Interview — Megan Goldin

Former journalist and Reuters Middle East and Asia correspondent Megan Goldin’s new thriller The Escape Room (Penguin) taps into the emerging zeitgeist around workplace sexism and bullying, and reflects the evolving role of women in business and positions of authority — while reinforcing the understanding that we’ve still got a long way to go in terms of equality and respect.

As a follow up to her bestselling debut The Girl in Kellers Way, it confirms Megan’s position as an Australian novelist making a significant impact at home and further afield (read her Shelf Aware guest post here). Such is the quality of her storytelling, that Megan is even impressing genre specialist Lee Child (author of the Jack Reacher series, and more), who describes The Escape Room as one of his favourite books of the year.

Megan tells me the plot for The Escape Room ‘took on a life of its own’ once she started writing, and her journalistic interest in politics inspired some ideas about office politics. Read on to find out more about the story behind this gripping tale of corporate intrigue and competition, with a murderous twist.

ME. What inspired the plot for The Escape Room?

MG. My writing tends to be very fluid and the plot took on a life of its own once I started writing. But my starting point for the novel began with some ideas that I had for a corporate noir thriller that delved into office politics. I’ve always been fascinated by politics – perhaps that’s the journalist in me. And there’s no politics more ruthless than office politics. People who work together have so many secrets ranging from their salaries and bonuses to whose saying what about whom to the boss, and various other machinations that go on in most offices. I wondered what would happen if those secrets slowly unfurled in the worst possible place at the worst possible time. It was around the time that this idea was bubbling in the back of my mind as I brainstormed ideas for my second novel that I was briefly stuck in a dark elevator. I figured that would make the perfect setting for my novel.

ME. What can you tell me about your research for this novel?

MG. I did a lot of research on elevators from understanding how they work and their dimensions and interior design to the more interesting aspects of human behaviour in elevators. I read psychology papers on how people behave in elevators which I found fascinating including a series of videos from the 1960s which ran on the show ‘Candid Camera’ and were absolutely hilarious. Perhaps most importantly I researched a few cases of people who were stuck in elevators and in some cases died. One of the most fascinating accounts was of a magazine editor who was stuck in an elevator for 41 hours. He has written about what happened during those hours of incarceration. In terms of researching the Wall Street lifestyle, I read extensively about Wall Street and then delved into blogs and forums by people who work in Wall Street. It gave me a sense of everything from what they wear, to their work-life balance (or rather imbalance) to issues related to their job, pay, bankers bonuses and how to deal with their bosses. I also sprinkled a few of my own work experiences in the novel such as an awful interview that I did after having my third baby in which the interviewer crunched on nuts throughout the interview.

ME. I’ve seen in social media that bestseller Lee Child has described the book as “Fantastic – one of my favourite books of the year.” How did that make you feel?

MG. Well, I had to pinch myself a few times! He was the first person outside of Penguin to read the book and I wasn’t sure whether he’d like it or not. In fact, I had several sleepless weeks worrying about it as I waited to find out whether he’d read it, and if he had read it whether he liked it. To get a response like that was amazing.

Girl in Kellers WayME. How did writing and publishing The Escape Room differ from writing The Girl in Kellers Way? Was it easier, or harder – or something in between?

MG. I worked with the same publisher and editor at Penguin and they were absolutely fabulous to work with, as they had been the previous time. But I suppose this time I knew what to expect which made it a little easier. Also, they were involved from the moment I had a first draft which saved a lot of time as I was able to incorporate their feedback into the second draft.

ME. What were some of the challenges associated with writing this book?

MG. This was a tough book to write. I knew it would be when I started writing it. I have quite a few rather complex characters. A complicated story. And it’s set in an elevator which is a very challenging place to set a novel. Plus there was the challenge that all writers who work on thrillers have which is maintaining pace and the integrity of the story. Added to all of that was setting large parts of the novel in an elevator and the psychological meltdown of the characters. It was tough to write but I really enjoyed the challenge.

ME. And what did you enjoy most about developing the characters and the story?

MG. I am one of those writers who don’t plan too much ahead of time. It all develops as I write which makes it quite an enjoyable experience as I don’t always know what’s coming around the next corner. The story took me in directions that I didn’t expect and had a lot of fun writing the dialogue and trying to capture the essence of my characters and the Wall Street corporate environment in which they worked.

ME. Why do you think that books exposing sexual harassment and professional bullying are important in contemporary times?

MG. It’s important to talk and write about these things so that people and companies can address them and change the culture. I am a strong believer in shining a spotlight on whatever is wrong in our society so that the problems are addressed rather than shoving them under the carpet and hoping they will go away.

ME. There’s a distinctly cinematic quality to your writing. Has there been any interest in adapting this book or The Girl in Kellers Way into a feature film and, if so, to what extent would you want to be involved in the project?

MG. I’ve been told that by many people who read the books. I think it’s partly because when I write I almost see it all happen in my head as if I was watching a movie. I have a film agent in the United States and there are various things happening though it is a slow process. I’ve written screenplays before and would be excited about getting involved potentially, but by the same token I have a lot more books that I’d like to write so it really would depend on whether my input is needed should either novel be turned into a film.

ME. How do your skills and experience as a former journalist help in your new career as a writer of fiction?

MG. I often think that one of the greatest skills as a journalist which is absolutely an imperative for a novelist in this day and age is persistence. Whether it’s persistence in writing a manuscript even on days when I’d rather do a dozen other things, or persistence in getting published, there is no doubt in my mind that persistence is a very important quality. That is obviously in addition to the ability to write and come up with a plot, characters and dialogue and so on.

ME. What led you to write in the thriller genre?

MG. I read widely but I’ve always enjoyed a great thriller, whether it’s a book or a movie. It’s a fantastic genre that gets my heart racing and adrenalin pumping.

ME. Can you tell readers of the blog a little bit about your writing routine or writing process?

MG. I have three kids and so I write whenever they are not around. That usually means that I write from the time they go to school until the time they come back as well as at night from about 9 or 10 pm until the early hours of the morning. School holidays are the worst for me because my kids are around and they go to sleep late so I often try to schedule my writing so that I do the bulk of it during term time.

You can read more about Megan on her website or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Books on Tour — Kellie Byrnes

This week I’m thrilled to be part of Books on Tour — a series of blogs highlighting the release of the new children’s picture book Cloud Conductor, by Kellie Byrnes (illustrated by Ann-Marie Finn and published by Wombat Books). Books on Tour is a project by the wonderful folk at Just Kids’ Lit, who you may recall interviewed my book Every Family is Different about me a few weeks ago (here).

