An early influence: books we read in childhood

I typically write speculative realism – real life that bumps into another sphere our secular humanist culture says isn’t ‘real’. That other realm may be understood as spiritual, metaphorical, the stuff of dreams or of nightmares.

I wonder what inspires me to write like this? In part it’s what I read as a child.

I always enjoyed novels with magic, fantasy, and strange spiritual occurrences. I lived a very ‘real’ life – our family was not involved in religious practice, superstition, or looking for luck. It was a very ‘modern’ life, all about here and now. But I wanted something beyond that.

One of my enduring favourite children’s novels is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, an English writer who published many books from 1934 until 1970. I have a 1949 edition that first belonged to my mother. When writing this post I learned that this was the only novel Goudge won a significant award for (the1946 Carnegie Medal for best children’s book by a British author), that it was a favourite of hers, and that it was also a direct influence on JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

The Little White Horse is a fairy tale with fairies, a unicorn, God, and a passel of Norman invaders. The characters are charming, the setting evocative, and it has a happy ending after a suitable amount of drama on the large scale and in personal relationships. While it received due accolades, some of Goudge’s writing was considered sentimental (I agree) and shallow (I disagree). This was recognised as a critical bias when one of her ‘failed’ novels was plagiarised well after her death, reset in India by an Indian writer, and gained rave reviews in the US. A curious observation of how we perceive books and authors…

Artwork by C Walter Hodges in the 1949 edition of The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, specifically the title page, endpapers and frontispiece.
Title page, endpapers and frontispiece by C Walter Hodges in the 1949 edition.

Here is what Goudge herself said about the modern tendency to depressing ‘realism’:

“As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself.”

In the twenty-first century, when fantasy has a huge following, affirming the value of the imagination may not be needed, but her comments regarding happy endings and reality being broader than the material world are still pertinent. I write speculative realism because in the fairy tale of The Little White Horse I found hope and faith in something more than I could see and measure. We need to believe that happy endings are possible, and we need charm, beauty and mystery even as we contemplate hard and ugly things in the world and ourselves. The sad and the happy, the magical and the measurable are all real. I hope my stories can help readers see reality beyond the material world as Elizabeth Goudge did so well.

Charming illustrations by C Walter Hodges in the 1949 edition of The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
Charming illustrations by C Walter Hodges in the 1949 edition

Do you have a favourite book from your childhood? What kind of influence might it have had on your life?

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I get by with a little help from my friends

I’m making a discovery that many people will think is pretty obvious – life is easier with friends. It’s not that I haven’t appreciated my friends. I have been blessed with many amazing people who demonstrate friendship on all different levels. But I’ve been so habitually independent, it’s been a slow journey to letting those friends in to the more vulnerable places of my life.

Last weekend I did something I’ve never done before. I was invited by our local fruit and vegetable shop to hold a ‘book signing’ event. My book is nothing to do with fruit and vegetables – the only food mentioned is pizza – but this lovely young family celebrate and support everything local, including this local author. Their support has been amazing, from posting about me on their rapidly growing Facebook page, to keeping my promo postcards and talking about me to customers at every opportunity.

I was thrilled to be invited and very nervous because I didn’t know what kind of reception I would get. I don’t like running the gauntlet of sales people when I just want to enter a store, and I didn’t want people to think I was hell-bent on selling anything. Sure, selling books is sort of necessary for signing them, but I also wanted them to feel free to just chat or move on without engaging. I also hate being ignored, so that left me in a tough spot.

Book signing table and posters outside a local fruit and vegetable store
Book signing with my friend Jenny who helped me set up and stayed for three of the six readings.

I asked friends if they would sit with me for a few minutes as I read an excerpt of my novel The Golden Hour each half hour. One friend per reading was my goal so I didn’t have to read aloud to the air. The friends I approached were so encouraging, recognising the courage needed to put myself out there, supportive even if they weren’t available to help. Enough were available that I had one or two friends at every reading, often sitting with me between readings as well. We had some lovely chats with customers about personal challenges, writing, growing vegetables, moving house – and even sold a few books. It was fun!

In the past, I have felt that asking friends to be with me when I faced a challenge like this would have been admitting weakness or presuming on them. I understand that the message behind those ways of thinking is shame at not being confident to manage these things on my own. I’m not listening to that message any more. I’m going to invite my friends to be part of my learning curve as an author and a human being who accepts that life in community is more satisfying, less lonely, and makes room for collaborative creativity.

