One of the characters in My Sister Rosa, Sojourner Ida Davis, is a deeply religious progressive Christian. This has elicited a range of responses from readers: from horror from the non-religious: Ewwww! Why is there religion in this book? To horror from conservative Christians, some of whom have expressed grave doubts that Christians like Sojourner exist. To thanks from progressive Christians who tell me they rarely see themselves represented in YA.
Why did I write Sojourner?
I’m an Australian atheist. In the US context it’s probably more accurate to call myself non-religious since my atheism has never been a big part of my identity. I grew up in secular communities where religion was rarely discussed. It just wasn’t a thing. Pretty much everyone I knew was also an atheist. I was curious about religion but knew little about it. My father’s an atheist Jew. So I learned a bit about Judaism from his family. Particularly my grandmother. I picked up bits and pieces about Christianity. But not much. For the first year of my BA I did Religious Studies because I felt so ignorant.
When I moved to NYC one of the biggest differences was how much more religious my NYC friends are compared to my Sydney friends. I hadn’t really met progressive Christians and religious Jews before. (My Jewish family are very conservative. I knew progressive secular Jews.) I thought being religious meant being conservative. I was wrong.
I wrote Sojourner because I have met many New Yorkers like her and because I don’t think it’s accurate to write books set in the US with no religion. Not only are there few religious people in YA, there are even fewer progressive religious characters. They’re mostly extremely conservative. But the political and social beliefs of religious people in the real world are as varied as those of non-religious people. I wanted to reflect that.
The church in the novel is based on a real church in my neighbourhood of NYC. The only thing that’s changed since I wrote Rosa is there’s now security checking everyone before they’re allowed in. Yes, because of Charleston.
Several of my religious US friends do not swear. I come from a very sweary people and I find the few non-swearers I’ve met fascinating. It became clear to me early in writing Sojourner that she too would not swear and she most definitely would not blaspheme. It was one of the hardest linguistic decisions I’ve made in a book. Swear words kept slipping into her dialogue. Apparently, swears words are invisible to me. Eeek! I did searches on every new draft to weed out my slips. I thought, with the help of my editors, copyeditors and proofreaders, that I had succeeded!
Recently a reviewer on GoodReads pointed out that Sojourner does blaspheme.1 On one page she uses both hell and damn.2 I missed it; my editors in Australia and the US missed it; copyeditors missed it; proofreaders missed it. My response was to, of course, swear. LOUDLY. That little slip of mine undermines Sojourner’s character.
This really bad error is now being changed in all editions for the next reprint. That includes the audio book—they’re bringing the actor back in to re-record those two lines–thank you, Blackstone audio!—as well as the foreign editions.
I’d link to the review but I can’t find it. Thank you, Katy Jane! [↩]
If you’re curious it’s page 114 in the Australian edition and page 88 in the US edition. [↩]
Today Ambelin Kwaymullina, who is an Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people, has generously allowed me to publish this essay.
I’ve been an admirer of Ambelin Kwaymullina’s work for some time. Not just her wonderful dystopian trilogy about a far future Australia, The Tribe series, but her thoughtful essays. She has become one of the most important Australian voices speaking out about diversity and Own Voices.
This essay is particularly important now that so much of the world is shifting to right-wing, racist governance. The work of people like Kwaymullina show us ways to fight back and make our voices heard.
Thank you, Ambelin Kwaymullina.
Thoughts on Being an Ally of Indigenous Writers (and other marginalised writers) in the Kids Lit Space
I’m increasingly being asked about how to be an ally of Indigenous writers—so here’s a few thoughts on some of what it takes.
1. Be able to articulate and interrogate your position—especially your privilege.
We all have a location in this world. Indigenous peoples are accustomed to identifying our position—our homeland, our people—and recognising the boundaries that position places upon us. For example, it is a rule common to all Aboriginal nations of Australia that no one can speak for someone else’s homeland (Country), and there are many other boundaries on who can tell what stories in Indigenous cultures.
The privileging of Whiteness means that ‘White’ has not historically been viewed as one location amongst many but rather as a kind of default normal; the universal lens through which which all other experiences of the world are to be interpreted and judged. Male privilege, and heteronormativity and ableism, work in the same way. And being an ally of others requires being able to articulate and interrogate the position that you hold and the privilege that it gives you.
All non-Indigenous peoples are to some degree privileged in relation to Indigenous peoples, because all who came here post-colonisation benefited from the dispossession of those who were here before. This means that non-Indigenous peoples writing about Indigenous peoples are doing so from the fraught position of holding a privilege that emerged from—and is in some ways sustained by—the marginalisation of the peoples they write about.
While these resources relate to White privilege, they can also have a broader relevance. For example, as an Aboriginal writer, I’ve found it useful to reflect on the White rules of engagement both to understand the reactions I encounter from some White colleagues and also to prompt consideration of how I should engage with marginalised groups to which I do not belong. I’m not suggesting that different forms of marginalisation equate; merely that its been helpful to me to consider the invasive patterns of behaviour DiAngelo identifies so as to ensure that I do not replicate similar patterns in different contexts.
Interrogating position and privilege also leads to the question of what stories can (or should) be told, and by whom? And in this respect, it is not a numbers game. I’ve had the view put to me before that there aren’t a sufficient number of Indigenous people to write ‘enough’ books and therefore White writers must step in to fill the story-space.
If writers of privilege do not proceed with considerable caution, they will become not liberators, but an occupying force whose presence in the field prevents Indigenous stories from being told and heard. This is why I have said that one boundary I believe non-Indigenous writers should observe is not to tell Indigenous stories from first person or deep third. I accept the same boundary in relation to writing of experiences of marginalisation not my own.