For the Cloud Conductor Books on Tour series, you can visit a series of interviews and guest blogs featuring Kellie and this beautiful book about the power of imagination. Simply follow this link.

Kellie is a children’s author and full-time freelance writer, and a children’s book reviewer. She has a BA degree in Literature from Macquarie University, is an experienced copywriter and has worked in marketing, PR, sales, e-commerce and publishing roles, including working as a publishing assistant for Pan Macmillan, a sales rep for Pan and later Hardie Grant Gift (Taltrade Books at the time).

During these years, Kellie read a huge number of books, developed an understanding of the publishing industry and what it takes to make it as an author and writer.

I’m sure you’ll be inspired by her responses to my Shelf Aware interview questions, fascinated by her eclectic list of favourite books, and wishing you could take the time to pick and choose some of the captivating titles on her bookshelves (just like me).

Q. Kellie, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

A. I write children’s books that hopefully inspire and entertain children, and help them to understand themselves and the world around them better.

I’m always thinking about, writing, or editing ideas for kidlit, and pretty much live and breathe words and stories. I’m a full-time freelance writer too, so am always working on something involving words!

Q. What can you tell us about your latest writing project/book release?

A. Cloud Conductor is a picture book about using the imagination to deal with challenging times. In the story, Frankie loves to just sit and watch the clouds. She conducts symphonies in the sky and listens to the melodies only she can hear.

As the seasons pass, Frankie is taken away from her bedroom on the tales she creates. Even when illness means she can’t leave her bed, Frankie can escape to the beach with shimmering waves or the outback with thundering horses.

The book is illustrated beautifully by Ann-Marie Finn, whose artwork style I just adore; and the book was published by Wombat Books.

I hope the story helps children who are ill or otherwise struggling, to discover a new tool they can use to cope with something difficult in their lives. It should also act as a prompt for discussions about how to help others who are unwell or facing tough times.

As well, I really hope Cloud Conductor encourages kids to have their “head in the clouds”. I think the imagination is so incredibly important, no matter our age, and children should be taught that it’s good, and healthy, to be creative and to daydream and visualise. There are many studies which show how creativity assists mental health, yet it seems to be something that we don’t value nearly enough.

pic of some book shelves

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

A. Most of my bookcases are in my office – I have three large (and completely full) ones, plus two smaller ones, and even the built-ins in the room are also stacked with books. On top of that, my bedhead is always covered with library books I’m in the process of trying to find time to read; and the bed has built in bookcases on either side too, which are, you guessed it, full!

In addition, I have a couple of other bookcases spread around the house that contain books. I think I have more books in my house than anything else!  I also typically have a book or some kind of reading material in my handbag or car so that always have something to read. I haven’t ever counted how many books I have, but I think I’d be scared by the number!

Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. On my bookshelves, the books are arranged by genre and, for kidlit, by approximate age range. However, as I buy books and pull them out of the shelves, they can get a little muddled, so I try to do a re-jig of my collection at least once every six to twelve months so that I can find things when I need them!

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

I have a very eclectic range of books. I’m interested in most topics, and read most topics, so my shelves reflect that. In particular, since I write kidlit, I have a LOT of picture books, chapter books, middle grade and young adult books.

In addition, I’m pretty well stocked when it comes to personal development books, business (I’ve been self-employed for many years), art, biography, travel, and the classics. There’s also quite a few fantasy, chick-lit, poetry and literary fiction books on the shelves. I think I’ve ended up covering most genres here actually, haven’t I?!

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. In bed! I know it’s not very good for my neck and shoulders, but there’s nothing quite like cuddling up in bed to read, particularly during the colder months of the year.

Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?

A. I always have multiple books on the go because I read according to my mood, and/or what I currently have to review, or that will help me write whatever genre I’m working on at the time.

In the last couple of days I’ve finished reading Oprah’s What I Know for Sure, which was a really interesting, poignant collection of life tips and musings (I liked to be reminded about ways to live a healthier, more productive and happy life); and Alexandra Horowitz’s Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell, which was used for research for a non-fiction picture book I’m working on. It has some really fascinating facts in it, and is written in a very entertaining way.

As for kidlit, I read dozens of picture books each week typically because that’s what I’m most focused on writing, and it’s important to stay current, and learn from the best. The latest bunch that I’ve enjoyed include There’s a Dragon In Your Book written by Tom Fletcher; If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams, and Goodnight Already! by Jory John.

I’m just about to start reading YA novel The Bone Witch, by Rin Chupeco. I adore YA, and am working on some outlines for a couple of different novels in this genre, so try to read multiple books each month (YA fantasy is my particular love).

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8. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. I always find this question tricky as I have fallen in love with so many books over the years. I have a comprehensive list of some of my all-time favourites in various genres on my website, that people can check out if they have a while (it’s a long list!) but for brevity’s sake right now, here are some particular faves: The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness; The Ancient Future series by Traci Harding; The Cassie Palmer series by Karen Chance; The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone & Michael Smollin; So Few of Me and Ish by Peter H. Reynolds; Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins; The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (of course!); Roald Dahl’s The Twits and Matilda; Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree series; Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo; The Throne of Glass series and Court of Thorns & Roses series by Sarah J. Maas; Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley; The Messenger by Markus Zusak; and Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.

9. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?

Argh, I don’t even want to think about that!

If I had to choose three, I’d guess it would be ones that are in prominent spots because I read them often and love them, like A Discovery of Witches, from the All Souls Trilogy; The Twits; and a big book of poetry called World Poetry, which covers centuries of the best poems. I love to just flick through that one here and there to be inspired and to enjoy the beautiful language throughout.

10. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

I think my answers to this would always depend on the day you catch me, and which authors and books are top of mind at the time. Today, I’d say I’d love to sit down for tea with Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice; Deborah Harkness, the author of the All Souls Trilogy; and Roald Dahl. I’d just like to discuss all things books and writing – rather predictable, I know! As for what to serve, I’d get the afternoon tea catered so I knew the food would be up to everyone’s standards, and I wouldn’t have to stress.

Find out more about Kellie on her website, Facebook author page and Twitter.

The book can be ordered online at Wombat Books or Booktopia, to name a couple, plus in local bookstores.

Find out more about Just Kids’ Lit here and about Books on Tour here.

Shelf Aware — Vanessa Carnevale

 

 

VanessaCarnevale

Author Vanessa Carnevale

As temperatures drop and the wet weather settles in, conditions are perfect for curling up in a comfy chair, in a warm room, with a book that transports the reader to another time and another place.

Australian novelist Vanessa Carnevale writes just such books, including bestseller The Florentine Bridge  (HarperCollins Australia) and her new release, The Memories that Make Us (HQ Fiction) — also published in eBook format as The Memories of Us (HarperCollins Avon).

