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INTERVIEW: Sarah Krasnostein

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

 

This week I'm very excited to welcome Sarah Krasnostein, author of The Trauma Cleaner, to the blog.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Pretty much! I've schlepped a notebook around with me since I was seven years old - recording dialogue, descriptions, ideas, observations, books I've read, books I want to read. The only real difference between now and then is that now I use the notes app on my phone. And my spelling has moderately improved.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

Well, I only have one book at the moment, but the process of writing that had much in common with writing my doctoral dissertation, and the long form pieces I'm writing currently. My impulse, coming from an academic background, is to ' do all my homework' - i.e., the research - and then write everything up neatly. But that type of perfectionism will stunt you because, with long works, the writing is the thinking. So I do plan where I want a piece to go, but I try to remain sufficiently open to what the material is telling me that I am able to restructure as I go.

Where do you write, and when?

For the past decade, I've written on a crappy Ikea particle board that rests on a crappy filing cabinet at either end. But I sit under a glorious and very long Anne Lamott quote which I printed out long ago and stuck above my computer. I'll set the first part out here in case it's of use to anyone else:

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is you will die anyway and that a whole lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it..."
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (1994)

As to when I write, I have a very young child. So whenever I get time to write, that's when I'll be writing!

What is your favourite part of writing?

Reading. I think we get trapped into thinking about writing as 'content' or 'output'. I certainly do. And when that happens I remind myself of Stephen King's advice - which I'll probably butcher here - but the essence was that if you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write.

What do you do when you get blocked?
See above. I read. Being inspired by the work I love reminds me why I write in the first place. I'm a lawyer and an academic by training, so I have the type of personality that wants to drill down harder into the task when I find Im not getting anywhere. But that's not how a creative process works, unfortunately, so I've had to learn to be looser. I'll get up from the desk and go read or walk, spend time with my family, do chores from the never-ending 'to do' list. When I take the pressure off and engage with the world, I find that connections in the material Im working with are easier to make, and that'll allow me to get back into it.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I love and fear this question. Ideally it would be, "Who are ten thousand of your favourite writers". In no particular order: Gay Talese, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Shirley Jackson, James Baldwin, WG Sebald, Susan Sheehan, Elizabeth Strout, Nicole Krauss, Mary Oliver, John Jeremiah Sullivan...

What do you consider to be good writing?

Control and the confidence and originality that comes from depth in feeling or scholarship. I'm always drawn to the ways those qualities are conveyed at the sentence level.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

At some point, you will want to stop. In fact, you'll find very good reasons to stop. That voice is a liar. Keep going.

You can read my review of The Trauma Cleaner here.


BOOK REVIEW: The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

Friday, August 10, 2018

 

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

A mesmerising literary novel about a lost man in search of connection - a meditation on love, art and commitment, set against the backdrop of one of the greatest art events in modern history, Marina Abramovic's The Artist is Present.

Arky Levin is a film composer in New York separated from his wife, who has asked him to keep one devastating promise. One day he finds his way to The Atrium at MOMA and sees Marina Abramovic in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do.

This dazzlingly original novel asks beguiling questions about the nature of art, life and love and finds a way to answer them.


My Thoughts:

I love art in all its forms, and had heard so many wonderful reviews of The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (which won the 2017 Stella Prize) that I had been wanting to read it for a long time.

However, I did not buy the book until after I interviewed Heather Rose for Word of Mouth TV earlier this year and was fascinated by the story of the book’s inspiration and long genesis.

The story is centred on the true-life art performance ‘The Artist is Present’, in which Serbian-born artist Marina Abramovic sits silently on a chair at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York for seventy-five days, without speaking or moving or showing any outward sign that she is alive. People visiting the museum have the chance to sit with her and look into her eyes, but are not permitted to speak or act in any way.