Beyond this, its extraordinarily difficult to write of other peoples, even when observing respectful boundaries. It requires time, research, reflection, and advice—and this is not solely an author responsibility. It’s publishers as well. I know of instances when White authors have been horrified to find that they have unwittingly included harmful stereotypes about Indigenous peoples in a novel. These things can be more difficult to spot than you might think. I’ve said before that words written about marginalised peoples have a weight and a cost, but if you don’t come from that group, then the weight is not one that you carry and the cost is not one that you pay. And that means it can sometimes be hard to see when you are contributing to harm. Authors rely on editors to guide us and challenge us and question us—but how many editors truly have the expertise to either spot a representation issue, or to realise when they need to seek specialist advice from someone who does have the expertise? I’m not saying authors shouldn’t take responsibility, but publishers have a responsibility too. And there are some amazing people in Australian publishing who are proactive in informing themselves about the issues and who continually strive to improve their practice. But we need a lot more people to do this if the industry is going to achieve sustained change.
2. Ask yourself why
Why do you wish to support others? It can be easy (for anyone) to fall prey to the perils of saviourism; the seductive allure of being the person who ‘helps’. But in many ways the goal of any good ally (or advocate) should be not to make yourself more useful, but less—the idea is to be so good at ally-ship/advocacy that you become redundant. I look forward to the day when I no longer need to speak out on diversity in children’s literature because the industry has reached the point when all voices are heard equally and all voices have an equal opportunity to be heard.
I believe supporting others requires a rights-based, strength-based approach. Rights-based, in that I recognise that the denial of anyone’s rights, and the diminishment of anyone’s humanity, diminishes and denies my own. No one should therefore be grateful to me for any support I offer; their fate and mine are intertwined. Strengths-based, in that I am not ‘fixing’ the deficit of others but challenging the barriers—including the lived impact of those barriers—that prevent others from being able to actualise their strength and realise their potential. And let me be clear here: I am not suggesting I have a ‘right’ to tell someone else’s stories. I am saying that the exclusion of marginalised voices harms me whether or not it is the exclusion of a group to which I belong, and the way to address that harm is to challenge the barriers that prevent the strength of those voices from being heard.
3. Identify (and if necessary change) your personal narrative
Most of us would like to think of ourselves as good people. But when it comes to dealing ethically and equitably with others, having a view of ourselves as a ‘good person’ can be counter-productive. For example, as a straight, cis gendered woman who wishes to support LGBTI writers, having a personal narrative of ‘I am a good person and therefore I cannot be homophobic’ is both inaccurate and unhelpful.
We are all capable of absorbing harmful attitudes and enacting harmful behaviours; ‘good’ means being aware enough to identify the attitudes/behaviours either on our own or through having them pointed out by others. And if someone does point out we’ve caused harm, the appropriate reaction is not to be angry with that other person but to make a genuine apology and to be grateful for the insight being offered into someone else’s world.
4. Inform yourself
Anyone truly interested in supporting others should take the time to find out something about about the peoples they wish to support—and with Indigenous peoples, everyone can start with some of the quality resources available free and online. These include, in relation to Indigenous cultures and histories, the exhibitions and other information available at the AIATSIS website; the resources on Indigenous civil rights and land rights at the National Museum of Australia; the Bringing Them Home report and associated resources; and the Share Our Pride module on the Reconciliation Australia website.
People can learn appropriate terminology by accessing one of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander terminology guides produced by Australian universities and government departments (google Indigenous terminology guide, and you’ll find a heap).
All this is only a starting point beyond this, and especially for anyone with a love of books, I think one of the best ways to engage with the diverse cultures, histories and experiences of Indigenous Australia is to read our stories. And for kids lit, the publisher with the biggest list of Australian Indigenous stories is Indigenous publisher Magabala Books.
5. Use your power
If I had a dollar for every time someone in literature has told me they’d like to do more for diverse writers if only they had the power, I would even now be using my many dollars to establish an Own Voices prize in Australian kids lit (‘Own Voices’ is shorthand for books written by marginalised writers about their own marginalisation). I understand that resources are few—but the level of our individual power (and therefore our individual responsibility) can only ever be measured by reference to those who have less choices than we do, not those who have more.
Judged by that standard, the vast majority of people associated with Australian literature are immensely powerful. Besides which, in the age of the internet, everyone is able to realise their individual power in ways that weren’t possible before the arrival of the worldwide web. Anyone can tweet, share, review and otherwise promote books written by Indigenous writers. Anyone can draw on online resources—such as those provided by the Racism. It Stops with Me campaign—to train themselves to be aware of discrimination at individual and systemic levels, and to say something if they see something (provided it is safe to do so).
Everyone can read and engage with the nuanced and multi-faceted conversation coming out of the US on diversity in kids lit (and anyone with an interest in Indigenous issues in this regard should be following American Indians in Children’s Literature). Everyone can raise up their voice, whether through the net or otherwise, to demand that marginalised voices be heard.
And in so doing, we can all be part of something larger and greater than ourselves.
Tomorrow, Friday 16th of September I have the great honour of launching Wai Chim’s first YA novel, Freedom Swimmer, and it’s a corker. The book was inspired by Wai’s father’s escape from Mao’s China by swimming to Hong Kong.
Wai tells a story of privation and love and friendship. The central relationship between Ming and Li, one of the city boys sent to his village to learn to be proper communists, is deeply moving. The book is warm and funny and sad. It’s also educational: The Cultural Revolution in China is a period of history I know little about. I learned a great deal because this book sent me down a trail of reading more because Freedom Swimmer is so fascinating. Youse all need to read it.
