Q & A with Author Carmel Macdonald Grahame


Photo via UWA Publishing

Carmel Macdonald Grahame is a Western Australian teacher and writer now living in Warrandyte, Victoria. Her short fiction, poetry, critical essays and reviews have been published in journals, periodicals and anthologies in Australia and in North America, and she has had three stage plays performed. Personal Effects is her debut novel.

When did you first start writing? When did you decide that you wanted to ‘be a writer’? 

I started writing when I was a child, as so many of us do, in the sense that favourite schoolwork was always write a story about…, write a composition…, write the autobiography of a…, and so on. If ever I was sick as a child I would pass time by making up stories and writing them down, in block print, painstakingly, and inflicting them on my sister. I remember being told, when teachers left the room, to mind the class by telling a story until they got back. It seems absurd now, but  obediently, I did just that, long rambling convoluted stories that always had to be continued because the teacher would reappear. I don’t think the idea of writing as being a writer crossed my mind until I was at university. I attended a lecture by Faye Zwicky in which she illustrated the slow growth of a poem and I saw a piece of writing take shape. It was that revelation of the constructedness of writing, its openness to being worked on that gave me permission to write. And my love of the process has developed over the years in several directions. But I have to say I only think of myself as being a writer in the sense that it is one of the things I like to do, but one of many, too many probably. I am a writer insofar as I spend some of my time engaged in writing, but I don’t see it as my identity, if you know what I mean; or even my occupation. Too many other considerations.

Who would you say are your writing influences/inspirations?

I’ve studied literature all my adult life one way and another. I find it really difficult to pin down any particular influence. I remember having my breath taken away when I first encountered Dorothy Hewett’s poetry, for that forceful woman’s voice, that willingness to write close to the bone, the willingness to be vulnerable. More recently I’ve found myself drawn to more intellectual voices, like the Canadian writer Anne Carson’s, whose creative work is rich with classical training and academic interests, dismantling those distinctions, who never flinches from allusive, highly wrought writing that makes demands on readers. Different from Australian writing with its drive towards the colloquial, at least insofar as one can generalise. We seem to have a tendency to confuse the poetic and the intellectual with some kind of pretension here, keeping many of our writers in the realm of the demotic. In fact several Canadian women writers spring to mind. Anne Michaels: who can not be nourished by the beauty of the language and the emotional fearlessness of a novel like Fugitive Pieces. Roo Borson, whose luminous poeticism sings on the page. Here, the work of Gail Jones springs to mind, that loveliness of language, its range and energy. The poetry of Robyn Rowlands is a force to be reckoned with — the first time I heard it read I thought it might be as close to a feminine voice as I’ve encountered. I think these choices belong in the context of complicated questions about whether we can distinguish between a feminine and a masculine voice. But anyway: not Hemingway, not that paucity of language that is disguised as clarity, or austerity or whatever. As a reader I love writing that risks being luscious, generous, ornate, thoughtful, contemplative. So I suppose as a writer I aspire to that and would like to think such voices have room to move.


Personal Effects explores change and family life. What was the appeal of those themes for you?

The themes of Personal Effects, if this is what they are, evolved in the writing. I think the theme uppermost in my mind, at least my sense of direction, was the contingent nature of life. Even the most contemporary life, with all the spring in its step, is full of the unpredictable, sudden change and loss, sometimes traumatic enduring loss. I was thinking about questions of isolation and resilience. I contextualised the events of this woman’s life within a family because I wanted a sense of ordinary experience to be and was hoping to capture some of the changes women contend with by being partners, mothers, how adaptive they have to be, how we live rather more perhaps in arabesques and curlicues, to quote Robert Dessaix. The recent history of women and work has been extraordinary if you look back over the last three decades, and all those changes— and failures to change— have been and still are played out in family life.

You have taught writing for some years. Does teaching inform your writing, or vice versa?

Teaching is its own reward really. There is no way you aren’t learning while you teach. And let’s face it, it’s a privilege to be a part of anyone’s writerly process/progress. It’s informing and nourishing to your own work just to be in that conversation so constantly and carefully. At the same time, I do think it’s possible that one’s own creative energy and attention can be consumed by the teaching and that the teaching can take the place of writing, as you turn your focus towards other people’s creative projects. I think it is one of the difficulties of teaching that this can happen. You have to be willing to work on balancing the two and it’s not always easy to do.

What are your writing habits?  

