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.

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.

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.

looking up/looking down

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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Shelf Aware — Fiona McIntosh

Fiona McIntosh

When my book club read Fiona MicIntosh’s historical novel The Lavender Keeper last year, our host Ronnie — who chose the book — created a French Resistance theme for our meeting, and we were all given false papers and new identities, to reflect the book’s theme and World War II setting. I have no doubt that this skilfully crafted, emotionally charged story will prove to be the most popular read by the club in 2017, and I expect several club members will be inspired to seek other titles by Fiona based on their reaction to the story of Luc and Lisette. It was certainly easy to understand why Fiona has become one of Australia’s most popular and highly regarded storytellers, and her latest novel, The Tea Gardens (released by Penguin in October 2017), will likely attract a new wave of fans.

How to...But there’s more to Fiona than historical fiction. She has also garnered a strong fan base for her adult fantasy series, and her name figures prominently among book industry accolades with each new title. Her non-fiction guide, How to Write Your Blockbuster, has led many, many would-be writers on the path toward finished manuscripts, and her regular masterclasses are entertaining, practical, informative and effective.

Fiona is married with twins and, according to her website, lives in South Australia, roams the world to research her stories and does her best writing from Tasmania. On her website, Fiona also says she “happily considers eating fine chocolate and drinking only excellent coffee” as her hobbies. She also loves winter boots… and Paris.

I recommend you grab a cup of excellent coffee (or tea), and put your own boots up as you read this fascinating and delightful Shelf Aware guest post from Fiona McIntosh.

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

A. Because it’s how I earn my income I’m near enough corporate about my approach to writing, although this does not mean in my disciplined manner that there’s any compromise to creativity or imagination. In fact, because I do approach my work in such a business-like way there’s a sense of security connected to the uninterrupted, ritualistic hours at the keyboard. That security empowers me to lose myself and let the story romp free, allowing the characters to take charge. I’m part of a professional team that puts out a big earning book each year so we’re working towards one goal, one deadline, one northerly headed sales graph.

The Tea Gardens is my 35th book and I’ve written each one of them to a daily word count. I developed this model more than 17 years ago when I was juggling early motherhood, early marriage and our own business that could easily have demanded 24/7 from the two of us. But there were twin sons to raise, lives to be enjoyed, friends and family to be involved with, and a book I wanted to write. So, I needed to compartmentalise my life. The best way I could do that was to impose strict times on when I wrote and how much I could get done in each session. It was the best motivator I could have dreamt up and now it’s the creed I live by for my storytelling. It always delivers and I never have to become anxious about deadlines. I only write four days per week and for about 16 weeks. I never work on Fridays – they’re for me. And I never write on weekends – they’re for family. In this way I create a happy work/life/writing balance for myself and no one else suffers for my pursuits.

I feel my professional life is an iceberg. The physical writing of the stories is one-tenth. The other nine–tenths are given over to reading up on my subjects, researching for physical locations and hunting down the main story. There’s lots of overseas travel in my life, promotion, marketing, administration, meeting with my publisher, books tours that can straddle three months and soak up a lot of time and headspace and energy. I also host a series of masterclasses – there are several varieties and I host four to five of those big events per year, each with their own demands, admin, dramas, preparation…and help around 50 new writers get onto their pathway towards their polished draft and submission. Plus, I do talks all over the country that requires preparation, I also have to be across social media and doing this sort of thing…writing articles, so my days fill fast.

The Tea Gardens

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

The Tea Gardens exploits the aspect of my writing that works hard to connect the reader to the world of the story… its era, landscape, political times. The story is in a setting of awe and majesty when it takes the reader up into the foothills of the Himalaya. I certainly became speechless at its beauty and hope with all of my heart that I convey that through my character Isla Fenwick. I play with the familiar theme that I do in most of my historical fiction about modern young women of their era, pushing back against society’s norms, and following their path often at the expense of their relationships, be it family or friends.

This story follows Isla, a doctor of the 1930s, who despite accepting that marriage is inevitable is keen to first practice medicine at the coalface around the slums of Calcutta. It’s a story about independence and the realisation that there is an emotional price for being motivated and self-affirmed but also that no matter how strong you may be, we are all vulnerable when it comes to the heart. I do NOT write Romance but I do like to deliver fiction that has romantic themes, settings, destinations, eras to escape with. I like the fashion and lifestyle of my characters especially in the interwar years when this story is set.

