Shelf Aware — Lorena Carrington


Photographic illustrator Lorena Carrington.

Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Womenillustrated by Lorena Carringtonwritten by Kate Forsyth, and published by my dear friends at Serenity Press, is a collection of re-told fairy tales in which young women save the day, in one way or another. It is inspiring, liberating, beautifully crafted and a must-have for tweenage and teenage girls, and women of all ages. It was also the second best-selling book at this year’s Perth Writers’ Week, and Kate, Lorena and Serenity co-director Monique Mulligan were among the most popular guests at the festival. So positive was the reception for Vasilisa that the trio of Kate, Lorena and Serenity will again join forces for the release of their recently announced second collaboration, The Buried Moon and Other Tales of Bright Young Women. 


When Vasilisa was released, I interviewed Kate Forsyth for Shelf Aware, and I’ve been saving this interview with the exceptionally talented Lorena Carrington, waiting for the announcement of the second collection of fairy tales. I remain in awe of Lorena’s gift for creating beautiful, evocative and captivating images using found objects. If you look closely at some of the images in Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women you might also spot images of daughters of Kate and Lorena. Each time I pick up my copy of the book, I find myself drawn to Lorena’s striking imagery, which perfectly complements Kate’s rich storytelling, and I’m definitely looking forward to buying a copy of The Buried Moon, when it is released.

For now, I am thoroughly enjoying reading through Lorena’s responses to my Shelf Aware questions, and gazing at the photographs of her enviable home library. She is one of my favourite Shelf Aware guests so far, for many reasons, and I’m confident you’ll also find much to delight you in her words and pictures.

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

A. I’m a photographic illustrator. People often assume my work is made with ink or paint, but I actually photograph many separate elements; sticks, leaves, bones, people, and digitally montage them together to create the final image. My work mostly revolves around fairy tales, but I do work with other themes and genres. It’s wonderful fun, and I feel very lucky to have found my niche. I do write as well, but for now I’m focusing on book illustration.

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

A. Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women came out in December with the wonderful Serenity Press. Kate Forsyth has retold seven fairy tales of girls and young women who take the active role in their stories. It’s a project we’ve been working on together since 2015, so it’s wonderful to see it come to fruition! I have several more books lined up with Serenity Press, including a sequel to Vasilisa, and I’m also working on a collection of short stories with a local Castlemaine writer. I recently pinned up a three year planner next to my computer. It goes up to 2020. Shouldn’t we have flying cars by then?!


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 the wonderful luxury of a dedicated library in our house. It’s part of the main living area, but it’s tucked away so feels like its own little room. I love it. And other book places? Oh let me count them… There’s the floor to ceiling bookcase in each of our daughters’ rooms, the other floor to ceiling shelves for cookbooks in the kitchen, the overflowing mantlepiece in our bedroom, the stack(s) of books next to our couches, the smaller piles that congregate on our dining table, the back seat of the car, sometimes the bathroom…. I could go on!


Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. I’m afraid we rely on a combination of utter chaos, and whatever fits where… At least my fairy tale books are all together on a couple of shelves. And after years of staring at the shelves, I (mostly, vaguely) know where everything is. I do often fantasise about taking everything off the shelves and ordering them according to genre, or at least fiction/non-fiction, but so far I haven’t had anything I’ve wanted to avoid doing quite that much. Maybe I should start a PhD… or doing our taxes by myself.

Poetics of VisionQ. What sorts of books predominate?

A. We have a pretty wide range, but fiction and art books tend to dominate. My partner is a Visual Arts academic (now happily out of the system) so the art books tend to lean toward the theoretical and philosophical: The Poetics of Vision, The Photographer’s Eye, that sort of thing. We have a lovely big collection of middle grade and YA fiction thanks to our 12 and 14 year old daughters, many of which I’ve bought for ‘them’, aka myself. I collect fiction, mostly by Australian women writers nowadays; partly because I know a lot of them through Twitter (or bumping into them at the supermarket — Castlemaine is pretty author-heavy), and partly because that’s just what I’m interested in reading. And of course my collection of books on fairy tales just keeps growing. It’s a lovely balance of story collections, theory, and a lot of related contemporary fiction, which I love.