The very idea of habitual writing is like a mirage most of the time. I strive to write every day, prefer mornings, as do most of us, but try to forgive myself when I don’t manage that and still work at other times of the day. I am often in the position of fitting writing time in around other interests, necessities, pleasures. I have a lovely writing space and I try to make withdrawing to it a kind of bedrock in the in-between times. When I can, I do. I have writer friends and occasionally go away with them for small retreat times when I get more done. I read. I indulge myself with notebooks. All the familiar processes. Really my writing interests are too diverse. As long as I am producing something I can be satisfied.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? And if so, how do you overcome it?

I don’t know that’s it’s actually ever been a block per se. Huge frustration sometimes. And honestly, for me as for so many others I am launched into creative thinking by walking and arranging for some solitude. I also find my writing is stimulated by revisiting old, unfinished work. Like picking up a conversation with an old friend, I find my thinking aligns with what’s on the page/screen and writing grows from writing. 

Personal Effects is now available through UWA Publishing.

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6 Degrees of Separation: Burial Rites

Writers Ask Writers: Mother’s Day Giveaway

There’s no doubt in my mind that my love of reading came partly from my mum who is a huge book lover, especially of the classics. When I was a young child, my mum was a mature-age student, doing an arts degree through the Open University in the UK. One of her units was called ‘The Nineteenth Century Novel’. I thought it was a single book, so big that it took her an entire year to read it! Eventually, my mum became an English teacher, sharing her love of reading with a myriad of young people, including, I’m sure, many who weren’t interested in the slightest!

I have to say, Mum’s taste is a little more conservative than mine. When it comes to my own books, though she is a big fan of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, she likes my poetic, descriptive debut most, declared my upcoming book The Ark  unreadable and when I told her about my current work-in-progress Monkey See she looked at me as though I was deranged.

Still, we have plenty in common in our reading habits and I’ll often buy mum a book for Christmas or her birthday which she then passes onto me to read. Flight Behaviour is the book I bought my mum last Christmas. She loved it and so did I, and though I didn’t know it when I bought it for her, it’s very much a book about motherhood - about the sacrifices it asks of us and the rewards.

This month I’m happy to be teaming up with the Writers Ask Writers gang to offer a Mother’s Day prize of ten books: our most recent releases plus one that each of us has selected as a book we’d like to share with our mothers:

If the winner is from Perth there’s also a bonus prize of two tickets to see Jennifer Saunders discussing her recently released memoir, Bonkers: My Life in Laughs, at the Octagon Theatre on 28 April 2014, 7.30–8.30pm.

To enter,* sign up for for my free monthly-ish email newsletter AND leave a comment on this post, telling me about a book you’d like to share with your mother, and why. (If you’d like the Jennifer Saunders tickets, please also let us know if you’re local to Perth). And, if you’re already a newsletter subscriber just leave your comment and that will count as an entry.

You can also visit Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, Amanda Curtin and Dawn Barker's blogs for more chances to win.

We are super-grateful to Beaufort Street Books for generously sponsoring our giveaway. Beaufort Street Books is a staunch supporter of local writers. As well as a fantastic fiction collection, there is also a gorgeous and thoughtfully-stocked children’s section (my first stop for birthday parties). But I think what I love best about Beaufort Street Books is their personalised service - they’ll remember what you bought last time, and recommend something you’re guaranteed to love - much better than an impersonal online algorithm!


*Apologies to our international readers, but the giveaway is open only to Australian residents.

The giveaway ends midnight on Tuesday 15 April, and we’ll be announcing the winner on Thursday 17th. So if you win, you’ll be well prepared for spoiling your mother, or someone else’s, or just yourself on Mother’s Day! Good luck.

6 Degrees of Separation: Burial Rites


Welcome to the first edition of Six Degrees of Separation, a brand new book blogging meme in which myself and fellow author Emma Chapman choose a book we’ve both enjoyed, and then link it to other books in a chain.

We’re launching the meme with one of Australia’s greatest fiction success stories of the last few years, Hannah Kent's moody debut novel Burial Rites, a fictionalised account of the last female prisoner executed in Iceland in the late nineteenth century.

In my mind, there is a strong connection between Burial Rites and Courtney Collins’ The Burial - apart from the obvious link between the titles, they are both historical novels by Australian female writers and engage with some similar themes including crime, justice and the fate of society’s disadvantaged.

