Kim Kelly

Australian Author

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MEET THE AUTHOR IN MILLTHORPE

LORENA CARRINGTON

Our Millthorpe Pop-Up is a celebration of Australian writing, our books all gathering together in a little gold-rush era village with stories whispering from every wild colonial verandah post. So tell us, Lorena, how has your Australianness, or your experience of Australia, inspired or influenced your illustration explorations?

My local landscape (around Castlemaine, Victoria) has been vital to my illustration process. I’ve written more extensively about it here, but essentially, details of the landscape are what make every one of my illustrations. I photograph leaves, sticks, feathers, bones that I find in my garden and the surrounding bush, and piece them together in Photoshop to build up montaged photographic illustrations.

I mostly illustrate fairy tales, myths and folktales, and these are predominantly European; but my local landscape makes up every single one. In Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women, our collection of tales retold and illustrated by two Australian women and published by an Australian publisher, I felt it important to let the Australian landscape be a strong part of the illustrations. I didn’t hide the fact that the deep-dark forests were populated by Eucalyptus and native ferns and fungi.

Please tell us about the wonderful tales you’ll be bringing to the Millthorpe Pop-Up from far and wide.

VASILISA THE WISE AND OTHER TALES OF BRAVE YOUNG WOMEN v2 (1)Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women is a powerful collection of fairy tales where girls and women set out on their own adventures, fight their own fights, and rescue a handsome prince or two along the way. Retold by Kate Forsyth, they are tales that have long existed, but were silenced and pushed to the wayside to make room for the more popular “Disney” tales. We’re bringing them back.

What’s your favourite Australian story – be it a novel, a film, or legend? And why do you love it?

I can’t resist Australian children’s books – some from my youth, some from my daughters’: The Enchanted Forest, Possum Magic, The Eleventh Hour, Where is the Green Sheep, Diary of a Wombat, The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek… They’ll always be a comfort to read, especially to somebody else.

What a beautiful thought, Lorena. Now, describe the view from your storytelling window today.

Not glamourous, I’m afraid. I have a high window above my computer that looks up into a cobwebbed veranda. Hanging from a beam is a bird cage we bought years ago for a fancy dress party – with the bottom cut out of it, so it could be worn like a helmet!

If you were to write the Great Australian Novel, where might you begin?

From an illustrator’s point of view I would love to see more illustrated novels! Once popular, but now virtually never heard of. So if anyone has a great Australian novel they’d like illustrated, I’m your gal.

Fabulous! I might have to give that some thought. In the meantime, let’s take a tasty break. Fortunately, Millthorpe has plenty of options, from country pub to hatted restaurant, and several gorgeous cafes. So what’s your yen? Coffee and cake? Beer and chips? Coq au vin and Pinot Grigio?  And while we’re here, which Australian author would you like to invite to your table?

Cold champagne and a fiery curry for me please. I was lucky enough to have Kate Forsyth, Cate Kennedy, Carmel Bird, Martine Murray and Juliet O’Conor around our dinner table about a year ago. I don’t think I could ask for more. And yes, there was plenty of champagne!

What an excellent table – and cheers to that! Thanks for bringing your story love to Millthorpe.

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Find out more about Lorena Carrington here

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MEET THE AUTHOR IN MILLTHORPE

ALISSA CALLEN

Our Millthorpe Pop-Up is a celebration of Australian writing, our books all gathering together in a little gold-rush era village with stories whispering from every wild colonial verandah post. So, Alissa, how has your Australianness, or your experience of Australia, inspired or influenced your storytelling explorations?

In my case its rural Australia that has shaped my storytelling. I’ve always lived in regional or remote areas so it was only natural my stories played themselves out against a bush backdrop. I now live near Dubbo, red earth country, and the physical and community landscape always finds its way into my books.

If you were to set a tale in Millthorpe, with its many layers of history – from the Wiradjuri wars to boutique stores – what sort of a tale might you tell?

Millthorpe is so multi-nuanced, a walk along Pym Street always brings with it curiosity and questions. My hypothetical tale would be a romance (of course) plus a story that would pay homage to the pioneering past. There is something inspirational and courageous about carving out a new life in an unknown land.