Friday 16 September
6pm for 6.30pm
Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road
Glebe, Sydney, Australia RSVP here
Hope to see you there. This book is so worth it. And Wai Chim is a delight.
The Boundless Sublime is a chilling thriller that deals with death, grief, brainwashing, cults, psychopaths, guilt, empathy, resilience and survival. Ruby Jane Galbraith’s brother has died under tragic circumstances that she thinks are her fault. Her grief and pain are so overwhelming she can barely function. It’s in this vulnerable state that she finds herself becoming involved with an, at first, loving community who turn out to be terrifying.
Too many of us are convinced that we are too smart to ever be conned or recruited for a cult but it turns out being smart offers no protection. All of us can be recruited when we’re vulnerable and no one is more vulnerable than someone grieving.
Join me and Lili as she talks about her brilliant book and all the research that went into it. She’ll teach you how to avoid being caught up in a cult!
Today’s the day you can buy My Sister Rosa in Australia and New Zealand! Woo hoo! A new book by me! Out today! *dances*
I hope you enjoy this charming tale of seventeen-year-old Australian Che Taylor’s adventures in New York City looking after his precocious psychopathic sister, Rosa Klein.1 Already critics are calling it, “Heartwarming and touching.” Would you believe they called it “Adorable”? Okay, fine, no one is calling it heartwarming, touching or adorable. More like “Creepy” and “soul-destroying.” But, remember, it’s a fine line between heartwarming and soul-destroying.2
This is also release day for Kirsty Eagar’s fabulous Summer Skin, which is a sexy contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet set amongst Queensland university students. It’s funny and hot and wonderful. You are in for such a treat with this book.
We will be celebrating their release next week:
Thursday, 4 February 2016 at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm
Kirsty Eagar and me will discuss our books
and talk of Sex and Psychopaths
And answer all your questions for we love Q&A! Kinokuniya
Level 2, The Galleries,
500 George St,
This poem was first published when I was nine. First in the Newcastle Morning Herald and then later in the feminist magazine, Refractory Girl.1
I can fly.
They say I can’t.
They don’t exist.
I can fly.
They won’t believe me.
They aren’t real.
They can’t understand me
They won’t understand me
They don’t understand me
They say I’m mad
no-one can fly.
I can fly
The day after it published in the local newspaper some of the kids at school demanded that I fly for them. They recited the poem back at me and laughed in my face. I spent the day wishing I’d never written it but also basking in my teachers’ praise.
The next day the other kids had forgotten about it but the teachers were still praising me. Yup, I was still buzzing about being an actual published poet. I enjoyed and was weirded out by the publication and attention thing. Praise = good! Kids laughing at me = oogie!
It was an early lesson in the gap between writing and publication. The writing part is private and often wonderful. Publication and public responses to the writing is a whole other thing. I’ve been doing my best to keep that in mind ever since.
My mother, Jan Larbalestier was part of the Refractory Girl collective. Yup, nepotism got my poem republished. For the record, I didn’t know anyone at the Herald. [↩]
Not all of them, obviously. Like adults, some are lovely, some are complete shitheads, and some are a bit meh. But unlike the majority of adults, teens mostly don’t temper their enthusiasms, they haven’t had their enthusiasms squashed down for them yet. Yes, some have a wall of fuck-you, but when you break through that wall of fuck you, it stays broken.
On my first book tour, for How To Ditch Your Fairy, I was sent around the USA to talk to mostly years 6, 7 and 8. In the US they segregate those years into what they call middle schools. Middle schools are notoriously hellish. All my YA/middle grade writer friends, who were veterans of many tours, were deeply sympathetic and told me horror stories of being pelted with rotten fruit and being asked probing literary questions such as, “Why are your clothes so shit?”1
Thanks, you bastard writer friends, for filling my heart with terror.
On that first tour I visited gazillions of middle schools. They were all fabulous. Not a single projectile was thrown and my western boots were beloved. So was my accent. I highly recommend touring the US if you have a non US English-as-a-native-language accent and cool boots.
A quick aside: what I was meant to be doing was flogging my books, which was pointless as most teens do not show up at school with the money to buy books. (The only exception is the insanely rich private schools with stables and croquet courts where each kids has an expense account and three hundred copies of my book sold in a day. STABLES, people!) What I actually did was not talk about my book much at all.2
My favourite visit of the entire tour was at a public school (without a hint of a stable) in the Midwest.3 I was abandoned in the library by my publicist and the librarian in front of three classes of mostly 13 and 14 year olds. There were at least 60 teens and me. Every writer in this situation develops an if-all-else-fails move. Mine is vomit stories. This is the story I told them. Their response was to ask me to tell more vomit stories. Much fun was had.
When we got to Q&A they wanted to know everything there is to know about Australians, a people with whom they clearly had a lot in common. So I may or may not have told them that wombats fly and echolocate and aerate the earth, which, is, in fact, why they’re called “wombats” because they’re a cross between a worm and a bat. The questions and answers went on in that mode. We all laughed our arses off.
You’ll be pleased to hear they DID NOT BELIEVE A SINGLE WORD. One actually said, “You are the best liar ever.”
I conceded that, yes, bullshit is an art and that I have studied with the very best.
They all cheered.
Sadly, I praised the fine art of bullshitting just as the librarian and publicist walked back in. They were unswayed by the approval of my audience.
Cue lecture on not swearing in front of students. To which I did not respond by pointing out that in my culture shit does not count as swearing. Mainly because I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure I hadn’t said any of the words that count as swearing for all cultures ever. Their main concern, of course, was not the students, it was the parents. The librarian really didn’t want to deal with all the complaints they were sure they were going to get because of my praise of bullshit.