I aim to armchair travel my readers and with this story I believe they’ll enjoy the contrast between life in Calcutta, Darjeeling and London…and I’m confident they’ll be fascinated by a couple of the key settings of Brighton Pier in UK and the Brackenridge tea plantation in the foothills of the Himalaya.

It’s always a juggle for a historical fiction writer to balance out the reader’s enrichment of the main topic – in this case, tea, tropical medicine and India –making sure that they feel their knowledge has been enhanced through the reading experience but at no cost to their imaginative pleasure and sigh of satisfaction when they close the book for the final time.

It’s a heart-wrenching tale, I feel, with several characters to admire and one to helplessly enjoy loathing 🙂

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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. I’m at a bit of sixes and sevens with my workplace at the moment because we have recently moved into an old farmhouse and it is still being fixed up. Presently, I’m working in my new country kitchen. I sit at the kitchen bench in a corner nook I designed for the purpose because I knew it would be a year or two before I got the 150 year old barn I dream of writing from renovated to a point that it would become a happy writing space. So I sit to the right of the sink, beneath glass cupboards filled with some of my favourite china and also beneath two large shelves filled with recipe books. I am a cook when I’m not writing and I read cookery books like beloved novels, so this is pleasurable spot for me.

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We have bookcases all around our living space in our home back in Adelaide but I am still unpacking boxes that have been archived with books for years and discovering precious reads that I can finally get back up onto a sweep of bookshelves.

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In my old office – a tiny room at the top of the stairs that overlooked the rooftops of neighbours – I used to have small towers of books in various categories. It drove my husband mad because I am so messy but those unruly looking towers were ordered chaos in my mind. I can look over at a tower and know the book I want to refer to. I will no doubt achieve my book towers again once I move into the old barn that begins renovations this summer.

For now, we are slowly filling shelves that flank a fireplace in a room designed for quiet time; cosy in winter around the fire or light filled in summer kept cool by thick stone walls and perfect for curling up in an armchair to read. No TV in this room!

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Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. Presently, as I unpack books I’ve got one side of the room and its sweep of shelves for non-fiction so that’s my research and historical books. The other side will slowly fill with fiction when I find my boxes that are haphazardly stored in a huge shed. Only the books I have loved will get a spot. There is never place on my shelves for ‘filler books’. I give loads away as a result.

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. For a fiction writer I realise it’s odd that non-fiction dominates but I acquire oodles of reference material to research my historical novels. My favourite playground is 1910 to the end of WWII so I mostly have titles that refer to the two world wars but they’re broken down into everything from how people lived in, to fashion of, a particular era. I might have highly specific books e.g. about lavender growing or about vintage perfumes, I have books just on Savile Row for instance and plenty of places during the two wars e.g. Paris during the Occupation. I have half a shelf devoted just to India in the previous century, tea plantations and tropical medicine of the first half of the 20th century. But if you looked at the fiction side you’d probably see thrillers, crime fiction, psychological tales, historical and fantasy.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. I must admit that I do like reading on an aeroplane. This is forced quiet time for me; I am not someone who easily remains still. I like to be achieving something. But, aeroplanes are notorious for conversations with people you’ll unlikely meet again and a book dissuades the awkward social chit chat. I get very little down time and almost no leisure reading time so when I’m forced to be still I love to read and don’t want interruptions. I have a list of books I’ve lined up that I look forward to getting to in these moments. I travel a great deal so I do all my leisure reading in airports and on aeroplanes. So, I tend to be away from home when I do my leisure reading and I am usually at home when I do my research reading and that is always done in bed at the end of the day.

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?

I’m on the last third of a novel that I’m writing so all the research reading for that book is done. This means my work reading is for the 2019 novel and right now the books by my bed are teaching me about Amsterdam and Brussels in the early years of the 19th century.

Leisure-wise, I have just finished a book called The Secret Scripture; I read it because a cousin from the UK wrote to me and begged me to read it, citing it as his favourite novel. He isn’t wrong; it’s a powerful tale of betrayal and treachery set in the previous century when women could be sent off to lunatic asylums for little more than a pointed finger from the local priest. A heart-wrenching story. It’s recently become a film but the book is haunting.

