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INTERVIEW: Geraldine Brooks

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Geraldine Brooks is one of my absolute favourite writers and so I am absolutely delighted that she agreed to an interview with me. She is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novels Year of Wonders, March, People of the Book, and the non-fiction books Nine Parts of Desire, and Foreign Correspondence. Born in Australia, she lives in Martha’s Vineyard, in the US.

 

Are you a daydreamer too? 
When I was a child I lived in daydreams.  These days my work is a kind of extended reverie so outside of that, I find I'm attracted to tactile, in the moment things, like horse riding and gardening where your focus tends to be very much on what you are doing now, and now, and now...
 
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A journalist, yes, from the time I was eight years old.  The ambition to be a novelist came on me in midlife, unexpectedly.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book? 

For Caleb's Crossing, it was a notation on a map, marking the birthplace of the first Native American graduate of Harvard, in 1665.  I was immediately engaged--how had this come about?

 

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
Not at all, really.  I have the shards of historical fact, in as much as they are known.  But I proceed from there instinctively, feeling my way day by day.
 
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
I wish my dreams were interesting enough.  Sadly, they're not. Recently I hit a nadir of banality.  I dreamed I was reading the paper.

Where do you write, and when? 
I have a study, but these days I find I move around a lot, especially if no one else is home.  If the weather's nice, I sit in a big old cane chair under the apple tree and write.  If it's cold and grim outside, I sit at the kitchen table with a wood fire burning.   I work when the kids are at school.  Simple as that.

What is your favourite part of writing? 
The surprise as you uncover the story.  The freedom--the fact that it is entirely up to you, no excuses, but no answering the bell, either.
 
What do you do when you get blocked? 
I remind myself that there's no hairdressers' block, or panel beaters' block, or radiologists' block, and I just get on with it.
 
How do you keep your well of inspiration full? 
That thankfully hasn't been a problem.  There are so many good stories in the world.  People are infinitely interesting.
 

Who are ten of your favourite writers? 
Tim Winton, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Eva (Sallis) Hornung, Helen Garner, Andre Makine, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Yeats, Shakespeare, Mary Renault

 
What do you consider to be good writing?
The kind you feel on your skin.
 
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too? 
Take some good books, put them in your backpack and go, as far as you can afford to.  Get a job in an unfamiliar place.   If it doesn't work out, quit and get another one. Learn another language.  Write something every day.  You have to write badly before you write well, so don't be discouraged.
 
What are you working on now?  
A novel set in Iron Age Israel.

Geraldine Brooks website

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Interview with Susan Vreeland

MOVIE REVIEW: Brave

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Yesterday I took my three children to see the new Pixar movie, 'Brave'.

Of course I loved it.

It could have been based on one of my own books - the flame-haired heroine, the Scottish setting, the theme of shapeshifting and transformation, and the message that one must have courage.

'Brave' tells the story of the Princess Merida, the red-haired rebellious daughter of King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). Given a bow as a little girl by her father, Merida would rather be off practising her archery in the forest and galloping about on her horse than learning how to be a princess.  

The true story begins when Merida learns it is time she beame betrothed  to the son of one of the chieftains. She is determined to defy convention, but her act of wilfulness sets in chain a string of events that result in the cursing of her family. Merida must  find a way to lift the curse before it is too late.

The things I liked best about this movie:

* Of course, the importance of being brave, a song I sing all the time.

* the foregrounding of the relationship betwee Merida and her mother, and how realistic the tension between them was, and also their deep love for each other. Few movies (or books for that matter) show a positive mother-daughter relationship and this was one movie I was really glad to be sharing with my own daughter.

* the way the movie showed the tension between individual freedom and family duty, a tension that many women (and, I am sure, men) must feel. I loved the wild, free, bold spirit of Merida, but I also felt the need for her to learn that we are not islands, but all joined together in a complex web of social relationships, and that tearing apart that web can cause deep and lasting damage

* the gorgeous Scottish landscape

* her unruly red hair 

* the importance, in the movie, of storytelling as a way of acquiring wisdom. This is encapsulated in the lines, which I wish I had written myself, 'Legends are lessons. They ring with truth.'   

As far as the craft of storytelling goes, 'Brave' shows very clearly my mantra that the true narrative arc is always the transformation of the protagonist - their growth and change over the course of the story.

COMPETITION: Are you Australia's biggest Harry Potter fan? Say so & win!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bloomsbury is celebrating the 15th anniversary of the publication of the first Harry Potter novel with a competition to find Australia and New Zealand's biggest fan.

The competition is going to be fierce. 

Harry Potter novels have now sold approximately 450 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 73 languages. 