Perhaps the most striking thing about The Burial is the narrator, for the story is told from the point of view the protagonist’s dead baby, which is hardly what you’d call old hat. When it comes to original narrative voices, it’s hard to go past Marcus Zusak's brilliant and heart wrenching holocaust novel The Book Thief, which is narrated by death himself.

Elliot Perlman's harrowing and wonderful novel The Street Sweeper also deals with the holocaust, as well as the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, linking these two historical periods in surprising ways.

Any consideration of race relations always gets me thinking about what’s happening right here in our own backyard, and the terrible history of colonial Australia’s relationship with Indigenous Australians. Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance is a fictionalised account of the settlement of Albany, Western Australia, and the decimation of the Noongar culture and way of life. It is warm and funny, sad and powerful and a great insight for those who wish to learn more about this dark period of Australia’s history.

Peter Docker's wildly ambitious novel The Waterboys, also engages with colonial/settler relations. It is both an alternative history, in which Docker reenvisages Captain Stirling’s arrival in Western Australia as one in which a more positive relationship with the Noongar people was forged, as well as a speculative fiction which imagines the future of Australia if we don’t listen to and learn from the wisdom of the true custodians of our land.

While I was reading The Waterboys, I was constantly reminded of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi epic Dune. Both concern environmental issues, especially the scarcity and previousness of water, both include epic battles, and both have heroes who go from being outsiders to being leaders of their tribe.

Who would have thunk you could get from a contemporary novel set in 19th century Iceland to a 1960s novel set on an unknown planet in only six moves? That is the mind-boggling mystery of six degrees of separation!

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Emma Chapman's chain took her in quite a different direction. Read her post to find out how she arrived at Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.


Your turn: I can’t wait to hear where your chain led you. If you blog, you can write a post and paste the link in the comments below, or you can briefly describe your 6 links in the comments. Don’t be shy!

Like this post? Find out more about me and my novels, or connect with me on TwitterFacebook or Goodreads.

Want more?

 Reading Round-Up: March 2014

Top 10 Books that Crack Me Up

Reading Round-Up: March 2014


Contemporary Classics

I gave Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex a crack when it first came out in 2003, but it didn’t grab me. After loving The Marriage Plot, I decided to give Middlesex another go, and though it was rather slow, and all the way through the first 300 pages I contemplated giving up, something kept me going, and in the end I loved it - the last 200 pages were brilliant - a coming-of-age story like no other.

Long before Twilight and The Walking Dead, all the way back in 1954, Richard Matheson wrote the post-apocalytic vampire thriller I am Legend, which has since become a cult classic, cited as an influence by writers such as Stephen King. Though the subject matter is no longer original, the story is still a ripper: taut, suspenseful and chilling, with a wonderful surprise ending.


A Friday Fave

Some months ago, Connor Tomas O’Brien chose Erlend Loe’s Naive. Super as his Friday Fave. The small understated story of a twenty-something male, working his way through a mental breakdown of sorts; I found it sweet and life-affirming.

New to Me

I’ve heard many people sing the praises of Patricia Highsmith, who is perhaps best known for The Talented Mr Ripley. Last month I picked up her novel The Cry of the Owl, and put it aside, seeking something lighter. But this month I gave it another go and once I was into it. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a classic stalker novel, although what’s clever about it is the way Highsmith plays with the reader, making it unclear exactly who’s stalking who. It was a great read, and I’ll definitely be looking for more of Highsmith’s work.


Speculative Fiction

I’ve long been a lover of literary speculative fiction, and Jeff VanderMeer’s novella Annihilation reeled me in on the first page. The first of a trilogy, the story of the 12th expedition to the remote and mysterious Area X is told by an unreliable narrator, who may or may not be suffering from paranoid hallucinations. It is a beautifully written and intensely creepy psychological thriller which I devoured in one sitting, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel.

Ahead of the release of my speculative fiction novel The Ark, I’ve been trying to familiarise myself with the Australian speculative fiction landscape, which led me to pick up Debris by Joe Anderton. With both feet firmly in the ‘genre’ camp it is not my usual fare, and there were a few cheesy moments, but on the whole I found it a highly enjoyable read: gripping and imaginative, with particularly original world-building.


Book of the Month

Though I read many great books this month, my favourite was without doubt, The Humans by Matt Haig, a warm, funny and insightful story about the absurdity of human behaviour, as seen through the eyes of a rather endearing alien. Why would anyone give up the power to travel through time and space, heal wounds at the touch of a hand and assimilate any language in minutes? The answer might surprise you.

