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BOOK REVIEW: Where the Trees Were by Inga Simpson

Thursday, February 16, 2017


'All in?' Kieran pulled me up, and the others followed. We gathered around the bigger tree. No one asked Matty - he just reached up and put his right hand on the trunk with ours.

Kieran cleared his throat. 'We swear, on these trees, to always be friends. To protect each other - and this place.'

Finding those carved trees forged a bond between Jay and her four childhood friends and opened their eyes to a wider world. But their attempt to protect the grove ends in disaster, and that one day on the river changes their lives forever.

Seventeen years later, Jay finally has her chance to make amends. But at what cost? Not every wrong can be put right, but sometimes looking the other way is no longer an option.


A beautiful meditation on the Australian landscape and the Aboriginal connection to it, Where the Trees Were is a must-read for anyone who has ever swung on a tyre over a slow-moving brown river or lain on the ground looking up at a scorching blue sky through the shifting leaves of a gum tree. 

Told in Inga Simpson’s deceptively simple style, the novel moves back and forth between the adulthood and childhood of a Canberra art curator called Jay. In the past lie tragedies and misunderstandings that shaped Jay’s psyche and still have ramifications on her life today. Jay is searching for a way to make amends for what happened, but her quest may cost her everything she most cares about. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Mothers by Rod Jones

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


That’s what life is about, at the bottom of things, she thought: women keeping babies.

In 1917, while the world is at war, Alma and her children are living in a sleep-out at the back of Mrs Lovett’s house in working-class Footscray. When Alma falls pregnant, her daughter Molly is born in secret. As Molly grows up, there is a man who sometimes follows her on her way to school.

Anna meets Neil in 1952 at her parents’ shack at Cockatoo. She later enters a Salvation Army home for unmarried mothers, but is determined to keep her baby.

Fitzroy, 1975. Student life. Things are different now, aren’t they? Cathy and David are living together, determined not to get married. Against the background of the tumultuous events of the sacking of the Whitlam government, a new chapter is added to the family’s story.

The Mothers is a book about secrets. It interweaves the intimate lives of three generations of Australian women who learn that it’s the stories we can’t tell that continue to shape us and make us who we are.


The Mothers tells the stories of three generations of women in Footscray, a working-class suburb of Melbourne. Each of them struggle to survive hard times. Each is vulnerable yet strong; they all make mistakes and yet try to be good mothers. 

The first narrative strand is set during the last years of the First World War. Alma has left her husband but has nowhere to go. She and her children find refuge with a kind-hearted woman, and Alma finds comfort in the arms of her benefactor’s son. However, when Alma becomes pregnant, her troubles start all over again. Her daughter Molly needs to be kept secret, and when Alma cannot afford to support her anymore, she is sent to a foundling home. 

The second narrative thread is that of Anna in the 1950s. A country girl, she is seduced by her boyfriend and finds herself in a home for unwed mothers in Melbourne. Despite her determination to keep her baby, her parents refuse to support her and her baby is taken from her. 

The final thread takes place in the 1970s, amidst the political turmoil of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. Cathy and her boyfriend David do not believe in marriage, but when she finds out she is pregnant she finds herself in a quandary, and under pressure from her father.

The three narratives are woven together in interesting ways, and it is fascinating to see how attitudes towards women change (and yet in many ways do not change) over fifty years. Rod Jones has said that he began the book as a memoir of his own life, and that of the women in his family, but decided to shrug off the shackles of fact so that he could invent more freely and so explore the deeper issues of the story.

The knowledge that the book was inspired by real-life women deepens the sense of poignancy and verisimilitude, and makes it a very moving testament to the strength of these women.  

It reminded me of Toni Jordan's brilliant novel Nine Days which I have reviewed here.


Thursday, July 28, 2016


Henry has ended his marriage to Caroline and headed off to Noosa with Mercedes’ grade three teacher, Martha. Caroline, having shredded a wardrobe-full of Henry’s suits, has gone after them.

Craig and Lesley have dropped over briefly from next door to catch up on the fallout from Henry and Caroline’s all-night row.

And Janice, Caroline’s sister, is staying for the weekend to look after the girls because Janice is the sensible one. A microbiologist with a job she loves, a fervent belief in the beauty of the scientific method and a determination to make a solo life after her divorce from Alec.

Then Craig returns through the bedroom window expecting a tryst with Caroline and finds Janice in her bed, Lesley storms in with a jealous heart and a mouthful of threats, Henry, Caroline and Martha arrive back from the airport in separate taxis—and let’s not even get started on Brayden the pizza guy.

Janice can cope with all that. But when Alec knocks on the door things suddenly get complicated. 


The fourth novel by award-winning Australian author, Toni Jordan, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts is a clever, funny, wise-cracking novel about love, infidelity and divorce. It reminded me of one of those farcical 1960s movies in which a group of people tumble in and out of bed with each other, but finally end up in the right person’s arms. The pace is manic, the one-liners brilliantly funny, and there is also a real insight into some of the problems that beset modern-day couples. And Toni Jordan’s diamond-cut prose lifts this book well out of chick-lit territory into something quite extraordinary.