Vanessa is a life coach, and  writes freelance articles that have been published online and in magazines and newspapers, including The Huffington Post, Elephant Journal, The Green Parent, Italy magazine, Muse magazine and more.

When she was in her twenties, Vanessa lived in Florence, Italy, where she met her husband. Although she’s based in Australia these days, she tries to go back to Italy whenever she can, and has hosted Your Beautiful Writing Life writing retreats in Tuscany, and with fellow Australian author Lisa Ireland, in rural Victoria.

It’s my great pleasure to welcome Vanessa as the latest Shelf Aware guest, and I recommend you find a comfy, warm spot to relax while you enjoy her responses to my questions — as well as her beautiful photos.

Q. Vanessa, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

A. I write contemporary fiction that usually includes a love story. I do it by taking an idea, and sometimes it’s just a tiny thread of an idea that leads to something bigger. I sit down and listen to my heart and what my characters want to do on the page. And then I pretty much squeeze it in wherever I can, as often as I can!

Q. What can you tell us about your latest writing project/book release?

A. The Memories That Make Us is a story about a woman named Gracie who, after a car accident, is left unable to remember her past, including her fiancé, Blake, who she is supposed to be marrying in three months’ time. It’s a story of self-discovery, that speaks to the question: if you had your time over, would you live the same life twice?

vanessa-office-collage-1024x341Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

A. The main bookcase is in my study, but I also keep coffee table books on the coffee table to flip through whenever I have the chance to sit down for a break. There are also usually two or three books sitting on my bedside table at any given moment!

Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. There’s no proper system in place. I usually just line them up according to size and/or author. My kids have space in their rooms for their books so they’re kept separate to mine.

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. Predominantly fiction. I like reading both contemporary and historical fiction so there’s a good mix of both in there.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. For many years I wanted to put a day bed in my study and last year I finally got one and I absolutely love it. I use it as a reading nook, and it’s every bit as cosy as it looks. In summer, I also love reading outside on the sun lounge while the kids are swimming or playing outside. I also read every night before I go to sleep and that’s the place most of my reading happens.

Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?

A. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and I am loving it. I think it might become one of my favourite books of all time. I love books set during WW2 and this one is an incredible page-turner. I can’t put it down!

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and more recently, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. As a child, my favourites were Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood series.

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?

A. Wow! That’s a tricky question. I’d probably try to grab my signed copies as they’re very special to me, and I’d also take along the tattered copy of The Language of Flowers which I found by chance in a second-hand bookstore when I started writing The Memories That Make Us. It happened to have a unique note written inside it about perseverance that I really liked (and needed to hear at the time). And of course my childhood copy of The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton. I adored (and devoured) her books as a child.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. Hmm, maybe I’d take Beatrix Potter, Jane Austen and Enid Blyton out to lunch and talk to them about their books, their characters, and their inspiration!

Find out more about Vanessa at these links:

Website
Twitter
Instagram
Facebook

Shelf Aware — Steve Heron

Steve Heron 6 (3)

One of the greatest challenges faced by writers and publishers is creating stories to appeal to ‘tweenage’ boys — those on the cusp of adolescence, who have the potential to abandon the immersive pleasure of reading books in favour of the fast-paced action and immediate gratification of electronic games. With his new novel Maximus, about an eleven-year-old boy and the problems he faces at home and at school, Perth-based writer Steve Heron OAM is capturing the interest and imagination of this demographic (along with the interest and imagination of tweenage girls). Published by my dear friends at Serenity Press, it is a story fuelled by hope — and written with a sense of understanding and empathy that Steve has honed over decades working directly with kids. It is a delight to welcome him as the latest Shelf Aware guest — although don’t expect to see any photos of his book shelves, as his treasured collection of books is temporarily in storage. Read on to find out more about this emerging talent in children’s fiction.

Q. Steve, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

A. After working in pastoral care with children for forty years in schools and in the community, I realised I had experienced over 15,000 hours of conversation with children talking about themselves, their journeys, their struggles, and their joys. I have a deep respect for the stories of these children and am exploring ways of sharing and honouring them through my writing. A colleague once described me as an Affirmative Vandal. I interpreted that to mean a hooligan of hope. I want to inspire and encourage children through my novels and picture books by seeding them with snippets of hope that I have harvested from children over the years.

IMG_9313Q. What can you tell us about your latest writing project/book release?

A. My recently released middle-grade novel Maximus is a tapestry using threads of stories of many of the children I have known. It is realistic fiction about Mitch, a regular eleven-year-old struggling with home and school problems. Mitch says, ‘Stuff sucks.’ An encounter with a bedraggled magpie who he befriends becomes a catalyst to Mitch regaining his mojo. I recently received feedback from a parent who shared that her ten-year-old son was reading Maximus. She told me that he said he loves how Mitch started out with problems and by this stage of the book he managed to bring about the changes.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

A. Currently, my bookcases are in storage in a shed, inside a farm shed waiting for my new home to be built. I am planning two bookcase areas – one in my living room with a potpourri of books I have collected over the years, the other will be in my den/studio/office with books that will inspire me to write with finesse.

Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. In boxes, lots of them. There is a possibility that I could be methodical when I unpack.

Steve by Melt

Steve, by Melt.

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. Picture books predominate my shelves. I am an avid collector of picture books that instil hope, entertain, bring a smile and help children with the tough stuff. I also have collected a multitude of books that have helped me be a better listener, carer, and supporter of children. Books on social and emotional well-being, friendships, anti-bullying, child development, etc.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. I don’t have a favourite reading place. I’ll have to amend that when my new home is finished.

Jenna's TruthQ. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?

A. I have just finished Jenna’s Truth by Nadia L King (see her Shelf Aware guest post here). I chose it for a few reasons: I wanted to support a colleague, I am interested in the subject that her book deals with (bullying, cyber safety, and suicide), I am writing material myself that covers similar themes but for a younger age group.

Jenna’s Truth is a powerful story of a teenage girl who makes a mistake in the pursuit of personal identity. Her low self-respect makes her vulnerable, and she becomes a victim of heinous cyber-bullying. I can’t say I enjoyed the story as it disturbed me to a degree, but I do like Nadia’s writing style. I found the story engaging and believable, with hope rising from despair. Nadia has dealt with a volatile topic poignantly.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. I will mention two: My favourite book is The Sea-Thing Child by Russell Hoban, a picture storybook that is analogous of my own journey working with children and Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick, a novel that inspired me to believe that I could write.

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?

