Releasing the caged bird

For 10 years or more, an idea for a novel has been floating around in my consciousness.
It’s a story I wholeheartedly believe should be told; a story I’m convinced would delight and captivate a certain type of reader; and a story that, at the core of my being, I know I must tell.

Inspired by events from my childhood, both troublesome and triumphant, the story I long to write is a celebration of growing up in an isolated, blue-collar suburb on the southern outskirts of Perth. An acknowledgement of the joys and challenges of life in a single-parent family in the 1970s, when money was scarce but my kindly, hard-working mother ensured love was freely and abundantly available.

Mine was an almost idyllic childhood, filled with days spent roaming the bush with a bunch of mates, riding the streets on a gleaming red Malvern Star with a flowered seat, sissy bar and colourful ribbons streaming from the handlebars, or conjuring backyard games with nothing more than imagination and whatever we found lying around.

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I loved my red Malvern Star with the flowered seat and sissy bar.

Mum was stricter than many of my friends’ parents, but as long as we were home when the streetlights came on, we had a degree of freedom unknown to kids these days.

For 10 years or more, I’ve contemplated actually writing this novel. I’ve told family, friends, old family friends and even complete strangers on planes and trains that I’m going to write this novel.

I have spent countless hours writing lists of possible scenes based on actual events, attempting to find ways to turn meaningful memories into a story. A story that prompts readers to reflect on their own childhood with nostalgic delight, and one that leads me to write another story, and another, and another…

But for 10 years or more, a nagging, negative voice also floating around in my consciousness has kept telling me that writing fiction – not just any old fiction, but quality fiction that somebody will want to publish — was simply beyond me.

Until one of my daughters reminded me of a quote from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by revered American author, poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou: ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’

I’m ready to open the door of my cage.

Originally published as The Neophite Novelist column in Good Reading.


For the Love of Books

First Edition Book Club, Secret Harbour

Visits by award-winning authors Craig Silvey, Stephen Daisley, Amanda Curtin and Natasha Lester have been definite highlights in the 12-year history of the First Edition Book Club, in Secret Harbour, Western Australia.

While our regular monthly meetings may not be quite so exciting as those occasions, they are nonetheless high points on our collective calendars – always entertaining, thought-provoking and highly amusing, often contentious and, above all, enlightening and empowering for our 11 club members.

First Edition with Craig Silvey

Craig Silvey — author of Rhubarb, Jasper Jones and The Amber Amulet — was a popular visitor to our book club.

We have followed a similar format since our first club meeting in January 2004, when we read My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. We each contribute $25 a month, take it in turns to select the book, then host the meeting the following month, during which we talk at great length and depth about the book and any issues it provokes.

The host member supplies the venue and supper and we bring our own wine, “bubbles” or other drinks to quench our thirst during the discussion.

First Edition with Stephen Daisley

Stephen Daisley visited our book club just days after winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for his debut novel, Traitor.

In the early days some members felt we didn’t spend quite enough time talking about the chosen book, so each reader now writes out a question about the book and the host reads them out to spark discussion. It works really well and one member’s perennial question “Did you like it?” always draws a giggle.

We also rate each book out of 10 and keep the scores in a little tin case until they are tallied at the end of the year. The most popular book nets its selector a great prize and associated glory, while the member who made the least popular selection gets a consolation prize and has to live with the shame for the rest of the year.

We’ve read some wonderful books over the years — and some real duds. Some have been much-loved by one or two members but despised by others. Some have polarised opinions and sparked heated debate, while others have been unanimously applauded and adored.

We loved books by our special guest authors — Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones and Rhubarb, Stephen Daisley’s Traitor, Amanda Curtin’s Elemental and Natasha Lester’s A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald — and have read many others that made a positive impact or won our hearts.

First Edition and Amanda Curtin

Amanda Curtin’s poignant historical novel, Elemental, won our hearts and she was a gracious and greatly admired visitor to our club.

These have included The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Room by Emma Donoghue, Still Alice by Lisa Genova, Mallawindy by Joy Dettman, and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Jo Jo Moyes’ Me Before You, Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers and Tess Evans’ Mercy Street have also been well received.

With mixed responses, we’ve also tackled Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, The Ocean at the End of the Road by Neil Gaiman, and Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

Best-sellers such as Disgrace by JM Coetzee, Dirt Music by Tim Winton, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty, The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman, and even a Stephen King horror tome — Under the Dome – have also been on our reading lists, among dozens of others.

First Edition with Natasha Lester

Natasha Lester shared some fascinating stories about the research behind her new historical novel, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald.

The books have been as varied as our membership, which includes a school principal, teachers, administrators, nurses, a journalist, a dental assistant and business proprietors. We also have a range of nationalities, including Australians, Britons, Kiwis, South Africans and an Irishwoman.

Some have been there from the start, some have moved on, but we try to maintain 11 members for 11 meetings each year and take a break over December, when we usually tackle a longer book. We always have a waiting list of those eager to join our ranks when the opportunity arises, as we have quite a reputation in our neighbourhood – but none of us wants to leave, and we’ve had the same line-up for more than five years now.

Although sometimes our books cost more than the monthly budget, we usually have surplus funds for a celebratory dinner or weekend getaway each year. We’ve rented an isolated farmhouse in the Margaret River wine region, stayed at a resort in the Swan Valley during the Spring in the Valley festival, and spent the night at Fairbridge Village, Pinjarra, which once housed child migrants from the UK.

We’ve stayed a couple of nights in a lakeside guesthouse at Myalup, played bocce and a chaotic card game called Spoons, at Guilderton, where the Moore River meets the Indian Ocean, and watched the sun rise through the mist and the full moon and Southern Cross gleam in an inky night sky while staying at a sprawling farmhouse in the Avon Valley, at Toodyay.

We also have a $5 fine for anybody who fails to finish a book on time, with these funds tallied each year and donated to a worthy charity, including a breast cancer support group. We have also supported Operation Christmas Child by sending shoe boxes filled with goodies to underprivileged children overseas, bought a couple of swags for local homeless people, and made cash donations to local soup kitchens.

First Edition Book Club in Secret Harbour is a source of great entertainment, delight and pleasure for us all. Reading books chosen by others has prompted us to broaden our horizons and venture into realms we may not have otherwise explored – and nothing compares with the sense of wonder we all feel at the high point of each meeting, as our next book is revealed.