I’ve also just downloaded The Handmaid’s Tale which I’ve been meaning to read for years and now I must with all the ballyhoo surrounding the television series that I have deliberately not watched until I read the book. As I am gearing up to go on tour this means lots of waiting around in airports and journeys in planes as we crisscross the country, so I can get some leisure reading done. Can’t wait. I am sweating on the release of the new Terry Hayes book. After I Am Pilgrim, I’m hooked.

I’ve always got a Bill Bryson on the go. He amuses me like few other writers can. I know people always enquire as to what I’m laughing at while I read (on a plane!); it’s one of those things, isn’t it? When someone’s laughing with a book, you can’t help but want to know which book it is.

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

A. My favourite book is Enduring Love by Ian McEwan and I gobble up all of his books because his writing fascinates me and shows me what a long way I have to go.

A recent hit for me was I Am Pilgrim – it was a surprise and I want more from Terry Hayes.

If I’m honest there is a pile of fantasy books that have nourished my reading over the last three decades and given that I began my writing career as a fantasy novelist with books that still sell well all over the world and I haven’t written an epic fantasy for almost a decade, I can’t ignore the pleasure that the books of George R R Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay and Robin Hobb delivered regularly into my life. They are all masters of their craft. The original two books that began with Cross Stitch, or these days known as Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon were unputdownable storytelling.

Some of my classic reads would include The Thorn Birds, Kane and Abel, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Power of One, Rebecca, Jane Eyre. When I want to feel a little frightened I do read Stephen King (he’s so clever) or John Connolly (who masquerades as a crime writer but is a terrific psychological thriller writer).

I love thrillers and there’s a book called The Analyst by John Katzenbach that I recall getting lost with, another called The Eight, and while it’s a bit dated now as a novel, given today’s technology, the original Bourne Identity with Ludlum was a stand-out favourite when I was a late teen and it gave me the impetus to travel the world.

I adore the work of Sharon Penman. Anything she writes brings the deep past back to life for me in vivid detail and in a way that the pages turn themselves. I’d read anything of hers.

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. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
Birdsong by Sebastien Faulks.

I know that’s four but I think I’d risk going back into the burning house for the fourth! Each of these titles have had a lasting emotional effect on me and they are books I could read over and again to learn my craft from as much as to get lost and captivated by.

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. Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice
Valentin from Tigana
Tyrion from Game of Thrones
Llewellyn from Here Be Dragons

I’m sorry, I couldn’t leave out the fourth! I’d serve them my latest afternoon tea recipes I’m enjoying…spinach and cheese pasties with spinach from our patch and homemade buttery flaky pastry, black amarena cherry and almond teacake that I bake in a slab, with pots of steaming Darjeeling tea. Must be Darjeeling at the moment because that’s where my research was done for The Tea Gardens and I stayed on a plantation house to learn about tea… it’s a highly romantic destination for anyone who is intrigued by the days of the British Raj. Darjeeling is the emperor of teas to boot for its sparkling, bright taste of exceptional quality long leaves.

I’d likely talk to these delicious gentlemen about their roles in literature; each is a lonely, often misunderstood and yet pivotal character, who is helplessly endearing to the reader despite their flaws. Each suffers pride, a sense of entitlement because of their wealthy status and each over the course of their stories finds heroic power in their ultimate role to – if I can explain it this way – help the underdog within the story to come into their power.

Find out more about Fiona McIntosh on her website or Facebook page.

Shelf Aware — Kate Forsyth

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Best-selling Australian author Kate Forsyth.

With her meticulously researched stories, captivating characters, intricate plots and a touch of magical fantasy, Kate Forsyth’s rich, evocative novels have made her one of the best-selling and most-beloved of contemporary Australian authors. Her historical novels Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl have fairytale connections, and her children’s series The Chain of Charms is steeped in fantasy and has won numerous awards.