You need to write a letter of no more than 50 words explaining why you love Harry Potter. Bloomsbury is looking for the most creative, clever and entertaining reasons and entrants are encouraged to draw, doodle and make their letters as elaborate as possible (without crossing the 50 word limit).
 
You can only enter by visiting a local bookshop and posting your letter in the specially designed postboxes. Over 400 bookshops have already signed up to take part. The competition will run from Tuesday 26th June to Tuesday 31st July 2012 , with the winner and runners up  announced on Saturday 1st September.


For more details, check out their website at: http://www.kateforsyth.com.au/Admin/www.bloomsburyanz.com/harrypottercompetition

Winners will receive a leather-bound, signed, dedicated and numbered 15th Anniversary Edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The limited number 15th Anniversary Editions are exclusive to the competition and cannot be purchased elsewhere. 

Winners will also receive a Harry Potter Special Edition Boxed Set (value AU$470/NZ$550) and a Harry Potter signature edition audio box (value AU$800/NZ$990). 

There will be one winner in Australia and one winner in New Zealand. 

Three Runners Up will receive a leather-bound, signed, dedicated and numbered 15th anniversary edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Notes:
 
Entry to the competition is only available through bookshops. Terms and conditions apply, and no purchase is necessary. Other international competitions will be running in other territories. 
 
Bloomsbury will be unable to return any entries. All entries become the property of Bloomsbury Publishing Pty Ltd; by participating in the competition, entrants consent to the use and publication of their names and contributions by Bloomsbury.
 
 
 
 

INTERVIEW: With Susan Vreeland

Monday, June 25, 2012

Interview with Susan Vreeland

 

I first fell in love with Susan Vreeland’s work when I read Girl in Hyacinth Blue which was just the most extraordinary book. It told the story of a painting, going backwards from contemporary times to the day the painting was created. Each chapter is complete in itself, making it a collection of interlinked short stories, each detailing the impact the painting made upon an individual. Some of the stories are hauntingly sad, others filled with small pleasures and preoccupations. I absolutely loved the book, and so whenever a new Susan Vreeland book came out, I would buy it at once. This is a rare occurrence. Since Girl in Hyacinth Blue was published in 1999, Susan Vreeland has published only five new books. All of them have a preoccupation with art and artists, and all of them bring a place and a time vividly to life.

Just briefly, here are a round-up of her other books:

The Passion of Artemisia (2002) which tells the life story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman painter in the Renaissance. She was raped at 18 by her father's colleague and had to endure a trial in which she was tortured to see if she was telling the truth. She went on to paint some extraordinary paintings, and to become the only woman ever to be accepted into the Florence salon. Brilliant!

The Forest Lover (2004) is told from the point of view of the Canadian Impressionist painter Emily Carr. I had never heard of Emily Carr before I read this book. Afterwards I was googling her paintings and could not believe that this feisty, strong-willed, pig-headed and vulnerable woman was not more widely known. Her paintings are extraordinary - bold, unconventional and filled with light and mystery.

Life Studies (2005) is a collection of short stories revealing the inner and outer lives of well-known Impressionistic painters. Luminous and entrancing.

Luncheon of the Boating Party (2007) looks at Renoir's famous creation of the painting of the same name. The cover shows a replica of the painting – I was constantly turning the pages to stare at the cover and identify each character – and I marvel at her skill at turning this summer in Renoir's life into a compelling page-turner.

Finally, her new book Clara and Mr Tiffany (2012) which looks at the unknown woman designer of the famous Tiffany leadlight lightshades. It’s another piece of forgotten art history illuminated and brought to life. I loved it:

Here are Susan’s answers to my questions:

 Are you a daydreamer too?
I sometimes work myself into a quiet mental space whereby the next chapter of a novel will come to me, or the next thing a character says or does.

 Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. The urge started in 1984 when I was forty.

 How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
By seeing Clara's gorgeous lamps in an exhibit at the New York Historical Society in 2007, the exhibit that introduced her to the world.

 How extensively do you plan your novels?
I make a list of chapters or scenes, but this list constantly is altered as I proceed.

 Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
My own dreams? No, but I like to have my characters dream.

 Where do you write, and when?
I have a beautiful office with wood built-ins. From my desk, I can look through the glass French doors onto a patio. When? Morning, noon, and night, my dear.

 What is your favourite part of writing?
Rewriting.

 What do you do when you get blocked?
Change activities, while keeping the chapter that comes next floating in my thoughts.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I remind myself to listen to the one divine Mind of the universe which is offering me ideas and directing me. I deeply feel gratitude to this source for what I've just written.

 Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
I try to do some reading of a spiritual nature in the morning before I start work.

 Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Virginia Woolf
Shakespeare
Robert Frost
Sena Jeter Naslund
Stephen Dunn, poet
Emily Dickinson
Emily Carr, Canadian painter
Harper Lee

What do you consider to be good writing? 
A delicate touch of imagery, a compelling story, a handful of themes that resonate currently even though the work may take place ages ago, an appealing voice, an occasional surprise.

 What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read, read, read, keep a journal of favorite sentences or passages arranged by topic. Readers can email me for my list of topics.

 What are you working on now?
LISETTE'S LIST, a novel taking place in Provence, France, of two generations who own a small collection of paintings by Pissarro, Cézanne, Picasso, and Chagall, and what happens to their lives and the paintings during and after World War II.

A link to Susan Vreeland's website describing how she came to write Clara and Mr Tiffany:

 Susan Vreeland's website

You may also like:

My review of 'Clara and Mr Tiffany' 

My review of 'Vienna Waltz' by Teresa Grant

My Midwinter Feast

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Midwinter Solstice
Today is the midwinter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, and I always like to celebrate by cooking a special meal for the family. This is what I plan to cook this year: 

Midwinter Feast
Roast beef & mushrooms
Roast potatoes, onions, carrots and pumpkin 
Green beans & peas


(Photo by John Paul Urizan)

For Pudding:
Apple & rhubarb crumble with cream

(I like to cook warm-coloured vegetables like pumpkin or rhubarb to remind us of the return of summer)

Midwinter Wish
The whole family will eat by candlelight, and then, whoever wants to, will write a wish for the coming year on a piece of paper and burn the paper in the candle flame. Simple!

REVIEW: 'Clara and Mr Tiffany' by Susan Vreeland

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Title: Clara and Mr Tiffany
Author: Susan Vreeland 
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 432 
My stars: 4/5 stars 

The Blurb:
Against the unforgettable backdrop of New York near the turn of the twentieth century, from the Gilded Age world of formal balls and opera to the immigrant poverty of the Lower East Side, bestselling author Susan Vreeland again breathes life into a work of art in this extraordinary novel, which brings a woman once lost in the shadows into vivid color. 

It’s 1893, and at the Chicago World's Fair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows, which he hopes will honor his family business and earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women's division. Publicly unrecognized by Tiffany, Clara conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which he is long remembered. 

Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman, which ultimately force her to protest against the company she has worked so hard to cultivate. She also yearns for love and companionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany, who enforces to a strict policy: he does not hire married women, and any who do marry while under his employ must resign immediately. Eventually, like many women, Clara must decide what makes her happiest--the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart. 

My Feelings:
I love Susan Vreeland’s books. She is interested in art and poetry and history, all the things which I love too. Her books always feel like a journey of discovery for me, illuminating the forgotten life of some brilliant, creative, unknown woman. Her latest book is called Clara and Mr Tiffany, and it brings to life Clara Driscoll, the woman behind the beautiful and exotic stained glass lamps that the House of Tiffany produced just before the turn of the century. The Mr Tiffany in this case is the son of the famous Mr Tiffany of the well-known aquamarine box. He was an extraordinary character too, and the relationship between him and Clara is quite fascinating. He made it a rule that none of the women artists working for him were permitted to marry, so that Clara was constantly having to choose between her art and love.  I really loved this book, and look forward to Ms Vreeland’s next wonderful creation. 



A Rapunzel poem by Adele Geras

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Adele Geras, a UK writer whose work I admire greatly, sent me this beautiful Rapunzel poem. I just wish I could have included it as an epigraph in Bitter Greens!

WHITE TOWER

          There were stairs
               on the way up.
               I am sure of it.
 
               I can see the wall.
               Beyond the wall
               there must be something,
               but I cannot say
               exactly what it is.
 
               There was a door
               on the way in.
               I am sure of it,
 
               but thorn trees have grown
               as quick as weeds
               and covered it.
 
               The stairs have melted.
               Your footsteps, as you left,
               turned them to wax,
               which has blocked the stairwell
               and set in every crevice.
 
               You have made the tower
               your particular candle.
               Presently,
               my hair will flare to gold.
 
               There were other places
               before this room.
               I am sure of it.
 

'Rapunzel' drawing by Isobel Lilian Gloag


Adele Geras has written a fresh and inventive retake on Rapunzel called The Tower Room, which is set in a 1960s English girls’ school. The story draws upon the key motifs of the fairytale - the tower, illicit love, an angry mother-figure - while still telling a compelling coming-of-age story. 