INTERVIEW: Georgina Penny, author of Summer Harvest

Monday, May 30, 2016

Interview with GEORGINA PENNEY, author of A Summer Harvest 

 Are you a daydreamer too?
Definitely! If I don’t give myself time to daydream I don’t get any sleep at night. I find my best ideas turn up when I just let my mind wander for a bit. A nice sunbeam and a comfy couch to do said mind wandering are always welcome.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
According to family legend, I’ve been telling stories since conception so I’ll have to say yes. I just didn’t really know how to get around to it until I found myself an expat wife in Saudi Arabia around ten years ago now.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born in Kununurra in the top end of Australia and have lived all over really. I think I counted over 30 house moves in Oz and internationally the last time I sat down and thought about it. I love to travel and meet new people. I think having a good conversation with someone is the peak of human experience and I definitely know how to talk!

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for A Summer Harvest?
I was listening to a friend who was going through a tough time recovering from breast cancer tell me about the fear she faced every day of a relapse and I decided I wanted to get that down on the page.

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
Enough that I have my head around a setting, my lead characters and their main conflicts. Everything else is a sweary, messy fight to wrangle those characters into some sort of plot!

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Absolutely. I’ve been known to launch out of bed on many occasions, muttering to myself over forgetting to leave a notebook out ready. I tend to find my brain uses dreams to let me know about plot holes in the stories I’m writing. I wish it would pick a better method and a more convenient time but there it is☺

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I love writing characters of all ages, especially in families. I think that’s the discovery. I loved writing the secondary characters and especially Rob Hardy and Gwen Stone, they were an absolute joy to get on the page.

Where do you write, and when?
I try and work to a 9-5 schedule but when I say that, I’m kind of lying. What usually happens is that I sit down in the morning, intending on getting everything down and then my imagination decides to go on strike until around 3 in the afternoon when I’m left frantically trying to get all the ideas down before they escape. I’ve tried sitting down at 3 to start my day but it doesn’t work. It seems I need the run up!

What is your favourite part of writing?
Getting the ideas initially and then the editing afterwards. Essentially everything but the actual writing of the first draft!
What do you do when you get blocked? 
I go for a walk or better yet, have a conversation with someone. I’m a talker and the minute I start chatting with someone, I tend to find interesting solutions to whatever problem I’m having on the page.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I shut out all the white noise. I find being online too much or watching too much mindless TV numbs me out. Instead I try and listen to good music, watch good movies and read good books. Oh, and I travel a lot! Even when it’s to the next village here in Scotland as opposed to somewhere international, I always find something new to experience and think about.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 

Definitely. I’m a fruit cake with that kind of thing. I have to have a cup of tea next to me when I start my day and it has to be in my ‘writing’ cup if I’m writing or in my ‘editing’ cup if I’m editing. I’m also been known to talk to myself to nut out problems and I may sing far too loudly to music when I’ve got my headphones in. There’s a whole raft more of battier things that may involve taking whiteboard markers into the shower to scribble on the tiles when I’m really stuck on a problem but then it gets a little weird… ;)

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
This kind of question is always so hard because depending on my mood and the day, the list changes. So, how about I go for the first ten authors I have on the top shelf of my’ comfort read’ bookcase?
Terry Pratchett, Zadie Smith, Amanda Quick, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, PG Wodehouse, Rohinton Mistry, Haruki Murakami, Val McDermid, Elmore Leonard, Junot Diaz

What do you consider to be good writing?  
Anything that fires the imagination and transports the reader. While I truly appreciate beautifully written prose, my first port of call for a good book is whether or not it triggers my emotions and takes me on a journey. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Want it badly, be brave and do it. It’s a messy, random, wonderful, sometimes exasperating process and if you want it badly enough, you’ll get there. Oh, and know that your best opportunities will come from kindness to others☺

What are you working on now? 
 Too many things! I’m beginning to suspect that I’m a workaholic. At the moment I’m pottering away on my next Aussie set book, the first in a steampunk series and the second in a US based contemporary series. I’ve worked out that the way to keep myself from going nuts worrying about sales, fate and whether or not the universe is going to smile on any given day is to keep on truckin’ ☺

Love interviews with writers? I have lots more!

INTERVIEW: Pamela Hart, author of A Soldier's Wife

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Please welcome Pamela Hart, author of the wonderful World War I novel THE SOLDIER'S WIFE!

Tell me about five authors who have been influential in shaping the writer you are today? In what way have they shaped you?

It’s always hard to pick a list. I would say Shakespeare, Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Georgette Heyer and maybe Ursula Le Guin.

I started reading Shakespeare in primary school, and loved him from the start. I have no idea how he’s influenced me, but he must have – I’ve spent so many hours reading or watching him!

Tolkien was my first adult fantasy novel, although I’d been reading speculative fiction all the way through my childhood in the form of the ‘Best SF/Fantasy of X year’ series. He influenced in terms of understanding the emotion of longing in a work; the desire to be somewhere, somewhen, elsewhere; the sense of wonder.

Dorothy Sayers has a beautiful, classic style. I’ve read her so often I know her rhythms and syntax have influenced me, and I’m just fine with that! She’s an economical and intelligent writer with great characters and terrific plots.

Georgette Heyer (along with Rosemary Sutcliffe) got me interested in historical novels. It’s taken a long time to bear fruit, but I know I would never have written The Soldier’s Wife without having read her. She also got me interested in how people spoke in the past.

Ursula Le Guin influenced me in two ways – by expanding my imagination, and by moving away from speculative fiction at one point in her career to write Searoads, which is a series of interconnected stories about ordinary people who all live along the same road. It made me start thinking about the lives of ordinary people as the subject of fiction.