Please tell us about the wonderful tales you’ll be bringing to the Millthorpe Pop-Up from far and wide.

9781489246738For my latest release, The Red Dirt Road, I’ve loved revisiting the small town community of Woodlea (the town of windmills) that features in The Long Paddock. Hewitt, the strong and silent pickup rider, proves the perfect match for no-nonsense Dr Fliss. Edna, the town gossip, as well as Reggie, the misunderstood carrot-obsessed bull, again make an appearance along with a cast of new and familiar characters and animals. Even though Woodlea is fictitious, the small close-knit town does bear a resemblance to the Central West town of Molong.

Lovely! Now, what’s your favourite Australian story – be it a novel, a film, or legend? And why do you love it?

The Silver Brumby books by Elyne Mitchell remain my all-time favourite Australian books. Iconic, evocative and magical, they still transport me to the secret valley in the Snowy Mountains no matter how many times I read them.

Describe the view from your storytelling window today.

Unfortunately the view in front of me is of a bookshelf (my desk is fixed to the wall) but behind me my home office door opens onto our country garden. I have three dogs asleep beyond the door, cockatoos dressing the branches of the jacaranda tree in white and a mini pony sleeping beneath the cedar trees.

How beautiful. And I think this means it’s time for a cup of tea, don’t you? Fortunately, Millthorpe has plenty of options, from country pub to hatted restaurant, and several gorgeous cafes. So what’s your yen? Coffee and cake? Beer and chips? Coq au vin and Pinot Grigio?  And while we’re here, which Australian author would you like to invite to your table?

I can’t go past a pot of English breakfast tea and scones (which have to be gluten free these days) smothered in raspberry jam and cream. As for who would invite to my table, I couldn’t just invite one author. We are so lucky to have such a breadth of talent and depth of generosity amongst our Australian authors and I’m humbled to be part of such a community.

Well, cheers to that! Thanks for bringing your story love to Millthorpe, Alissa.

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Find out more about Alissa Callen here.

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It’s such a lovely pleasure to welcome author Lisa Walker onto the blog today. Lisa’s latest novel, Melt, will be released in May, a sparkling story of love, climate change and finding out who we truly are, set in glorious Antarctica – and I adored it. Here, Lisa gives us a glimpse of all that inspired her to take us there…

CONJURING ANTARCTICA

I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot, but I’ve never made it to Antarctica. It’s exerted a mysterious attraction, but has remained elusive. Sometimes I think that the places we don’t see are more powerful than the ones we do. They maintain an almost mythical status, like Narnia or Hobbiton.

In writing about Antarctica, I think it helped that I’ve spent a lot of time in snowy places. I could visualise the hardships and the beauty of living in that environment. I’ve done many different jobs in my life – bar tender, reef guide, ranger, but the one that always gets people’s attention is the igloo building instructor. Yes, it’s true. And what is more, I did this in Australia. I led snow survival courses in which we built – and slept in – igloos and snow caves. Igloo building is quite a job. A snow cave can be whipped up in a couple of hours, but an igloo takes more commitment and preferably a team of willing builders. Sleeping in one is warmer than you would expect, and rather lovely. At night, a candle will light up the whole igloo and during the day a beautiful blue glow comes through the snow. In Melt I set my protagonist, Summer, the job of building an igloo all by herself, which she finds extremely challenging.

Over the two years or so it took me to write Melt, I immersed myself in Antarctic experiences. I stood in a blizzard at the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch and visited the Antarctic Explorers exhibition at Christchurch Museum, as well as the one in Hobart. I studied up on penguins and seals. And I also listened to scientist Chris Turney talk about the history of Antarctica at the Brisbane Writers Festival.

Chris wrote an account of the 1912 season in Antarctica which saw no less than five expeditions set out on a journey of scientific discovery. Famously, of course, the Norwegian team led by Amundsen won the race to the South Pole, with the British expedition led by Scott getting there one month later and perishing on the return journey. Also on the move were a German team, a Japanese team and an Australian team, led by Mawson.