I won’t tell you about 200+ cookbooks.


Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. Hands down, the couch. Specifically, in Winter with the fire going, and a cup of tea or red wine by my side. We have a bay window that looks out over our wild back garden. If I’m lucky I’ll catch a glimpse of the chooks wandering past and the dog rolling around in the sun.

Alternatively, and this is very specific, the trampoline – but only if it’s mild and sunny after a stretch of cold gloomy days, and little clouds are scudding across a brilliant blue sky, and the kids aren’t home! It’s not worth risking a Tigger-like bouncing.

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

A. I’m afraid I’m a serial book starter, and a dreadfully unfaithful one at that. Right now (at time of interview) I’ve got several on the go. The following are a few at the top of the pile. A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter, which is a fantastically dark collection of fairy tales that I’m loving and savouring. Mirror, Mirror, which is another collection, this time essays on fairy tales by women writers. If Women Rose Rooted, by Sharon Blackie, which is a manifesto at its core: a call for women to reach back to their roots (of landscape and story) to regain power in their contemporary lives. I tend to dip into non-fiction, which I’ve done before with Sharon’s book, but this time I’m consciously reading it from cover to cover. I’m about to start illustrating a collection of her stories, so I’m trying to get a good feel for her rhythm and style, the imagery she uses, and what’s important to her.

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

A. Now that’s not fair! But I’ll tell you what I’ve enjoyed recently. Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns is a stunning novel about the women of the Pre-Rapahelite art movement. That’s my ‘total immersion’ pick for this year. I loved it. Hannah Kent’s The Good People was another huge standout for me. It’s incredible. When it comes to short stories, Cate Kennedy, Kelly Link and Carmel Bird cannot be beat. I’ve been reading a lot of fairy tale based fiction, and my list of favourites keeps getting longer: Kate Forsyth, Margo Lanagan, Jane Talbot, Angela Slatter, Neil Gaiman, Danielle Wood, Katherine Arden… and probably many more that I’ll wish I’d thought of as soon as I send this to you.

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 good thing about books is that they’re mostly replaceable. But the first thing I would grab is a copy of Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book that my mother gifted me, complete with a presentation box that she made. No doubt I’d throw in Fearless Girls, Wise Women and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales from Around the World, which had a lot to do with the direction I’ve taken with my work. And the last is maybe an incongruous pick… Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour. It was a childhood favourite, and I still look for tiny mice in the corners of books. It also inspired a few hidden secrets in the illustrations of Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women


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 might be one of the few people who have actually done it! When Kate Forsyth came to visit from Sydney late last year, I sent dinner invitations around to a few local authors I admire. To my utter delight, we had Kate Forsyth, Carmel Bird, Cate Kennedy, Susan Green, Martine Murray and Juliet O’Conor all drinking champagne around our dining table! We ate huge vegetarian salads, spanakopita, and a dense Middle Eastern carob molasses and aniseed cake. Everyone brought a bottle of wine, and we chatted late into the evening – about books, writing, art, our creative lives… It was a wonderful night.

Find out more about Lorena Carrington on her website, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram pages, and read more about Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women at its dedicated website here.

Books on Tour — Anne Donnelly

With all the recent news about dramatic changes to the Chinese Government’s policy on receiving recycled goods, and the decision by major Australian retail outlets to ban single-use plastic bags, it seems fitting that my latest Books on Tour guest has written, illustrated and self-published a picture book that introduces the concepts of reducing waste, recycling and environmental sustainability.

Anne Donnelly’s book, Ori’s Clean-Up, reveals its vital messages through the eponymous Ori the Octopus, a character certain to inspire and delight young readers and help them learn that if we join together to reduce, reuse and recycle, we can undo some of the damage already done to our environment, and minimise the impact of waste on the world and its wildlife. The book has been endorsed by the folk at Clean Up Australia.