No teen has ever told me not to swear or complained about the shits and fucks and arseholes in my books.4 Nor have they ever complained about the sex. Or violence. They have, however, complained that my books start too slow, that no teen would ever be allowed the freedom that the teens in my books have, and that I don’t write fast enough, what am I? The laziest writer in the world?
Teens also, you’ll be stunned to hear, do not complain about the so-called fact that teens don’t read.
My hairdresser does. He has apparently read every single one of the gazillion panicked articles about the the current generation’s total lack of literacy. Seriously every time I go in he will say, once we’ve gotten past all the neighbourhood gossip, “I hear kids aren’t reading much these days.”
And I will say for the gazillionth time, “Actually, teens today read more than any previous generation of teens. They are readaholics. They are a huge part of why the genre I write, YA, is such a huge seller with double digit growth every year for well over a decade.”
“My kids only read comic books.”
“That’s reading! Reading graphic novels and manga requires a level of literacy with images and language that many adult readers struggle with. Furthermore, not only are teens reading more than ever before. They are also writing more. They write novels! Did you write a novel when you were thirteen? I didn’t. Teens today are a literacy advocate’s wet dream. Also, my lovely hairdresser, you need to stop reading the [redacted name of tabloid newspaper].”
This is why I love teens. They don’t get their information from [redacted name of tabloid newspaper]. Most of them are a lot better at spotting bullshit than your average adult and they’re way less prone to repeating the warmed over moral panics of the last hundred years. The sheer breadth of their reading is astonishing. They read novels, and comic books—sometimes backwards—and airplane manuals and games reviews and they write songs and poetry and stories and novels and think about words and language and invent slang in ways that most adults have long since ceased to do.
Can you imagine a better audience?
That last question was actually asked on a tour of the UK, not the US. In the questioner’s defence the writer in question really does wear shit clothes. Most writers are poor, yo. [↩]
I wonder why I was only ever sent out on one other tour? It is very puzzling. [↩]
I think it was an M state. But it could have been a vowel state. My memory is now hazy. [↩]
For the record none of those words appear in How To Ditch Your Fairy the book I was promoting. [↩]
Then, best of all, earlier this month I learned that Razorhurst has made the shortlist of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Young Adult), which is one of the biggest YA prizes in Australia.3
So, yeah, I’m more than happy with how Razorhurst has been received. Pinching myself, in fact.
Books Out in 2015 and 2016
I will have three books out in 2015. Two novels and a short story in a wonderful new anthology.
In India this month my story, “Little Red Suit,” was published in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy, but I’m going to pretend that’s 2015, as it will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in February. Isn’t that cover divine?
The anthology is an Indian-Australian collaboration with half the contributors from each country. Some of them worked in collaboration with each other to produce comics as well as short stories. I was partnered with Anita Roy and we critiqued each other’s stories. Hers is a corker. I can’t wait to see the finished book.
“Little Red Suit,” is a post-apocalyptic retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Fairy tales were the first stories I ever told so it was lovely to return to the form. As I’ve mentioned, once or twice, I am not a natural short story writer. They are much more of a challenge for me than writing novels. So much so that I kind of want to turn this story into a novel. (Almost all of my short stories are secretly novels.) I hope you enjoy it.
In March Soho Teen will publish the US edition of Razorhurst. I am very excited and will be over there in the US doing events in California and New York and Texas and possibly some other states. I will keep you posted. Yes, the Soho Teen edition will be available in Canada too.
Then in November I’ll have a brand new novel out with Allen and Unwin.
Let’s pause for a moment to digest that: in November there will be a brand new Justine Larbalestier novel, only a year later than my last one.
I know, brand new novels two years in a row! I’ve become a writing machine!
The new novel hasn’t been formally announced yet so I can’t tell you much about it other than it’s realism set in New York City, told from the point of view of a seventeen-year old Australian boy named Che.
The new novel will be published in the USA by Soho Press in March 2016.
What I wrote in 2014
I spent this year writing and rewriting the new novel. As well as rewrites, copyedits and etc. of Razorhurst. My novels, they go through many drafts.
And, me being me, I started a brand new novel out of nowhere, inspired by . . . you know what, it’s still a tiny whisper of a novel. I’ll wait until there’s a bit more before I start talking about it in public.
Then just a week or so ago I got the idea for yet another novel. So who knows which of those I’ll wind up finishing this year.
I continued blogging and managed to blog roughly once a week for most of the year. The most fun I had blogging this year was doing the Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club with Kate Elliott. I was very bummed when deadlines and travel forced us to call it quits. Here’s hoping we can get it started again some time in 2015.
I plan to blog even more next year. Er, tomorrow. Blogging, I love you no matter out of fashion you are. *hugs blogging*
Writing Plans for 2015
Well, obviously, there’ll be more rewrites and copyedits and etc for the new novel.
Then I plan to finish one of the novels that came out of nowhere. After that, well, who knows? Will I finally get back to the New York Depression-era novel(s)? The snow-boarding werewolves? The fairy godmother middle grade? Or one of the many other novels I’ve been working on for ages? Or something else that comes out of nowhere? Given that my last three novels came out of nowhere that would be the safest bet.
All of this writing is possible because I’m still managing my RSI as I described here. I’m continuing to be able to write as much as six hours a day. The few times I’ve written longer than that I have paid for it. It’s good to know my limits.
