Tuesday, February 27, 2007


In a post a month or so ago I said that there was possibly another novel on the cards in August. Well the contract has been signed (by me anyway), so here's the scoop.

Martin's cousin Christine is a commissioning editor at Penguin. At the family Christmas party last year, Christine said, 'You should write a Chomp for us.' (yes, isn't it amazing, she speaks in hyperlinks). Anyway, being a suggestible sort and always one to succumb to peer group pressure, one smoky weekend a few weeks later, I did so. It took me three writing days. Once I got the voice and the idea, the writing flowed and because of my experience with editing and having already written three novels, I found that even the story structure was quite easy. I struggle with short stories, I think because I am so narrative driven and that can kill a short story to death, I end up forcing a fairly delicate singular idea onto the narrative freeway, like making an insect behave like a Mack truck, rather than letting it pool and swool about on its own currents of air. But a short novel seems to be something that I understand. It needs narrative drive and subplots and characterisation, but a light touch. The narrative needs to be simple, and any subplots compatible and able to direct the main narrative (so commenting thematically on the main storyline but also helping the action of the main storyline along). FI've actually had a go at a Bite as well (4000 words), and in that I didn't worry about subplots at all. It was all story. Characterisation was part of the plot exposition, there's no descriptions, well, only briefly. Only things that are crucial to the story are allowed to stay.

The Chomp is about 12000 words and it's mostly a story about girls and friendship. Josie moves house and has to say goodbye to her best friend Fee. In her new street there are new kids, but they miss Becca, who used to live in Josie's new house. The story is about letting go of the past, coming to terms with change and finding your place in a new situation. For Josie, there's a map, a literal map made by Becca that lays out Becca's memories and experience of the house. By experiencing the map, Josie becomes a part of these memories.

The way I came up with the idea for the story was actually by googling phrases like "the summer I was twelve" and came up with a brief anecdote about a family of kids who found treasure buried in the garden of a new house (not knowing if it had been left behind on purpose or if it was simply forgotten).

I've read some of the other Chomps, Bites and Nibbles, and I'll be in good company. The quality is high. Jane Godwin wrote a particularly moving one called The Day I Turned Ten about a boy whose little brother goes missing (temporarily) on his tenth birthday. Colin Thiele wrote one. Some of my favourite authors have written them: Ursula Dubosarsky, poet Bruce Dawe, Justin D'Ath, Thurley Fowler, David Metzenthen, Christobel Mattingly, Garth Nix...the list goes on. So I will be in good company anyway, sitting on the bookshelves. And Frederique will be thrilled about the little penguin logo on the book's spine - she just loves that penguin.

Incidently, Christine and I went for that Penguin job at the same time and it came down to the wire. I am glad things worked out the way they did - in the interview the publisher, Laura Harris asked me how I balanced being a writer and an editor. People do manage it - Jane Godwin, for example, or Margaret Wild. But I doubt I could be an editor full time and be a writer, or not the sort of writer I'd like to be. For me, I need to do the sort of editing I do - thinking about story and characters and that sort of thing (which is very helpful for a writer to do), without being 100% emotionally and professionally invested in the work, or I simply wouldn't have anything left for my own writing.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

2 new reveiws

Two more reviews of Breathe came winging their way through the post.

First from ALA Booklist
"Russon's bracing, poetic voice and earthy, likable characters ground the story's esoteric symbolism, and many readers will find their own fear and love reflected in the beautiful, open-ended metaphors."
Reviewed by Gillian Engberg

And from Horn Book Magazine
"[Breathe] is a fascinating character study, continuing to probe the allergorical connections between magic, female sexuality and sublimation of self while intorducing questions of predestination, indivduation, and a "multi-verse" of realities. Worth reading for the prose alone..."
Reviewed by Claire E. Gross

(P.S. There's a review of Bridge to Terabithia, the movie, on the Horn Book site. I'm a bit scared of it...the movie that is, not the review. 'Free the pee?' Puh-lease.)

And Lili sent me this link and this link today, in which a blogger talks in two different posts about her mixed reactions to Undine. Interesting. I understand that The Tempest references might seem a little overwhelming if you're not familiar with the play, but I wonder if Undine makes Shakespeare more accessible to kids? I didn't do it for that reason, mostly I used it as a starting point to give a thematic shape to my ideas about family and inheritance and identity and love (I never had an estranged father, but I did have long lost siblings come into my life when I was 18 so I think that's probably why the theme was one I was fascinated with).