Adele Geras's website



'Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe' by Sandra Gullard

Friday, March 16, 2012

Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe by Sandra Gullard

This is the second book in Sandra Gullard’s trilogy about the Empress Josephine, one of the most fascinating women in history.

Told in first person, in diary form, the books has an immediacy which brings the character of Mrs Napoleon Bonaparte vividly to life. I think it helps to know the story well; I’ve read biographies of Napoleon and Josephine before and am studying the period, and so find it intriguing to have the story told in such a fresh and engaging way. However, if you are interested in knowing more about the period, these books may well be a good place to start.

Sandra Gullar's website

BOOK REVIEW: 'Vienna Waltz' by Teresa Grant

Monday, March 12, 2012

Vienna Waltz by Teresa Grant

Vienna Waltz is a very enjoyable murder mystery set during the Vienna Congress of 1814.

It has a fascinating mix of true historical figures, such as the Russian Czar and Prince Metternich, and imaginary characters such as our heroine, Suzanne Rannoch, who has a rather shady past. With lots of descriptions of gorgeous clothes, diplomats dancing at glittering balls, and skulduggery in dark, stinking alleyways, the setting is vivid and believable, and the mystery itself an intriguing puzzle.

Teresa Grant's Blog

INTERVIEW: Margo Lanagan

Friday, February 17, 2012

I first read Margo Lanagan a few years ago, when Garth Nix pressed a copy of her short story collection Black Juice upon me at a writer’s conference. ‘You must read this,’ he said.

‘But I really don’t like short stories,’ I said.

‘You’ll like these,’ he answered. And he was right. One of the stories in particular really haunted me – ‘Singing My Sister Down’ was a strange, dark, heartbreaking and yet beautiful story which recounts the last hours in the life of a young woman condemned to death by drowning in a tar pool. We don’t know where or when the story is set, and we only gradually learn some of the reason why. What is striking about the story is the language, which was so unlike anything else I had ever read I was mesmerised. Margo Lanagan’s voice was bold, inventive, and filled with mystery.

I loved it.

So did the rest of the world. Black Juice ended up being a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, winning two World Fantasy Awards, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, a Golden Aurealis Award, and a Bram Stoker Award nomination.

Phew!

So when I heard a few years later that Margo had written a novel, I was keen to read it. My interest sharpened when I learned that it was a retelling of the ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ fairy tale. You all know how much I love fairy tale retellings!

I finally read her novel Tender Morsels last year (about three years after it came out) and this is how I reviewed it:

This is a truly extraordinary book, and one that lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards. The language is astonishingly good – bold, original, unexpected – and the story itself takes all kinds of surprising directions ... It’s only occasionally that I finish a book with a real sense of awe, but this book delivered me that. If you haven’t read it yet, read it now. Then let’s talk about it. I’m dying to talk to someone about it!

Tender Morsels was a controversial book, dealing as it did with incest, rape, and revenge, and I certainly found some of the scenes hard to read. What I loved most about the book was the firecracker language, and that sense of strangeness and mystery that Margo seems to do so well. It went on to win a World Fantasy Award too, and was named a Michael L. Printz Honor Book as well.

Now Margo has a new book out and I could hardly wait to get my greedy little hands on it. It’s about selkies, I was informed. I love selkies! If you don’t all know how much I love selkies, well, you should be able to guess.

Sea Hearts is wonderful, in all senses of the word. It’s a dark, moody, storm-wracked book of love, longing, desire, and wickedness. Its central character, Misskaella the sea-witch, is one of the most powerful fictive creations I’ve read in quite some time. Her story - and that of the selkies and the men who covet them – is heartbreaking in its sadness, yet also so hauntingly beautiful, so filled with the sweeping rhythm of the sea, and pierced here and there with shafts of light, that the lingering feeling is one of awe and wonderment.

The blogosphere has been abuzz with the book, and so I’m very glad that Margo took some time out to answer my questions:

Are you a daydreamer too?

Yes, daydreaming is very important for idea development. It's very easy to become self-conscious and anxious about a story, and it's important to be relaxed at the beginning, when I'm first approaching the story, idea in hand, looking for a character and a situation to carry it.

With some stories, it's productive to sit down and make notes while I interrogate the idea, Q&A-ing myself about it; others are better if I give them time, bring the idea to the forefront of my brain for a little while and poke at its possibilities, try to imagine what would be the most fun place to take it; then I push it back into my subconscious to cook, until the next opportunity to daydream with it - when it often comes out of the sub-conscious with a new, better, unexpected something attached.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I would always have wanted to be a writer if I'd known that normal people could become writers, but that wasn't something I realised until I was in my late 20s. Before that, I wrote and published poetry, but I assumed that real books, full of story, simply fell out of the sky, as a kind of natural phenomena. It was only when I started working in publishing that I realised there was a process for making them from (sometimes really scrappy) manuscripts into finished books, and that I could manage to produce a scrappy manuscript myself, just fine.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

I tell the story of this in the lovely book trailer that Allen & Unwin made for Sea Hearts. The short version? I bought some knitting wool!