 

Do you have a story about friends making something easier for you? Is there a friend you would like to celebrate for going above and beyond to help you become more truly yourself? Encourage us with your story!

What is your book about?

It’s not surprising when an author is asked this. It’s the question I have prepared for and practised an answer to hundreds of times. It’s the question I want people to ask me. But it throws me every time I am actually asked.

My book is like a person I know well: it’s difficult to limit my description to one or two main characteristics. In different moods, I want to emphasise different aspects of the story. To different audiences, I want to bring out the elements that are likely to be of most interest to them. Which is difficult when I don’t know the person who asked.

My novel, The Golden Hour, is hard to describe in common catchphrases. It doesn’t fit, as I’ve written before, typical marketing categories. Should I describe it as a ‘crossover’ novel (i.e. for audiences crossing from teen to adult)? Is it more a mystery than a psychological thriller, a contemporary drama or speculative fiction? It’s all of them. But that’s not what the questioner wants to hear.

It’s about a boy growing into manhood. Should I describe it as a coming of age story? It’s about living, dying, and how one influences the other. It’s a ‘what if…?’ about being stuck in a locked room. (That’s enough to put claustrophobia sufferers off!) It’s about how we react in crisis and how that affects others.

A colourful stack of books and a black one leaning against them with a big white question mark on its cover
Image by Crencils via Flickr

The novels I’ve been working on for the last nine years and haven’t finished yet are another case in point. They’re set in an alternative future, a dystopia, a place where technology is perfectly integrated and life is easy – if you’re willing to accept the limits of the totalitarian regime. These stories are also about a woman experiencing midlife crisis. She’s a journalist who has styled herself as an activist and is now facing the hard questions: ‘Have I made a difference? Is real change even possible in my lifetime? If I could do it differently, what would it look like? Can I find a way to make the rest of my life meaningful?’ Which of these factors is the best way I could describe these stories? Should I just describe the first novel or the theme of the series?

Then there’s the novella I have been planning for a few years and just started writing. It’s YA, speculative about parallel time zones, and explores the power of love to change the ways we believe. You can tell I don’t know this one very well yet – the previous sentence poured into the keyboard without a struggle. I can characterise it easily because I have only written one chapter and the outlines of the rest. Ask me in a few months what it’s about and maybe I’ll think of five things to tell you before settling on one.

But ask me anyway: What is your book about? I’d love to tell you.

 

Do you have something you have written (fiction, non-fiction, published or just personally significant to you) you would love to tell people about? Tell us in the comments. I’d really like to hear about it.

 

Poetry review: Of Llamas and Piranhas by Valerie Volk

I have never been to South America nor seriously considered doing so. It’s a long way from Australia and I really don’t know a lot about it. But having read Valerie Volk’s recent poetry book recording her impressions of the continent in poetry, my interest is piqued. Shortly after I read the book, a social media friend took a similar trip, posting photographs which picked up so many of the images in the poems it was uncanny.

of-llamas-cover

Thirty eight poems, each with a black and white photograph, tell the story of Volk’s travels from Australia to Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, and home again. Each day she records impressions from that day’s sights and experiences, vividly, personally, sometimes humorously, often challenging her own culture’s values and accoutrements.

Travel to South America from Australia crosses the date line, that ‘contrivance of the calendar’ (‘En Route – Flexitime’), which Volk uses to bracket the story, to reflect on our relationship with time and our experience of day, night, memory and future.

From the first days in Chile, she is uncomfortably aware of the:

modern buses crammed with tourists
as rapacious as any who have plundered
in former centuries  (‘Plaza de Armas’)

This theme recurs, both of the plundering colonials of South American history and the impact of tourists on traditional lifestyles today. Visiting the Plaza de Armas and the Pre-Columbian Arts Museum in Chile, the favelas and a bird park in Brazil, and Machu Picchu in Peru, Volk notes the generations of history as one empire is overcome by another, and reflects a sense of loss as she admires what remains of the earlier cultures.

Volk frequently uses contrast to shape the content of her poems: contrasts between past and present, tradition and modernity, threat and nurture, the tourist and the local inhabitant, one animal species and another, indulgence and simplicity. In many of these, she comes off the worst in her reflection, asking herself:

we who walk among them,
do we have the right to drive away,
return to luxury hotels,
download our photos
for display to friends back home,
while shaking heads in wonder
that anyone can live like this?  (‘In the Favelas’)

There are tantalising word pictures:

the reed beds, floating
in a glassy mirrored sea
with all reflections gilded
like a fabled Incan temple,
seemed insubstantial
in the glorious dawn  (‘Moving On’)

and:

its slow plume
of black smoke hangs beside us
as we round the river’s curves  (‘On the Train’).