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Very uncharacteristic self indulgent whinging post

Weaning Una is a bit like the first trimester of pregnancy except you don't get a new baby at the end of it (you do however get new boobs. Or I live and dream anyway. More compact, less emotional ones). But these are my symptoms:
I'm cranky.
The sound of someone else's baby crying makes me cry.
If I watched tv with ads, they would make me cry. As I don't, then things on you tube make me cry instead.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is making me cry. And worry about Fred and Una being left to fend for themselves.
I'm hot (well, everyone in Melbourne is, but I am finding it hard to tolerate. I am particularly uncomfortable in my skin. My skin feels oily and weird).
I have a constant nagging background headache.
I feel oddly disconnected from Una (I know this goes away, Fred actually became more affectionate after I weaned her). But breastfeeding kind of connects you to the newborn stage, it reaches back to pregnancy, where your bodies are physically intertwined. There's so much about the psychology of separation from the mother, but so little written about the psychology of separation from the infant.
I've lost my writing mojo.
I've lost my cooking mojo.
I am incredibly, intensely clucky.
I want to look like I did when I was twenty-one for publicity shots I'm having taken next week. Instead I will look like someone's slightly frumpy mother. Because that is what I am. (ooh, now that was self indulgent).

I am waiting for a sense of freedom and self ownership to kick in. It hasn't yet. I don't suppose weaning means I can go disco dancing at a moment's notice or suddenly fly to Paris. Perhaps when I go and buy my first underwire bra since about July 2002 I will feel more self-ownering. An underwire bra is almost Paris. Isn't it? If it's red.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Nicked from Lili Wilkinson's blog. (and hey looky what I found, you can download a sample chapter of Lili's book here).

This this this this this. Watch it. It's beautiful and exciting. It made me tear up but I'm fragile and interesting at the moment.


I have added Mrs Washalot to my list of 'on writing' blogs in the right hand margin. While it's not actually on writing, I think for me it falls into the category of Literary Nonfiction (a mystery genre, which seems to be the thing for people writing theses at Melbourne Uni and for people applying successfully for Australia Council Grants). It's a blog by Janet of Muppinstuff and I don't always remember to visit it, but she seems to update it with surprising regularity considering the apparent narrowness of the topic. The blog is part social commentary, part memoir and personal reflection, partly a critique of pop culture and gender roles and partly just a joyous celebration of a repetitive domestic task. Janet sources a lot of images associated with laundry from old and new advertisments, books and editorials. I've had two I've meant to send her for ages. A terrible picture book that used to be Martin's called Mrs Mopple's Washing Line (where laundry seems to the only chaotic force in Mrs Mopple's otherwise ordered life) and a Beth Norling picture book called The Stone Baby, where hills-hoists form part of a surreal landscape in a story about loss.

Laundry often falls to Martin in this house, but there is something immensely satisfying about hanging out wet washing and bringing it in dry. This is the first house Martin and I have shared that has had a decent washing line. The flat in Brighton (which we lived in in '98 as our first pad together and then returned to in 2004 for six months) didn't have one, so we used clothes horses. The house in Abbott Grove, Clifton Hill had an assortment of random lines strung around the courtyard with insufficient tension. The house in Park St, North Fitzroy...well actually i can't recall the washing line, though I'm sure there was something. In Alfred Crescent it was one of those retractable ones which, when pulled across, took up the best part of the tiny courtyard. We persevered with clothes horses for a long time after Fred was born, but when Fred became mobile she kept pulling all the clothes off. As cloth nappy users we eventually broke down and bought a dryer. The house we owned for a year in Mitcham had a clothesline attached to the raised deck but the deck itself was a hazard to life and limb for most of the time we lived there. The clothesline here is under the garage so unfortunately it doesn't get a lot of direct sunlight. But sitting under the tin roof, the clothes dry fast.

Still I long for a hills-hoist. The icon of the Australian backyard. Play thing of generations of children. Elegant skeletal creature, only half domesticated, dancer in the wild wind.

With two kids, one in cloth nappies at least 75% of the time, we can't afford to miss a day of laundry or it seriously begins to take over the house. We're stuffers rather than folders (Fred's clothes live in big buckets from IKEA and it is our long term goal to store everything we own in big buckets from IKEA) and we don't iron (we have a mini ironing board also from IKEA. We have ironed exactly one thing since Fred was born. Fred thinks it's some kind of wheel-less skateboard, or skipping board, as she calls them). But still its an arduous task. I don't know how people hold down jobs and deal with laundry, especially since most grown ups do iron, fold and hang their clothes.

Anyway, the point of this is, I love this blog. I like what it does. I wish more blogs were like it, so focussed and thoughtful and reflective. I like the Australianness of it, the dryness of Janet's landscape, the billowing white nappies on the old hills-hoist. The blend between personal and private, universal and domestic, the general and the intimately personal is immensely satisfying and successful.

The picture above comes from Melbournes Child, via Mrs Washalot.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Two books

I read two books in the last few day that I thought were worth mentioning here.

The first was Tuck Everlasting, an American classic written by Natalie Babbitt in 1975. It's quite a slim little book but extremely profound - how do these authors manage to load such slight texts with such laden meaning without overburdening them? So beautiful and elegantly sparse. The main theme is death and pretty much everything I wrote in my D post (written before reading the book) applies to this text. It is about a girl who discovers a family who have drunk from a stream of eternal life and are immortal. The novel explores whether or not this power is valuable or desirable. It's a book I've always been aware of but never got round to reading because I thought it might be twee or fey. It's not. It's quite understated though very sensory, and there's no jingle-jangling plinky music magicky bits - all the fantasy elements are written in a straightforward and seamless way. (How much do you bet that appears on the back of the book one day?)