As part of the Books on Tour blog series, Anne has answered my Shelf Aware questions, and shared some photos of her book shelves at home, along with details of the books that have special meaning to her.

You can follow the rest of the Ori’s Clean-Up Books on Tour series via this link, with Anne — and Ori — making an appearance on several bookish blogs.

Q. How would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?
A. A labour of love, a creative outlet and a passion as for most authors, illustrators and creators.

Q. What can you tell us about your latest writing project/book release?
A. My latest book release is a hardcover 32-page picture book entitled Ori’s Clean-Up. It introduces concepts such as recycling, re-using, using fabric bags instead of plastic, composting and giving things away instead of throwing them out. It has been endorsed by Clean Up Australia due to its clear environmental message.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?
A. Books are everywhere at home. We are a family of four readers. The two offices and my two kids’ bedrooms have significant book shelf space, but there are pretty much books everywhere, and magazines and papers.

Q. How are your books organised/arranged?
A. Our books are only casually organised. Most of the children’s books are in the kids’ rooms, while textbooks and adult fiction are in the other two main book areas. We’re always using them so they are in and out and we go through them regularly and update.

Q. What sorts of books predominate?
A. Children’s fiction (picture books the most) and reference books predominate. Then adult fiction (high proportion science fiction) and adult non-fiction biographies /autobiographies, cookbooks etc.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.
A. In the winter, in bed with the electric blanket on. Otherwise on the lounge.

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 am reading two Terry Pratchett books. One is a compilation of short stories and the other is a Disk World novel that I am enjoying immensely.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?
A. Terry Pratchett is my favourite author. He is so clever in the way he pokes fun at us all, truly the best satirical reflective works. But I did go through a phase of reading lots of biographies, autobiographies and general such as A Very Short History of the World.

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. Tough one. The Pratchett Portfolio by Paul Kidby (limited edition collectors I believe), What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey and maybe my folder with all my favourite recipes of all time.

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. Winston Churchill – I imagine he would like tea and scones. I would ask him how he honestly felt about not being re-elected after he did the toughest job in the world. Moist Von Lipwig (Disk World character) – a sausage in a bun (Disk World joke). I would plead with him to teach me how to mould people to your way of thinking. And…maybe…future me when I am a famous author (ha!) – I would love Cristoli biscuits with tea. I would ask myself what the secret of unlocking my big break was!

You can find out more about Anne Donnelly, Ori’s Clean-Up and other Ori the Octopus books here.

More details of the Books on Tour blog series are available here, and you can learn more about its organisers from Just Write for Kids here.

Author interview — Alli Sinclair

Australian author Alli Sinclair’s latest novel Burning Fields (Harlequin) provides insight into the role played by Australian women on the land during World War II, and their struggles to readjust to societal expectations once their brothers, husbands, lovers or fathers returned from the battlefields. It also highlights the challenges faced by foreigners attempting to find a place in post-war Australia, and the resentment they faced from people whose lives had been irrevocably changed by the conflict, both personally and as a nation. Of course, readers of Alli’s other novels will be expecting a gentle romance to unfold between the pages of the story, and they won’t be disappointed.

Alli was a guest on my Shelf Aware blog series last year, when she released Beneath the Parisian Skies, and I was delighted to meet her in person when she visited Western Australia on a promotional tour for that novel — after having developed an online friendship with her that encompassed our shared interest in US country punk / folk outfit the Violent Femmes. I’m also delighted to have been asked to interview her about Burning Fields, and I hope you’ll enjoy learning a bit more about this compassionate, thought-provoking and captivating story.

ME: What led you to set this new novel in Northern Queensland and Palermo, Sicily, in the period after World War II?