Antarctica, Chris told us, didn’t even begin to be explored until 1820. Before that, it was just shown as ‘unexplored territory’ on the map.  Venturing down there, then, was the equivalent of space travel – a voyage into the complete unknown. The explorers gnawed on huskies, they spent the winter on a ship bound by ice, they were blown off their feet in blizzards… And despite all that, they brought back data which changed the face of science.

Antarctica has inspired some truly great lines. Who can forget these: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time,’ (Oates); ‘Food lies ahead, death stalks us from behind,’ (Shackleton); or ‘Great God! This is an awful place,’ (Scott).  And then there is my protagonist Summer, who channels these great explorers on her first broadcast from Antarctica. ‘Notwithstanding the potential for peril, we are launching into an adventure that seems likely to surpass all my former experiences…’ Antarctica brings out the orator in us all.

Writing Melt was an immersive experience. I’ve spent so much time thinking about Antarctica, it almost feels like I’ve been there. That pleasure, however, is still to come.

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Copies of Melt will be available at the Millthorpe Pop-Up, 24-27 May.

Find out more about Lisa Walker here.

LADY BIRD & THE FOX

 

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What happens when a hardworking farm girl and a spoilt rich-boy gambler are mistaken for bushrangers on the road to the goldrush? At a breakneck gallop through wild colonial Australia, Lady Bird & The Fox untangles a tale of true identity and blind bigotry, of two headstrong opposites thrown together by fate, their lives entwined by a quest to get back home – and the irresistible forces of love.

PAPERBACK

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Praise for Lady Bird & The Fox

Lady Bird & The Fox is a marvel of a novel…It’s a story that will stay with me forever.’ –  Wendy James, The Golden Child

Kelly is a masterful creator of character and voice. Reminiscent of Mark Twain’s dry humour…’ – Julian Leatherdale, Palace of Tears

Lady Bird & The Fox is a completely unique tale. It’s a fast-paced, deeply evocative story of life, love and adventure in early Australia. I read it in one sitting, loved every single word.’ Kelly Rimmer, Before I Let You Go

Lady Bird & The Fox is brilliant. Thought provoking, funny – as in, actually laugh out loud funny – historically accurate, meticulously researched, and crafted with impeccable inference.’ – Theresa Smith, Australian Women Writers

Praise for Kim Kelly

‘colourful, evocative and energetic’ – Sydney Morning Herald

‘impressive research’ – Daily Telegraph

‘Why can’t more people write like this?’ – The Age

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MEET THE AUTHOR IN MILLTHORPE

KELLY RIMMER

Our Millthorpe Pop-Up is a celebration of Australian writing, our books all gathering together in a little gold-rush era village with stories whispering from every wild colonial verandah post. Now, Kelly, if you were to set a tale in Millthorpe, with its many layers of history – from the Wiradjuri wars to boutique stores – what sort of a tale might you tell?

My book A Mother’s Confession is set in a fabulously quirky, fictional village called ‘Milton Falls’, which is located somewhere near both Orange and Bathurst…sound familiar? That particular story is an exploration of some pretty intense issues and the plot is driven by the blessings and complications of small-town living. For all of these reasons, it just didn’t feel right to name a real place for the setting, but in my mind as I was writing, ‘Milton Falls’ looked a lot like our lovely Millthorpe. So…I think I have already done this, although perhaps in a roundabout way!

Please tell us about the wonderful tales you’ll be bringing to the Millthorpe Pop-Up from far and wide.

I’ll only be travelling from my home in Orange, but the story I’ll be bringing is set half a world away in Alabama in the US. Here’s a little taste of my new book, Before I Let You Go.

ANZ_BILYG-Cover_Final (002)As children, Lexie and Annie were incredibly close. Bonded by the death of their beloved father, they weathered the storms of life together. When Lexie leaves home to follow her dream, Annie is forced to turn to her leather-bound journal as the only place she can confide her deepest secrets and fears…

As adults, sisters Lexie and Annie could not be more different. Lexie is a successful doctor and happily engaged. Annie is an addict – a thief, a liar and unable to remain clean. When Annie’s newborn baby is in danger of being placed in foster care, Annie picks up the phone to beg her sister for help. Will Lexie agree to take in her young niece? And how will Annie survive, losing the only thing in her life worth living for?