A. The Sea-Thing Child by Russell Hoban – I love this picture storybook of a bedraggled Puffin finding his wings and fulfilling his destiny, in the aftermath of a storm that washed him ashore.

One by Kathryn Otoshi – This story about bullying is so clever – it reminds me that every word counts – and that art can be so complexly simple.

King of the Playground by Phyllis Reynolds-Naylor – The father in this story is amazing, the way he helps his son figure out how to handle a playground bully and balance the power.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. Barack Obama – (wrote one children’s book) – a honey ale, using honey from hives on the grounds of the White House, I would like to talk about what he is doing now, his ideas to make the world a better place, and just hang out with him.

Robert Connelly – Australian Director/Producer/Writer. (Paper Planes movie) – A good coffee. I would like to talk with him about making Maximus into a film here in WA and how much I loved Paper Planes.

Baymax – From Big Hero 6. Being a robot, I’m guessing he doesn’t eat or drink. I would give him a fist pump, ‘Bla la la la la.’ I would talk with him about his quote, ‘To be honest with you, I don’t have the words to make you feel better but I do have the arms to give you a hug, ears to listen to whatever you want to talk about, and I have a heart; a heart that’s aching to see you smile again.’

Find out more about Steve via these links:

Steve’s Website

Facebook

Twitter

Instagram

www.serenitypress.org

Shelf Aware — Lauren Chater

www.ben-williams.comA couple of months ago, I had the very great pleasure of interviewing Lauren Chater for a story in the April issue of Good Reading magazine. Before the interview, I read her debut novel, The Lace Weaver, and was transported in time, to a place I’ve never been — Estonia, during its occupation by Russian and German forces in the 1940s. Lauren told me that she wanted to novel to focus on the ways that women support and rely on each other during times of upheaval and trauma.

The story explores the relationship that develops between Katarina, a fiercely partisan Estonian farmer’s daughter, and Lydia, who has led a sheltered and privileged life as the daughter of a Communist Party leader, in the shadow of the Kremlin. I’m not at all surprised that the book has been received to great critical and popular acclaim since its release.

I was thrilled when Lauren accepted my invitation to provide a guest post for Shelf Aware, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading her responses to my questions as much as I did. She reveals her passion for reading and writing, shares some of her favourite titles, and provides a hint at one of her other major interests — baking book-themed cookies. Her blog, The Well-Read Cookie — Edible Art Inspired by Fiction & Folklore is a joy to read, and her Instagram posts are a visual treat, although she explains on her website that she can’t take cookie orders just now because she’s so busy with the release of her book. Perhaps you can enjoy a cuppa and a home-baked cookie or two of your own while you read her guest post.

Q. Lauren, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

A. I write fiction with a focus on women’s stories. I try to write the kind of books I love to read myself; books with complex characters, interesting settings and a hint of magic in them. I also love words and believe in their power to create empathy and promote change. When I’m not writing, I’m baking cookies and icing, decorating and photographing them for my blog The Well-Read Cookie, which combines my love of reading with my love of baking. In between that, I try to read as much as I can.

final high res Lace WeaverQ. What can you tell us about your latest writing project/book release?

A. My debut novel The Lace Weaver has just been released by Simon & Schuster. It’s an historical fiction story set in Estonia in World War II about two very different young women fighting to survive and preserve the legacy of traditional knitted lace passed down through their families. I’m currently working on my second novel, Gulliver’s Wife, which retells the story of Gulliver’s Travels through the eyes of Mary Burton, his long-suffering wife. And I’m always working on short stories, or fragments just for practise.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

booksA. I keep most of my research books in my bedroom, where my desk is, so that they’re within reach at any time! Writing historical fiction requires a lot of research as you can imagine, so I have a shelf dedicated to each book and I fill it with all the books for that subject as well as any interesting random books that might be useful. I also have a little shelf of writing advice books above my desk, so I can pluck one down at random if I’m feeling blocked and hopefully absorb the wisdom of someone far wiser than me like Margaret Atwood or Elizabeth Gilbert.

I keep my favourite fiction books out in the lounge area as I’m more likely to reach for them there. My kids also have bookshelves in their rooms filled with books they have been given by family members; my mother-in-law is a former teacher librarian so she bought them all the ‘classics’ before they were even born!bookcaseQ. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. I arrange my books by author name and loosely by genre; eg. historical fiction, contemporary Australian, I have multiple copies of some books simply because I’m a sucker for a beautiful cover. My favourite editions are those cloth-bound ones which came out a few years ago. I haven’t got as many of them yet as I would like but I love looking at pictures on Instagram taken by people who have the full collection. I live vicariously through those people!

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. Although I love all types of books, my time is very limited with young children around so I read mostly historical, magic realism and non-fiction or reference books which will help me in my work. Occasionally, I’ll break the trend and pick up something like Graeme Simison’s The Rosie Project or Michelle de Krester’s recent book The Life to Come, just for the sheer pleasure of reading. It’s like taking a mental break and I love it.

I also love poetry and I’m finding short stories very appealing since I can read them in between doing the housework (which I’m very inconsistent with, I must admit!) I don’t feel so guilty if I’m reading a short story though and can usually stick to my self-imposed limit of one story per hour as a reward for doing the dishes or hanging out the washing.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. My favourite reading place is slightly unusual; it’s actually in the airport. Because I have young children who are often at home making noise and mess, it’s very difficult for me to find pockets of uninterrupted reading time. When they’re at school, I’m usually working on my writing so the best times for me to read are when I’m travelling. I’m one of those weirdos who arrives at the airport about five hours in advance because I hate the idea of missing a flight (it happened to me once, mortifyingly). To ensure that doesn’t happen again, I now get there early, hurry through the baggage check then go and find a cosy seat at the gate and lose myself in my book. I also enjoy reading on planes. When people complain about nine hour flights I think: are you crazy? That’s nine hours of reading time right there! I would kill for that.

Q. What books are you reading right now? Why did you choose those
books and what do you think of them so far?

A. I’m currently reading two books; an advance copy of Natasha Lester’s forthcoming historical fiction novel The Paris Seamstress, which is a dual timeline story. I loved her first book A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald and this book is proving to be just as good. I’m also reading The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff, which I know came out some time ago but I’m only just catching up! It’s incredible. Such vivid writing and such a fascinating, brave protagonist. I’m in love.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

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A. I have so many favourite authors it’s hard to choose. The ones stand out most in my mind, though are Geraldine Brooks, Kate Forsyth, Alice Hoffman, Tracy Chevalier, Sarah Dunant, Isabel Allende, Lucy M. Boston, Neil Gaiman and Virginia Woolf.