Travel in 2014
I was in the US briefly in June and then again in Sept-Nov, accompanying Scott on his Afterworlds tour. It felt like we went everywhere. Both coasts! Or all three if you count Texas as the third coast. Also Canada. It went fabulously well. Scott’s fans turned out in great numbers and many book sold and I met heaps of wonderful librarians and booksellers and readers and writers and some of them had already read Razorhurst thanks to my wonderful publicist at Soho Press, Meredith Barnes. It will be fun to go out on the road again in March.
Reading and Watching in 2014
My favourite new writers are Brandy Colbert and Courtney Summers, who both write realist contemporary YA, which I’ve gotta be honest is not my thing. That’s why I read a tonne of it this year: to learn and to grow. Both Colbert and Summers are dark and uncompromising almost bleak writers. Their books made me weep buckets. But there’s heart and hope in their novels too. I’m really looking forward to more from both of them. Courtney’s next book, All the Rage, will be out in early 2015.
I also read heaps of non-fiction this year. A Chosen Exile by Allyson Hobbs is a wonderful history of passing in the USA, which centres those who chose not to pass as much as those who did, and looks closely at the reason for deciding either way and how they changed over time. African-American family life is at the centre of this excellent history.
One of my fave new TV shows is Faking It because it’s silly and funny and kind of reminds me of my high school days at an alternative school though, you know, more scripted. I also love Cara Fi created and written by a dear friend, Sarah Dollard, who is a mighty talent. It’s set in Wales and is sweet and funny and feminist and touching and you should all watch it.
2014 was awful but there’s always hope
Although 2014 was a wonderful year for me professionally it was an awful year in both of my home countries, Australia and the USA, and in way too many other parts of the world. I would love to say that I’m full of hope for change in the future. I try to be. The movement that has grown out of the protests in Ferguson is inspiring and should fill us all with optimism. But then it happens all over again.
In Australia we have a government actively undoing what little progress had been made on climate change and stripping money from all the important institutions such as the ABC, CSIRO and SBS. This is the most anti-science, anti-culture and, well, anti-people government we’ve ever had. The already disgraceful policy on asylum seekers has gotten even worse and Aboriginal Australians continue to die in custody.
Argh. Make it stop!
May you have a wonderful 2015 full of whatever you love best and may the world become less unjust. Speaking out and creating art that truly reflects the world we live in goes part of the way to doing that. At least that’s what I hope.
Yes, here in Sydney it is the 31st of December. I’m sorry that you live in the past. [↩]
Yes, I had a co-edited anthology and a co-written novel in those five years but you would be amazed by how many people do not count collaborations as being a real novel by an author. I don’t get it either. [↩]
If you’re from the US think Printz or National Book Award only plus money. That’s right in Australia if you win a literary award they give you money. Bizarre, I know. [↩]
The immediate, obvious answer for me is: No, I don’t want only white readers. And I’m really glad I don’t have only white readers.
But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that question. And the shadow question which is “do white writers only write for white readers” regardless of what kind of audience they might want?
In order to respond I need to break it down:
I’m white. That fact has shaped everything about me. I know the moment when I first realised I was white. I was three or four and had just returned from living on an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. My parents were anthropologists. I was on a bus with my mum in inner-city Sydney when I pointed to a man of possibly Indian heritage and said loudly, “Mummy, look it’s a black man.” My mother was embarrassed, apologised to the man, who was very gracious, and later tried to talk to me about race and racism in terms a littlie could understand.
What happened in that moment was me realising that some people were black and some people were white and that it made a difference to the lives they lived. I’d just spent many months living in the Northern Territory as the only white kid. The fact that I wasn’t black had not been made an issue.1 We played and fought and did all the things that kids do despite my difference. So much so that tiny me had not noticed there was a difference. Despite seeing many instances of that difference being a great deal I wasn’t able to make sense of it till I was living somewhere that was majority white, majority people with my skin colour, and then the penny dropped.
Many white Australians never have a moment of realising that they’re white. That makes sense. Whiteness is everywhere. White Australians see themselves everywhere. Our media is overwhelmingly white, our books are overwhelmingly white. In Australia whiteness is not other; it just is. Whiteness doesn’t have to be explained because it is assumed.
Because whiteness just is, like many other white people, I don’t identify as white. For me whiteness is the box I have to tick off when I fill out certain forms. While it shapes every single day of my life it doesn’t feel like it does. Because what whiteness gives me is largely positive, not negative. My whiteness is not borne home on me every single day. I don’t need to identify as white because, yes, whiteness is a privilege.
When I see a white person talking about “their people” and they mean “white people” I assume they are white supremacists. Anyone talking about saving the white race from extinction is not my people.
For many different reasons I do not think of white people as my people. As a white writer I do not write for white people.
I admit that I have used the phrase “my people.” I’ve used it jokingly to refer to other Australians. Particularly when homesick. Or when someone Australian has done something awesome like Jessica Mauboy singing at Eurovision at which point I will yell: “I love my people!” Or an Australian has done something embarrassing on the world stage: “Oh, my people, why do you fill me with such shame?”
I’ve used “my people” to refer to other passionate readers, to YA writers, to fans of women’s basketball, to Australian cricket fans who like to mock the Australian men’s cricket team and care about women’s cricket, to people who hate chocolate and coffee as much as I do etc.
All of that comes from a place of privilege. I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have been referred to as “you people.” I’ve gotten “you women” or “you feminists” or “you commies”2 or “you wankers” but never “you people.”
White people are rarely asked to speak for their entire race. N. K. Jemisin’s question about white writers writing for white readers is not something that gets asked very often. Meanwhile writers of colour are asked questions like that all the time. They are always assumed to have a people that they’re writing for.