What’s your favourite Australian story – be it a novel, a film, or legend? And why do you love it?

I have a very soft spot for the novel Playing Beatie Bow, by Ruth Park. I read it when I was a child and was so absorbed in the story it felt like I’d fallen back into the 1800’s myself. Perhaps that book even made a permanent connection in my mind between that setting and great storytelling, because I love to take a retreat to The Rocks when I’m working on a first draft. My novels are generally set in the modern era, and not always set here in Australia, but there’s just something inspiring about getting to work in a place steeped in so much history.

How lovely. And what’s the view from your storytelling window today?

In the real world, I’m looking out through my window towards some stunning gum trees in the distance and a cluster of wattles just behind my back fence. But right beside that window is the window I’ve been spending far more time staring at today, and that’s my current manuscript on my monitor – today it’s got me staring back 1938, to a tiny village in Lesser Poland…where the opening scenes to my 2019 novel are set.

Can’t wait to find out all about this new novel. Now, if you were to write the Great Australian Novel, where might you begin?

One of the wonderful things about this country is that you could traverse a dozen or more environs and still not capture the breadth of it. If I were to write the ‘Great Australian Novel’, it would have to be an epic saga that spanned the inner-city and the suburbs and grasslands and mountains and rainforest and beaches and…well, you get the idea! But now that I think about it, I’d probably start the story in The Rocks…

Of course! After all that travelling, it’s time for a cup of tea. Fortunately, Millthorpe has plenty of options, from country pub to hatted restaurant, and several gorgeous cafes. So what’s your yen? Coffee and cake? Beer and chips? Coq au vin and Pinot Grigio?  And while we’re here, which Australian author would you like to invite to your table?

Well…this might seem an odd answer to this question, but I’d love to sit down with the madcap children’s fiction duo Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton. Firstly, because their books inspired my son’s love of reading so I’d love to buy them a drink and say a heartfelt thanks – and secondly, because I’ve been reading their crazy tales with my kids for a few years now and I just reckon they’d be great fun to chat to!

Well, cheers to that! Thanks for bringing your story love to Millthorpe, Kelly.

Kelly Rimmer official author photo - Bree Bain Photography photo credit (002) Find out more about Kelly Rimmer here.

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MEET THE AUTHOR IN MILLTHORPE

KATE FORSYTH

Our Millthorpe Pop-Up is a celebration of Australian writing, our books all gathering together in a little gold-rush era village with stories whispering from every wild colonial verandah post. So, Kate, how has your Australianness, or your experience of Australia, inspired or influenced your storytelling explorations?

Most of my books are set long, long ago, in countries far, far away, and so they are not very Australian at all! My collection of feminist fairy-tale retellings, Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women, features Russian, Scottish, English, French, Norwegian and German stories from the 18th and 19th centuries.

If you were to set a tale in Millthorpe, with its many layers of history – from the Wiradjuri wars to boutique stores – what sort of a tale might you tell?

A story set in the past, filled with drama and romance and struggle and triumph.

Please tell us about the wonderful tales you’ll be bringing to the Millthorpe Pop-Up from far and wide.

Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women is a collection of old, almost VASILISA THE WISE AND OTHER TALES OF BRAVE YOUNG WOMEN v2 (1)forgotten fairy-tales, retold by me and gorgeously illustrated by Lorena Carrington, that feature strong, clever heroines.

What’s your favourite Australian story – be it a novel, a film, or legend? And why do you love it?

I love the story of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Charlotte Waring Atkinson, who wrote the first children’s book published in Australia. Her life was just fascinating, and a true glimpse into the early days of the colonies.

Describe the view from your storytelling window today.

I look across my garden to Sydney Harbour and the ocean. It’s a glorious day and the water looks very inviting!

If you were to write the Great Australian Novel, where might you begin?

Setting it in a small country town with a long and enthralling history.

That was exhausting, wasn’t it? Time for a cup of tea. Fortunately, Millthorpe has plenty of options, from country pub to hatted restaurant, and several gorgeous cafes. So what’s your yen? Coffee and cake? Beer and chips? Coq au vin and Pinot Grigio?  And while we’re here, which Australian author would you like to invite to your table?