The other was Coraline by Neil Gaiman. Gorgeous and spooky. Coraline discovers a door to nowhere in her apartment which ends up being to somewhere - a through the looking glass type landscape inhabited by her 'other mother and father' who want Coraline to live with them and be their daughter. Coraline's own parents end up trapped in the other world and Coraline must use all her wits to escape. The imagery is truly haunting and beautiful and (yes) melancholy - almost as if melancholy is manifested in the environment - the other parents' black button eyes, the fluttering paper butterfly, a dismembered hand as pale as bone, an elven child with cobweb wings, black beetles eaten from a paper bag like chocolate raisins. Well worth a read, but not straight before bed!

Is melancholy one of those ingredients that elevates a book into a classic? In both these books, melancholy is sited in the adult world, or more particularly in the child's gaze turned on the adult's world and in the tension of adult/child relationships. It is not the children who themselves are melancholic, it is the adults viewed through the child's eyes, it is the adult's world which the child is separate from but subject to (and they know one day they will enter it - perhaps this is the true source of melancholy, the death of the child, the loss of something childlike in the adult? Or is it the presence of something childlike, a kind of infantile greed? The incompleteness, the transition...) Perhaps if the children themselves are melancholic, are sites or objects of melancholy, then they belong in an adult book, because children don't see themselves as melancholic (whereas adults often see kids as melancholic I think, and childhood as a melancholic state).

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Consulting the Mystics

This is another one from Janet. The game reminds me of a Richard Bach book (I went through a Richard Bach phase as a youth) where you hold a question in your mind, open a book (special ones were published with suitably deep thoughts within, but Bach's original point was that you could do it with anything - a newspaper, a dictionary etc) and then the sentence your eye/finger lands on is your big answer from the universe. For example my question might be: 'should we go to the shopping centre to escape the heat even though the shopping centre will make me feel cross?' and the response from the closest book which happened to be Meredith Kirton's Dig was a picture of a Jacaranda and the description: 'Adapted to all climates except very cold and extreme tropical conditions. Young trees may need protection...' which is oddly fitting, though equally interpretable to be yes or no.

Anyway, the Splinternet version is to type "penni needs" into the search box and see the top ten responses (obviously if you choose to try this, you might think your own name is more fitting).

Penni needs:
1. a pic so everyone can see how hot she is (yes, aren't I smashing?)
2. ideas of what to go as. (a bee? A liberal voter? A chevrolet?)
3. to write a blurb (as a matter of fact, right now, I don't.)
4. mellow. (that's a whole sentence. Penni needs mellow. I like it.)
5. love (a Staffordshire Bull Terrier - who describes herself, yes it is first person, as an unaltered female.)
6. to suck in her gut. (Well yes. Yes, i do)
7. a caretaker or foster (another dog. Part Australian shepherd, part Norwegian elkhound. Poor confused thing.)
8. to serve drinks with that great food of hers (well, how about a nice turkish apple ice tea?)
9. to come first (right after God) for now. (yes, remember that all of you. After god, there is me).
10. to know TODAY if you would like to attend the technology conference. (actually, I'm not that fussed. Attend, don't attend. There's no need for me to sound so grouchy about it).

In other news, Una is in the process of weaning herself. I got pregnant with Frederique in July 2002 and since then my body has been contribiting to the sustainment of life of at least one other person since Fred self weaned soon after I got pregnant with Una. So my body is about to be my own again. Bring on the hormonal cocktail. And then maybe, well, normality, for a spell. Who will I be? What's gonna happen? Who can tell? I am a bit sad, but I am also quite not sad too. Who knwos what I'm feeling really. Tired. Hot. Mostly.

twinkle twinkle

Fred's got a Play School dvd out of the library at the moment (bless the library on 38 degree days) and I never knew there were more verses of Twinkle Twinkle. Turns out there are five. Go figure.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!

Then the traveller in the dark,
Thanks you for your tiny spark,
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!

In the dark blue sky you keep,
And often through my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye,
Till the sun is in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!

As your bright and tiny spark,
Lights the traveller in the dark,—
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A critical perspective of Undine

WARNING: much spoilerage if you haven't read Undine, only moderate if you haven't read Breathe and pretty much not except in general terms if you haven't read Drift but you've been warned. Also feel free not to read this post because it might be horrendously boring if you're not into this kind of thing.

Erica Hately of Monash University has written a paper about Mermaids and Undines and Tempests that was published in Borrowers and Lenders, an online, multimedia Shakespeare journal. There is a fairly substantial secion refering to my novel, Undine. I found it a few weeks ago but reread it today. I have to say I was flinching as I read it, not because it's a bad paper (it raises many interesting points), nor that it's too heavyhanded with Undine (but it is a bit I think - and hell, I've worn those academic goggles myself, can't see the woods for the feminism) but because it is hard to read about your own writing in that way. Incidentally, I studied Women's Studies at Monash. I think it's an extremely crucial form of critique but in terms of stories and writing, I think it's an artificial way to read. (That's a broad statement, but honestly, I think if I wrote about fully realised, self aware young adult characters in terms of gender then, well the stories would be artificial, they'd lack the authenticity of lived experience, they'd be cardboard characters. They'd be sock puppets. They'd be rhetoric.)