In turns majestic, ominous, beautiful, wistful, the scenes Volk paints are like cameo insets from a grand, rich canvas.

Amidst the scenery and the sensory are a couple of rare, intimate pieces that acknowledge an earlier love:

Yet still that pang,
when I look up to watch
the two macaws fly off together  (‘On the River’).

It is this mix of tourist vista and personal memoir, with humour, philosophical reflection and humility that make Volk’s collection so much more than a travelogue.

In the poem ‘Homeward Bound’, one of the two Transit poems at the end of the book, Volk reflects on the journey she has made, and rightly describes the experiences revealed in the preceding poems as a ‘kaleidoscope’. Whether she was plundering or simply observing, she was ‘gathering…memories of gold.’ Indeed, this collection, Volk’s sixth poetry book, is an opportunity for those of us who have never visited South America to participate in the gold of her memories.

Of Llamas and Piranhas is available from Ginninderra Press and other online bookstores at the recommended retail price of AUD$22.50

Note: This review is independent. The reviewer gains no financial benefit from the sale of the book.

Have you read a book or a poem that has inspired you recently? Please tell us about it in the comments. Your recommendation can spread the joy!

Small voices – promoting the arts in our own communities

Drawing an audience is the subject of umpteen articles, books and videos. I’m no expert and I’m not going to give you a how-to. My book sales are progressing slowly, and my opportunities to speak about the story are few. Everything I read tells me I have to make it happen, and I’m trying to. That’s not pleasant for those of us (most authors, I believe) who would prefer to leave the promotion to someone more outgoing and entrepreneurial.

The author’s journey is similar to that of every other kind of artist. The ‘break’ into publication/exhibitions/gigs is just the beginning, because the break does not necessarily bring the audience.  This year has been a steep learning curve as I’ve negotiated the trail of being an author. Though my novel, The Golden Hour, was printed mid-year, the journey began in January. And it never ceases.

Along the way, one factor has become apparent to me – we are all potential promoters. I read, I watch movies, I buy goods made by local artisans, I attend exhibitions, and I have friends who create all of these. And I have a voice.

Cacti and Crochet is a home business run in Adelaide, Australia by my daughter and her husband.
A home business my daughter and her husband run. They have a Facebook page and she writes an occasional blog on crochet.

It’s a small voice – the circles of friends in my community and on social media – but it’s something. To be honest, I’m not a great salesperson and I don’t like writing reviews. But I like my friends, and I believe in them, their hard work, their creativity. So I’m starting to use my small voice to promote them as creative producers. If I engage with their book, I’ll write a review on Goodreads. If I love the crocheted beanie I bought, I show it off and make sure my friends know who made it and how to find that artisan. I’m learning to boast in my friends’ work, when I genuinely see its value, and I hope my friends will do the same for me.

Of course, we could take it further. Some people are active in giving ratings for products they buy, and more and more sellers offer that option. But I’m talking about community here, the more local and personal version of that. Most artists don’t have an agent or a company with a market presence, which makes it really difficult to let people know about what they make.

There’s a woman in my community who does not see herself as particularly creative (though I have to say her home and garden are lovely). She loves beauty and creativity and makes a point of going to every event held locally by local artists (visual, performing, written, sculptural, you name it) and she regularly buys at local craft markets. I asked her why and she said that she loves her community and wants to encourage creative people to do what she cannot. She’s using her presence and her small voice. One couple I know went the extra mile and recently threw a public garden party at which they invited all their creative friends to sell work and at the same time raised funds to support a local family through the sale of afternoon tea.

Selling the novel The Golden Hour by Claire Belberg at a friend's garden party
Selling my novel at a friend’s garden party

Let’s show our support for local creative producers – authors, visual and performing artists, craftspeople – just as we do for our favourite local eatery or winemaker. Let’s show ourselves to be in solidarity with them as they work to draw an audience, using our small voices in whatever way we can.

Is ‘boasting in the creativity of your friends’ something you can see yourself doing? If you do already, let me know how you do it so that I can try it too!

I have a dream…

You could say my life is characterised by dreaming. And until recently that was something I felt embarrassed about.