Champagne and caviar for me! And I’d invite Patricia Wrightson whose books meant so much to me as a child.

Well, cheers to that! Thanks for bringing your story love to Millthorpe, Kate.

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Find out more about Kate Forsyth here

 

 

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MEET THE AUTHOR IN MILLTHORPE

JO BERTINI

Our Millthorpe Pop-Up is a celebration of Australian storytelling, our books all gathering together in a little gold-rush era village with stories whispering from every wild colonial verandah post. So, Jo, how has your Australianness, or your experience of Australia, inspired or influenced your creative explorations?

My years of journeying into remote desert lands has enabled me to discover something of the extraordinary diversity of these places. Working closely for years with scientists across a wide range of disciplines, I have learnt of the growing environmental threats to arid lands and the intrinsic value, interconnectedness and essential necessity of the preservation of our desert environments and the challenges faced by their people, flora and fauna. I have been given special charter to paint the country of different Indigenous peoples, to visually describe many sacred sites, places of pilgrimage and ceremony, birth places, burial grounds, rock art galleries, homes and temples, entrusted with not only great privilege and responsibility but also enormous artistic opportunity. I share a special affinity, a collegiality with these desert peoples, through our intimate relationship to desert lands and our instinctive artistic compulsions. My artworks assimilate and translate various disciplines, cultures, philosophies and traditions, weaving knowledge and ideologies from the past to the present, from one continent to another and offering ‘fresh eyes’ on the cyclical nature of existence in these places.

If you were to create a story of Millthorpe through images, with its many layers of history from the Wiradjuri wars to boutique stores what might your sketches tell us?

Hopefully something of a personal, intimate experience. Art comes from a very selective eye, according to the sensibilities, interests and personality of the artist. I am interested in the very complex and powerful, reciprocal relationship of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have to place, how the land affects people and people affect the land. People have left their imprint on the landscape, just as the landscape has marked them. I believe my work has a particularly female perspective and contribution in describing the elusive primary sense that lies in the alliance to natural worlds.

Please tell us about the wonderful book youll be bringing to the Millthorpe Pop-Up.

Jo Bertini Fieldwork is a visually engaging contemporary art book that brings to life artist Jo Bertini’s long and intimate involvement with the Australian desert. Her pen and ink drawings, works in pencil, charcoal, as well as hundreds of small gouaches, jo bertiniare a vibrant visual diary of the changing landscape.

There is a yearning in Bertini’s drawings and gouaches, an ache to connect with what she sees, before it disappears. Rarely do we get so close to the experience of an artist at work.

With an introduction by Robyn Davidson, author of the best-selling book Tracks, Fieldwork is an authentic engagement with the desert lands and Bertini as a painter and explorer.

‘It is only possible to paint the desert with knowledge. You cannot just dip into the desert and hope to see it. Jo Bertini has been very fortunate in going into the desert repeatedly … There is an energy in her brush that corresponds with the emotional response to this landscape.’ – Andrew Sayers, director, National Portrait Gallery

Whats your favourite Australian story be it a novel, a film, or legend? Or even a painting? And why do you love it?

I love Sidney Nolan’s narrative painting series of Burke and Wills and the inland explorers. Particularly the paintings of the camels around the salt lakes of central Australia and the lost explorer encountering an Indigenous man who is attempting to help him. These paintings actually move me to tears as they are so close to my own experiences but from a particularly male historical perspective, the great myth of male virility and flawed conquering of the continent.

Describe the view from your studio window today.

My studio is in an old woodshed on my property and the doors open onto a creek gully full of very old heritage apple and quince trees. There is a resident striped faced swamp wallaby who lives beneath the trees in the creek and spends time grazing around my woodshed, looking at me painting while I look out at him.

If you were to write the Great Australian Novel or draw it! where might you begin?

Out bush, probably in the heart of central Australia, in a very remote and inaccessible, sacred Aboriginal waterhole in the northern Simpson Desert.

That was exhausting, wasnt it? Time for a cup of tea. Fortunately, Millthorpe has plenty of café options. Now, which Australian author or artist would you like to invite to your table?