When I sold my first novel3 I was not thinking about who would read those books. I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote those books either.4 Frankly I was still over-the-moon ecstatic that they’d sold, that there were going to be novels out there that I wrote! I didn’t get as far as imagining who would read them.
I’ve written stories ever since I was able to write and before then I would tell them to whoever would listen. My first audience was my sister. And, yes, I tailored some of those stories to suit her tastes, adding lots of poo jokes. But, come on, I like(d) poo jokes too. It’s more that I got lucky that my sister liked what I liked.
All my novels are books that, if I hadn’t written them, I would want to read them. I write for myself. I am my main audience.
That all changed when I was published, when my stories found distribution beyond my sister, my parents, friends, teachers.
When I, at last, had an audience and that audience was responding to my novels is when I started thinking about that audience.
When members of my audience started writing to me and I met members of my audience is when I really started thinking about who my audience was and how they would respond to what I had written.
That’s how I know my audience isn’t all white. It’s how I know my audience isn’t all teens. How I know they’re not all women. Not all straight. Not all middle class.
As my books started to be translated I found myself with an audience that isn’t all English speaking.
There is one place where I am addressing a mostly white audience. And that’s on this blog and on Twitter when I’m trying to explain these kinds of complex issues of race to people who haven’t thought much about them before. White people tend to be the people who think the least about race because it affects them the least. So sometimes that’s who I’m consciously addressing.
Writing to an Audience
But white people who are ignorant about racism are never the audience I’m consciously addressing when I write my novels.
Even now when I have a better idea of who my audience is I don’t consciously write for them. When I’m writing the first draft of a novel all I’m thinking about is the characters and the story and getting it to work. If I start thinking about what other people will think of it I come to a grinding halt. So I have learned not to do that.
It is only in rewriting that I start thinking about how other people will respond to my words. That’s because when I rewrite I’m literally responding to other people’s thoughts on what I’ve written: comments from my first readers, from my agent, and editors.
My first readers are not always the same people. If I’m writing a book that touches on people/places/genres I have not written before I’ll send the novel to some folks who are knowledgeable about those in the hope that they will call me on my missteps.
Any remaining missteps are entirely my lookout. There are always remaining missteps. I then do what I can to avoid making the same mistakes in the next books I write. And so it goes.
I hope this goes a little of the way towards answering N. K. Jemisin’s question. At least from this one white writer. Thank you for asking it, Nora.
When we returned when I was 8-9 my whiteness made a huge difference. [↩]
Many USians think anyone to the left of Genghis Khan is a communist. [↩]
First three, actually. The Magic or Madness trilogy was sold on proposal as a three-book deal way back in 2003. [↩]
Well not the first two, which were written before the first one was published. [↩]
This Thursday at 6:30PM in the glorious city of Sydney the wonderful Melina Marchetta will be launching my new book, Razorhurst.
Here’s hoping you can attend. I have SO MUCH to say about this book. It was some of the most fun research I’ve ever done. Razors! Women mobsters! Walking every street of Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Kings Cross! Wearing 30s clothes! Studying enforcers!1
In other also super exciting news Liar is now available in Brasil under the title Confesso Que Menti. Here’s what it looks like:
Hope my fans in Brasil like it even though it’s very different to my other books that have been published there.
One last thing: I know I have not blogged for several weeks thus, breaking my promise to blog at least once a week, but I was travelling and it was not possible. There will be much more bloggage from here on out. In the meantime you can always find me blathering away on Twitter.
From a very safe distance in a way that they wouldn’t notice with a mask on. [↩]
My latest book, Razorhurst, is almost a reality. In just a few short weeks it will be available for purchase in both Australia and New Zealand. There will be rejoicing at, not one, but two launches. The first is in sunny Sydney:
For cutting and pasting purposes:
Thursday 26 June at 6:30PM
Launched by the fabulous Melina Marchetta Kinokuniya
Level 2, The Galleries,
500 George St,
I’m very excited to be launching my first solely-set-in-Sydney book in my hometown of Sydney.
The second launch will be in lovely Melbourne which I ardently hope will be super cold because we’re getting no winter at all up here in Sydney and I want to wear my gorgeous (yet currently useless) winter clothes:
In non-jpg form:
Tuesday 8 July at 6:30PM
Melbourne launch of Razorhurst
By wonderful Emily Gale Readings
309 Lygon St,
I’m sitting here staring at the map for my new novel, Razorhurst, which comes out in Australia and New Zealand in July. The map is a thing of beauty. I’m a little teary looking at it. I’ve never had a map in one of my books before. Let alone such a gorgeous one:
Map designed by Hannah Janzen
As you can see the map does not cover a large swathe of territory. Razorhurst is a Sydney novel but that map is not all of Sydney, it’s not even all of Surry Hills, the suburb (neighbourhood) where Razorhurst is mostly set.
It’s a tiny, tiny part of Sydney, which got me thinking. I say I know Sydney better than any other city in the world and that’s true. But I hardly know Sydney at all. The Sydney I know is a handful of suburbs (neighbourhoods). I rarely go any further west than Marrickville, further north than the city, further east than Paddington, further south than Alexandria. I’m the total opposite of this bloke valiantly striving to walk every street in the city. My New York City is similarly constrained.
Worse, even in those parts of the city I claim to know well, there are so many lives going on that I know nothing about. This is brought home to me most vividly at my gym. My gym is known for being a crim gym, also as a weightlifter’s and body builder’s gym, and as a gay gym. I don’t fit into any of those categories. I’m not an enforcer for any shady business men, while I’ve lifted weights I’ve never done it in competition, I’m so very much not a bodybuilder,1 and I’m not a gay man.2
I’m fascinated by those first two groups because they live in worlds I never intersect with except at the gym. Their Sydney is not my Sydney.3 I’ve never been anyone’s enforcer. Never been involved in any kind of robbery. Never sold drugs. Never done whatever else it is that those guys do that I don’t know anything about because I am so not part of that world.
