year by Katherine Kruimink, A treacherous country. But not all are. The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards suite is for “a published book of fiction by an author who has not previously published a work of fiction that is booklength”. There is no age limit here. Last year’s winner was Trent Dalton with Boy swallows universe (my review), while this year’s was SL Lim with Real differences (Lisa’s review).

I have written about such awards before – about unpublished manuscript awards and emerging/debut fiction awards – so I won’t repeat the information here. However, in her May Six degrees of Separation post, Melinda Tognini mentioned a new award for young writers, the biennial Fogarty Literary Award, which was established last year. It is sponsored by the Fogarty Foundation and Fremantle Press. It is “awarded to an unpublished manuscript by a Western Australian author aged between 18 and 35 for a work of adult fiction, narrative non-fiction or young adult fiction”. The prize is $20,000 cash and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press. Not bad, eh? The inaugural winner was Rebecca Higgie for The History of Mischief, which will be published in September 2020. The next winner will be announced in May 2021.

Do you follow emerging writers’ awards and have you made any exciting discoveries as a result?

Six degrees of separation, FROM The Road TO …

May 2, 2020

We are now through one-third of the year. Can you believe it. It’s been quite a blur here in Australia with our worst bushfire season in decades being followed almost immediately by the pandemic. It’s hard to feel that the year has started, and yet, here we are in May already. Last month, I noted that the starting book was the first of the year’s Six Degrees of Separation starting books that I’ve read. Well, I’m thrilled to announce to all who are fascinated by such things that I’ve also read this month’s starting book, albeit before blogging. If you are new to blogging and don’t know this meme and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Book coverNow to May’s starting book, the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by America’s Cormac McCarthy The road. If you haven’t read it, let me tell you that it’s a mesmerising, post-apocalyptic dystopian novel. I loved it, partly because its writing is so spare (see my discussion of spare early in my blog.) It’s about a father and son who walk alone through a burned, destroyed America. They are heading to the coast, though to what they don’t know. Now, I’ve decided to do something a little different in this post: I plan to link every book back to this one. In other words, each book will be about something people do “on the road”, which means, of course, that each book will also link to each other!Raphael Jerusalmy, Evacuation

My first book is French writer Raphaël Jerusalmy’s Israel-set novel, Evacuation (my review). It is also a road trip novel, but it involves twenty-something Naor driving his mother from her kibbutz back to Tel Aviv. As they drive he tells her what happened in Tel Aviv, after he, his girlfriend, and his grandfather, had jumped off the bus that was to take them out of the city, as part of a mandatory evacuation process.

Eve Langley, the pea-pickersAnother, very different road trip underpins Australian writer Eve Langley’s The pea-pickers (my review). Here, two sisters dress as men and take men’s names, Steve and Blue, in order to work as agricultural labourers in Gippsland. The book chronicles their experiences, work, relationships and lessons learnt, over a few seasons, as they travel through Gippsland and greater Victoria.

Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot seeWhile road trips aren’t the backbone of my next book, American writer Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel All the light we cannot see (my review), they do feature quite strongly. Young Marie Laure is taken by her father from Paris to the Brittany coast’s Saint-Malo after the Germans invade Paris in 1940. Meanwhile, the orphan German boy, Werner, becomes a master at building and fixing radios, which results in his being taken on the road through Germany and into Russia to track Resistance workers through their radio transmissions.

Book coverStaying in war-time but moving to a different sort of road, I am taking us to the Thai-Burma railroad as told by Australian writer Richard Flanagan in his Booker Prize-winning novel, The narrow road to the deep north (my review). I don’t think I need to justify this one any more, except to add that there is a dramatic road trip through a bush-fire at the end, giving this book double-linking credit!

Glenda Guest, A week in the life of Cassandra AberlineHaving mentioned railroads, I’ll stay with them and link to Australian writer Glenda Guest’s A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline (my review). Having been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Guest’s Sydney-based protagonist Cassie decides to return to her childhood home in Perth in order to resolve the situation that had resulted in her fleeing many decades ago. She chooses the train as her method of travel, because that was the way she’d left, and it would also give her time to think through her situation. This is a true “journey” novel.

Book CoverChoosing my final book proved a challenge: I had many to choose from, many I wanted to highlight. In the end I decided to stay in Australia, and go a bit lighthearted. The book is English writer Louis de Berniere’s Western Australia-set Red dog (my review). My post on this book and film is among my all-time most popular posts. The story is about how a stray dog, the titular Red Dog, decides on John as his master and it then chronicles Red Dog’s various adventures in the mining communities of the Pilbara, much of it travelling in John’s truck. It also tracks Red Dog’s search for John through Australia and even into Japan, via road, train and ship. A road story with a difference!

So, a simple chain this month in terms of linking strategies, but I enjoyed looking at some of the ways “the road” has been used by novelists to chronicle journeys, whether they be actively chosen, or forced upon people.

Now the usual: Have you read The road? And, regardless, what would you link to?