Anyway, in part her paper highlights an ommission. In the original version of Undine there was a scene where Undine went down to the beach with Ariel and read The Tempest. It was taken out because it affected the pacing and timing of the second half. However Hately rightly points out that Undine is not familiar with the text, though later shows some knowledge of the play - in character names and the last line, O Brave New World, which is a direct quote (Although I'm comfortable with the implication that Undine, who is a smart girl if not bookish, has been carrying the book around with her - of course she would dip into it enough to make the connection between Ariel and Caliban's names and 'O Brave new World' is a fairly recognisable quote from the play). Hately sees this ommission as sinister. She aligns Trout with authority, knowledge and "the moral gaze" because he knows the text and Undine does not.
Thus, the novel reinforces the division between masculine and feminine types of knowledge, characterizing "Shakespeare" as masculine and self-regulating sexuality as feminine. In the split between intellectual and physical ways of being and knowing, Russon's erasure of spirituality creates a gendered binary model of subjectivity.

For Hately, Shakespeare becomes linked to all knowledge, all textuality. But really, in the novel, Shakespeare is more linked to a scientific mode of inquiry which in itself isn't essentially gendered. Though I was interested when I wrote Undine in the Tempest's gender split - namely in the fact that magic came from two sources - from Prospero's books (science) and from Sycorax who is associated with the landscape, maternity, and the ether, the air (Ariel). But I don't share her view about the 'erasure of spirituality'. I wanted to create a new model of magic, one that was neither 'naturalised' nor 'scientific'. I didn't want Undine to have gods to invoke and therefore fall back on (it is fitting when you think about the novel as the first in a trilogy that for Undine, initially, her parents become like two capricious gods of the magic, by the end of Drift, Undine's relationship to her parents and the magic has radically changed.)

Undine's magic is feminine and associated with the amorphous sea, with a decentralised experience, casting out into the sky, into the world. But magic itself in the trilogy isn't exclusively female. Jasper's circles in the sand as a symbol, circles crowded inside circles, shows that there is a relationship from the outset between the circular and the cyclical and the linear.

Hately seems to find it problematic that at the end of the novel Lou is 'unequivocally' revealed as being responsible for Undine's magic. But a close rereading shows that everyone claims some responsibility, some ownership (either through classifications like Trout or a more immediate connection) of Undine's experience - Richard, sexually, Trout, through science and knowledge of 'the text', the Bay, as a magical landscape, Prospero, through paternity and then Lou through maternity (and a denial of Prospero's true power). But the implication of Jasper's magic (which develops through the trilogy) shows that magic is neither inherently female nor male. Undine's magic can be traced back to all sorts of places but in the end, its origin is less important than its presence. This is a significant part of Undine's journey - the tension of the magic's past, present and future, as she travels through the trilogy. In some ways Undine is about the magic's present (and presence), Breathe is about its past or its origin (and its nature) and Drift is about its future. Drift is also about temporality and linearity - the need to somehow coalesce two different understandings of time - linearity and circularity, male time and female time, in a meaningful way. Also space, its about boundaries, frontiers and what happens when boundaries are breached, when the wound bleeds in as well as out, when the limitations of space itself is transgressed.

Very briefly, Hately dismisses Sycorax as someone Undine or any girl would want to identify with, due to her monstrousness and maternity: "Within children's literature, the witch-figure tends to be a negative model; when sexualized or maternalized...she is certainly not to be aspired to by the adolescent female." However, like Marina Warner in her novel Indigo, I was always intrigued by the absent figure of Sycorax (and I first engaged with The Tempest as an adolescent). We only have heresay in The Tempest about Sycorax and to me her invisibility in the play is nicely aligned with Undine's failure to read the text. Undine says on p. 241, in response to Prospero's quest for youth and immortality, 'I want to grow up. I want to get old...Get married maybe. Have a baby one day. Even if it means getting sick and dying.' I'm not sure she would be disgusted or repelled by Sycorax in the same way Prospero (in The Tempest) was. At this stage, Undine is hoping for a future for herself that includes aging, mortality and magic. Perhaps Sycorax would offer, if not unproblematically, at least a model that combines maturity, maternity and magic (a model Lou has decided against, by suppressing her magic).

Hately ends her article with a fairly typical academic damning of past texts and optimism for the future:
Contemporary juvenile readers are consistently offered Tempests that suggest that feminine sexuality is to be present but passive, looked at but not touched, and the very presence of Shakespeare lends cultural authority to this message. I look forward in the future, however, to reading a text that combines feminine autonomy with the cultural capital of Shakespeare, that has a heroine who knowingly cites and rewrites our understanding of the "brave new world" — one who originates, rather than bears, the knowing gaze, who controls her own tail (or tempest), who is self-determining rather than self-regulating, and who enjoys a sexuality independent of patriarchal family structures.