And then, as an adult, there are people like you, Kate, whose work keeps challenging me to do better!

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned about the art and craft of writing?

The most important lesson I have learnt is that how I feel doesn’t count. What I mean by that is that my ego, my attachment to certain scenes or sentences, can’t get in the way of the story. It’s a lesson I think you keep learning your whole writing life, because with every book you develop some darlings, and you have to kill them more often than not.

The other lesson is my mantra: the difference between an amateur writer and a professional is the number of drafts they’re prepared to do. First draft, second draft, third draft is never good enough. I know my process now and I know that I need beta readers and good editors to really reach the potential for each story.

Do you write full-time? If not, what else do you do in your life? How does that affect your writing?

I teach two nights face-to-face and a couple of online courses a week at the Australian Writers’ Centre – my students range from absolute beginners to people who have already had some fiction published. I love teaching; I know I’m a better writer because I’ve had to really think about the processes of writing in order to explain them to my students.

Of course, it does take up a fair bit of time – but it gets me out of the house!

How would you describe your latest book?

The Soldier’s Wife is an historical novel set in World War I Sydney. It’s the story of Ruby Hawkins, a newly-married girl who comes from a country town to Sydney to see her husband Jimmy embark for Gallipolli.

While he is gone, she gets a job as a bookkeeper in a timber yard - a man's job.

Ruby makes a new life for herself; a full and complicated life with new colleagues, new enemies and unexpected challenges. She is changed by it, of course... and when Jimmy comes home wounded from the Dardanelles, he finds a woman, not the inexperienced country girl he left behind.

The story is based partly on my own grandfather’s war experience, but it concentrates on the lives of the people the soldier’s left behind.

How did you first get the idea for this book?

My son’s teacher asked me to talk to his class for ANZAC Day two years ago, as he was the only one in the class with a direct link back to Gallipoli, as my grandfather, Freemie, and great-uncle had fought there. So I took Freemie’s medals and dog-tags up to show the kids. We also have copies of the telegrams his family was sent when he was wounded, and I read them aloud to the class. They are a terrible litany: ‘We regret to report Private Arthur Freeman wounded’ was the first one. Then the second said he was seriously ill (with a fever in a Cairo hospital), the next that he was dangerously ill, then ‘still dangerously ill’ and, about a month after the first one, ‘out of danger’.

It was very moving, reading them aloud, and I started to wonder: What would it have been like to be the person who got the telegrams? That was the beginning of The Soldier’s Wife.

Can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book?

The most extraordinary part of this research wasn’t a person, but a thing. I went to the Victoria Barracks museum where they have quite a display of the uniforms, etc., worn by the AIF over the years. What I didn’t know was that they had a tablecloth there which came off the first hospital ship to come back from Gallipoli, the Nestor. Someone on board had got all the men to sign the cloth, and then the Red Cross ladies had later embroidered over all the signatures, and auctioned it off for war widows and orphans.

I knew my grandfather had been on the Nestor, so I looked – and there was his signature! He died before I was born, so it was a moment of connection across years and generations. I was particularly moved to see that he signed his name the same way my father and I do (when I’m signing as Pamela Freeman).

Here’s a photo of it:

The volunteers at the museum were very excited – none of them had been there when a relative found a name before!

What are some of the references that you used while researching this book?

My biggest reference tool was the National Library of Australia’s Trove database. It’s fantastic. It has all of the editions from just about every newspaper in the country, all searchable online. And the best part was the ads! That’s how I could tell what things cost, what fabric, for example, was available in the stores, and so on. An invaluable resource.

Also, of course, I drew on my own family history – my father is 92 and I’ve been asking him a lot of questions!

What do you think most characterises your writing?


This is always hard to say… but my editor says I’m a storyteller, and I’m happy with that. I’m interested in bringing a good story to the reader, and I try not to let the mechanics of writing get in the way of that. I’m not interested in looking clever by making a story hard to read or figure out.

What was the hardest part of writing this book? 


The hardest part was getting the character of Jimmy, the Soldier, right. Jimmy is very different from my husband, and I’ve always had trouble writing a love story where the main male character is very different from Stephen. So I had to work very hard to make sure that Jimmy was as lovable as I could make him, even though he was flawed as well. I came to really care about him in the end.

Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured in your book?

Well, I made sure I had at least one Aboriginal character, Albert Smith. It’s so easy to whitewash history and leave indigenous people out of the story. And it’s important to also recognise that Australia has always been a diverse place – that the shameful White Australia policy came in precisely because people were getting worried that it was too diverse.

As for ideas… well, there’s a general assumption in scholarly literature that the ‘first wave of feminism’ which occurred during World War I was a deliberate act of independence on the part of the women who took what had been men’s jobs. That might have been true in Britain – I don’t know. But in Australia women already had the vote (since 1901), so the surge of feminism which accompanied the suffrage movement had died down. Most women here went to work because a) their husbands were away at the front and the allowance they got from them wasn’t very big and b) prices went up enormously in the early days of the war. Bread doubled in price in 1915. Women went to work to put food on the table and to keep a roof over their heads and their families’.

So I guess that’s one ‘underrepresented idea’.

What do you think is the future of reading/writing?