Books… there are too many! My top three picks would have to be March by Geraldine Brooks, Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier and Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth.

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?

A. I would save the first copy of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier that I ever owned, my signed copy of Stardust by Neil Gaiman (I stalked him at the Opera House to ask him to sign my book and then got so tongue-tied and starstruck I could barely tell him my name) and my original copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone from the noughties which I saved for my children and read to them for the first time last year (see photo of my daughter holding it!) It was a very special moment to share it with them and they were enchanted. We have now moved onto The Chamber of Secrets.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. What a fabulous question! I don’t know that meeting my author idols is such a good idea; I tend to get nervous and excited around authors whose work I love. So it would have to be three characters, then. Let’s see; how about Jane Eyre, Miss Havisham and Sherlock Holmes. That would be a fun party. It would be interesting, at the very least. I’d serve Jane Eyre some jam crumpets, probably unbuttered because she’s quite a serious girl. I would make Miss Havisham some cookies in the shape of wedding cakes; I’m sure she’d love them. Sherlock would probably be satisfied with some snuff which I’d serve to him in a Persian slipper. I’d ask them to tell me all the dark secrets hidden in their pasts.

 

Find out more about Lauren via these links:

Website: www.laurenchater.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/laurenchaterwriter
Instagram: www.instagram.com/the_well_read_cookie

Shelf Aware — Susan Midalia

Susan Midalia

 

I was fortunate to meet Perth-based author Susan Midalia during a short story workshop she presented when I was chairperson of Rockingham Writers Centre, and I was immediately struck by the depth of her knowledge, her well-honed talent for teaching, and the warmth of  her wit. I also had the pleasure of hearing her speak about her short story writing when she was a guest for the Stories on Stage series of author talks, at Koorliny Arts Centre — and I may have headed home with signed copies of each of her story collections cradled in my arms. When I started reading the most recent of these collections, Feet to the Stars (UWA Publishing), I experienced the gamut of emotions — her writing is lyrical and evocative, and the human frailties of her characters clutch at the heart strings. No surprise, then, that I was easily convinced to read her debut novel, The Art of Persuasion (Fremantle Press), and to interview her in a Q&A format for Good Reading magazine. At the same time, I took the opportunity to invite Susan to be my guest on Shelf Aware — and was chuffed when she agreed.

The Art of Persuasion is a modern take on the literary works of Jane Austen, and might be described as a contemporary literary romance and comedy of manners — with a touch of politics on the side.  At the start of the novel, heroine Hazel West is unemployed, unattached and in the midst of a crisis of confidence, but by the end of the book her life is considerably brighter. Hazel’s apparent love interest is widower and father Adam, who conjures associations with classic romantic heroes Captain Wentworth, Mr Darcy and Mr Knightley, yet has his ideologies firmly planted in the 21st Century. Hazel has a tendency toward pessimism and self-indulgence, while Adam borders on patronising and his moods are changeable, yet the chemistry between this characters is palpable, and their imperfections imply that they just might be perfect for one another. For me, this novel was a joy from the first to the last page, and I found Susan’s answers to my Shelf Aware questions also highly entertaining. And I’ve managed to add quite a number of new names and titles to my ‘to read’ pile, after seeing Susan’s list of favourite writers and books. I recommend you find a comfortable place to sit back and enjoy getting to know Susan Midalia through the books on her shelves.

Q. Susan, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

A. Having written three collections of short stories, and more recently a novel, I am well-versed in the art of writing slowly and arduously, painstakingly attentive to every word and sentence. I don’t mean by this that the process is unpleasant; on the contrary, writing fiction is one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve had in the various incarnations of my life. It’s the mind, heart and body working together to make my writing the best it can be.

I’m particularly interested in individual psychology, both the conscious and the unconscious self, of people who are very different from me: a middle-aged, middle-class educated woman, happily married, and the mother of two adult sons. How do I imagine such creatures? I gain my knowledge partly from many years of reading wonderful fiction, and partly through my observations of people in real life. I’m especially interested in what people say, and don’t say: the ways in which language reveals or obscures their desires and fears, their motives and degree of self-awareness. I’m also interested in the idea of choice, which always takes place in the complex and particular contexts of class, gender, culture and race. Doing this fascinating work requires extended and reflective time, and I have the luxury of being able to write all day, every weekday, if the inclination hits me. My husband tells me I’m enormously self-disciplined, but in fact I don’t need to make myself write. It’s a beautiful, joyful compulsion.

Art of Persuasion

Q. What is your latest project, and/or what do you have in the pipeline?

A. I’m currently working on another novel. The first draft didn’t take me long at all – maybe six months – but I’ve since re-written large sections, and added another major character. Now I’m working on style: checking every word for precision and nuance, making choices about the sounds of words and the rhythms of sentences; adding commas, taking them out. Every writer knows how this goes! It’s a novel in four different voices: a middle-aged married couple (miserable in their marriage), their former daughter-in-law and her twelve-year-old child. I’m exploring family, love, mental illness and the possibility of recovery.

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Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

A. Ah, books! There are books all over our apartment. Most of them are in my study, on floor-to-ceiling bookcases, built by my patient, generous husband. There are also free-standing bookcases in my study, plus more books in the living room and the spare bedroom. When we downsized a couple of years ago, from an old house to an apartment, I took the opportunity to cull books accumulated over decades, but alas, I didn’t pass on as many as I should have. I love the feeling of being surrounded by books; it helps me to remember that a great tradition of writing precedes me, and that there are terrifically good writers currently producing literary treasures.

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Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. I have so many books that organisation is essential. I have sections for specific genres, and I arrange them alphabetically. Novels by Australian writers; non-Australian writers; short stories by writers from all over the world; biography, autobiography and memoir; poetry; antiquarian books; non-fiction; and a special shelf for feminist non-fiction. The living room houses my favourite hardback novels and short story collections, and here I have a shameful confession: when we were putting our old house on the market, the agent suggested colour-coding the hardbacks for a pleasing aesthetic effect (i.e. it would look good in the promotional photos). I was initially snobbishly repelled by what I saw as a slick real estate strategy, but one night, I decided – just for fun – to take up the agent’s suggestion. The result: it looks fabulous, darling! I’ve even arranged those handsome hardbacks according to their height. Friends have been variously amused, impressed, and critical of me for having sold out to the capitalist juggernaut. But I like the way they look!