The way she modifies the word 'reader' with the word juvenile in itself deserves srutiny. The implication is that a juvenile reader is somehow different from an adult reader and that a text for juveniles ought to behave differently. It suggests that the writers of 'juvenile' literature are themselves an authority, responsible for inserting a clear message for the reader to absorb, that a young reader isn't capable herself (or himself) of applying a broad range of experience and a thorough knowledge of cultural signifiers to a text to interpret meanings and apply their own values. It immediately priveleges the text over adolescent experience, the adult over the child. It also implies that her reading is the only reading, that there is only one way to decode the text. Yet the very journal she's writing for exists because of a text's multiplicity. In today's world of intertextuality knowledge of the text in its original form is often not necessary for co-opting it into your own internal text. I see that in Frederique all the time - she is constantly engaging with rewritten texts and stories (the three little bigs recast to be sympathetic to the big bad wolf or a song about the three bears that only implies most of the narrative but creates a sense of the whole) and she is constantly putting these fragments together to create a sense of the original chronology of events.

Undine acts. She is interested in her power, her identity, her origin. She is changing. She shifts between roles - from Miranda to Ariel to Prospero to Sycorax - as she tries to come to terms with her identity. But she isn't entirely autonomous, no. She is still searching for herself, for the way to control her power. She is not born fully formed. She is in process, and she is engaging with herself as process and to me, that is the essence of her strength, her aolescence and her femininity.

Thanks to Erica Hately for such an interesting and thoughtful engagement with Undine - looking at Undine from this angle was fascinating.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day and...

Happy last day of work, Zoe!! Good luck with the throwing off of the corporate shackles. Zoe is one of the number who has decided to chuck it all in and become a teacher. My parents were teachers and always told me not to be one. In fact all teachers of my parents generation told all people of my generation not to be teachers. Then of course there was this whole big crisis because now there aren't enough teachers. So we are anyway, just 10-15 years later. Well, I'm not. Yet. Just my generation.

And, in honour of Valentine's Day let's talk about things that are shiny. Shiny is a new e-zine seeking submissions:

Shiny is looking for fresh, entertaining stories between 2000 and 8000 words long. The style and substance of Shiny stories should be up there with the best current YA fiction, and should (for the most part) feature teenage protagonists. We're mostly interested in stories with speculative elements - science fiction, fantasy and horror - but we're open to non-speculative stories that would appeal to genre readers. We prefer a contemporary setting and/or feel to our stories, but will not let this restrict our choices. Shiny is aiming to appeal to teenagers, but also to the wide body of adults who read and enjoy Young Adult fiction. We look forward to reading your submissions!

Follow the shiny link if you think this is for you. I think submissions close in July but they say they might fill their quota before then (yeah, because writers are such before the minute people and never rewrite whole stories the day before they're due.)

(By the way, in the interests of being open and honest about my interest, they sent me an email, said lovely things about my writing and asked me to contribute. If you want your gig/zine/toenail promoted on Eglantine's Cake, apparently that's all you have to do).

Here's a story Martin came across to whet your appetite. Or, like, kill it forever. You do know they're talking about you, don't you?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Daindrops on doses and diskers on dittens

Janet recently posted ten things she likes that begin with B. And now it's my turn, at my request, Janet picked me a letter - D.

So without much ado about nothing, here it goes.

D is for Dogs. I love having animals around and consider myself a pet person, though at the moment we have only three outside goldfish. Dogs are the best pets for kids in my opinion because they're sociable and they get you out and about and they love to run. When the girls are older, when we've finished having babies then we'll probably get a dog. I had two when I was growing up. One was a biter who 'went to live on a farm' (yes, I believed it) and one was an airedale terrier called Dance who was a lovely tempered thing, though slightly daffy.

D is for Daydreaming. Before children, daydreaming was something I entirely took for granted and would probably never have appeared on this list. But now, daydreaming is something I fit fanatically into my life, on rare solo tramrides or rainy afternoons when the girls are employed in a task that keeps them occupied and lets me gaze out the window. I like night dreaming too, the arbitrariness of the images, the atmosphere of it, the way a dream can stay with you like a story. I like the lack of control in a dream, like appearing in your own tv show. I like the intensity of dreaming.

D is for Daughters.
I have nothing against sons, I just don't happen to have any. I love having two girls, and though if I had another baby I'd love the experience of having a boy, just for something new, I'd be just as thrilled (perhaps more so) if I had a third girl. I'm not a girly girl in the sense of being into make up and shoes and hair, but I have always enjoyed and sought out the company of women, most of my close friends are chicks. So in some ways I feel very suited to being a mother of daughters.