I am also struggling through The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton which I may or may not finish - check in next month to find out!

Your turn: Have you read any of these novels? Do any of grab you? What great books have you read lately?

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Six Degrees of Separation: New Book Bloggers Meme

Top Ten Books that Crack Me Up

6 Degrees of Separation: New Meme for Book Bloggers


In 1929, Hungarian writer and poet Frigyes Karinthy wrote a short story called ‘Chains’ in which he coined the phrase six degrees of separation.

I’m excited to announce a new meme, based on the idea in Karinthy’s story. On the first Saturday of every month, Emma Chapman and I will choose a book, and link it to five other books in a chain. We will also be inviting our readers and other bloggers to join us by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

How the meme works

Books can be linked in obvious ways - for example, books by the same authors, from the same era or genre, or books with similar themes or settings. Or, you may choose to link them in more personal or esoteric ways: books you read on the same holiday, books given to you by a particular friend, books that remind you of a particular time in your life, or books you read for an online challenge.

The great thing about this meme is that each participant can make their own rules. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the ones next to them in the chain.

For example, imagine the selected book was Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

I might link this to The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides - a contemporary novel which riffs on the idea of the marriage plot in 19th century novels.

One of the characters in Eugenides’ book goes on a spiritual odyssey to India, as does the protagonist in Drusilla Modjeska's memoir Poppy.

From Poppy, I make the leap to another favourite memoir: Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

Also by Didion is the novel A Book Of Common Prayer, about a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in a banana republic.

This leads me to Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, the story of an embassy siege in an unnamed South American country.

As well as being an intense drama, Bel Canto is also a surprising and deeply felt love story, which calls to mind Yvette Walker's exquisite debut Love Letters to the End of Love.

Thus, we have moved six degrees of separation from Pride and Prejudice to Letters to the End of Love.

How to Join the Meme

Of course, your chain will look completely different.  It doesn’t matter what the connection is or where it takes you - just take us on the journey with you. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the first book either: you can always find ways to link it based on your expectations/ideas about it.

We hope this meme will be fun, get your mind working, and give you lots of new book recommendations. As a blogger, you can join in by posting your own six degrees chain on your blog, and adding the link in the comments of our posts. If you don’t have a blog, you can share your chain in the comments of Emma’s or my post.

Our first post of the meme will be posted this time next week on Saturday 5th April and the book we will begin our chains with is Hannah Kent’s debut, Burial Rites, which has been shortlisted for the Stella Prize and longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction (formerly the Orange prize).

We look forward to seeing which books form the links in your chain. 

Your turn: Do you have any questions about the new meme? Fire away.

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Friday Fave: Donna Ward on Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

The Next Big Thing: New Book Meme

Top 10 Books that Crack Me Up

Ever since I read Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue in 2012 I have been meaning to read another of his books and I finally got around to Wonder Boys. Following on the heels of several intense and brooding books (Burial Rites, All the Birds, Singing, The Narrow Road to the Deep North) it was a wonderfully refreshing change to read something that really made me laugh.

Dark books have their place but a balanced literary ‘diet’ should have a bit of levity in there too, so I decided to put together a top ten of the books that crack me up.  

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I love Maria Semple so much that I included both her books on this list. She used to be a writer for the TV show Arrested Development, which gives you a good idea of her sense of humour.

The Cook by Wayne MacCauley

An extremely black comedy and a brilliant satire - not for the faint-hearted, nor perhaps recommended for vegetarians.

This One is Mine by Maria Semple

'Laugh-out-loud funny' is a much-overused term; I can count on my hands the books/films that are so funny they make me laugh out loud, but I am pleased to say this is one of them. There is one brilliant scene in a sweat-lodge that had me in stitches.

MadAddam by Margaret Atwood

Another satire, this one by the brilliant and always wry Margaret Atwood. I love all the books in the  MaddAddam trilogy but I think this one made me laugh the most.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

This book is both a tender and offbeat love story, which pokes fun at the crazy world of Hollywood. It walks a fine but steady line between screwball comedy and tongue-in-cheek satire.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman’s OCD plan to find the perfect wife is ridiculous to everyone but himself and much hilarity ensues before he finally learns to ‘go with the flow’.

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

The hopeless misadventures of Alex-Li, autograph collector, lend themselves to smirking more than outright guffawing; for me Smith’s funniest and best book. 