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. Definitely fiction: novels and short stories. I’d say roughly 90% fiction, 10% the rest. I used to tell myself to broaden my preferences, but as I’ve aged, I’ve become more inclined to stick with my favourite genres. As they say, life is short and art is long, and there are too many great novels and stories I haven’t yet read to feel guilty about my reading tastes.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. I have two. One is the beanbag in my study. I used to own a beanbag when they were all the rage in the 60s, and I bought another one to celebrate the publication in 2007 of my first collection of stories, A History of the Beanbag (of course). The one I use now is new, blue and enfolding. The only problem is the noise that sometimes comes from neighbours in a downstairs apartment – loud yacking on the balcony, raucous laughter. When that happens, I read in bed. I love reading propped up by big pillows, with a cup of tea or glass of wine on the bedside table.

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Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?

A. I choose books on the recommendations of friends and my favourite booksellers; based on reviews; and new Australian fiction so I can keep up with, and support, the Australian literary culture. I also browse in bookshops, when I always read the first couple of pages to decide whether the writing is any good. If I find one cliché, a poorly chosen metaphor, clunky, tin-eared rhythms, or overwriting, I won’t buy the book. What matters to me isn’t the subject matter but the quality of the writing; I have to be able to trust the author, to know that I’m in safe hands.

What have I read recently? A number of Australian novels have impressed me. Gail Jones’s forthcoming The Death of Noah Glass is a remarkably intelligent exploration of the value of art; different forms of love; the pathos of fatherhood; and the strategies of crime. It’s classic Jones: dauntingly cerebral but also deeply affecting, and written with her usual stylistic audacity and poise. I also enjoyed David Dyer’s The Midnight Watch, about the history of the investigation into the sinking of the Titanic: meticulously researched, imagistically dense, psychologically astute. It had rave reviews in America, but seems to have sunk in Australia (forgive the terrible pun). I was also engaged by Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of The Fugitives in the Garden, a novel about archeology and romantic obsession, written in epistolary form: a great way to reveal the psychology of character with subtlety and flair. Michelle de Krester’s The Life to Come is an absorbing exploration about the life of art, the complexities of different cultures and the complications of family. I love the mix of withering satire and pathos.

I’ve been similarly impressed by number of debut novels by Australian writers. I was required to read them to facilitate sessions at the recent Perth Writers Week, but it didn’t feel like a duty: I genuinely loved them all. Laurie Steed’s You Belong Here is a deftly written and beautifully understated account of broken families and the possibility of healing. Melbourne writer Robert Lukins’ The Everlasting Sunday is both an achingly tender and visceral depiction of youthful masculinity under siege. Paul Collis’s Dancing Home is a confronting, brutal and intensely poignant “road trip” about the victimization of Indigenous people in contemporary Australia.

Internationally: in the past few months I’ve read George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, one of the most formally inventive novels I’ve read in many years, and always unexpected in its tonal shifts. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Gone, Went (translated from the German), an illuminating and emotionally affecting account of the current refugee crisis in Berlin. Brilliant! Samanta Scweblin’s novella Fever Dreams (translated from the Spanish): a psychological horror story about maternal obsession and environmental devastation. Rivetting! Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire: an ethically circumspect page-turner about the making of a terrorist, and the damage this leaves in his wake. I’m currently reading a superb collection of short stories by Queensland writer Laura Elvery called Trick of the Light: always surprising, and cleverly written, with a strong sense of different voices.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. There are so many others I could name, but here goes:

Short story writers I admire: Claire Keegan, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, Vincent O’Sullivan, Janet Frame, Raymond Carver, Anne Enright, Carol Shields and Mavis Gallant.

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Australian novelists: Gail Jones, Michelle de Kretser, Amanda Curtin, Sonya Hartnett, Mireille Juchau, Joan London, David Malouf, Patrick White, Randolph Stow and Christina Stead.

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International novelists: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Henry James, E.M. Forster, James Joyce, Fydor Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf, E.L. Doctorow, Michael Cunningham, Don DeLillo, Jennifer Egan, Michel Faber, Carol Shields, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, Anne Tyler, Maggie O’Farrell, Toni Morrison, Colum McCann, Colm Toibin, Joyce Carol Oates, Deborah Levy and Rachel Cusk.

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My favourite poets: Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, William Shakespeare, Lucy Dougan, Carolyn Abbs, Simon Armitage, W.H. Auden, Frank O’Hara and Fay Zwicky.

My three favourite books: Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, for its psychological and moral complexity, and the precision of the prose. It was the first “grown-up” novel I remember reading because it made me aware that the best books raise questions instead of providing easy answers to the complex business of living.

Gail Jones’ Five Bells, for the pleasure of its poetic prose, the intelligent understanding of history and its sensual evocation of place.

L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, for its creation of a feisty heroine, its understanding of grief, and its depiction of female friendship. I first read it when I was twelve, and recently re-read it, to discover I hadn’t realised as a twelve-year-old how beautifully it’s written.

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?

A. Books as words on a page, bound into a volume, are usually replaceable, but memories are not. So I’ve chosen three books to rescue in an emergency because of their personal associations. They’re in chronological order of acquisition.

Dance of the Happy ShadesOne: Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, published in 1968. I bought the book in anticipation of Alice Munro’s visit in 1978 to the English Department at the University of Western Australia, where I had my first job as a full-time tutor. I was invited to a staff lunch, and through some thunderbolt of good fortune, found myself next to the incomparable Alice Munro, by that stage the author of four acclaimed collections. I remember very little of our conversation because I was anxious and tongue-tied, but I do remember her softly spoken voice, her gracious manner, and the fact that one particular story in Dance of the Happy Shades turned out to be our absolute favourite. I like to think she wasn’t merely being kind to a naïve young woman, but the book remains precious to me because of her gentle presence on that day, and because she helped me to realise that famous people are not necessarily crassly self-promoting and arrogant.

Dancing on CoralTwo: Glenda Adam’s Dancing on Coral, published in 1988. It’s a beautifully produced hardback, although now slightly yellowing, and it’s precious because of my having met Glenda at a conference in Brisbane for The Australian Association for the Study of Australian Literature. I remember, for example, travelling on the conference bus with her, and having thoughtful, lively conversations and a lot of laughs. She was unfailingly modest, generous to the young like me, and an example of an author dedicated to her craft without being precious or pretentious. Our other travelling companion on that companionable bus was my then boyfriend, Dan Midalia, soon to become my husband of nearly forty years; he too remembers Glenda with much affection. We were saddened to hear that she’d died at relatively young age of 67, but I will always treasure the outlandish wit and love of language of Dancing on Coral.