This act of silent connection proves extraordinarily moving and inspiring for many thousands of people, who queue up day after day to watch and participate. In all, 1,500 people would sit with Marina Abramovic and more than 850,000 people watched, some returning day after day after day (including Heather Rose who sat with the artist four times).

In the world of Heather Rose’s extraordinary, luminous novel, we met several imaginary people who are also drawn to watch. Among them are Arky Levin, a film composer separated from his wife, and Jane Miller, a widow who had once been a teacher. Both are struggling with loss and grief; both are drawn to Marina Abramovic’s installation for reasons they do not fully understand. They meet when Jane, annoyed by a stranger’s patronising remarks about modern art, turns to Arky and says, ‘I think art saves people all the time.’

I think art saves people too. I think it has saved me more than once. And so this is a book that resonated with me on so many levels.

Arky and Jane do not fall in love. Their lives touch only briefly, yet both are changed by their encounter, with each other and with ‘The Artist is Present’ installation. So too are the lives of others in the crowd, some of whome we meet only briefly. Without moving, without speaking, Marina Abramovic is an agent of revelation and transformation.

‘It is her metier to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration,’ Heather Rose writes of her.

Other voices who speak in this beautiful and beguiling novel are the ghost of Marina Abramovic’s mother, a fierce and unrelenting woman who had been a Serbian war hero, and an unnamed narrator who acts as a muse to Arky and other struggling artists.

‘Pain is the stone that art sharpens itself on time after time,’ the muse says at one point.

These elements of magical realism are interwoven so delicately and surely that they do not disrupt the narrative flow at all, but add intensity and pathos as well as a sense of wonder and amazement at the extraordinary way art and creativity can shape and succour the human psyche.

After I finished The Museum of Modern Art, I too was fascinated by Marina Abramovic and read or watched numerous articles and documentaries about her. I love a book that drives me to learn more.

It took Heather rose more than eleven years to craft this exquisitely written novel, a testament to the depth of her obsession and the dediction to her craft. It is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Quite possibly, one of the best book I’ve read ever.

If you like books about art, check out my review of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith.

I was lucky enough to interview Heather Rose for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.


INTERVIEW: Heather Rose

Friday, August 10, 2018

 

Today I welcome Heather Rose, author of The Museum of Modern Love, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Absolutely.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes!

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Tasmania and I live by the sea just two kilometres from my old family home. Mind you, I went around the world to arrive back here. I love beach walks, painting, meditating, reading, swimming, making cakes, time with my children and teaching writing. I also love solitude, kindness, sunshine and friendship.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
At the National Gallery of Victoria staring at a photograph.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
Not at all.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Yes. It’s curious how they show up with helpful metaphors at times.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
There are always astonishing serendipitous discoveries and that’s how I know I’m on the right path with a novel. I think of writing as psychic orienteering. I have to trust my instincts and the path appears. The Museum of Modern Love took eleven years – and the discoveries kept unfolding.

Where do you write, and when?
I write at home in a room overlooking the sea. I like to get to my desk at 9am and not finish until at least 3pm. But sometimes, if the day got away, I’ll start around 7pm and work til 1am. I try to write every day – even weekends. I don’t always succeed, but novels are long and even a little every day really helps.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The writing. Finding myself immersed in the characters and the plot for hours on end. Bliss. When I emerge it’s as if I have spent the day visiting friends in other places. It’s the ultimate time travel.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Make tea. Go for a walk. Meet a friend. Go to a movie. Read a great book. Have a nap. Take a break for a few days, or even a week. Work on something else. The next bit always comes. It’s just a matter of being patient and listening.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

I meditate every day. I read a lot. I love movies. I walk and swim too. I love escaping into nature on a beach or in a forest. (It’s easy in Tasmania!) I also procrasti-bake. Cooking is a great way for me to nurture ideas.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

A pot of tea, a jug of water, toast and marmalade and I’m away. Lighting a candle is also helpful on the long nights.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Such a painful question. So many favourites. Here’s 12 with apologies to all the omissions: Virginia Woolf. Haruki Murakami. Kazuo Ishiguro. Elizabeth Gilbert. Helen Garner. Elizabeth Strout. Cormac McCarthy. Toni Morrison. Edith Wharton. George R.R. Martin. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. George Eliot.