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

A Western with a hilarious deadpan narrator, for those who like their comedy a little on the dark side.

White Noise by Don DeLillo

Where to begin? This is one of my favourite books of all time. It is quietly funny as well as being extremely poignant and sad. 

There are parts of my body I no longer encourage women to handle freely.

Your Turn: Which books crack you up? Do any of these tickle your funny bone?

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Reading Round-Up: February 2014

Most Hated

I had a very frustrating month of reading mostly due to getting bogged down with one novel which took me weeks to read. Yes, I’m speaking of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Though at first I was enjoying it, by the halfway mark I was bored, and as I pushed through to the end I came to loathe it. If I hadn’t been reading it for my book club i would have gladly abandoned it. I know I am in the minority here as it’s being hailed as a masterpiece by every man and his dog, but I found the point of view and chronology incoherent, the violence gratuitous and the overall narrative repetitive and dull.


Short Fiction

Ahead of my Perth Writers Festival session on short fiction I read two short story collections. The Great Unknown is a collection edited by Angela Meyer and based on the world of The Twilight Zone featuring ghosts, time travel, alternate universes and other weird and wonderful ideas. The second was Now Showing by Ron Elliott, a collection based on film/TV scripts or treatments. While both collections had some interesting and skilfully written pieces, reading served to confirm that short fiction just ain’t my thing; I would much rather be immersed in the world of a novel.


With that in mind I embarked on A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. The idea of this appealed to me hugely - a message in  a bottle! - and I loved Ozeki’s earlier novel My Year of Meats but just couldn’t relate to the voice of the teenage protagonist in this novel and abandoned it after about 50 pages. Another one bites the dust! 

After so much ‘dry humping’ (excuse the phrase, but I was starting to feel frustrated) I was looking for a guaranteed page-turner and picked up The Cry of the Owl  - my first Patricia Highsmith. It was intriguing but it was also rather bleak and creepy and after re-reading Hannah Kent and Evie Wyld’s novels, as well as the aforementioned Flanagan i deperately needed something lighter.



Enter Michael Chabon’s Wonderboys. Quelle masterpiece! So many wry and astutue obervations about human behaviour, so many flawed and relatable characters, so many funny jokes. And a madcap plot that kept me interested all the way to the end…hallelujah!

Your Turn: Have you read any of these books? Do you want to start a fight with me about The Narrow Road to the Deep North? What’s the best book you’ve read this month?

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My Writing Goals for 2014

Friday Faves: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

…in which I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction and what it means to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from publisher Donna Ward: 


I remember the day it happened. I was in a bookshop in Elwood called The Grumpy Swimmer. I go there because the owner stocks quirky unusual books you’re unlikely to stumble across in bookshops more dedicated to Australian publications. Don’t get me wrong. As a publisher of books called Australian Love Poems and the forthcoming Australian Love Stories I appreciate booksellers dedicated to Australian literature. It’s just some days I want to stumble across something without an Australian twang to it and on those days I head for The Grumpy Swimmer.

I have no idea why my hand reached out to take this book down from the shelf. It has an unassuming cover and a long title—something publishers tend to avoid.

I opened the first page and read the first line:

‘If you listen, you can hear it.’

Then I read the second line.

‘The city, it sings.’

Then the third:

‘If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle of a street, on the roof of a house.’

…and there I was, unravelling like a skein of wool following each sentence until I was deep into this story and unable to put the book down. I bought it with my thumb in the page where I paused to pay and find a seat and continue reading.


If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things is the first novel of British author Jon McGregor. It was published in 2002. I found it in the summer of 2010 which is another beautiful thing about independent bookshops—out-of-date books linger on the shelves.

In the leather chair by the bookshop door I fell into a story of one event that occurs on one day in one street in one suburb in one city. After the stillest description of a silent city about to wake, the story begins in the moment of an horrific car accident. Then, McGregor slows the action down into a motion gentle enough to tell the stories of everyone living in the street.

There are many remarkable things revealed as the story is told, but none as extraordinary as that uncovered at the end when the remainder of the accident is described. What is clearly an horrific moment is transformed into something soft and transcendent, while not squinting from the finality of that moment. This is a story of how busy lives can distract us from events, facts and slight happenings we should take note of, tell others about and write of, lest we forget the beauty of this world and what it is to live in it.