I think it has a very bright future! People are engaging with text far more now than they did when I was a kid. Far more children describe themselves as bookworms or devoted readers – I was the only bookworm in my class at school! I think we have this rose-tinted view of the past. In the same breath people say, ‘Kids don’t get to play outside all day the way I did’ and ‘Kids aren’t reading as much anymore.’ They can’t both be true, and the truth is that children read more now than they ever have. Text is also a big part of games, and gamers have a particular relationship to text as both communication and a necessary part of the game (especially MMOs). So I think that words are working their way deeper and deeper into our culture, which can only be good for writing.

And in the end, it’s all about stories and people’s need for stories, which never goes away.

What process did you go through to get your book published?


The Soldier’s Wife is my 28th book, and I was very lucky to already have relationship with my publisher at Hachette, Bernadette Foley. So I told her what I was working on, and she asked to see it. I showed it to her earlier than I would normally send it to a publisher, because this was a new genre for me, and I knew there were problems with the book – frankly, I wanted some advice!

Bernadette gave me some very good advice, and I did a new draft taking those ideas into account and cutting 10 000 words out. Bernadette liked that version and took it to a publishing meeting, and fortunately everyone else liked it as well!

She has since left the company, but I’m very lucky to be working with Rebecca Saunders in her stead. I was a bit nervous when Rebecca first read the book, but 
she liked it too. That was a great relief.

How do you find or make time to write?

When you are obsessed, you find time!

What are some ways in which you promote your work?
My website is and I have a newsletter readers can sign up to (they get a free short story if they do!). There’s also a lot of content on there – extra scenes from the book, videos, the first chapter, the story behind the book told in more detail than I’ve been able to do here, etc.

I am on Facebook and Twitter (@pamelahartbooks). I’m also happy for people to be my friends as Pamela Freeman on Facebook (/

I’m happy to talk to book groups via Skype and I do talks at libraries, etc. As a children’s writer, I also do talks at schools.

Do you find that these add to or detract from your writing time?


Oh, it’s so easy to convince yourself that you’re really working if you’re updating FB or Twitter! It’s something to be wary of, I think. But I love connecting with readers any way it happens.

What do you like to read in your free time?


I read just about everything, including a lot of non-fiction. Because I teach novel writing, I have to keep up with a wide range of genres, so I can properly advise my students about their work. That forces me to read things I might not pick up otherwise, and that’s great.

What projects are you working on at the present?


I’m working on the next historical novel, The War Bride, which will be out for Mother’s Day next year in 2016. I take one character from The Soldier’s Wife and follow what happens to him after the war, as well as introducing an entirely new cast of characters, including Margaret – a war bride who comes to Sydney from England only to find that her husband has apparently abandoned her.

BOOK REVIEW: The Light Between the Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Monday, May 18, 2015


After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby. 

Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them. 

M. L. Stedman’s mesmerizing, beautifully written novel seduces us into accommodating Isabel’s decision to keep this “gift from God.” And we are swept into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another’s tragic loss. 

The Light Between Oceans is exquisite and unforgettable, a deeply moving novel. 

This novel has at its heart a disturbing moral dilemma. A young woman married to a lighthouse keeper longs for a child of her own, but has lost all of her own babies. One day a boat washes up on their remote island. Inside the boat are a dead man and a baby, who is very much alive. The lighthouse keeper and his wife take in the founding child and, before long, Izzy begins to pretend the little girl is hers. The consequences of that decision will change their lives forever. 

The 1920s setting of a small Western Australian town, and the remote island with its lighthouse, is brilliantly evoked. The loneliness of Tom and Izzy’s life on the island, the vast stretch of sea and sky, the comfort of its routines, all are brought vividly to life.

The story is simply but powerfully told, and the slow-building suspense soon has the pages turning fast. Each step the characters take, each choice they make, is utterly in character, giving the story the feel of an inescapable fate, like a Greek tragedy. The Light Between the Oceans really is a superb book, so tightly constructed that not a word feels out of place. I am very curious to see what M.L. Stedman writes next, as this is an astonishingly assured debut. 

WRITING ADVICE from Kimberley Freeman

Friday, May 08, 2015

To celebrate the launch of Kim Wilkins's wonderful new book Daughters of the Storm, I'm running a vintage post from her with some very useful writing tips. Enjoy!

As you will know, Kim Wilkins is the author of  some of my all-time favourite books, including 'Angel of Ruin' and 'The Autumn Castle' - books which entwine history and the supernatural with intoxicating results.

In recent times, she has been writing books with a greater emphasis on romance and suspense rather than magic, under the name Kimberley Freeman, using her beloved grandmother's surname. I love these books just as much as I do her earlier books. Although they do not have that chilling supernatural twist, they are still books that utterly refuse to be put down - utterly compelling  and readable.

Her most recent novel, 'Lighthouse Bay' was one of the Best Books I Read in 2012, while I can also strongly recommend her previous book, 'Wildflower Hill'. 

Born in London, Kim grew up in Brisbane and has degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing. I first met her in Melbourne when both of our first books were short-listed for the Aurealis Prize for Excellence in Speculative Fiction. Kim won, drat her.  

Since then we try and see each other whenever we can. We always talk long and hard about the craft of writing, something we both feel very passionately about. 

Here are Kim's top writing tips:

Look to your verbs. If you read a page back and it seems lifeless and flabby, find every verb on the page and see if you can improve it. Make a point of collecting great verbs every time you read or watch a movie or have a conversation. Verbs like gasp, surge, quiver, and drench work so hard. Verbs are the muscle of a sentence, and can punch up dull writing in a moment.