What do you consider to be good writing?
Writing that touches my heart, transports me to other worlds and awakens me to new ideas.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read excellent writing. Carry a notebook and pen. Write something every day. Repeat.

What are you working on now?
Novel #8. And a couple of non-fiction projects.

You can read my review of The Museum of Modern Love here.

BOOK REVIEW: White Houses by Amy Bloom

Friday, August 03, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Lorena Hickok meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential campaign. Having grown up worse than poor in South Dakota and reinvented herself as the most prominent woman reporter in America, "Hick," as she's known to her friends and admirers, is not quite instantly charmed by the idealistic, patrician Eleanor. But then, as her connection with the future first lady deepens into intimacy, what begins as a powerful passion matures into a lasting love, and a life that Hick never expected to have. She moves into the White House, where her status as "first friend" is an open secret, as are FDR's own lovers. After she takes a job in the Roosevelt administration, promoting and protecting both Roosevelts, she comes to know Franklin not only as a great president but as a complicated rival and an irresistible friend, capable of changing lives even after his death. Through it all, even as Hick's bond with Eleanor is tested by forces both extraordinary and common, and as she grows as a woman and a writer, she never loses sight of the love of her life.

From Washington, D.C. to Hyde Park, from a little white house on Long Island to an apartment on Manhattan's Washington Square, Amy Bloom's new novel moves elegantly through fascinating places and times, written in compelling prose and with emotional depth, wit, and acuity.


My Thoughts:

White Houses by Amy Bloom is a novel inspired by the true-life love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and her ‘first friend’, Lorena Hickok. I love books that tell the untold story of real women’s lives, and books which illuminate history in new and fascinating ways, and White Houses did both for me. I’ve not studied US history in any depth, and so the Roosevelts are just names to me. I had no sense of shock in learning that the wife of the 32nd President of the United States kept her lesbian lover in the White House. I felt only curiosity and a sense of wonderment that their love affair is not better known. I cannot imagine that happening today!

The novel is told from the point of view of Lorena Hickok, known as ‘Hick’ to her friends. The first woman to have her byline featured on the front page of the New York Times, Hick had grown up dirt-poor in South Dakota and dragged herself up through her own indomitable will and razor-sharp wit. She first met Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential campaign, and before long the two are going on holiday together and Hick has given up her career to move into the White House.

The book is not told in a linear fashion. It moves back and forth in time, much as a woman remembering her own life would tell it. Hick tells the story of her father’s abuse and abandonment, her first sexual experimentations while working in a circus, her love affairs and the difficulties of being a lesbian in 1930s America. Her voice is jaded, cynical and yet also lyrical:

‘Every women’s body is an intimate landscape. The hills, the valleys, the narrow ledges, the riverbanks, the sudden eruptions of soft or crinkling hair. Here are the plains, the fine dry slopes. Here are the woods, here is the smooth path to the only door I wish to walk through. Eleanor’s body is the landscape of my true home.’

The relationship between the two women was kept hidden for many years, but in 1979 the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library uncovered eighteen boxes of letters exchanged between Eleanor and Hick. During the thirty years they knew each other, the two women wrote nearly 4,000 letters to each other. Here is one excerpt:

Hick darling, Oh! how good it was to hear your voice, it was so inadequate to try & tell you what it meant, Jimmy was near & I couldn’t say ‘je t’aime et je t’adore’ as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you & repeating our little saying.

White Houses is only a slim book, but it delves deep into the interior lives of the two women, their heartaches and mistakes, their betrayals and failures. Hick is such a complex, difficult and vulnerable character, and her love for Eleanor is achingly real. A really fascinating read.

You might also be interested in my review of The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin.