Sidney Nolan, although that would be impossible, so otherwise the wonderful intrepid Australian writer and explorer Ernestine Hill…equally impossible as both are deceased.

Thanks for bringing your story love to Millthorpe, Jo.

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Find out more about Jo Bertini here.

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MEET THE AUTHOR IN MILLTHORPE

G.S. JOHNSTON

Our Millthorpe Pop-Up is a celebration of Australian writing, our books all gathering together in a little gold-rush era village with stories whispering from every wild colonial verandah post. So, Mr Johnston, how has your Australianness, or your experience of Australia, inspired or influenced your storytelling explorations?

I’ve not really written so much directly about Australia. Partly because of a lack of luck –  I haven’t found Australian stories that interest me enough to devote three or four years of work.  That’s not to say these stories don’t exist – they just haven’t dropped into my fevered brain. But I think my Australianness has informed the way I look to Europe. I’ve always thought of the poet/writer as the outsider, looking in with uncluttered and greater clarity. It makes it hard, having to find information over such a distance and in other languages, but in some ways that has made me more cunning in finding the paths to bits of information. And especially when I was in France researching The Cast of a Hand, a lot of people I asked questions of were so surprised an Australian was interested in this story they went to great lengths to help me.

Having said all that, my latest work-in-progress, Cane, is set in Far North Queensland. It has been something of a novelty to work mainly in English and to have easy access to local newspapers via Trove. I don’t think I’d realised what a blessing Trove is as most countries do not have such a thing. The French have digitally archived a lot of information but getting access to it is another thing.

If you were to set a tale in Millthorpe, with its many layers of history – from the Wiradjuri wars to boutique stores – what sort of a tale might you tell?

It would be a tale of an outsider of some kind, trying to find their place. But not that they would sell out to co-exist, they would reform people’s opinion of some issue and then gain acceptance.  Perhaps an annual floral festival or pop-up shop… A Sydney writer who marries a local for love…  A title, something bold! Dramatic! Heroic! – Peace and War, perhaps, Sensibility and Pride.

You’re a card, Mr Johnston. Please tell us about the wonderful tales you’ll be bringing to the Millthorpe Pop-Up from far and wide.

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The Cast of a Hand is a true-life murder mystery, set in a turbulent period of French history, 1869-70 and the first signs of the fall of The Second Empire. Over the course of a few months, a whole family, mother and father and six children, were murdered. At first it was very clear to the prosecutors what had occurred, but as the case unfolded, and the political climate of those years unwound, it became clearer the case was much more complex than originally thought. The research, mostly in French, took me a long while to translate. The whole novel took me over ten years, working on and off.

What’s your favourite Australian story – be it a novel, a film, or legend? And why do you love it?

That’s a VERY hard question. So many things on second viewing or reading unwind. But Muriel’s Wedding seems perfect, every time I’ve watched it. It depicts that urban discomfort of Australians so well.  It’s Australia looking at itself and not being quite comfortable with what it sees. It’s perfectly cast and the plot isn’t predictable. And ultimately it’s a story of mateship.  And there are so many great lines. And the ending, where they drive away from Porpoise Spit, up the hill in the taxi, reminds me of the ending of Thelma and Louise, or am I stretching too far?  Discuss.

We’ll take that discussion offline, hey? For now, describe the view from your storytelling window today. 

My view is quite pinched, not at all far-reaching. I have a large 2.5 x 2.5 metre window (partially blocked by my second computer screen) which looks out onto a small, bark-covered verge before a high hedge of thick pittosporums. I’ve put a few pot plants there to add a bit more colour and coaxed back to life a camellia bush which was hacked-to-the-ground by the last tenants. But the morning sun spills butterscotched and dappled across my desk. And if I look through the glass of my desk, there’s mostly a very good-looking black and white pussy cat, Robert “Bob” Trudeau, asleep. And sometimes a golden Labrador, when Amber comes to visit.

 If you were to write the Great Australian Novel, where might you begin?

Like Maria von Trapp, at the very beginning.

That was exhausting, wasn’t it? Time for a cup of tea. Fortunately, Millthorpe has plenty of options, from country pub to hatted restaurant, and several gorgeous cafes. So what’s your yen? Coffee and cake? Beer and chips? Coq au vin and Pinot Grigio?  And while we’re here, which Australian author would you like to invite to your table?