IMG_4654Three: Gail Jones’s first collection of short stories, The House of Breathing, published in 1992. Gail and I had become friends in the 1970s, when I was teaching at UWA and she was a student, and I became the first reader of the short fiction that she was then beginning to write. When The House of Breathing won the T.A.G. Hungerford Prize and a publication from Fremantle Press, Gail asked me to edit it. She’s since moved into the literary stratosphere, of course – as I told her once, I knew her before she became a rock star! – but my dog-eared and slightly stained copy of The House of Breathing remains of inestimable value because it symbolises our long-standing friendship, our shared love of books and writing, and our mutual respect.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. Since I’ve already given details about my favourite writers and books, I’ve chosen three characters I would invite to afternoon tea (I don’t necessarily like them):

One: Meursault, from Albert Camus’ The Outsider (translated from the French L’Etranger). I would probably serve him wine and cigarettes, because – well, he’s French and existentially cool, and eating scones and jam, or cucumber sandwiches, is clearly so bourgeois. What I would like to talk about with Meursault? I’d like him to defend his status as the existential poster boy for moral “authenticity,” now that his views and actions have been revealed as deeply misogynistic and racist. I first met Meursault in 1970, when I was a second-year uni student reading modern French literature, and – like an entire generation of students hungry for honesty and freedom from cant, longing to have the courage to face the terror of the void – I fell in love with him for refusing to abide by hollow social conventions and hypocritical pieties. About thirty years later, I met him again, and boy, had the gloss worn off! So I would like to ask him how he can claim to be courageous, the glorious anti-hero of modern times when he reduces both women and Algerian Arabs to the unthinking life of the body. (If he doesn’t feel like talking – and after all, talking is such a waste of time when life is inherently meaningless – I’ll just ply him with wine, watch him fall into a stupor and read a good book.)

Two: Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I’d like to talk to her about the difficulty for women of maintaining their artistic integrity and resilience in the face of masculine contempt for female artists (“Women can’t paint, can’t write”, as Charles Tansley in To the Lighthouse famously declares.) I’d ask her about the kind of art she creates, since there isn’t as much detail in the novel as I would like. I’d ask her why her creator, Virginia Woolf, refused to be a called a feminist, when in both her life and her art she championed the causes of women with such spirited intelligence. I’d also ask Lily about the difference between solitude and solitariness, since she experiences both, and about a woman’s attraction to another woman. And what would I serve Lily for afternoon tea? Cucumber sandwiches, of course, and scones with jam and cream. Either Earl Grey or English Breakfast tea, with MIF (milk in first), using the best china tea set inherited from my grandmother.

Pip, from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. I’d like to ask Pip (or Philip Pirrip, as he’s more formally known) some questions that continue to trouble me about one of my favourite novels. How did he feel about being left in limbo by his creator? As his palindromic name suggests, he can neither return to his working-class origins, nor can he move forward into a genuinely satisfying life. I’d ask him how he felt about being the perpetrator, if only by default, of violence against the three women who thwarted his desires: his sister, Miss Havisham and Estella. Sure, I’d say, you’ve come to understand the psychologically corrosive effects of snobbery and the morally destructive effects of thinking that money is the measure of a person’s worth. But none of that can justify the fact that in the course of your journey, you seem to remain blithely unaware of the hatred you feel towards powerful women. (As you can see, this wouldn’t be a conversation, more of a lecture on my part.) Finally, I’d ask him his opinion of the revised ending that Dickens’ publishers virtually forced him to adopt. The original ending leaves Pip feeling miserable and aimless, but the publishers said that readers wouldn’t buy that – literally; that Victorian readers demanded the “happy ending.” OK, so the revised ending isn’t all lollipops and roses, either; for while Pip gets his Estella, the conclusion is decidedly autumnal in tone. He gets the girl, yes, but they’ve both lost the bloom of youth, and seem rather jaded and cynical. So I’d ask him which ending he prefers, and why. And what would I serve Pip for afternoon tea? In keeping with his hard-won rejection of a lavish lifestyle, I’d keep it simple: maybe Iced Vo Vo biscuits and Coles fruit cake. And in memory of his convict benefactor, who made his money in Australia, I’d throw in the odd meat pie.

You can find out more about Susan Midalia’s new novel, The Art of Persuasion, at Fremantle Press.

Another chance to talk about ‘Family’…

This week I made a guest appearance on author Nadia L King’s website, as part of her Writer Talks blog series — once again answering questions about Every Family is Different. To be honest, I never get tired of talking (or writing) about this book because it means so much to me.

In case you don’t know, Nadia is the author of one of the most important young adult novels published in Australia in recent years, Jenna’s Truth. Inspired by actual events, it is a disturbing, thought-provoking but ultimately hopeful portrayal of the potentially deadly perils faced by young people using social media. Nadia is now re-releasing Jenna’s Truth through Serenity Press, and she was a guest on my Shelf Aware series last year (you can read that post here). Nadia has now turned the tables and invited me to be a guest on her blog. You can read my answers to her smart, thoughtful and engaging questions here

Here’s a little taste of what I had to say when she interviewed me:

NLK (bonus question): Who is the most famous person you’ve interviewed?

ME: I’ve had the great pleasure of interviewing many famous people during my journalism career, including Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks, national treasures Tom Keneally and the late, great Colleen McCullough, and international best-selling authors including Eric van Lustbader, Philippa Gregory, Isabel Allende, Monica McInerney and Lisa Genova. Colleen McCullough was a delight – we chatted for almost an hour-and-a-half, during which she brought tears to my eyes and I heard her whole-hearted barking laugh several times. Tom Keneally was a whip-smart interview subject, and utterly charming – as was his daughter, Meg, who is co-writing an historical fiction series with him.

And you can read the entire interview here.

On the other end of an interview…

The Itchy Kraken is a curiously named bookish website packed with all sorts of wonderful posts about authors, books and the publishing industry, and I was thrilled to be invited to make a guest appearance on the site this week.

Thanks so much to Adrienne for the invitation, and for the thought-provoking questions about my debut children’s picture book, Every Family is Different (Serenity Press). Here’s a taste of the interview, and a link to read the whole post.

Tell us about yourself:

Family, friends, reading and writing are what I love most in life. I am the wife of a builder and golf tragic, the mother of two compassionate, intelligent and sassy daughters, and the daughter of a brave, strong woman who has always been my greatest role model.

 I’m also a fiercely proud sister, auntie, great-auntie, sister-in-law and loyal friend. After more than 30 years as a journalist, sub-editor, columnist and editor, I recently exchanged newspaper and magazine deadlines for a corporate communications and marketing role.

When I’m not at work, I relish the hours I spend reading, writing, writing about reading, and reading about writing. I also love talking about writing and reading, particularly with some much-loved writer and book club friends…

The Itchy Kraken — Author Talk — With Maureen Eppen

Shelf Aware — Louise Allan

LouiseUnfulfilled dreams, childhood violence and undiagnosed mental illness divide and unite two sisters at the heart of The Sisters’ Song (Allen & Unwin), the poignant and profoundly beautiful debut novel by Perth-based Louise Allan — the latest guest in my Shelf Aware series.