I was lucky enough to interview Amy Bloom for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Amy Bloom

Friday, August 03, 2018

 
Photo by Elena Seibert 2017

This week we welcome Amy Bloom, author of White Houses, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
I am not much of a daydreamer, except when writing. Most of writing is daydreaming the actions and words of your characters.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. I wanted to be a professional reader (not an editor, just a reader.) when it became clear, that wasn't a thing, I gave up. I found my way back to writing in my mid-30s.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in New York City, NY and grew up in the suburbs--lovely and sometimes loathsome--right outside the city. Now, I live in what seems to be a transplanted, eccentric seaside English village, complete with people in pyjamas happily walking their corgis. I like to do pretty much what I get to do: garden, waste time, write, read, go out for pizza, see action films, chill with my family.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I was researching the 30s and 40s in America and kept stumbling over the Roosevelts, who so dominate that period in our country. This lead to Blanch Weisen Cook's great bio of Eleanor Roosevelt, which led me to the 3,000 letters between Mrs. Roosevelt and her lover and dear friend, Lorena Hickok, who actually lived IN the White House for all of their love affair and some years after. I thought: what an extraordinary love story and how hard people worked to hide it.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I hope for the best. Sometimes I have a map. Sometimes I follow it. My life is easier when I plan.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I love my dream life but it rarely features characters from my novels. My late parents and extended family show up in eveything from costume drama to Sondheim musicals.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

I felt deeply, that no love is wasted--which is a good way to find oneself feeling, in mid-life. But, no, no serendipity. Also, since coincidence doesn't matter much to me, I wasn't looking.

Where do you write, and when?
I write 5-6 days a week, at my desk, in my dinky office with a beautiful view of the harbor.

What is your favourite part of writing?
Like most other writers--after. I do appreciate, and cherish, the opportunity for revision.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Watch TV, read poetry, call my sister--but all while sitting near my desk. Cant give up entirely, even if it's going horribly.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I wish I could. Sometimes, one stares at a blank, unyielding wall. I do some laundry, cook dinner and keep staring, studying the cracks, while fooling myself that I'm not.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

I take a nap almost every day that I write. Maybe it's helpful--it's certainly a fact.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Auden, Austen, Kenyon, Hirshfield, Roberston Davies, Carol Shields, Val McDermid, Colwin, Wilde, Percival Everett.

What do you consider to be good writing?

Please see the above exemplars.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Welcome the chance to re-write that first, awful draft. Get that first awful draft written. Rememebr that no one cares about your writing except you; if you dont protect it and support it, no one will.

What are you working on now?
ARGH! Getting the research done for a novel and doing some TV work as well, without letting my right hand bump into my left hand.

You can read my review of White Houses here.

BOOK REVIEW: Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Sent by her family to work in a silk factory just prior to World War II, young Pei grows to womanhood, working fifteen-hour days and sending her pay to the family who abandoned her.

In Women of the Silk Gail Tsukiyama takes her readers back to rural China in 1926, where a group of women forge a sisterhood amidst the reeling machines that reverberate and clamor in a vast silk factory from dawn to dusk. Leading the first strike the village has ever seen, the young women use the strength of their ambition, dreams, and friendship to achieve the freedom they could never have hoped for on their own. Tsukiyama's graceful prose weaves the details of "the silk work" and Chinese village life into a story of courage and strength.


My Thoughts:

A slim volume of interconnected stories about young women working in a silk factory in China in the 1930s, Women of the Silk begins when a young girl, Pei, is sold by her father and goes to learn the craft of weaving silk. Heartbroken and alone, Pei eventually makes friends and settles into her new life. The work is hard and poorly paid, and most of Pei’s income is sent to her family. She finds a sisterhood of women, who all have their own stories of cruelty and loss to tell. The years pass, and Pei grows up. China is beginning to change, and the women of the silk change with it. They go on strike for better wages and working conditions, and some fall in love or die. Then the Japanese invade China in 1937, and Pei and her friends must try and escape.