Well, Kim Kelly, naturally. But if she wasn’t free, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. We could discuss our brilliant careers and I’d love to know what she thinks of the awards her names preside over.

Ha! Flattery will get you a free coffee. And cheers to that. Thanks for bringing your story love to Millthorpe, Mr Johnston.

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Find out more about G.S. Johnston here.

 

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RASPBERRY VINEGAR

She couldn’t tell a story straight if she tried – there’s my epitaph. That is, all charges of tall tale-telling blarney aside, I can’t write historical fiction in neatly episodic chunks of third-person, past tense, plain-English prose.

I love language too much, for a start: I love falling down magical rabbit holes of etymology, to wonder at the way language changes across time, and from person to person. I love every quirk of the vernacular – every skerrick of slang, every blessed curse word, and that way Australians have with inventing new ones – like ‘wowser’ and ‘flummox’ and ‘maggoty’, whole dictionaries full of them. I love to wonder at every influence upon our Strine: the Irish, the Americans, the Germans, the many First Nations languages spoken across the continent. Our language is constantly changing, and those fine-detail changes can tell us a lot about our history, who we are and where we’ve come from.

But what I love best is the utterly unique idiom we each carry around inside our heads. Each of us has a distinct way of speaking; and we each have at least two different speaking versions of ourselves: the one we use when we’re actually talking, and the one we use when we’re talking to ourselves. Our actual talking voice is also split into at least two versions: a more formal one for use with strangers; and a more relaxed one we use with our friends – a language often laced with code, the beautiful, secret language shared by those who hold each other dear.

Obviously, this is why writing in the first person – writing in character – is a very natural way for me to explore story, and to explore Australian history. But of course, novel-writing is more than talking, and more than the nuts and bolts of story, too. Novels, generally, are about people, and those people must step from the page and into readers’ imaginations immediately and truthfully for readers to want to follow them anywhere at all. Constructing character then – dreaming up a living, breathing, believable person – is the happy challenge that entwines itself around the voices in my head, and it’s right here, in the meeting of voice and character, that I find the beginnings of every new novel.

And a great deal of research goes into all that dreaming up, too. The first glimmers of my new novel, Lady Bird & The Fox, came to me in the form of Annie Bird’s voice. She virtually shouted at me, she arrived so wholly, and her first words were: ‘This is a disaster!’ Who was she, and where did she come from? A combination of reading about gold rush Australia and puzzling over the scant traces left of the life of Australia’s probably one and only female Aboriginal bushranger, Mary Ann Bugg; as well, I carried voices with me of the strong and forthright Aboriginal women of La Perouse who peopled my childhood; I also carried with me the voice of one of my oldest and most cherished friends – the strong and forthright daughter of one of those women.

I saw Annie raise her hand to shield her eyes from the rising sun, and I saw not only the warm, deep brown of her skin: I saw the shape of her wrist, her long slim fingers and the fineness of her bones.

And then followed the delight of getting to know her, this woman of great conviction, who is stubborn and funny, both soulfully compassionate and rip-you-to-shreds critical. What did she wear? What did she love to do in quiet moments alone? What were her prized possessions? What was her favourite food? What was her favourite drink?

In answering these kinds of questions for any character, I hit the newspapers of the year – in this case, 1868. And when it came to Annie’s preferred cold beverage on a hot day, it took a while for me find the one that really was hers. Lemonade? No – too common. Soda water? No – too plain. Beer? No – she was always too busy for alcohol. Iced tea? Wasn’t invented yet in the far flung outer reaches of mid-Victorian Sydney.

Then I came across an ad for a public house outlining its basic provisions, and one of them was raspberry vinegar. I had no idea what that might be – and that was intriguing enough in itself for me. Best of all, the combination of sweet and tart it suggested made it perfect for Annie. She is lovely and sharp at once.

But while I soon discovered raspberry vinegar was a popular cordial of the day, for the life of me I couldn’t find a recipe. It was so annoying that I couldn’t quite taste this drink that Annie loved.