AS: I wanted to write about post-war because it was a huge time of transition for everyone, with returned servicemen trying to find a way to adapt to being back home after their traumatic experiences abroad, and women trying to find a way to return to the role of homemaker after experiencing independence working for the war effort.

Also, immigrants were trying to find a way to fit in to a country that was so very foreign to them and there was resistance from people already living here. From the second Burning Fields came to me I knew northern Queensland was the perfect setting because it is such a beautiful, unique part of the world.

Also, during the war, Queensland had a real fear of being bombed and people had to live with that on a daily basis. So even though the story takes place in a time of peace, the locals are still wary about foreigners, especially nationalities that were fighting against Australia for part of the war. I decided to make Tomas Sicilian because many significant events happened in Sicily during the war and I wanted to weave these into the main story.

ME: You manage to conjure a convincing sense of time and place in this book (and your others). Were you able to spend any time in northern Queensland and/or Sicily while researching or writing the book and, if so, what you can you tell me about your experiences there?

AS: Northern Queensland is one of my favourite places and it was a joy to be able to research the history of this region. Standing in the sugarcane fields, it was easy to imagine Rosie and Tomas having deep conversations and learning more about each other. The sights, smells and atmosphere of a town set in this region are a combination of many towns I visited whilst researching and my own recreational visits throughout the years. When I write, it’s as if a movie is unfolding before me, so the descriptions of places in the story are exactly as I imagine it in my mind and what I’ve seen on my own visits to northern Queensland.

ME: Can you tell me a little bit about the sort of research you did for this book?

AS: I’m a researcher by nature so, as with all my other books, I happily delved into research and came up with some amazing facts that I was able to include in Burning Fields. One of the things I have discovered since becoming a writer is that people are usually very happy to give their expertise or talk about their experiences to help add authenticity to a story. For example, the Cairns Historical Centre, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, James Cook University, Museo Italiano, sugarcane farmers and Sicilian immigrants have all helped with my research for Burning Fields and I am very grateful for their time and passion for my story.

ME: How did the process of writing this novel differ from writing your previous novels?

AS: This was the first time an idea for a book came to me fully formed. Normally I have to chip away, taking weeks to come up with a storyline but when I sat down to write the outline for Burning Fields, the words poured onto the page. It was as if the story had been inside me, just waiting for the right moment to appear. I felt I knew my characters really well, even when it was just at the concept stage. Burning Fields was a lovely surprise as the writing process wasn’t as painful for me as it normally is! I don’t particularly like writing first drafts, I much prefer second and third drafts where I add layers to the stories and characters but this time around, I had a strong feel for the story and characters before I’d even started writing. I was very lucky!

ME: You tackle some big issues in Burning Fields, most notably racism/xenophobia and the sense of displacement experienced by many women who adopted non-traditional roles during the war but were forced to return to their former lifestyle in the post-war era. What were some of the challenges associated with incorporating these issues in what is essentially a love story?

AS: I like to write stories with multiple layers, especially ones that delve into the social issues of the era I’m writing about. Not only does it bring authenticity to the story, it can inspire conversation about the differences between then and now. With the racism and sexism that is woven into Burning Fields, it highlights how much, or in some cases how little, things have changed, and my wish is for this to spark conversations with fellow readers, friends and their relatives about what we can do to one day have a society that is equal for all.

I look at the love story as not just about the relationship between Rosie and Tomas, it’s also about their beliefs and experiences and their relationships with the people around them. That’s what helps shape how they are with each other and within themselves and it’s what helps them grow. No one ever comes to a relationship without baggage or hopes for the future, so I embraced the kind of experiences and wishes people from this era would have gone through, and it was reflected in my characters and their individual journeys.

ME: What were some of the main challenges you faced while writing Burning Fields?

AS: I was lucky to find people who were able to recall their experiences on sugarcane farms or war-torn Italy from seventy years ago, so the research wasn’t too hard, although the subject matter at times was quite challenging. Racism and sexism are topics that get me very heated and I sometimes found myself yelling at certain characters and their deplorable behaviour!