A story as beautiful and delicate as the silk the girls spin, Gail Tsukiyama’s novel gives a glimpse into the lives of young women struggling to survive in a culture that does not value them. The result is slow and elegiac and unforgettable.

You might also be interested in my review of The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel.

I was lucky enough to interview Gail Tsukiyama for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Gail Tsukiyama

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

 

Today I welcome Gail Tsukiyama, author of Women of Silk, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
I don't believe you can be a writer without being a daydreamer...and a nightdreamer! When you're in the midst of writing a book, you're constantly between worlds, carrying the characters and their stories with you as you go through daily life.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes, I've always wanted to tell stories, but I didn't follow a direct route to writing novels. While I always wrote short stories as a young girl, my first impulse was to tell them through film. I wanted to be a filmmaker. Once in college, I quickly learned that the technical aspects of making films took away from the creative process of putting words on a page to create a story. I've always loved writing narrative descriptions that pushed a story forward, all the significant details that create a sense of place, tone, character. While you can do it visually and through dialogue in film, words on a page allows for even more breath and depth. Once I transferred to the English Department, I fell madly in love with poetry, and spent my undergraduate and graduate years writing poetry and honing my love of language. It still amazes me how so few words can say so much. Poetry provided a great foundation in learning to use language sparingly. It led to my writing more short stories and then progressing to writing novels.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in San Francisco, California and continue to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. My mother was Chinese from Hong Kong, and my father was Japanese from Hawai'i. I like to travel, spend time with family and friends, read, walk, work in the garden, and have a good glass of wine at the end of the day. I also run a nonprofit called, WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water. We do water projects and library and book projects in developing countries. It's a wonderful addition to my writing life that allows me to give back.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
Women of the Silk was my first novel and all I knew was that I wanted to write about the Chinese side of my culture. I was primarily raised in the Chinese culture. I didn't want to write about my family so I began to research. The flash of inspiration took me six months to find, but I knew I would write about these silk working women as soon as I read two lines about them in an autobiography of writer, Han Suyin. I was immediately intrigued that these Chinese women were able to live independent of family and marriage for roughly 100 years in a society based on the traditional bonds of family and marriage. I loved the way they were able to remake their lives to continue those same bonds within their own society. They were early feminists without even knowing it.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
A great deal of research has gone into all the novels I've written. Women of the Silk was especially difficult because at the time it was written, there was very little published information about them as a sub-culture. I almost gave up until I was referred to an essay written specifically about the silk workers published in a book of essays by women anthropologists in the 1940's. I was so fortunate to find it at a library in Berkeley. I don't plan extensively, if a novel is set in a particular place that I want to highlight, I usually begin researching from there. I research throughout the writing of my novels, which have been mostly set in either China and Japan. One of the most wonderful gifts of being a writer is discovering things along the way, not only about your story and characters but about yourself. That's why I plan just enough to get me started, allowing the characters and their stories to lead me forward and tell the rest of their story.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

As a first novel, I was just delighted I could actually write a novel!

Where do you write, and when?
I write at two different homes surrounded by books. One is closer to the city and the other in the country. I try to write during office hours, but find the most productive time for me is between 11:30 pm and 1:30 am when it's completely quiet and I'm not tempted to look at e-mails.

What is your favourite part of writing?
Seeing how the words come together on the page to become a world of its own. I'm always thrilled when I've written that right line that illuminates a character or moves the story forward in just the right way.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Instead of fighting it for too long, I usually move away from the writing. I clean house or watch a movie or work on another project or go for a walk. Getting away from the work for a bit always refreshes the thought process when I return to it.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read other writers who inspire. Movies work in the same way and the nonprofit work adds another kind of inspiration. I also have a group of writer friends who I get together with once a year for a writers' retreat. We write and talk about our work and all the challenges that come with it.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner, Geraldine Brooks, John Steinbeck, Louise Erdrich, E.Annie Proulx, Edwidge Danticat, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan and the list goes on...