How extensively do you plan your novels?

I never plan a novel really thoroughly, as that takes all the exploratory fun out of writing it. But during the writing there are usually many points where I have to step back and think about the story as a whole: where all the different bits fit, how each character's story flows and builds and combines with the others. At the start of a novel, I'm very experimental and free, then I stand back and try to sort things out, then let myself off the leash again within the new constraints I've set for myself; if I then find myself launching off in a new direction, I have to pause and sort things out again so that I'm comfortable that I know (but only roughly!) where I'm going.

I don't write character descriptions or biographies unless I need that information for plotting purposes. I don't write timelines unless I start to get confused about the order of things (meaning, for both Tender Morsels and Sea Hearts I wrote extensive timelines, several different versions of them).

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I have occasionally, but only for short stories. The story "Wooden Bride" in Black Juice was largely a recounting of a dream I had. The sorts of dreams that are inspiring are the ones with both strong visual impressions and a strong atmosphere about them. Lately I haven't been having many memorable dreams at all, though. But that's no problem; there are far too many sources of inspiration in the world already!

Where do you write, and when?

Sometimes at the kitchen table, sometimes in my Writing Room, which is a rented room a couple of blocks from my house. I write best if I get up early-early in the morning before I've had time to properly shake sleep off; then I don't get in my own way with doubts or irrelevant thoughts. If I can get in an hour or so's good writing before breakfast, I know I'll get a lot done that day.

When I'm writing full-time (but I've been only part-time for the past few years), I'll write Monday to Friday, from as early as possible until I've written 10 pages, which might mean 11 a.m. and might mean 5 p.m. It depends on how much pausing-and-thinking I have to do to keep things moving along.

What is your favourite part of writing?

Oh, I pretty much like it all, from buying pens and paper (yes, I write first drafts in longhand) to keeping notebooks of ideas, to making the first stab at a story, to coming back and rereading and realising what it needs to make it interesting to me again.

When I'm working, and completely absorbed in whatever story I'm writing, and there's hardly space in my mind to realise it, that's probably when I'm happiest. But finishing a novel draft and listening to the printer churning out the pages for revision, that's satisfying too, and picking over editors' remarks or copyeditors' queries, working up the story towards being polished and finished - as long as any of these stages is not too badly pressurised by oncoming deadlines, I'm very happy spending my days this way.

I know I'm supposed to be all angsty and tortured by the process, but honestly, compared to writing tax procedures for a bank, it's heaven.

What do you do when you get blocked?

Physical exercise. Put the problem out of my head and get some oxygen to the brain. That usually lets some air into the plot-knot as well, and helps me be relaxed about it and regain my faith in untangling it. Also, having faced story-problems for more than 20 years and solved quite a few of them, I've built up confidence that I can crawl out of most holes I manage to dig for myself.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

By reading other people's books, good (for inspiration) and bad (for righteous rage). With poetry, music, art, movies and as much travel as I can afford. By taking time off from writing to break habits and patterns my voice falls into every now and again if I write too continuously. By having a social life that involves both other writers and real-world people with real jobs.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Just the getting up early thing. Oh, and eating carrots and Vita-Weets, for the purposes of crunching through plot and scene hitches. And not using pens, notebooks or writing-paper that's so fancy that it intimidates me. Cheap and scuffed is best.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

  • Anne Tyler
  • George Saunders
  • Anne Enright
  • William Mayne
  • Alan Garner
  • Kelly Link
  • Jennifer Stevenson, on the strength of Trash Sex Magic—I haven't read anything else of hers yet
  • W. G. Sebald
  • Gail Godwin
  • Ursula Dubosarsky

What do you consider to be good writing?

Good writing happens when the author gives the impression (doesn't matter how much sweat and pain have gone into creating the illusion) of not watching the audience but looking with great commitment and fascination at the matter at hand; where you can feel the writing as their exploration rather than a performance they're delivering. Ego-free, intense, well-crafted writing, that's what I like.

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

Forget "being a writer". Focus on the story in front of you. How can you best serve it? How can you learn the most from it? How can you get the most pleasure out of exploring it?

Also, read lots, write lots, and have some kind of life out in the real world as well, not just in your own head.

What are you working on now?

A novel about an Irish seer transported to colonial New South Wales, and a collection (the Blue collection) of not-very-nice stories.


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