That was, until dinner with friends a few years later, when Lady Bird & The Fox was at the typesetter, pretty much done and dusted. My lovely real-life friend, for reasons I can’t now remember, produced one of her mother’s beautifully handwritten recipe books, dating back to the 1930s – and there within its pages lay Annie’s raspberry vinegar.

When serendipity strikes like this – especially in such a way that makes the world feel wonderfully small and bright – it strikes with a thrill that makes me tearful, and grateful, and intensely aware that we are all somehow connected through soul-threads of love.

As soon as I could, I made up the recipe, tweaking it for a little less sugar, and we enjoyed it with a splash of vodka, soda and mint.

Chin chin then, Annie Bird. Not just a voice, not just a character, but a friend. I might never be able to tell a story straight, but I – or rather we – will always tell them true.

Oh, and by the way, Annie’s favourite word is ‘collop’, but you’ll have to read the story to find out why, and what it really means – to her.

Lady Bird cocktail

 

meh

MEH

This dirty little three-letter word is just about the worst thing anyone could say about another’s creative efforts.

‘My darling, I’ve cooked you a beautiful meal.’ Meh.

‘Do you like the new outfit I made?’ Meh.

‘I think I might, in my wildest imaginings, have just glimpsed the cure for cancer!’ Meh.

‘Yeah, I can hardly believe it either, but I think I’ve written a novel.’ Meh.

It’s the worst word with which to condemn another’s endeavours to make and do as it carries not only dismissal and contempt, it suggests that the effort was so dull and pointless it barely deserves any reaction at all.

I received a ‘meh’ once, a few years ago now, and it was a fairly unforgettable experience, made far more revolting by the fact that it came from a fellow author, who felt the need to express it publicly. We all say half-arsed things from time to time, but among them the meh is somehow indelible. I met that author face to face a few months ago and all I saw was the meh, as if that word were tattooed across their forehead, and, as per the immutable laws of emotional physics, I was instantly so overwhelmed by a desire to spit on the ground at their feet in disgust, I was compelled to turn away. No meh about it.

Boohoo me. But there’s a depth of meh yet more putrid still – meh-ing a classic, a work of great skill – and I stepped into steaming example of such just yesterday.

Backstory: one of my human babies recently worked on the forthcoming Bruce Beresford film adaption of the novel, The Women in Black (most fabulously as an assistant costumier, go baby, mamma woot, punch the air). Written by the late Madeleine St John twenty-five years ago, it’s an impeccably crafted slice of stultifying mid-century Sydney, sans aircon and avec lashings of satire. One of its central characters, a young woman on the cusp of going to university, is so excruciatingly and beautifully caught between her parochialism and her yearning to discover herself and the world through words, she is me – and millions of other Australian women, timelessly. The novel also has more layers of butter and salt than a post-war Hungarian cheese puff: cultural cringe and kitsch, sacred Australiana, our top-class competitive sports of anti-intellectualism, insularity and misogyny on full-colour display, a text that asks, ‘What’s changed?’ with wisps of Voltaire, Tolstoy and Blake dancing round its edges, both mocking our smallness and beckoning larger and more dangerous thoughts.

And then yesterday, in wanting to have a look at the resurgence of interest the book was no doubt enjoying as a result of said film, I decided to consult the usual review hubs to see how it was being received by readers, and there my eyes almost immediately fell upon the word ‘meh’.

You have got to be fucking kidding, I said to myself at first glance, but when I saw the reviewer was yet another fellow author my heart hit the floor.

Really? Madeleine St John is dead and even if she were alive I’m sure she wouldn’t give half a sliver. What upsets me – inconsolably – is that other authors, who know what it means and what it takes to write a book, would even think to treat others of their ilk with such flagrant disregard.

Meh is not clever. As a writer and permanent student of literature and life, your feelings about a text are irrelevant; let them interfere with your critical faculties, and your opinions are even less worthy. As a writer, a thoughtful, curious writer, your primary quest, surely, is to consider the intentions of any author you read, weigh up how well you consider those intentions have been executed in light of your own ever-gaping ignorance, and to pinch what you can of their best bits. Anything else is arrogance.

Use the meh and you prove you warrant no better yourself.