If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things was long-listed for the Booker and Commonwealth Writers Prizes and won both the Betty Trask and Somerset Maugham Award. Pretty startling for a first book. Since 2002 McGregor has written So Many Ways to Begin (2007) Even the Dogs (2010) and This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You (2013).

For me, this book remains one of the jewels of English literature. It is poetic, not only at the sentence level, or the way the paragraphs and chapters flow and dovetail into each other, the entire book is a poem. I love writers who understand and try to master the poetic in their work. It leaves me satisfied, and it leaves me in a state of mystery, a state I often fall out of in the clutter of a day.

McGregor holds the narrative threads and weaves them into unusual ways that remind the reader there is another force in the world, a force other than the linear and literal, a force that expresses itself in synchronicity and metaphor so subtle and prevalent that we mundane humans living in places as profane as the city will miss out if we do not speak of it.

Donna Ward is the publisher at Inkerman & Blunt which recently brought out Australian Love Poems 2013, ed. Mark Tredinnick. She was the founding managing editor of indigo, the journal of Western Australian creative writing and immediate past editor of Sotto Magazine, an online publication of Australian Poetry. Her prose has been published in Island Magazine, Ext2012, Fish Anthology 2012 and JuteBox Anthology.

Your turn: Have you ever loved a book so much after just a few lines that you’ve stayed in the bookshop to read it?!

Want more?

Rory O’Connor on John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire

Perth Writers Festival Round-Up

Perth Writers Festival 2014 (Part III)

This will be my final post on PWF, I promise! There was just too much good stuff being said to squish it all into one blog post.

Eleanor Catton, Margaret Drabble & Jeet Thayil

One of the most thought-provoking sessions I saw at the festival was Eleanor Catton, Margaret Drabble and Jeet Thayil talking about the design of their novels with Geraldine Mellett. I love getting an insight from authors about the ideas behind their novels, and decisions they make on aspects such as structure, narrative voice etc so this session was fascinating for me.

Mellett opened the session with a quote about writing from EL Doctorow which is a particular favourite of mine: 

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Thayil said for him, writing is more like getting into a boat at night and heading out into the open seas, with no idea where you’re going. Echoing David Vann’s sentiment, he believes there is much to be said for gut instinct in writing, and said it took several years before the right structure for his novel became clear to him.

Drabble shared a similar story, of arriving at her point of view for The Pure Gold Baby simply through trial and error - trying out a few perspectives before settling on the right narrator.

I felt instantly warm towards Thayil when he revealed that his novel took five and a half years to write. I feel like I’m always hearing about people who write books in a year, whereas I’m a very slow writer and it gave me comfort to know I’m not the only one who takes years to finish a book.

One of the things I love about writers festivals is the opportunity to be exposed to people who are more intelligent than me, and though I have not yet read The Luminaries, the depth of thought that went into it astounded me - Eleanor Catton is nothing short of a brainiac - like an eighty year old mind in a twenty-something year old body. She described how she began The Luminaries with two years of reading, following what interested her from book to book, in particular, reading the writers of the nineteenth century ‘with the intent to steal from them’. She said when she begins writing she tries to keep the ‘what if…?’ part of her mind open for as long as possible. 

Catton quoted Aristotle, who apparently said that everything in a novel must be both probable and necessary. Drabble said she loves unnecessary bits and Thayil said he often writes pieces that seem to be unnecessary but turn out otherwise. I’ve been pondering this aspect of the conversation quite a lot in relation to the book I’m reading: Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex. Eugenides is fond of the totally unnecessary, or seemingly unnecessary tangent. These are ‘diverting’ in both sense of the word i.e. interesting but pulling my attention away from the main story.

Small and Perfectly Formed

My second chairing opportunity for the festival came in the form of a panel on short fiction. I talked novellas with Julienne Van Loon, flash fiction and editing a short story collection with Angela Meyer and the differences between writing short fiction and writing for film with Ron Elliott. We briefly touched on style, structure, genre and plotting in our conversation and there was a wide range of approaches to these aspects of writing from the panel, followed by some excellent audience questions.


A Good Death

Though I usually stick firmly to fiction-based sessions, at this year’s festival I was attracted to two sessions on topical issues. The first of these was on euthanasia or assisted suicide. Chair Anne Summers brought just the right amount of levity to a panel which touched on some raw and challenging topics. The discussion was well-received by what seemed to be a mostly in-favour audience although failed to adequately cover the problematic aspect of the risks posed by assisted suicide for the mentally ill.