I am a dreamer. Not the socio-political dreams of a Martin Luther King Jr but daydreaming. No, I wasn’t the kid in class who didn’t pay attention (another stereotype bites the dust) but I daydreamed to the rhythm of swings, imagined other worlds while I puddled in the creek at the bottom of the hill where my childhood home stands, and read, read, read. I have long enjoyed the world of my thoughts and the ‘what ifs’, and I cultivate dream sleep. I’m not into lucid dreaming, just imagining, letting my mind float, wondering.

Adelaide Hills creek where I grew up - a dreaming place
The creek I grew up by – a personal dreaming place

Why did this embarrass me? We live in a culture that says we’re meant to be usefully busy, achieving tangible goals, making a difference. We’re told not to waste time, have nothing to show for it, or be ‘so heavenly-minded we’re no earthly good’ as an acquaintance once described me to a friend.

There was also reading guilt, grown, I suppose, out of the many times my mother called me and I’d ‘just finish the chapter’ two chapters later.

In my fifties now, I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’m not likely to achieve anything in this world that makes people think, ‘Wow, she made a difference’. No more than the next person, at any rate. And, to be honest, I don’t think my imagination is going to take the reading world by storm either. So how can I justify being a dreamer?

I don’t have to. It’s just what I am and that’s okay. I dream for the same reasons I write – to understand myself and to enjoy story. Dreaming isn’t all I do but it’s an important part of what I do, even if it doesn’t change the world or make me look like an asset to the neighbourhood. And maybe something more will come of it, when a story or a poem emerges that others enjoy too.

What about you? Do you like to daydream? Do you have other ways of challenging the ‘must look busy’ mentality of our culture?

Dedicated to…

My recently published novel, The Golden Hour, has a dedication in the front*. It reads:

In memory of my maternal grandmother,
Mirabel Cobbold Rogers,
whose love of writing inspired me from childhood
to dream that I, too, might become
that magical being: a writer.

It was a last minute idea. There are so many people I could have chosen to name who have made valuable contributions to my life and writing. I chose to honour her, though I did not know her well because we lived on different continents.

Author Mirabel Cobbold Rogers as a young woman
Mirabel Cobbold Rogers, author

She came to mind as the novel was going to print because I was about to travel to the UK, and among the plans for the trip was a side trip to East Anglia to visit sites related to her family history. We met up with the delightful founder and keeper of the Cobbold Family History Trust, who joined us in Ipswich to introduce us to my ancestors, so to speak. It was a fabulous three days.

Prior to that we looked up the archives of my grandmother’s student days at the Society of Oxford Home-Students (which later became St Anne’s College, one of Oxford University’s 38 colleges), and what a treat that was! There were letters from her and about her, and even a copy of her wedding invitation. The husband she married in August 1927 was dead by the end of that year in a tragic test aircraft accident, and the newspaper cutting of his death was among these records. Thank you to librarian Clare White of St Anne’s for making these available to us and with such enthusiasm. Continue reading “Dedicated to…”

Light for dark days

My book launch was on the shortest day of the year. I like long days, so the winter solstice (in June in my part of the world) is both a bane and a boon – long night (yuk), days starting to get shorter (yay). A book launch was a great distraction as the days grew darker earlier, and the celebration of my book with seventy people was, for me, also a celebration of more light coming in the cold weeks ahead with the gradual lengthening of days.

I obviously do not have Viking genes. I’m told (by one who does) that those with such genes are not prone to SAD, the light-deficit depression that many others suffer in the long, barely light days of northern Europe, Asia and North America. I crave light, and that’s in a southern Australian winter where many days are bright, and even the reflection from the clouds is glaring. In the Adelaide Hills, where the rainfall is higher than on the plains, we experience more cloud cover and therefore more grey days. And they drive me nuts. We installed bright lights when we had to replace our light fittings, and on grey days I leave them on. I refuse to close curtains until outside provides no additional lighting inside. Our children, on the other hand, seem to be troglodytes. When asked to choose their preferred bedroom curtain colours, they chose dark, heavy fabrics. Aagh!

I adhere to the ideal that the only way to spend such days is lost in a book, wrapped in a blanket or in front of a warm fire. Reading is such a gift, a legitimate escape from the immediate world of our experience. I say it’s legitimate because reading, if the content is not entirely puerile, is not merely escapism. Can I make a plea that we differentiate between ‘escape’ and ‘escapism’? The first is fine – we need to be able to rest, recuperate, escape from current pressures for an hour or three. It’s only healthy, giving us what we need to be able to re-enter the fray and last the distance. Escapism, on the other hand, is a habit of escaping, a way of life that runs from life when the going gets tough. Not so healthy in the long run, like all life-controlling, life-sapping habits.