Kate recently released Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women — a collection of feminist fairytales, retold from the originals, with exquisite photographic artwork by Lorena Carrington — through those brave women at Serenity Press, and it is already garnering significant positive reviews. I anticipated that her responses to my Shelf Aware questions would be fascinating — and I was right. For this first guest blog post of 2018, I hope you’ll sit back, relax and enjoy learning more about the latest works, and favourite authors, of Kate Forsyth. And wait until you see her book shelves!

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

A. I’m a spinner of stories. Some are immense and complex, like a tapestry, and some are delicate as cobwebs, but all are spun from words. Most days I’m hard at work on the big projects, which are usually historical novels for adults, but I always like to have a few small things to play with on the side – poems, essays, picture books and collections of stories like Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women.

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

A. This year I will have had three books published. The first is Beauty in Thorns, a reimagining of Sleeping Beauty set among the passions and tragedies of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists and writers in Victorian England, and told from the point-of-view of the wives and mistresses and muses of the famous male artists.

The second is The Silver Well, a collection of short stories centred around a sacred spring in the small village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, and co-authored with my dear friend Kim Wilkins. The stories move backwards in time from the modern-day to the time of the Roman invasion, and each feature a wish made at the well and their unexpected results.

The third is Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Yong Women, a collection of feminist fairy tales, retold by me and illustrated by Lorena Carrington. Our aim was to find seven little-known fairy tales which featured clever courageous female heroes who would be strong role models for our daughters and other girls on the cusp of womanhood.

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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. It might take less time to list the rooms that do not contain books!

I have a library that has several thousand books in it, plus a fireplace and comfortable couches to curl up in to read. I also have floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in my study, containing many of my reference books.

My collection of old children’s books is on a dresser in my front hall, and all my cookbooks and gardening books are in the living room. Children’s books published after the 1960s are on a bookshelf at the top of the stairs, plus each of my three children have bookcases in their rooms displaying their favourite books.

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Books to be read, on a shelf in Kate’s bedroom.

I have a bookcase in my bedroom which shelves all the books I have not yet read (I buy books faster than I can read them!) Once they’ve been read they get shelved in the appropriate place.

Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. My fiction books are divided into genre i.e. classics, contemporary, crime, fantasy, historical fiction, and romance, and then alphabetically by author’s name within that genre. My children’s books are divided into classic (ie published before I was born) and contemporary, and then alphabetically by author’s name. My non-fiction books are divided into genre i.e. poetry, biography & literary criticism, fairy tale & folklore, and history. Then every non-fiction genre is arranged alphabetically by author’s name, except for history which is arranged alphabetically by country i.e. Australia, Britain, France, Germany, and then chronologically. I have more than 6,000 books and I like to put my hand on whatever book I need straightaway!

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. In fiction, I have a lot of books in the crime, fantasy and historical genres, and a lot less in the contemporary. In non-fiction, most of the books are biographies, memoirs, academic treatises into folklore, fairy tale, and literature, and historical non-fiction about times and places in which I have set books.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. It depends on the season and the time of day. In the morning, I love to read in bed, looking out at my beautiful view of the harbour and the ocean. I have a chair in my study where I sit and read research books, and in the evenings I like to either sit by the fire in the library or in the sitting room. I also love to read in the bath at night, and in bed before I go to sleep – and on a glorious day I sometimes take a book out into the garden. I guess all reading spots are happy spots!

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’m reading The Night Watch by Sarah Waters and Captivated: J.M. Barrie, the du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Neverland by Piers Dudgeon (I always have a fiction & a non-fiction book going at the same time. I normally read a few chapters of the non-fiction, then a novel, and then a few more chapters of the non-fiction).

I’m a big fan of Sarah Waters and had not yet had a chance to read The Night Watch so I grabbed it when I saw it in a bookshop. I’m loving it so far. I ordered Captivated online, as I’ve been re-reading all of Daphne du Maurier’s books in recent months and I’ve always been interested in the story of J.M. Barrie’s strange relationship with the du Maurier children. Piers Dudgeon’s account of it is absolutely fascinating and I’m racing through it.

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

A. This is my least favourite question! I read so much and admire so many authors in so many genres, and hate having to choose one over another. I’ve actually got a list on my website with dozens of names on it.