I do know a bit more about bodybuilding because the bodybuilders sometimes talk about it.4 What I’ve overhead is mostly about what they can’t eat in the lead up to competitions and them fretting about their body fat percentage. I’ve also overheard loads of stuff I can’t make sense of because I don’t know enough of the specialised language of their world.
Bodybuilder 1: I just need to get down to 4%.
Bodybuilder 2: You’ll get there! Stay away from tuna. Fattiest fish ever.
Me: (not out loud) If you’re only 4% body fat how do you not die?! Tuna’s too fatty? Um, okay.
Bodybuilder 1: I miss salt way more than fat.
Bodybuilder 2: I miss salty fat. Food with flavour.
Bodybuilder 3 (under her breath): Weak. So weak.
Hmmm, I digress.5 My point is that there is so much going on mere metres from where we live that we know nothing about. People who live their lives in the shadowy illegal economy. People who work the night shift, going to sleep just as I’m getting up to write. Engineers! Actuaries! Vampires!6
There are as many different Sydneys as there are Sydneysiders. Hell, there’s more than that because visitors experience a whole other Sydney. I have been known to say that I am unfond of London and also of LA. My London is always rainy and the people are really rude. My LA consists of me being stuck in a car feeling like I’m going to throw up. I’ve only been to both cities a handful of time and know them hardly at all. My London and LA are awful. But I have many friends who adore both places. Who can’t understand why I don’t like London/LA. When I describe my LA/London they just stare at me. It doesn’t resemble their city at all.
The map above is of my imagined Surry Hills of the 1930s. It’s a map of my Razorhurst, a place that never existed except within the fevered imagination of the tabloid Truth.7 We all know novels are imaginary. But I often think that the places we live are also imaginary. My Sydney isn’t like anyone else’s. Neither is my New York City. They exist almost entirely in my mind. In how I interpret (and interact with) the place I live in. Maybe cities are secretly novels. Or vice versa.
Either way I love cities and novels and wish I could know and understand them so much better than I do.
TL;DR: Look at the map for Razorhurst! How gorgeous is it? Very. Cities are vast and complicated and unknowable.
I’m not the only one at my gym who doesn’t fit those categories. My gym contains multitudes. [↩]
Though I will admit in writing Razorhurst I borrowed from some of the things I noticed about the blokes in the gym rumoured to be crims. I spent a lot of time watching how they walk and talk. I was discreet about it. They are very large, scary men. [↩]
Sadly I have never overheard any of the (rumoured) crims discussing their business. And if I did wouldn’t I have to report it to the police? And wouldn’t they then hunt me down for being a stool pigeon. (Am I the only one who imagines a stool pigeon is one that poos a lot?) I don’t want to die. [↩]
Yes, those who’ve been reading me for awhile are aware I always digress. What of it? Digressions are fun. Like footnotes and being more than 4% body fat. I overheard one of the bodybuilders just before a competition complaining that his feet hurt because they weren’t padded enough. THE HORROR. [↩]
As I may have mentioned once or twice I have a new book, Razorhurst, set on the seedy streets of Sydney in 1932 and packed with deliciously dangerous dames and brutal, bloodthirsty blokes.1 It’ll be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in July and in the USA by Soho Teen in March 2015.2
The good people at Allen & Unwin made this vid in which I answer some questions about the book:
Very happy to answer any other questions you might have about it. Yes, it will be available as an ebook. No, I don’t use product to get my hair to do that.
The alliteration is in homage to Truth Sydney’s fabulously over the top tabloid of the period. [↩]
Which may I point out is less than a year away! [↩]
Dear Person Yelling Questions at Me from their Car while I am on My Bike Waiting for the Lights to Change,
My face is redder than red because I’ve just left a very intense hour of boxing training where my beloved trainer took me at my word that I wished to work very hard.1 The jacket I’m wearing is not, in fact, making me hot. It is a fine example of modern engineering with multiple vents letting in all the cool air while still keeping Australia’s vicious sun off my delicate, pasty skin. Also, and this may shock you, Yelly Driver Person, when one cycles at speed it can get quite cold what with the cool breeze. Furthermore, the jacket’s bright yellow colour allows cars to see me and thus they can avoid inadvertently clipping me, though sadly, it seems to have attracted your yelling attentions. Sadly, every plus has a minus.2
But why, Yelly Person in Your Car, are you screaming these questions at me? Why must you know if “I’m overheating in my giant coat”? Why would I assume, perched as I am on my bike, waiting for the lights to change that these inane questions are being shouted at me by a total stranger? And once I realise they are, in fact, being shouted at me why on Earth would you presume I would answer you? What business is it of yours what my body temperature is or what I choose to wear when cycling or anything at all really?
Don’t get me wrong, out on my bike, I do communicate with drivers in their cars. We nod at each other. Sometimes we smile. When a driver kindly lets me cross when they don’t have to I say, “thank you” or “ta” and they say “no worries.” Why just the other day a truck driver next to me as we waited for the lights to change asked me to do them the favour of adjusting the side mirror. I did so. Thumbs up were exchanged and the nice truck driver allowed me to go first when the lights changed. It was a beautiful thing. Cyclist and driver helping one another and not a single, shouted inane question. You see, Yelly Driver Person, it can be done.