Reading is, in itself, a valuable activity. It stimulates the brain in ways that benefit other functions. It enhances the capacity to think (language is needed for ordered thinking and the stronger the language ability, the sounder the capacity to think usefully). It, obviously, provides information. It enables us to come across views we have not held and experiences we cannot have. It enlarges our sense of our humanity, and humbles us as we realise that we are not individually the centre of the human family.

Then there’s fiction. It does all of the above, but it adds an emotional aspect. Good books draw us emotionally into story, engaging us with characters and settings we have not physically met. The heart of good fiction is truth. Not necessarily facts, but something that resonates in our spirits as the real thing. In our scientific age, we don’t always recognise that truth is not limited to measurable fact. There are important truths that will never, I expect, be able to be measured or observed scientifically, to do with issues of meaning, purpose, and qualities of spirit. Love, for example, is said by some to be merely a matter of chemical reactions. We, who have ever been loved deeply or longed for it, know that this does not express it all (or at all). That’s where fiction can reflect and explore like nothing else.

So on these wintry days of the southern hemisphere, go ahead and escape for an hour or three, and let the light refresh your weary soul.

 

Where is your favourite place to read (winter, summer, wet or dry season)?

The Golden Hour launched

All the work of promotion, planning and preparation for the big event culminated in a fabulous evening at my local library with about 70 well-wishers. It was wonderful to have the support of so many friends and relatives, and thrilling to also have people attend whom I had never seen or met before.

book launch signing

Reading at the book launchI think I saturated my local neighbourhood with flyers, newspaper articles, community Facebook notices and talking to everyone at every opportunity. The support of the local traders was astounding, and made me realise again how wonderful it is to live in a place with a sense of community. The Adelaide Hills is like that, a string of local communities in the range of hills lying to the east of Adelaide. Of course, the publishers were doing their part too, and my writing group and my faith community.

Writing can be a lonely pursuit. We need community,  professionally and personally. Professionally, our work benefits from the objectivity of other writers critiquing it. And, of course, we need readers and buyers! Readers in our neighbourhood are the starting point for what ultimately becomes a non-geographic community of readers. It’s such a privilege as an author to connect with this community, and that’s where the personal bit comes in. Continue reading “The Golden Hour launched”

Novel released!

My first novel, The Golden Hour, has been released! Here’s what it’s about:

Graphic artist and computer hacker, James Elkind, finds himself imprisoned with two women. Who are his companions and what is this facility they’re trapped in? As they search through the past to try to understand their surreal dilemma, seventeen year old James must confront the contradictions of his identity. Can he escape to find a future or will this place prove to be his tomb?

I completed this short, somewhat literary novel 8 ½ years ago, and received very encouraging feedback from a number of writers I respect. I duly submitted it to unpublished manuscript competitions, small and large press slush piles, and a couple of agents. In Australia, agents are as hard to come by as publishing opportunities, so it’s not a simple process of ‘find an agent and they’ll find the publishing house for you’ as the plethora of internet-based advisors suggest.

In the meantime I began my second, much longer, novel. It’s an entirely different beast, which means that when I finally finish the first volume (it has turned into three), I may be right back at the beginning again – trying to find a publisher who will take a punt on someone who has a publishing credit but for a different market.

The market is the key. I have heard that for years. But I cannot bring myself to write based on marketing advice. For a start, my books don’t fit popular culture, and secondly, I can’t write them fast enough to follow that advice. But it’s true that you need to know your market as you write your book. That has proven to be the challenge of my first novel.

That novel is liminal in many ways: between genres (realism, speculative-spiritual), between marketing audiences (not really YA but with a teenage protagonist), and between the lengths publishers typically look for. (At 40, 000 words, it’s too long for a novella, too short for a novel, about the length for the YA category it doesn’t fit into.)

novel about identity, trauma and transition

These categories are, of course, purely marketing inventions. Once upon a time there were no such things as teenagers, let alone Young Adults (aged well before legal adulthood) and a ‘genre’ devoted to them. But that’s not a fight a newbie can begin to win.

I am grateful to Stone Table Books for tackling these challenges and throwing their weight as a small, new, publishing imprint behind my small, unusual novel. (Pun alert) We’re both ‘novel’… Continue reading “Novel released!”