But, since you insist, my favourite authors include Geraldine Brooks, C.J. Sansom, Sarah Waters, Tracy Chevalier, Sarah Dunant, Philippa Gregory, Michael Robotham, Georgette Heyer, Juliet Marillier, Kate Morton, Kate Quinn, Emma Donoghue, Mary Stewart, Daphne du Maurier, Hannah Kent, Kimberley Freeman, Jesse Blackadder, Eowyn Ivey, Garth Nix and Rosamund Lupton.

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 try and save my diaries and early hand-written novels as they are irreplaceable. I’ve been writing a diary since I was 11 years old and there are about 60 volumes of it, so I’m not really meeting your criteria – but I’d save as many as I could carry.

Bronte Sisters

Kate would enjoy meeting the Bronte sisters.

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 think I’d like to meet the Bronte sisters. I’d serve them tea in fine bone china cups and the most delicate finger sandwiches and cakes, and we’d talk about love and death and poetry and writing until the sun had gone down, and then we’d move to champagne and hors d’oeuvres, and finally on to a fine brandy by the fire and they would share all their secrets with me but I would promise to never tell …

Kate Forsyth and Lorena Carrington will be at the Perth Festival Writers Week to talk about their fairytale collection Vasilisa the Wise and More Tales of Brave Young Women. You can learn more about the Writers Week program here.

You can find out more about Kate Forsyth on the following links:

Website: www.kateforsyth.com.au  Facebook: @kateforsythauthor Twitter: @KateForsyth Instagram: Kate_Forsyth_

Shelf Aware — Monique Mulligan

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Before I got to know author and publisher Monique Mulligan I used to admire her from afar, and I was very much in awe of her energy, enthusiasm and her seemingly effortless achievements. She had recently worked at a newspaper where I had worked earlier in my career; she was developing a loyal and sizeable following for her bookish blog, Write Note Reviews; and she was the driving force behind an excellent literary event series called Stories on Stage, at the Koorliny Arts Centre, in my old home town of Kwinana, Western Australia. To top off those achievements, Monique also was (and still is) an exceptional cook, capable of conjuring all sorts of delicious delicacies for those Stories on Stage events.

We’d met each other a few times, through mutual friends, but it wasn’t until she tentatively shared with me a beautifully crafted short story inspired by a minor character in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that I realised I had encountered a “kindred spirit” — all the way down to the fact that Anne of Green Gables remained one of her favourite books since childhood, just as it has remained one of mine.

Countless bookish chats, writing critique sessions, author events and cups of tea (served in elegant fine bone china) later, we remain firm friends, able to finish each other’s sentences, tune into one another’s moods and insecurities, and support one another. Apart from offering encouragement, hope and inspiration to me, Monique has also provided a means for me to make one of my most cherished literary dreams come true. Monique and her gorgeous business partner, Karen McDermott, of Serenity Press, will publish my first children’s picture book early next year, and I couldn’t be happier.

I have wanted to feature Monique on my Shelf Aware blog series for quite some time, and with Christmas looming, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to let Monique tell you a little bit about her two most recent books — one about a flatulent dragon, and the other a charming romantic novella. In this guest post, Monique also provides an insight into some of her favourite books and authors, and shares some photos of her brimming book shelves.

My favourite fictional heroine Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, made this observation: “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think.” She was right. And I’d like to introduce you to one of mine…

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

A. Gee, hit me with the hard question straight away! Basically, I wear many hats (it’s lucky I like hats). Three days a week I do marketing and publicity for an arts centre (where I also run a Stories on Stage event); two days a week I am a publisher/editor/marketer/publicist/admin for Serenity Press, which I co-own.

Somewhere in there I squeeze on my author hat (usually around 6.15am and on weekends), which involves a combination of writing (my novel and blog posts), marketing, admin, creating and running workshops as booked … and so on.

I have to fit this all in around my family, which has its own challenges at times, like ‘Should I stay home with my family or go to that writing event?’ and ‘Should I bake a cake for my family or write?’ Because I love all things writing and reading so much, I have to make an effort to not always talk about it at home!

 

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

A. I had two rather different book releases in August – a children’s picture book called Fergus the Farting Dragon, and a short romance called Under Her Spell. The romance was trumped by the dragon, I have to say – kids and their parents have loved it and people sometimes stop me in the street and ask if I am the “farting dragon lady”. True story.