What do you consider to be good writing?
When a writer intimately connects a reader emotionally to a character and story line.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

To always tell the truth of the story. To never give up the passion.

What are you working on now?
I'm working on a book set on the Big Island of Hawai'i in the 1930's.

You can read my review of Women of Silk here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Sunday, July 29, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who survived Auschwitz and eventually made their home in Australia. In that terrible place, Lale was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival—literally scratching numbers into his fellow victims' arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust. Lale used the infinitesimal freedom of movement that this position awarded him to exchange jewels and money taken from murdered Jews for food to keep others alive. If he had been caught, he would have been killed; many owed him their survival.

There have been many books about the Holocaust—and there will be many more. What makes this one so memorable is Lale Sokolov's incredible zest for life. He understood exactly what was in store for him and his fellow prisoners, and he was determined to survive—not just to survive but to leave the camp with his dignity and integrity intact, to live his life to the full. Terrible though this story is, it is also a story of hope and of courage. It is also—almost unbelievably—a love story. Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale—a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer—it was love at first sight, and he determined not only to survive himself but to ensure that Gita did, too. His story—their story—will make you weep, but you will also find it uplifting. It shows the very best of humanity in the very worst of circumstances.

Like many survivors, Lale and Gita told few people their story after the war. They eventually made their way to Australia, where they raised a son and had a successful life. But when Gita died, Lale felt he could no longer carry the burden of their past alone. He chose to tell his story.


My Thoughts:

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is inspired by the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who met and fell in love in Auschwitz.

Lale’s first sight of Gita was her thin pale arm, held out to him so he could tattoo her prisoner number upon it. She was No 36902. Lale was the camp’s tätowierer or tattooist, and every day he inscribed the camp’s dehumanising set of numbers upon the skin of his fellow inmates.

In time, Lale and Gita would escape the camp, somehow miraculously find each other, and marry and move to Australia, where Lale would tell his story to author Heather Morris. It is an astonishing saga of love, resistance and survival, and proof that the Holocaust still has many more stories to be heard.

Heather Morris originally wrote this book as a screenplay, and it shows. The writing is spare and blunt, with a colloquial tone that may be inspired by Lale’s own voice. The atrocities of Auschwitz are described with detachment, as if Lale’s mind has seen so many horrors it can no longer feel any pain. This emotional distance made it difficult for me to connect with the characters and the story as much as I wanted to; I did not feel the urgency of dramatic tension or wrenching of the heartstrings that I expected.

However, the simplicity and reserve of the narrative voice rings true. Many Holocaust survivors find their story difficult to tell, and language breaks down under such a heavy burden of memory.

And the book is as much about hope and courage and escape as it is about heartbreak and brutality and imprisonment. Lale and Gita Sokolov’s extraordinary story deserved to be told, and its message of love triumphing over cruelty is one that should never be forgotten.

You might also be interested in my review of The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht.

I was lucky enough to interview Heather Morris for the blog this week, you can read it here.

INTERVIEW: Heather Morris

Sunday, July 29, 2018




Today I welcome Heather Morris, Author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
My mother always called me a ‘loner’. The fact that I just wanted to get out of a house comprising 4 noisy brothers didn’t occur to her. But yes, I spent more time in what I perceived to be someone else’s head than my own. Living on a farm, when not in school (where I was definitely described by more than one teacher as being a daydreamer) I loved to walk around paddocks regardless of the weather and dream of far-away places where adventures could be had. My main source of reading was the Encyclopaedia Britannica which showed me a world of exotic amazing places and people so far removed from my existence.


Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No, not really. When my husband I had our first baby we were so poor, we both loved reading and until his little eyes could focus would read him the newspaper or whatever was available. I have a delightful photo of hubby reading the financial review to a 4 week old. Of course we always changed voices and emphasis putting on our big bad wolf voice when talking about government of the day. I digress. When the financial review was no longer doing it for the little fella we cut back where we could to buy him books and he was still too young to take to a library. I purchased cheap school exercise books, the ones designed for science with one side of the page lined the other blank. I took to writing a series of children’s stories, age appropriate, and my hubby attempted illustrations. Life got in the way, along with 2 siblings for said first born and it wasn’t until they, and I, were much older that I decided I NEEDED to write. Bit of light-bulb moment really. I just woke up one morning and announced I wanted to learn how to write screenplays. This is the medium The Tattooist of Auschwitz existed in for ten years.


Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in a small rural town in the North Island of New Zealand (Te Awamutu – only claim to fame – the Finn boys of Crowded House also came from there). I now live in Sherbrooke, in the forest, about 50km from Melbourne. Having quit the day job 8 months ago I find myself a full-time traveller / speaker and promoter of my book. And do I like to do it? I love doing it. I also love spending time with four small grandchildren. Always loved travelling now I get to combine it with telling my story. Nothing beats being with my family and friends, good food and good wine.


How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
Can’t call it a flash of inspiration. I was having a pre-Christmas coffee catch up with a friend who casually said to me she had a friend whose mother had just died and his father asked him to find someone he could tell A story to. She asked me would I like to meet him. I said yes.


Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Many people have said my meeting Lale Sokolov was serendipitous. In terms of discoveries in getting his story – every element of his story was a discovery. I’m embarrassed to admit how little I really knew about the Holocaust. If I have to name one thing, then learning that local Polish villagers came into Auschwitz / Birkenau every day to work; 9 -5, five days a week, knowing what they were building there, going home to their families, was a huge shock to me. I don’t know in retrospect why it should have been, but it was. I can now tell myself they were just trying to put food on the table and survive. Still!!


Who are ten of your favourite writers?
In no particular order: Paullina Simmons; Derek Hansen; Michael Connelly; Anita Shreve; Tom Clancy; Sara Paretsky; Bill Bryson; Minette Walters; my very talented daughter-in-law BP Gregory; two newcomers to watch out for Kim Sherwood and Angela Meyer.


What do you consider to be good writing?
Simple writing. Though having said that I loved Bitter Greens so much, and there was nothing simple about the style or structure of that story. Short sentences work for me; I actually pause at every full-stop, and most importantly believable characters. Transport me to whatever place and time you’re writing about and make me connect to your characters, good or bad. I only seem to find time to read right now in bed, so keep me awake please.


What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
It’s not original but – Research, research, research, throw away the research and now write. I do not adhere to X number of words per day / week, I’m not that organised. For me it was find my perfect writing time. I knew I was easily distracted, helped that I was a ‘night owl’ so writing in the evening and into the small hours where nothing and no-one could distract me was what worked. So I guess my advice would be to find what works for you, commit to it, start writing and don’t stop until you’ve knocked the bugger off.


What are you working on?
My next story is about a character from my book, 16 year old Cilka. Well I’ve signed the contract and taken the advance so I guess I can say I’m writing Cilka’s story. I think my publishers would like to see a bit more content to be convinced. The really good thing about this story is my research is going to take me to parts of the old Soviet Union, San Francisco and Slovakia.


You can read my review of The Tattooist of Auschwitz here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Whole Bright Year by Debra Oswald

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In the summer of 1976 it's picking season on an Australian stone-fruit orchard run by Celia, a hard-working woman in her early forties. Years ago, when her husband was killed as a bystander in an armed robbery, Celia left the city and brought her newborn daughter Zoe to this farm for a secure life. Now sixteen, Zoe is a passionate, intelligent girl, chafing against her mother's protectiveness, yearning to find intensity and a bit of danger.