ME: And what did you enjoy most about writing the story of Rosie and Tomas?

AS: I really enjoyed writing the scenes where they did their “walk and talk” through the beautiful countryside as they got to know each other. They come from two very different worlds, so it was lovely to see them peeling away their protective armour and allowing the other in to discover who they really are. As I wrote the story, I felt like I was getting to know them at the same time they got to know each other. It was a lovely experience.

ME: Although you depict incidences of racism in the story, you also incorporate scenes in which people from diverse backgrounds mix and mingle in harmony. What do you think most Australians feel about multiculturalism in 2018 compared with how they felt about it in 1948, when your story is set?

AS: As much as I want to say that Australia is free of racism these days, that’s not the case. I truly hope one day that will happen and we can all get along and respect and embrace each other’s differences. Even though I still think we have a long way to go before racism is eradicated, I look at my children and their friends and their unwavering acceptance of people from all different backgrounds and it gives me hope that we are closer to eliminating racism than we were 70 years ago. I’m not sure if racism can ever be one hundred per cent removed, but it doesn’t stop me from hoping and working with others to help that happen.

My hope is that books like Burning Fields will spark conversations amongst our friends and family, our children, our grandparents, and we can learn from our ancestor’s mistake and find a way to make a better present and future for all.

ME: How did you cope with writing some of the confronting, violent scenes in this novel? Are you able to separate yourself from the fiction, or do you find it difficult to distance yourself from the plight of your characters when they face what are essentially horrific situations?

AS: It’s not uncommon for my hubby or one of my kids to come into my office and find me crying over a scene. I do get heavily involved with my characters and I tend to write instinctually and know when a character does or says something that is or isn’t true to who they are. The violent scenes were hard, especially with my lovely older Italian man as he was so fragile and confused and the language barrier made it difficult for him to stand up to the young thugs. Sometimes after a scene I need to step away and take a long walk or have a stiff drink!

ME: Your heroine Rosie’s relationship with her best friend Kitty helps her through some tough times. In what ways are your own female friendships important to you?

AS: Kitty and Rosie are very much like the type of female friendships I have. They have a long history with each other and have no qualms about calling their friend out on something if need be. Their friendship is more like sisters (except with less fighting!). My own female friendships are extremely important to me and I value them greatly. I have friends in different circles—writer friends, school mums, long-time friends, travel friends—and the one thing we all have in common is that we share a bond and understanding that even though life may get busy, we’re always there for each other and whenever we do catch up, it’s just like we’d seen each other yesterday.

ME: You have a lot of faithful readers here in Australia and further afield. What do some of your personal and online interactions with your readers mean to you?

AS: They mean everything! I love nothing more than hearing from readers and it’s one of my favourite parts of writing. If the characters and stories I create entertain and enrich, then it inspires me to create more and it means I’ve done my job well. I had one reader contact me after she’d read Under the Spanish Stars and told me that after she’d finished reading the book, she was inspired to follow her dreams, just like my heroine. This reader had always wanted to write a book and she’s now done so (and even attended a couple of workshops I’ve run!). I’m so proud of her and I’m so pleased that my books can have such a marked impact on people.

ME: Finally, what can you tell us about your next novel… (no pressure!)?

AS: Ha! I can’t tell you the title as my publisher and I are still deciding! The novel has been written (yay!) and is set in 1994 northern Queensland (the same town in Burning Fields) and also 1952 Hollywood. There’s intrigue, romance, and plenty of secrets that weave between the two storylines. I’m really excited about this story and look forward to seeing it published next year!

Burning Fields, by Alli Sinclair, is published by Harlequin through HarperCollins Publishers, rrp $29.99. I received an advanced review copy from the publisher.

Find out more about Alli on her website, Facebook page or Twitter.

Find out about more new Harlequin releases at HarperCollins Publishers.

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




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:


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




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:


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.

Book shelf 2

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.

Book shelf 1

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.