D is for Daylesford. About four times a year Martin and I have a reasonably serious conversation about moving to Daylesford. We love it there because it's the country with lattes, with an inner city, cafe culture. There's things about it we're less keen on (neither of us are chakra-crystal-incense people), but still, the idea of raising the kids somewhere less built up with a big backyard and bush around and still a reasonably short distance to family and friends in Melbourne and convenient to the airport to go back to Tassie or have my parents visit has endless appeal. I wonder if we'll ever do it.

D is for Dolls. I love dolls. Not so keen on the more grown up ones like Barbie (though I do have a little crush on Blythe). But I love big plasticky ones (kids or babies) and some ragdolls. Absolutely compulsory is for a doll to be fully dress- and undressable - I am not big on them being sewn into their clothes. I like them battered and worn too, and I think they ought to have a kid attached. Adult bedrooms filled with dolls are a bit creepy and there's something sad about a doll that is never played with.

D is for Dictionary. I love our big Macquarie Dictionary. I like just flicking through it, but I also like checking whether words should be hyphenated or not or finding precise definitions of things.

D is for Desert. I don't have much experience of the desert, but as I get older I find myself more and more enchanted by it as an image and as an Other, a space that is not me, not part of my history or identity. Of course an enormous percentage of Australia is desert but I've spent little time in it, just passed through the flat, drab Nullabor on the train between Melbourne and Adelaide. The desert seems such a confronting, exposed and exposing experience. On my father's side I am related to Gertrude Bell, a spy, a diplomat, an archaeologist and curator, advisor to Lawrence of Arabia, adventurer and an explorer of deserts. (I forget what the actual relationship is - distant I think, possibly even unverified.)

D is for Dessert, though it almost isn't, because in this house we all follow Fred's fine example and call it Bezerk. Usually I skip dessert, because it's mostly yoghurt and I feel like I shouldn't eat the girl's precious supply. I am also not overly a sweet tooth. But there are times when dessert is just the thing, and when such times arise I have a number of favourites, including chocolate mousse, tiramisu, brandy snaps (which really are simply a vessel for cream), apple and berry crumble, key lime pie, lemon meringue, raspberry and lemongrass trifle (well, I've only made it once but it was as if it came direcly from heaven), bread and butter pudding, sticky date pudding and some kind of smallish dark and decadent chocolate treat (I particularly love Eugenies).

D is for drinking. Not so much the hard stuff in this house, but I am an imbiber of many cups of tea and coffee every day. I like drinking cold (but not icy) water. Occasionally I crave milk. My secret pleasure is the very very occasional Coke (like four times a year) - it's trashy and juvenile and a completely artificially contrived and over marketed substance, but I just love it. And it tastes better if it comes out of a can.

D is for Death. It seems peculiar to add death to a list of things I like. And for the most part I have to say, death sucks. It sucks that people I love are going to die. It sucks that I am going to die. It sucks that people I know have already died. But death is kind of cool too. I'm kind of into the idea that death is an adventure. I don't really believe that death is a cold nothing nowhere state, though I have no religious beliefs to hang any notions to the contrary on. Just that it seems an awful waste of energy for us to exist only to then simply s.t.o.p. Also the good thing about knowing we're going to die is that it gives us energy to do stuff with our lives, an urgency to create - lives, art, meals, daughters, coffees, colourful afternoons...everything we do has a sweetness to it because it can't go on forever, because time happens and things demise, deteriorate, disintegrate, drift, decay, decline, disappear, decompose, depart, decease...things die. We die. And for all that it sucks, and it really does suck, it's kind of intensely interesting and inspiring too.

If anyone wants a letter let me know in the comments and I will benevolently distribute fragments of alphabet.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

N is for Neville Who Died of Ennui*

So, I am going to do my thesis on melancholy and childhood. That way I can include dolls, dollhouses, imaginary friends, death, Edward Gorey, childhood play, Gilead, The Sweet Hereafter, crossover books (picture books for young adults, books that teeter over from YA into adult fiction), Margaret Wild, magic, robots, butterflies... In fact so many things that I am realising I will have to further zero in because I have about 50 chapters worth of ideas. I guess some of the things I'm most interested in is the relationship between time, space and memory, and also whether or not melancholy transforms a book from a child's text into an adult text, because it somehow objectifies childhood and its child characters, rather than writing about kid characters in an immediate and engaging and present way (I'm thinking particularly of Sonya Hartnett's novel Of A Boy here, which is a book about a young boy and really the content isn't any more confronting that the content of her other novels which are marketed at children, but something transformed it into an adult book, apart form just the decisions of the publishers, and I'm wondering if that was her use of melancholy and nostalgia - distancing the reader from the immediate experience of the child character...thoughts are unfinished on this).

Anyway, thanks everyone for your suggestions because it really really helped. Hooray for talking to myself out loud and small voices inside my computer answering.

*(From Edward Gorey's book The Gashlycrumb Tinies)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Drift Cover

More here, including the blurb.

The cover was designed by Christa Moffit of Christabella Designs, using Chad Beckerman's image from the US edition of Breathe.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Coming up with a thesis topic 1

In a word: Urgle.