Louise is generous, warm-hearted, witty and inspirational. In the WA writing community she is highly respected and much-loved, partly because she has been willing to share the highs and lows of her journey toward publication with the aim of helping others navigate the process; and partly because she is always ready to boost and encourage other writers, myself included.

Her On Writing blog is always thought-provoking and entertaining (and often amusing); her photographic series Midweek Moments (with fellow Perth-based author Monique Mulligan) captured the beauty of the world she encountered in her daily life; and her Writers in the Attic blog series provides a platform for experienced, emerging and hopeful writers (myself included).

Louise is a former GP, who stepped away from that role before pursuing a writing career, and she retains the kind heart, empathy and air of wisdom that must have made her a reassuring presence for her patients. With The Sisters’ Song, she has channelled her significant intellect and innate empathy into creating fictional characters who are fragile and flawed, vunerable and volatile, beautiful and terrible, and, above all, utterly convincing. Woven throughout the narrative is a musical motif that reflects Louise’s passion for music and singing.

The Sisters' SongDrawing on her own troubled childhood and the experiences of her ancestors, Louise has crafted an honest, heartfelt and heart-rending account of sibling rivalry, emotional upheaval and unrealised dreams. The novel spans a seventy-year period from the 1920s to the 1990s, and set in Louise’s home town of Launceston, Tasmania.

In case you can’t tell, I loved it — despite, or perhaps because of, it’s dark themes and the disappointments that plagued its eponymous sisters, Ida and Nora. Louise has managed to capture the essence of Launceston and the surrounding countryside, and provides candid reflections on love, loss, grief and the impacts of emotional abuse and mental illness. 

Pour a cup of tea or coffee, sit back and enjoy reading author Louise Allan’s responses to my Shelf Aware questions.

Q. Louise, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

A. Writing hardly feels like work because I enjoy it so much—the days I have to drag myself to my computer chair are rare indeed. There’s a satisfaction in creating something that wasn’t there before—it’s like playing imaginary games all day long and I can’t believe it’s my legitimate career.

How do I do my so-called ‘job’? Deadlines and bum glue. And, if I’m completely honest—the Freedom App. You see, I have a little internet addiction problem and I rely on my friend, Freedom, to curb it for me.

Q. What is your latest project, and/or what do you have in the pipeline?

A. I’m about 25,000 words into Novel #2—I wish I was further along, but I obviously haven’t been using Freedom enough.

I have no shortage of ideas to write about but I have an ‘available time’ problem. I already have an idea for Novel #3, plus a subject I’d love to explore in a nonfiction book. I love writing essays that ponder life, and it would be nice to write more of those, too.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

A. We have bookcases in just about every room of the house. Books also reside on the coffee tables, inside wardrobes, and on and in our bedside tables. That’s not counting the boxes of favourite children’s books I couldn’t discard and are in storage in the hope they can be passed onto the next generation.

Last summer, I did a major culling of as many books as I could bear to part with—about half. I felt bad, but it’s better they’re in the hands of someone who’ll read them.

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Q. How are your books organised/arranged? (ie alphabetically, by theme or genre, using some sort of formal or informal filing system, by colour perhaps?

A. I organise my fiction by author and my non-fiction by subject. The subjects are ordered according to the way I ordered them on a bookshelf about twenty-four years ago, and because that seemed to work, I haven’t changed it since. The subjects seem to flow into the different stages of life—for example, personal development leads into books on marriage, which leads to books on parenting, and so forth. Then there’s my writing books—there’s a shelf full of favourites that I often refer to, and about two more shelves on top of that.

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. Fiction seems to predominate in my bookshelves and those of the kids. In the music room/library, it’s more non-fiction—books you read when you want to learn.

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Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. Bed. My husband not infrequently has to remove my specs, place the book on my bedside table and turn out my light because I fall asleep with it in my hands. I love falling asleep reading.

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Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?

A. Right now (*at the time of responding to these questions), I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s Hag-seed for book club, as well as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the book club my husband and I are in together, which also only has two members: him and me. I’m also reading a friend’s manuscript—this is the third or fourth time I’ve read it, so I’ve seen it through its various incarnations and I think, this time, it’s ready to go!

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

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A. Recently, I read and loved The Museum of Modern Art by Heather Rose. I loved the prose and the theme of art connecting people. I loved Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos for its story of redemption.

My favourite books ever are: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I think is about as close to the perfect book as you can get, Plainsong by Kent Haruf, which is funny and sad all in one, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.

From the classics, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles never fails to move me. I know D’Urberville is the antagonist but, personally, I despise Angel Clare for being a self-righteous hypocrite. I keep returning to The Great Gatsby for the prose and the power of the story—Daisy doesn’t deserve you, Jay.

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?

A. I’d keep the ones my kids have written because there are no other copies of those. And my Jane Austen boxed set, which was a present from my husband.

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Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. I’d love to sit down with Harper Lee and tell her how much I love Atticus Finch, his kindness and his wisdom. I’d also invite F. Scott Fitzgerald and ask him how he wrote such florid prose but made it sound so effortless. Then I’d tell him to let Gatsby know not to waste his time on Daisy. I’d have to have Thomas Hardy there, too. His books were ‘out there’ for the subjects he wrote about given the morality of the time.

All of these authors really understood people and human nature, so much that we still relate to their characters today. I’d love to pick their brain for even an ounce of their wisdom.

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2, 2 and 2: Maureen Eppen talks about Every Family Is Different

I’m delighted to be a guest on author Amanda Curtin’s literary blog series with a numerical theme, 2, 2 and 2. I hope you enjoy it — and that you find some time to enjoy reading other guest posts on the blog, as well as posts by Amanda about her books and her literary life.

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Maureen Eppen 1Maureen Eppen
Every Family is Different (Serenity Press)
illustrated by Veronica Rooke
CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK

I met the lovely Maureen Eppen some years ago when she invited me to Secret Harbour to talk to the First Edition Book Club, a group of passionate readers who have been meeting now for 14 years. They were erudite, engaged and insightful, and it was a pleasure to discuss Elemental with them.

Since then, Maureen’s path and mine have crossed many times and in different contexts, but it was only last year that I discovered that she was also hard at work on her own creative projects. Every Family is Different is the first to be published, and I’m delighted to feature it here.

First, a little more about Maureen:

Maureen Eppen has been a freelance journalist for more than 30 years and now works in corporate communications and marketing. She writes book reviews…

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