I’m currently working on my second novel with the working title “Wildflower”. Set in the 1970s, it’s a coming of age story: a young girl learns how far families will go to protect each other over an endless, simmering summer. I love the research part because it’s bringing up memories from my childhood growing up in Sydney. I’m juggling the writing with all my other roles, so it’s case of getting up early for 45 minutes’ writing and then putting in a big effort on Sundays.

Monique

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 just recently moved our biggest bookshelf into our new guest room (these start to appear once your kids move out). It never really fit into the room we had it in, but there was nowhere else.

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I also have bookshelves in the room I use for a Serenity Press office, in my living room and in the family room (where I do my Sunday writing, perched on a lounge that looks out towards the garden).

And there’s a pile of library books in the living room, as well as on my bedside table … and wherever else I leave them as I wander through the house. I have a habit of leaving them in the last place I sat to read.

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Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. My books are mostly arranged by genre, and books by the same author are grouped together. The big bookshelf in the spare room has mostly contemporary/crime/thriller fiction, while the smaller ones have my classics and historical fiction. Over in my new-old writing desk, there are books about writing and non-fiction fairy tale books.

But it’s genre-according-to-Monique, because some authors write books across different genres, so their books are grouped all together.

This works most of the time.

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Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. I think my collection is pretty balanced – when I was reviewing books, the amount of general fiction outweighed everything else, but now that my reviewing has all but stopped, that’s eased back. I’ve donated a lot of books to readers who come to my Stories on Stage events, as well as op shops, school libraries and other places – I was getting about thirty new books a month at one stage!

Now I’m buying more books than I get to review and lately I’ve been building my collection of fairy tale books, both fiction and non-fiction.

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Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. Bed. I read every night before I go to sleep, propped up in bed with pillows arranged just so. In winter I wear fingerless gloves because my hands get so cold. I have the cutest ones at the moment – hand-knitted with owls in the pattern.

My second favourite place is my deep red antique chaise longue. It’s a classy version of a window seat because I can recline against it like an elegant woman, and watch cars and people walking dogs go by (although I do wish the view were better).

 

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 often have several books on the go because I’m motivated very much by mood when I read. On my bedside table, I currently have The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang (I found this gorgeous edition while on holidays), Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales by Valerie Paradiz, and The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth (I’m re-reading this one with different eyes, thanks to all the other reading I’ve been doing.)

I’m almost finished Clever Maids – it’s an engaging and interesting account of how the Brothers Grimm fairy tales came to be. It lacks the dryness that a lot of non-fiction books can have – it has a conversational tone that appeals to me. The Blue Fairy Book is a collection of fairy tales from a range of sources, and is one of twelve books in the complete set. As I’m reading, I’m finding more and more stories to be familiar, but there are still a few new ones. Among my favourites is the Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”.

 

 

 

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

A. That’s almost like asking who is my favourite child! I love Kate Forsyth’s historical fiction based on fairy tales and I’m just starting to get into Margo Lanagan’s work (Tender Morsels blew me away). I love Daphne Du Maurier’s writing as well, Hannah Kent, Jane Talbot, … nope, they’re all I can single out. I’m a fan of too many writers!

Among my favourite books are The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (oh, that sense of duty brought me to tears) and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this).

 

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. Hmmm … knowing my luck they would all be in different rooms. And so hard to choose, but still it’s always good to have a plan … I would have to choose my very old editions of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, and my copy of The Blue Fairy Book.

 

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. Anne from Anne of Green Gables, because I have always known from the bottom of my heart that we would be kindred spirits; Loki from Norse mythology because he cracks me up; and the nameless girl in Rebecca so I could ask her loads and loads of questions, like ‘Was your relationship and life after Manderley fulfilling?’ and ‘Did you ever doubt Maxim’s side of the story?’

What would we eat? I love to cook, so there would probably be a feast – perhaps a little wine (cordial for Anne, the non-alcoholic sort of course), some wonderful produce from WA’s southwest such as cheese and olives, and cake. Which one? Maybe my chocolate banana sour cream cake? It would depend on my mood!

 

Find out more about Monique on her website, Facebook author page, Twitter and Instagram, or visit the Serenity Press website to find out how to buy copies of her books.