This year, as part of my Masters, I have to write a thesis. Technically I have a choice between a creative thesis and an academic one, but if I want to teach or do a PhD (and get a scholarship) then I pretty much have to do an academic one. Which is fine, it was my leaning last year. Howver I must admit this year, looking down the barrel of 2007 I began to get faint of heart and was thinking of doing a creative one, because frankly for me I believe it would be easier.

Anywho, so now I have to come up with a thesis topic. In the next week or so, preferably (or at least have an inkling which way I might go). Tralala.

Here are some random things I find interesting:
*Narrative structure - in particular, finding alternatives to mythic structure or the hero's journey in fiction, wondering (for my personal writing) if an alternative model could be applied to a genre fantasy novel or trilogy to interesting effect or if mythology could offer an alternative model.
*Temporality in fiction - in particular reflexive narratives, where you find out the end at the beginning, so the tension comes not from what happened but how it happened. A common choice for what publishers sometimes call crossover novels (novels that appeal to both YA and adults or are about teenagers but for an adult audience, like The Secret History or The Book Thief or The Lovely Bones).
*In my searches for inspirational papers I found an article on machines in medical dramas called Visual Anatomies by Petra Kuppers. It begins: "The jumping, modulating lines of heart and brain monitors abound in medical dramas. In them life is translated: from a living, breathing body into a visual representation." For some reason this has captured my imagination. I did some reading about comas when writing Drift, and came across the case of a man who woke from a 7 year coma to speak to his family, just as they were trying to make the decision whether or not surgery should be performed on him. Read more about it and some of the difficult issues that surround this phenomenon here, an interesting articles about coma and silence. But I don't know how I would shape my fascination into a particular thesis topic. Or if this actually qualifies as one of those things that's more interesting to read about than write about. In fact what I think I really admire about the above papers is the specificity of them, the drilling down into the layers of meaning in one precise image (the comatose body or the medical machine).
*This is a cheerful one - what a dead child/teenager or dead child/teenage body signifies in literature or other narratives (as opposed to an infant or adult). I guess partly inspired by Buffy, with the sheer volume of dead teenagers, but also thinking about books like The Lovely Bones, Bridge to Terabithia, Of a Boy, Seven Little Australians, The Secret History, Little Friend, The Sweet Hereafter, M. Night Shyamalan's film The Village etc etc etc So also contrasting what it signifies depending on the market its intended for - children, YA, adult, or (and in particular) those oddling crossover books that sit between adult and young adult (like Harnett's Of a Boy). But I'm worried it might prove too depressing to think about dead kids for a whole year.

I always thought when I wrote a thesis one day, it would be some lovely genteel topic like butterflies in Jane Eyre (are there any?) or Food and Power in the novels of Jane Austen. Or more likely, I thought it would be about Ancient Greek mythology or literature, since I planned early on to do a PhD in Classics. This was before anyone told me about post-structuralist metanarratives. Now, in true postmodern fashion, I am paralysed by choice and indecision.

Other things I am interested in include: fairytales, metafiction, the body, australian children's literature, american children's literature, nostalgia, the intersection of personal history, general history, fiction and landscape (for example Gilead, see review below), Anne Tyler, Charlotte Bronte, Alice in Wonderland, game narratives, television narratives, melancholy as an aesthetic principle, children's fiction set in the 2nd world war, Nina Bawden, Rumer Godden, Noel Streatfeild, Margaret Mahy, timeslip narratives, magic-in-the-'real-world' narratives, butterflies, cake, female friendship, imagery, metaphor, birds, winter, Jane Gardam, A.S. Byatt, Simon Armitage, Bob Graham's picture books, Margaret Wild's picture books...

Sorry, this is one of my blog posts where I'm really just talking to myself in the hope it kickstarts something into being. So far not. Sigh.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Another review of Breathe

I got a slimline yellow envelope in the post today from Greenwillow, the imprint of Harper Collins that publishes my novels in the US. Breathe has been reviewed in Kliatt. The review is mostly a (very sensitive) sum up of the story, but the reviewer Janis Flint-Ferguson does have this to say:

In this mesmerizing story, Trout is the real protagonist and his search to find himself stands in contrast to Undine and her desire to lose herself in magic.

What I like about this review (apart from the word mesmerising!) is that Breathe was always Trout's story to me, and it's nice to have that recognised. It also makes Breathe sound all clever and symmetrical, which of course it is.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

I'm Really Ever So Not Well

...as Lola would say.

Martin who has been doing a sterling job looking after me (and the kids) while I lie around groaning said, 'What would you do without me?' and I said, rather unfairly, 'Well, I wouldn't be sick for a start' since this is a Jorgensen lergy that he brought home after a lovely day at the beach with his family while I stayed at home and worked. Oh the injustice of it all.