Chillax on chapter one. Easily the most common writing problem I see is the writer trying far too hard to impress in the first few pages of a story. Many stories warm up and get fantastic after page five, but by then the publisher has already put you on the "reject" pile. Often your first chapter is so overworked that it's uncomfortable to read. My advice is to finish the book, then scrap the first chapter all together and write it again without looking at the original.

Don't write all your fun scenes first. Write in order. If you give a child her custard first, she's probably not going to be all that interested in her Brussels sprouts.

Be in a viewpoint, always. At the start of every scene make sure you know exactly whose viewpoint you are going to be in, and write the scene from inside their head. A story details a relationship between characters and events. The most impact is always achieved from describing that relationship from the inside.

Plan your story in advance, even if it's only loosely. It will save you so much time and heartache and, contrary to popular belief, it's actually MORE fun to do it this way. When you know that an exciting turning point is approaching, the scene and the ones around it can play out in your mind over and over as you think them through, becoming richer the more you anticipate it.

Most important of all: keep going. This is a tough craft, and it's an even tougher business. Dream big if you want, but your dreams can't sustain you on a day-to-day basis. The only thing that can sustain you is the work. Do it because you love it; because not to write hurts. Do it because you are mad about your story and obsessed with your characters. Don't make it another chore to fit into your busy day: make it the special place you go when your day has been rubbish. Keep going and keep going, and then keep going some more.

INTERVIEW: Liane Moriarty, author of The Husband's Secret

Monday, January 26, 2015

I have long been a fan of Jaclyn Moriarty's wonderful books, but I had not ever tried reading a book by one of her sisters, Nicole or Liane. I decided to dip my toe in by reading Liane Moriarty's New York Times bestselling novel The Husband's Secret!

The Husband's Secret is a funny, sad, suspenseful and utterly surprising book that has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and is set to be translated into over 35 languages. CBS Films has acquired the film rights.

I loved it, and so begged Liane to talk to me about some of her creative inspirations and techniques.

Are you a daydreamer too?


Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes, my sister, Jaci and I had always wanted to be authors. When we were children, our Dad would commission us to write novels for him. However, it was Jaci who achieved our childhood dream first. At the time her first novel Feeling Sorry for Celia was accepted for publication, I was working as a freelance advertising copywriter, writing everything from websites to TV commercials. Although I occasionally wrote short stories and first chapters of novels that didn’t go any further, I’d let my childhood dream slide. My sister’s news was the inspiration I needed to get me back to the keyboard.  In a fever of sibling rivalry I wrote a children’s book which was enthusiastically rejected by every publisher in Australia. I calmed down, and two years later, my first novel, Three Wishes was published

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

I was born in Sydney and I’ve lived in Sydney all my life. I love reading, DVD box sets (my husband and I are the only people left in the world who obediently wait for the box sets rather than downloading them), snow-skiing, chocolate, champagne, coffee, hot baths, sleep, restaurants with flattering lighting, old friends, but also new friends. I’m also quite fond of my two children. I have a six year old son and a four year old daughter.     

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

 I came quite late to motherhood and as a result I tend to look at the world of parenting with the wide eyes of a tourist. Last year I became a ‘school mum’ for the first time when my little boy started kindergarten.  It was a brand new experience for me, and I wanted to write about this ordinary, extraordinary world of parenting.  I came up with the premise for the book when I was touring with another author (the lovely Ber Carroll) who was spending every spare moment searching for the perfect necklace to wear to a school trivia night. She and her friends were all planning to dress up as Audrey Hepburn. For some reason the image of those mothers with their Audrey Hepburn hairstyles and outfits stayed with me long after the tour.  I thought imagine if all the mothers were dressed as Audrey Hepburn and the fathers dressed as Elvis Presley? Then I thought, imagine if there was some sort of argument between all those Elvises and Audreys? Then I thought, why not a riot? After that I was hooked.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

I just tend to come up with a premise and dive in and hope that an ending will come to me. It means there is a sense of anticipation because I think, I wonder what’s going to happen? 

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

No. Never. My dreams are awful. I always have exactly the same dream: I suddenly remember that I’ve forgotten something EXTREMELY important and the consequences are catastrophic. They were particularly bad when my children were babies and I’d wake up screaming, “The baby, the baby! Where did I put the baby?”  Actually, maybe I do need to write about this and that might cure me of this awful dream.

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

No, not really, but what a lovely phrase, “an astonishing serendipitous discovery!” I will hope for an astonishing serendipitous discovery with my next book.

Where do you write, and when?

I write in my home office when my children are at school or pre-school or when they’re playing outside my door with their lovely babysitter.

What is your favourite part of writing?

I love the final twenty thousand words or so of a novel when I can see the end in sight and I know my characters and I finally know what’s going to happen and where I’m going and I’m writing exciting climatic scenes that I’ve been looking forward to writing and everything is coming together, and the writing feels lovely and flowing, rather than awkward and stilted, as it always does when I start a book, and I can’t quite find my voice, and I’m missing the characters from my previous book and I often find myself thinking, Who are these people?   

What do you do when you get blocked?

A walk helps. So does a long shower. Also chocolate.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

Conversations with friends seem to give me the most material.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

My best ritual is to turn on ‘Freedom’ – a little software programme that turns off Internet access for a specified period of time. Just the act of clicking that little button really does give me Freedom to write. 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Elizabeth Berg, Anne Tyler, Maggie O’Farrell, Jaclyn Moriarty, Nicola Moriarty, Dianne Blacklock, Ber Carroll,  Karen Joy Fowler, Kate Atkinson, Lionel Shriver – I could go on, but I see I’ve used up my quota.    

