Sunday, October 23, 2011

a game in a game

The girls are playing. Una is a dog. She has bunches in her hair for ears, and a scarf stuffed into the back of her tights. Fred wants to join the game. She gets the stethoscope from the dress ups. She's the vet.

But Fred the vet is bossy and interventionist, and it was Una's game. Una comes to us. "I don't want Fred to be the vet, I just want her to be normal." By normal she means she wants Fred to be a dog too. 'I'll play my own game,' Fred says. Una wants Fred to play, she just doesn't want Fred to be a vet. This is an ongoing daily drama. Fred running from every disagreement with a quick and cutting 'I'm not playing!' and Una's copious tears. Martin starts to intervene. That way madness lies. He gives up. Fred goes down to the bedroom and comes back with an armful of stuffed toys which she dumps on the ground.

'I know!' Una offers. 'Fred could be a dog playing a game that she's the doctor. It could be a game in a game.'

Her words give me a shiver. A game within a game. A story within a story. A girl within a girl. Are metatexts are as primal as stories themselves - peeling back layers and layers of reality and illusion? Or is this trickery learned? Putting one Russian doll inside another, another doll already concealed inside the first.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

10 Quick Questions*

What was your earliest inspiration to write?

I was born with an ear for stories. Composing (music, songs, poetry, plays) seemed a natural thing to do, rearranging found objects into new structures.

Who is your favourite book character (any book) and why?

I’m going to be cheeky here and pick one of my own – I don’t think you ever really love a book character as much as one you have created. At the moment it’s Clara from Only Ever Always. She is brave and stern and fierce, but so vulnerable and has an enormous capacity for love. Her very existence is a philosophical conundrum, and I like that in a girl.

What is the best feedback a reader has ever given you?

Before my first novel Undine was published, Random House sent the manuscript out to teen readers for feedback. One girl answered the form questions in a positive but fairly perfunctory manner, but then added a note at the end saying she couldn’t put into words how the book had made her feel and how it was unlike anything she’d ever read. Her speechlessness was very touching.

What was your favourite picture book as a child?

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat. I find it impossible to put into words how that book makes me feel, and I suspect it's more in the pictures than the words. So I'll tell you about another book, an odd little number called The Little Slipper Man. It’s a German picture book, quite nihilistic, about a miniature invisible man who no one can see. One day he steals a pair of psychedelic slippers (his little stalk legs slipping around inside each one) and runs down the street and feels very special and important until he realises everyone is looking at the slippers and not him. So he goes back into the meadow, disappears into the long grass and continues his insignificant, inconsequential existence. Not sure, now I have recounted the tale, why it appealed so much. I must try and track it down.

What are you reading right now?
Reading has been a challenge this year. I've wanted desperately to do it, but I am short on space. Avery sleeps in our room during the day and we only have one living area so in winter when the girls are home I have nowhere to go. Still, I am managing to find some reading spaces. This year I've been reading books concurrently, frustrated by how long it takes me to get through a book. I always have one or two collections of short stories on the go because I am enjoying them so much and sometimes I can even manage a whole one in a sitting before the baby cries or the television fires up or a child wants a snack.

I am reading quite diversely in terms of genre, though looking through this list I see that nearly everything is Australian, except for The Lottery. I had a deep craving about a month ago for Australian writing, which is what led me to seek out Patrick White. I am hooked, and plan to read another after this one. The only other I've read was The Vivisector in my early twenties. I am keen for recommendations.

Novel: Patrick White The Aunt's Story
Non-fiction: Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham and Kinglake 350 by Adrian Hyland
YA: Merrow by Ananda Braxton-Smith
Audiobook: The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Short Stories: Little White Slips by Karen Hitchcock and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

If you could set a story in any time or place, where would it be?

44 rue des Écoles, on 25 February 1980.

If there is one book you wish you’d written, what is it?

The Gruffalo. I greatly admire those effortless rhymes. How gloriously smug Julia Donaldson must feel, and so she should.

If you could sit next to any historical figure on a plane, who would it be and why?

An ordinary person with a tale to tell from any period in history (which is why I like Malouf’s Ransom so much).

If you could give one sentence of writing advice what would it be?

Interrogate reality.

Which literary quote best defines you?

“There is an extraordinary charm in other people’s domesticities. Every lighted house, seen from the road, is magical: every pram or lawn-mower in someone else’s garden: all smells or stirs of cookery from the windows of alien kitchens.”
C.S. Lewis, Time and Tide, 16 June 1945

*Originally answered for the Ballarat Writers and Illustrators Festival, though I've updated my reading list.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Walnut and nutmeg cake

The recipe for this cake has a curious method, where you rub the butter into the flour, spice and sugar and then pat half of this flour mix into the cake tin. You then mix the rest with the wet ingredients and chopped walnuts to make the rest of the cake. It means you end up with what is almost a pastry base, very thin, which gives the cake an excellent textural dimension: a crunchy, bitey, buttery, sugary bottom. The rest of the cake is soft and fluffy, a little caramelly from the brown sugar, balanced by the earthiness of the walnuts. The original recipe called for pecans but I had walnuts and I suspect this was an improvement - pecans would be sweeter but they're a little prissier, don't you think? We had this cake for morning tea and it was lovely as it was: unadorned, washed down with tea or coffee. But if you wanted to serve this for dessert (and I really think you could), then I think a thick sweetened yoghurt would be a perfect accompaniment. If you really wanted to go the whole hog and ice it, then a cream cheese or sour cream frosting (like you'd use on a carrot cake) would be the best match. The recipe suggested dusting with icing sugar. The cake is VERY nutmeggy. (I grated my own. First time. I liked it.) Una loved it, Fred not so much.

I did my "rubbing in" in the food processor so it ended up quite fine and I thought it was way too dry to stick together, but once baked the base was perfectly firm and solid, I suspect I could have done a lap of the house with it in my hands and it would have held together. I guess some of the moisture from the rest of the cake mix seeps in.

2 cups (250g/8oz) SR flour
2 tsp ground nutmeg
125g (4oz) butter
1.5 cups (345g/11oz) brown sugar
.5 tsp bicarb
1 cup (250ml/8 fl oz) milk
1 egg
.75 cup (90g/3oz) chopped walnuts (pecans, almonds...I don't see why you couldn't use any nut)

1/ Preheat oven to 180ºc (350ºF/Gas 4). Grease and line a 20m springform tin. Sift SR flour and nutmeg int a bowl (I never sift) and add the chopped butter and brown sugar. Using your finger tips, rub the butter into flour mixture until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. (I did this in food processor).
2/ Place half this flour mix into the cake tin and press it down until base of tin is evenly covered. Press it down smoothly (using back of spoon or hands).
3/ Combine egg, bicarb, milk, nuts and add to the remaining flour mix. Stir till mixture is just smooth (except it won't be smooth because you have chunks of nuts in there, stupid recipe)
4/Pour this walnut mixture over the crumb base of the prepared tin and smooth surface with spatula. Back 35-40 minutes or until skewer comes out clean. (In my whizzbang fan forced oven I needed the full 40.) Set cake aside for at least 10 minutes before transferring to wire rack to cook.

Recipe from Family Circle Quick Mix Cakes circa 1996

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lines written to amuse Una on holidays

Under a figtree,

never seen by waking eyes,

a fairy girl creeps.

Petunias and daisies grow wild in her

eyes, she is

all flowers and cobwebs.

Remember her name? It’s on your

lips, like a half kiss.