Anyway, so while feeling revolting, the upside was that I finished Gilead, which got cast aside half read after holidaying for paid reading. It's a beautiful and astonishing book, one of the best first person narratives I've ever read. I was reluctant to finish it, though compelled to, because I felt I was inhabiting a world in which I wanted to linger and because the nature of the work meant that there was an implied though not enacted, and therefore not maudlin or sentimental, sadness in the ending. It wasn't till I looked at the Amazon link that I realised it didn't have chapters. But it doesn't. Which is actually a beautiful thing. It's a letter, written by an aging pastor to his very young son, his 'begats' he jokingly calls it, and it turns out to be an exploration of the mostly male relationships that have shaped it's life. Even though it is a letter, it's no stream of consciousness. It's delivered by a restrained and thoughtful, scrupulous narrator, determined to convey himself honestly. John Ames comes to life. The tension of the story, though it's not at all reliant on plot, comes from the mysteries: life, faith, truth, God, death. These ideas are especially embodied in the difficult relationship John Ames, the narrator, has with his best friend's son, named for him.

Her only other novel Housekeeping, written nearly 25 years ago, actually deals with similar themes of the profound way in which family, history and landscape intersect, though the focus is on mothers/daughters/sisters/aunts, and would serve as a perfect companion read. I first read it in 1995, in my first (proper) year of uni, and plan to revisit it after reading Gilead, which seems to be a popular move judging by reviews.

Gilead is highly recommended.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Thoughts on television

Yesterday I was going through some old documents and found something I'd written about toddlers and tellie. I wrote it when I was living in the burbs and pregnant with Una, I think as a letter to the editor in response to one of those: 'My, but how can those evil mothers let their children go near a tv' type letters. I still agree with myself. In Mitcham we were able to get good-ish reception for ABC so Fred watched it. Now we can't so Fred only watches DVDs. Una has so far shown absolutely no interest at all in the television, which is fine because she's got Fred to watch instead (and she's still young enough to play for hours with anything that fits inside something else). Anyway, so this is a kind of lazy blogpost because I'm going to cut and paste it in, but there's more discussion below, since I wrote this over a year ago and it sparked some reflection.

Sometimes I think that in an ideal world, my toddler wouldn’t watch television. In this same world she wouldn’t get sick and neither would I. It would never rain except in a delightful spend an afternoon splashing in the puddles kind of way. I’d have a bigger backyard, a network of friends in easy walking distance and my husband would earn more money so I didn’t have to work from home and I could use that time and energy thinking of delightfully wholesome yet free activities for us to do. Pregnancy would last 9 minutes instead of 9 months and wouldn’t come with nausea, physical discomfort, severely reduced ability to do endless repeats of ring a ring a roses and bone crunching tiredness.

The reality is television is a very useful tool in a parent’s belt. There have been no studies that show minimal exposure to television is harmful. As it happens I don’t watch it and neither does my partner, except for when we watch it with our daughter. She has a small collection of what we consider to be age appropriate dvds. Her favourite, incidently, is not one intended for a toddler audience. It is Travelling Birds, a documentary following the migratory habits of several species of birds. It has fostered an interest in birds which we have followed up through books, activities, discussions and outings. The footage is the result of years and years worth of painstaking and admirable work and I think her interest in the film will lead to a deeper understanding of humankind’s delicate relationship with the earth and of the fragility and yet awesome resilience of life.

Of course this isn’t the only thing she watches. She enjoys the standard kid fare shown on ABC in the mornings and afternoons when we have it on. As a writer I place a great deal of importance in storytelling and through television Frederique is exposed to character, narrative, imagination, language, dialogue…the true building blocks of literacy as far as I'm concerned - stories are the pay off for learning how to read. A love of stories is what makes kids want to read, not the sounding out of individual letters or words. Personally I am not comfortable having my child exposed to advertising but I am sure she will discover eventually that there are other channels. At this time it is my intention to teach her to read advertising with a critical and interpretive eye – after all it’s everywhere, the western world is saturated with it, so it is crucial that she learn how advertising works on a pychological level.

It goes without saying that children need books, activity, intellectual stimulation and fresh air in order to thrive. No child should watch television for hours at a time. But I’ve never yet met a parent who thinks that this is an acceptable way to use of television (or interestingly enough a young child who doesn’t get bored after a relatively short period of exposure). But it has a place, and to make parents feel guilty about using it is arrogant and judgemental and based on inaccurate assumptions.


I'm interested to hear what other people have to say. There's a part of me that's always a bit in awe of parents who manage to maintain a 100% ban on the box, so obviously that part of me believes there's something worthy about no tv, yet I believe myself when I say that there is value and legitimacy in the storytelling and narrative aspects of television. I think we as a society still see television as a "switch on, switch off" thing, as in switch the tv on and we opt out, we switch off. TV time is dead time, we no longer develop or learn. Which is an attitude that comes down from older generations, who saw the television as the death of the book, the death of intellect and imagination, much as their forebears saw the radio. As a product of a tv watching age you'd think I'd give myself more credit than that. Not just 'educational' tv but all tv offers us an experience outside ourselves, an opportunity to examine ideas, environments, values and psyches that are not our own. It brings us in contact with other people, other communities. It doesn't have to be a cheap experience. Take Travelling Birds for example - the richness of images and ideas is truly profound.