Barging into this world as itinerant fruit-pickers come a desperate brother and sister from Sydney. The hard-bitten Sheena has kidnapped her wild, ebullient eighteen-year-old brother Kieran and dragged him out west, away from trouble in the city. Kieran and Zoe are drawn to each other the instant they meet, sparking excitement, worry, lust, trouble . . .

How do we protect people we love? How do we bear watching them go out into the perilous world with no guarantee of safety or happiness? What bargains do people make with darkness in order to survive? From the creator of Offspring and author of Useful, The Whole Bright Year is a gripping, wry and tender novel about how holding on too tightly can cost us what we love.


My Thoughts:

The gorgeous title and cover of this novel are instantly enticing … and then I open the book and find a quote from Homer referencing my favourite Greek myth, the story of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, whose daughter Persephone is ravished away by Hades, the god of the underworld. At once I wonder if Debra Oswald plans to allude to the myth in a book that I know (thanks to the blurb) is set in Australia in 1976. I love books that drawn on myth and folklore in bold and unexpected ways, and so I settle in to read with a heightened sense of anticipation and interest.

I was ten in 1976 (hard to believe, I hope!), and so the setting immediately evokes for me the long hot summers of my childhood – paddle-pops, and vinyl seats that burn your bare thighs, and pop music blaring from the radio. Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam is still licking his wounds from the Dismissal, and ABBA was ruling the pop charts with ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Money Money Money’. Such an interesting time to set a novel! The 1970s are not distant enough to be considered historical fiction (the Historical Novel Society defines the genre as books written at least fifty years after the events described) and yet the immense changes to technology and society in the last forty-two years make 1976 seem a very different time. This slippage between historical and contemporary fiction makes for a really interesting dynamic. There are no mobile phones and an answering machine is new and baffling technology, for instance, which makes it so much easier for a teenage girl to disappear without trace.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Celia is a single mother raising her daughter Zoe alone (Celia means ‘heavenly’ and Zoe means ‘life’, a subtle hint to the metafictive role played by these characters). Celia’s husband was murdered in front of her when she was pregnant, and so she has retreated to a peach farm where she works hard and tries not to worry too much about Zoe – curious and radiant – growing up so fast.

In the summer of 1976, Zoe is sixteen. It’s picking season time, which means it’s scorching hot and the peaches are ripe for the plucking (metaphor intended). Trouble with her usual pickers means that Celia needs help, and so she hires two tattooed and pierced runaways from the city to help her bring in the fruit before it spoils. There is Sheena, edgy and foul-mouthed, and her eighteen-year-old brother Kieran, brimming over with life and energy. It is inevitable that Zoe and Kieran are drawn to each other, despite Celia’s worry and warnings. And, given Celia’s tragic past, it is inevitable that she tries to drive a wedge between the two young lovers. What she does not expect is for Zoe to disappear. And so begins the mother’s desperate search for her daughter.

When Persephone vanishes, literally from the face of the earth, Demeter was so overwhelmed with grief and fear that leaves began to shrivel and fall, and frost touched the world for the first time. It is the story of the first winter. And when Persephone is found, imprisoned in Hades’ underworld, her mother’s joy means that life is restored to the frozen world and spring blooms.

Celia’s search for her daughter, in all the dark places of Sydney’s underbelly, is analogous to this search by the goddess of the harvest. It is every mother’s nightmare, and certainly one I share. I could identify with both Zoe – rebellious, intelligent, and wanting to experience as much of life as possible – and her mother Celia, hurt by life, all too aware of its dangers, wanting only to protect her daughter but inadvertently driving her away.

I don’t want to say much more, because the plot of The Whole Bright Year is driven by a sense of ever-tightening suspense. It begins slowly, languorously, with gorgeous descriptions of peaches and summer and young love, but almost imperceptibly the screw of dramatic tension is tightened until I couldn’t bear to put the book down. And, by the end, I was all choked up. A really powerful book, written with warmth, tenderness and humour that will stay in my memory a long time.


You might also be interested in my review of Sixty Seconds by Jesse Blackadder.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.



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