What do you consider to be good writing? 

When I don’t notice the writing at all, I’m so lost in the story.

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

 To think of nothing else but the story – not the world of publishing, or what makes a best-seller, or should you self-publish or not, or should it be double-spaced (yes), or should you make it more erotic (probably, if you can! Wish I could) or how will you make sure nobody else steals your ideas (they won’t) – just lose yourself in the pleasure of writing your story. Then edit, edit, edit.  THEN and only then should you think about all that other stuff

What are you working on now?

I’ve decided to set my next book on a tropical island, and I feel that I need to do a lot of research to get this book right. A lot of meticulous research. Editors, publicists, agents and various friends are all generously offering to help out. 

On Liane's website, she says to anyone wishing to email her: 

"If you have just read The Husbands Secret and wish to tell Liane that Easter takes place in spring, not in autumn, please note that this book is set in Australia, where the seasons are upside down.
Easter takes place in the autumn here. It’s true." 

I love that !

Liane's most recent novel, Big Little Lies, was the first by an Australian author to debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Film and television rights have already been snapped up by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon - how cool is that!

INTERVIEW: Josephine Pennicott, author of Currawong Manor

Friday, August 29, 2014

I'm very happy to welcome my dear friend and writer Josephine Pennicott to the blog today. She is the author of the brilliantly creepy and suspenseful Gothic murder mystery Currawong Novel, which I enjoyed immensely.

Are you a daydreamer too?

Definitely! I’ve always felt as if I straddle different worlds. I do meditate a lot in an attempt to quieten my mind, so I can receive the impressions of the project I’m working on. I believe in the power of daydreaming, and not overstimulating your brain in order to access deeper levels of imagination. It’s something I’ve actively pursued over many years. I’m just about to take up transcendental meditation, so I’ll be interested to note the effects on my writing. When you stop trying to control and distract your mind and allow your brain to become bored, ideas can be whispered by the muses. I often feel uneasy, when on public transport or out and about, to see so many people strapped to their little machines, not allowing the quiet space to unfurl in their mind for daydreaming and creativity to flourish.    

Have you always wanted to be a writer? 
From when I first discovered books such as Enid Blyton’s, I wanted to be a writer. I was an insatiable reader as soon as I learnt to decipher the mysterious markings that made my heart race just to look at them. Words always had a calming, soothing effect on me. I remember my mother removing my book from me at the dinner table once and I immediately began reading the labels on jars. I find bookstores and libraries calming spaces. I just didn’t think it was possible for me to actually become a writer. My classmates can still relate stories of how I held them spellbound with tales made of simple props in the classroom, such as a biro and its cap (a gnome and his helmet). My English teachers were very disappointed when I chose to enter nursing rather than pursue my writing.

My father always encouraged my love of words but I had a couple of beliefs that blocked me. One was that you couldn’t make money from writing; and I was in a hurry to leave school, see the world and make money. The second belief was that to lock yourself away writing was a self-obsessed pursuit, when you could be actively pursuing a path of service. It seems blindingly obvious to me now how foolish and untrue those mental blocks were – but I believed them. It took me becoming incredibly burnt-out and despairing about the career path I was on – and travelling to India to consult with a well-known guru – to return me to my childhood dreams and fantasies.

It’s a long story, but his basic statement was: “If you don’t use the gifts you are born with, it’s an insult to God.”

Or as that American guru, Bob Dylan also says, “Do what you must and do it well.”

When people going through cancer treatments and difficult circumstances say how much my book helped take their mind off their problems, I realise I’m actually doing the service I always wanted to do. I will always consider nursing to be one of the greatest service professions, but I knew inside myself it wasn’t my soul’s calling. 

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 in Oatlands, a small village in the Tasmanian midlands. It’s a very pretty historic village which boasts of having the most sandstone buildings in Australia. I spent my early years in Papua New Guinea having a most Papuan Swallows and Amazons type childhood. I now live in the inner-west of Sydney in a tiny brick cottage with my writer husband, David Levell and our daughter, Daisy. I like to write, read, go for walks in nature. I enjoy the opera, art gallery, theatre, spiritual and cultural pursuits, but mostly I enjoy simple pleasures – a walk in nature, my book-club, birdwatching, a picnic, excursions with my family around Sydney or the Blue Mountains, a pot of tea, a good book and a bath. I am happiest when I’m in my garden shed, writing. I’ve worked a wide variety of jobs over the years to support my writing at different times. I also have a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts where I majored in painting.  

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for Currawong Manor?

I had the opening line: The bush kept its secrets well. I also had an image of a young blonde-haired girl running through the Australian bush in a long white dress. I could see around her currawongs that appeared to be menacing the child as she ran through the bush. I also saw that same little girl drowned in a waterhole, and her father was holding her:  I didn’t know if he was screaming in anguish, because he had attempted to rescue her, or if he had killed her. I was curious to find out... I had the symbol of keys in my mind and a strange-fairy tale looking house in the Blue Mountains. I knew all of these elements would work well together in the gothic landscape of the Blue Mountains.

The story was also inspired by a real life murder in the Blue Mountains when my husband was working at SBS television. It made me realise how vulnerable we are when we’re alone in the bush. I spend a lot of time in the bush alone and often spook myself speculating what could be around the next corner.