A Country Too Far

My festival weekend finished with a sobering and deeply-moving session about asylum seekers. Editors Rosie Scott and Tomas Keneally explained their thinking behind putting together an anthology of fictional and non-fictional pieces which address the asylum seekers issue. Keneally spoke of how the legal and ethical argument - that people are entitled to seek asylum - doesn’t seem to sway people in the slightest, and they hope that by telling stories, by putting a human face on this issue, they might get people to see it differently.

The panel featured Debra Adelaide, who made a fictional contribution to the collection, as well as two ‘reformed refugees’ - Carina Hoang and Young Australian of the Year Akram Azimi. All spoke eloquently and with great compassion about the plight of current refugees in Australia but the speaker who most affected me was Azimi.

Having travelled extensively around Australia and met many people who were openly hostile towards refugees, Azimi held no bitterness towards them. He simple believes we need to find new ways of helping those people to understand the complexities of asylum seeking, and seemed hopeful that there was the possibility of change. I hope very much that the anthology A country Too Far will be a positive step in the right direction.

Your turn: I’d love to hear your thoughts about the issues discussed in these sessions, whether fictionally-focused or otherwise. There is always much to process after a writers festival and it’s great to be able to bounce ideas off others.

Want more?

Perth Writers Festival 2014 (Part II)

My Year in Writing 2013

Perth Writers Festival 2014 (Part 2)

Lionel Shriver & David Vann

My first session on Saturday was a really stimulating discussion between two expatriate American writers: Lionel Shriver and David Vann, chaired by Chip Rolley, also an ex-pat - which might say something about the US - I’ll leave it up to you to draw your conclusions! One of the things I love most about Perth Writers Festival is the myriad opportunities to bump into people you know, and this session was no exception. I sat between fellow local author and friend Dawn Barker, and Naama Amram, from my publishing team at Fremantle Press.

The discussion centred around ‘issues-based’ writing. Shriver said readers don’t turn to fiction ‘to be edified about social and political issues’ and suggested that if that’s what you’re about as a writer, you’d better cover it up well. I myself am easily turned off novels which seem too didactic, an experience I had recently with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel AmericanahShriver argued that novels need a broader thematic panel than the political issues of the time, in order to retain relevance and appeal in the longterm.

She believes fiction is good for exploring different issues, darker corners and deeper matters than non-fiction, that it should enlighten in some way that non-fiction cannot…or at least be funny. (She certainly was funny, in a scathing, bone-dry sort of way). She said her books stem from the intersection of the public and the private and that having a personal experience sometimes gives her a sense of ownership of an issue. For example, when a friend of hers paid $2 million in medical expenses, only to die anyway, she wrote So Much for That, ‘not from some dry political conviction, but from burning rage’.

She also elucidated the idea behind a phrase on the last page of her most recent novel Big Brother:

We are meant to be hungry,

She believes wanting something is more fun than getting it, an idea I found myself mulling over long after the session.

I didn’t connect quite so much with what David Vann said, perhaps because his work is unfamiliar to me, though one of his comments resonated with me very much:

An idea is the worst thing that can happen to a writer. it’s better not to know.

Hannah Kent & Evie Wyld

On Saturday afternoon I had the privilege of chairing a session with Hannah Kent and Evie Wyld, on the ‘fallen women’ in their novels Burial Rites and All the Birds, Singing. I had read both their books very closely and it was a great pleasure to hear both authors speak so eloquently about the thinking that underpinned the books: their sources of inspiration, their research and their characters.

Here we are, in the green room before the session:


And here, chatting up a storm in the Dolphin Theatre:


Martin Amis

After recharging my batteries with an amazing dinner at Balthasar with my parents, we headed off to the Perth Concert Hall to see Martin Amis in conversation with Tony Jones. And what a brilliant conversation it was! Amis quoted poets and philosophers, told affectionate and often hilarious yarns about friends and family members, including his father and stepmother - also writers, and made comment on every aspect of contemporary British society from ‘Lotto louts’ to the royal family. There were numerous quotable quotes, (though I got told off by another audience member for live-tweeting these) and I came away feeling educated as well as entertained.  

Your turn: What’s your take on issues-based novels? Do you agree that an idea is the worst thing that can happen to a novelist? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Want more?

Perth Writers Festival (Part I)

January reading Round-Up

I’ve also enjoyed these festival round-ups from Maureen HelenEmily Paull and Dawn Barker.