And throughout my art school years I was always drawn to the 1940s Australian Modernist painters such as Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan. And I was also fascinated by the glamorous lives and personalities of the life models for artists such as Pearl Goldman, Norman Lindsay’s life model who modelled for him between 1938-1945.   

Poet’s Cottage, my Tasmanian sea-fishing village mystery, was inspired by a real-life cottage I fell in love with on a Tasmanian family holiday. The house was called Poet’s Cottage and I had several major scenes of that book down before I left. I also had an image of a little girl playing in the snow with her sister and she walks into the house and down the cellar steps where she witnesses her mother being murdered. 

I’m really very visual when I work.  

How extensively do you plan your novels?

It varies with each book. For Poet’s Cottage, which was written out of contract, I plotted very loosely and free-fell into the story. I didn’t know who had killed Pearl Tatlow until I came to that point. I remember the shock I felt when I realised the killer, and when I looked back over the manuscript I saw the plot threads had led me to that point. I love it when the subconscious works so cleverly. 

With Currawong Manor I had tighter deadlines and plotted it out a bit more. The book I’m working on now needs to be written fairly quickly, so I have to know exactly where I’m going. Because my books have twists, I need prior knowledge of some of them, but it’s always a delightful experience when the book starts to emerge on its own and surprises you. My favourite way of working is to begin with the images and ideas that I’ve been brewing away with for years and allow the story to dictate itself.  

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I’ve actually woken from a dream today, which I might be able to use for a darker crime novel further down the track. Dreams often give me titles and images to work with. When I was at art school I was fascinated by the surrealist painters and their work with the unconscious. I still find dreams a really fabulous place to connect with muses.  There’s a quote by Jorge Luis Borges: “Writing is nothing more than a guided dream.”

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

One thing that did surprise me when writing Currawong Manor was the character of Dolly. From the very beginning of the book, I knew she was going to be an important character. I couldn’t figure out exactly why, or where she had come from. I realised months after finishing the book, that when I was growing up there was a young girl who lived with her mother in the bush and attended school every day. I knew they lived a very simple lifestyle in the wild and didn’t have electricity or any mod cons. She would walk for miles to attend school. I hadn’t consciously thought of this girl for many years, but my unconscious had remembered her and she became a part of Dolly. There’s also another part of the story (which I can’t mention because of spoilers) but as soon as I began writing the scenes, newspapers began reporting the twist I was writing about!

Also – Pearl Goldman turned up to speak at Norman Lindsay’s house in the Blue Mountains when I was working on an early draft. This was an amazing bonus to hear stories from one of the life models who had inspired the character of Ginger in Currawong Manor.

And in 2012 when I was working on the book, the Sydney Museum kindly put on an exhibition called Homefront Wartime Sydney: 1939-45. Perfect timing for scenes I was working on!  

Where do you write, and when?
I have a garden writing shed which we had built in our courtyard garden amongst the palm trees and large tea tree. It’s a very lovely space, and without internet access I tend to get a lot of work done. 

Elizabeth Taylor is the patron saint of the shed. I have wallpapered it in a Laura Ashley paper; my German publishers liked it so much they used it for their Poet’s Cottage cover (Dornentochter in Germany).

If I’m not in the mood for the shed, I write in bed (which I find cosy and womb-like) using a wooden lap table for my computer that my father-in-law made.

I try to write every day, seven days a week. With a nine-year old daughter, it’s not always possible, but that’s what I aim to do. I show up when I’m feeling deflated, over-it, joyous and every mood and shade in-between. My best writing is often done in the very early hours (from 4am). It’s hell to get up, but once I’m writing the words flow so much faster when the moon is still in the sky, the birds have yet to begin their morning cries and I’m surrounded by the dreaming household.

What is your favourite part of writing?

My favourite part is the early drafts of a book when the story is emerging onto the page. I love filling notebooks with images and ideas and getting to know characters. I find that process so exhilarating and joyous. It’s the work that brings me all the satisfaction.  

What do you do when you get blocked?

I don’t tend to get blocked. But when I feel I’m falling out of the story, I would try to meditate. I limit the internet and either take a walk or have a bath to find what I’m attempting to bring forth from inside myself.  

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

Reading poetry and reading across all genres of writing. Looking at art books, Pinterest online for visual imagery. The Art Gallery of New South Wales. Nature itself always inspires me. Being in the bush, or by the ocean. I keep scrapbooks and clippings of newspaper articles that interest me. I use everything around me for inspiration. I play games with myself when I’m out, trying to notice as many things as I can, because I feel we are all on auto-pilot a lot. I un-name things as well for example: if I didn’t know that was a tree, what would I call it? If I had just arrived from another planet, what would I think a supermarket was? These games might sound silly, but they help you to think outside the box a lot and wake your brain up. Biographies of other artists help as well. You realise that success often has a huge back-story to it and it gives you inspiration to keep going.      

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

I do tend to follow moon cycles with a lot of my writing as I believe in there being more opportune times in the natural world for new beginnings and endings. For example, with my blog, I would do posts on favourable moon days, rather than a ‘negative’ cycle. I have a few crystals around and before starting work every morning, I say a prayer, an invocation to the muses to be with me. I also find it helpful to write the journal pages that Julia Cameron talks about in her book The Artist’s Way, but I don’t do the journal pages every day. I also try to avoid social media and read instead from a few pages of a book that inspires me or a poem before I start. I’m actually a big believer in the power of ritual for creative projects. Affirmations, visualisations. I’m a believer!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
This is an almost impossible question as there are so many I really love! Plus, I have so many writer friends that I’m terrified of leaving someone out, so to be careful I won’t name any contemporary Australian writers. But some of my long-standing other favourites are: 
Agatha Christie
Erin Kelly 
Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine 
Mo Hayder 
Donna Tartt 
Kate Mosse 
Daphne du Maurier 
Robert Louis Stevenson 
Sarah Waters 
Isabel Allende. 

What do you consider to be good writing?
Writing that doesn’t sacrifice page-turning absorption for strong, poetic imagery. And vice-versa. Characters that remain in your marrow long after you’ve closed the book. Writing that makes you see the familiar in a different way. A book that transforms your present circumstances, making you dread the last page approaching: you keep trying to slow down your reading, but you have to keep turning the pages long after the witching hour. The book you close and think, ‘God, if only I could be that good! Even half that good.”

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Just DO IT. Don’ t talk about doing it on blogs, twitter or Facebook. Just do it. Read a lot, write a lot. Write every day when possible, even if it’s only for twenty minutes. Support the industry you want to be a part of by buying books and don’t only buy books that you see featured in Spectrum. Support all sorts of authors. Don’t wait for the perfect moment or circumstances to evolve before you begin. Now is the perfect time. Don’t overstimulate your brain; quieten your brain. Believe in yourself even when the rest of the world doesn’t. Write the book you would love to read. Create a space where there’s no internet access to write. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Too may people give up too easily. As Stella Adler says: ”You really do have to have the skin of of a rhinoceros but the soul of a rose”.  

What are you working on now?
I’m working on another mystery novel, set in Tasmania between the 1950s and 1920s. It’s an idea I’ve had brewing for quite a few years. It relates the ripple effect of what happens in a small village when the town’s most popular girl is murdered. The working title is Sweetwater and I’m loving watching it emerge.

You can read my review of Poet's Cottage or visit Josephine Pennicott's website


SPOTLIGHT: Josephine Pennicott on Picnic at Hanging Rock

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Today on the blog, Josephine Pennicott talks about the haunting Australian classic Picnic At Hanging Rock and how it helped inspire her new Gothic mystery, Currawong Manor, which is set in the Blue Mountains.

Please welcome her! 

A Dream within a Dream” – Joan Lindsay and some other influences on Currawong Manor.

One of the cinema experiences that haunted me throughout my adolescence was Peter Weir’s 1975 film of Joan Lindsay’s mystery novel Picnic At Hanging Rock (1967). The dreamy, surreal juxtaposition of Victorian schoolgirls and the Australian bush seemed to imprint itself through my being. Even discovering later that the dreamy on-screen effect was achieved by placing a bridal veil over the camera has never diminished its power. It remains one of my very favourite movies to this day.

When I came to Joan Lindsay’s book, I was relieved to see how faithfully Weir kept to her story. Joan must surely give hope to all aspiring novelists, as she wrote Picnic At Hanging Rock in her mid-sixties – her only work of adult fiction – in just four weeks. It was written in a frenzy where she felt as if she totally lived the novel. Lindsay's original draft had a final chapter in which the mystery was resolved. 

At her editor's suggestion, Lindsay removed it before publication, but it eventually appeared as The Secret of Hanging Rock in 1987, three years after Lindsay’s death. The lost chapter suggests that the girls encountered some sort of time warp, which fits Lindsay's interest and emphasis on time.

I believe the editors and publishers were correct in cutting the original ending, because Picnic At Hanging Rock works best as a unsolved mystery.  The girls have somehow succumbed to a magical, yet natural Australia, and are forever lost - possibly within a remnant of ancient dreamtime. 

It was genius marketing at the time, because nearly everyone I knew believed it was genuinely a true case. Joan herself refuses to discuss how true the book was, which has only added to its appeal. In the book’s forward, she says, “Whether Picnic At Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in the book are long dead, it hardly seems important.”

But there was another mystery regarding Picnic At Hanging Rock and the author. Watching a documentary where Anne Lambert (who played the bewitching, enigmatic Miranda) recounts that one day she wandered away from the crew in full costume, to explore some of the rock. A middle-aged woman seemed to come from nowhere, rushing at her in great excitement, calling her Miranda and saying how much she had missed her. This woman was Joan Lindsay. She never referred to Anne by her name and seemed to really believe she was the Miranda of her book.

Another Joan Lindsay  mystery is that Picnic At Hanging Rock has watches stopping when they are at the rock. Through this device, we know we are now in a world without time – a world between worlds. There have been several reports from people of their watches stopping at Hanging Rock:  Joan Lindsay was a ‘watch-stopper.’ She claimed just by sitting next to somebody she had the power to stop their watch. She had this gift all her life, but could not explain it. Her absorbing autobiography is called Time Without Clocks.

I relate deeply to Joan Lindsay with her fascination with the mystical and her appreciation of the Australian landscape. in my novel, I used currawongs as a link to the eerie natural world which remembers through some primordial brain a wrongdoing long-forgotten by recorded history.  

Birds represent life in the heavens, higher paths of knowing. Birds that are black represent mystery, magic, secrets, transition and transformation. In the early days of European settlement in Australia, the unfamiliar currawong calls were mistaken for the cries of ghosts, so haunting and unfamiliar were they. Just as Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock has long haunted me.

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