But not today. You are all incivility and I, once I realise your inanities are addressed to me, am all ignoring you. Had I realised earlier I would have had the pleasure of delivering this speech in person and then seen you watch slack jawed as the wings unfurled from my yellow cycling jacket, yes, the one that so offended you, and I took off into the evening skies keeping pace with the flying foxes and directed them to relieve themselves on your car.
Instead please to enjoy this letter.
Cycling Girl of Extremely Well Regulated Temperature.
One of the things I need most as a writer is a routine. For me that’s not as much about what time of day I write, that varies, but about where I write. When I sit at my ergonomically gorgeous desk and writing set up I write because it is the place of writing.
Unlike many other writers I don’t have a specific moment that signals writing will commence. I don’t drink coffee so that’s not how I start my day. Some days I write for a bit before breakfast. Some days not till after brekkie, going to the gym, and doing various chores. I do have a broad time for writing: daylight. I almost never write at night. When the sun is down I take a break from writing. That’s when I get to socialise and to absorb other people’s narratives via conversation, TV, books etc.
I have found, however, that I can’t write every single day. I need at least one day off a week. And I can’t go months and months and months without a holiday from writing.
Getting away from my ergonomic set up and the various novels I’m writing turns out to be as important to me as my writing routine. Time off helps my brain. Who’d have thunk it? Um, other than pretty much everyone ever.
I spent the last few days in the Blue Mountains. Me and Scott finally managed to walk all the way to the Ruined Castle. We saw loads of gorgeous wildlife, especially lyrebirds. There was no one on the path but us. Oh and this freaking HUGE goanna (lace monitor). I swear it was getting on for 2 metres from end of tail to tongue:
Photo taken by me from the rock I jumped on to get out of its way.
This particular lace monitor was in quite a hurry. Given that they have mouths full of bacteria (they eat carrion) and they’re possibly venomous getting out of its way is imperative. It seemed completely oblivious of me and Scott. Which, was a very good thing.
Watching it motor past us was amazing. All the while the bellbirds sang. Right then I wasn’t thinking about anything but that goanna.
Which is why getting away is so important. Clears your mind. Helps your muscles unknot.1 Lets you realise that finishing your novel is not, in fact, a matter of life and death.
At the same time two days into the little mini-holiday I realised what the novel I’m writing is missing. The answer popped into my brain as I tromped along the forest floor past tree ferns and gum trees breathing in the clean, clean air, listening to those unmistakeable Blue Mountain sounds2:
And it was good. Really good.
TL:DR: Writing routine good; getting away from writing routine also good.
After their relieved that the goanna has gone away. [↩]
Wednesday, 28 Aug 2013, 11.15 am
Me and Kelly Gardiner Details here. Price: $7.
Melbourne Writers Festival
We have had excellent email exchanges with our moderator Jordi Kerr, which makes me believe it is going to be a most splendid panel. We will certainly argue with the very idea of a strong woman. Because that’s what strong women do.
Then the following week I will be at the Brisbane Writers Festival where there are still available tickets and a few of my events are free. I’m really excited about BWF. They have a brand new director, Kate Eltham, who comes out of science fiction and thus knows how to do panels right. This is the most diverse and interesting set of panels I’ve ever had at a writers festival. I cannot wait.
A SPORTING NATION
VENUE: The Edge, State Library of Queensland
DATE: Friday 6th
TIME: Fri 3:30–4:30PM TICKETS $12-$16
From the long slow burn of a test match to the glories of a ‘specky’, Watson, Larbalestier and Lunn discuss their sporting passions and why sport inspires the best, and sometimes the worst, writing and language.
I’m so excited about this panel. The only other time I’ve been on a panel about sport was because I suggested it myself. This time it was their idea and they put me on the panel with two of the most famous sports obsessives in Australia and our email exchanges with moderator Lee McGowan have been most excellent. It is going to be fabulous.
THE GENRE GHETTO
VENUE: The Edge, State Library of Queensland
DATE Friday 6th
TIME Fri 6:30–8PM
Stuart MacBride Tickets $20-$25
Funny, personal and heartfelt stories about being genre nerds and being proud. Live storytelling from Fraction, Wendell, Larbalestier, McKenzie and MacBride.
I’m very curious about this one. I certainly have more than my fair share of stories about being dissed in often very amusing ways for being a writer of young adult literature. I was never much of a nerd as a kid, however. Indeed back then we would have said “dag” and it didn’t mean the same thing and I wasn’t one.1
VENUE: Maiwar Green, State Library of Queensland
DATE Friday 6th
TIME Fri 8–11PM
No ticket required. That’s right THIS ONE IS FREE
‘Juvenilia’ (stories we wrote as teenagers) set featuring Kevin Kwan, Clementine Ford, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Kimberley Freeman (Kim Wilkins), Stuart MacBride and Benjamin Law reading work they scribbled in their youth. A special ‘Juvenilia’ mixed tape set by Simon Reynolds will wrap up the night.
Okay, so I have no idea how this one is going to work. But I’m imagining a cool jazz band from the 1960s in skinny pants and black turtle necks clicking their fingers cooly in the background as we read you the excruciatingly bad shit we wrote as teens. The audience will be torn in two between their intense desire to laugh and their equally intense desire to be all cool in the face of the awesome jazz. May the laughter win.
THE RISE AND RISE OF YA
VENUE: Queensland Terrace, State Library of Queensland
DATE Saturday 7th
TIME Sat 10–11AM
Carley Commens TICKETS $12-$16
Young Adult (YA) fiction is the fastest growing category of publishing and 55% of YA is purchased by adult readers. YA stars Justine Larbalestier, Steph Bowe and Melissa Keil explain why we love it, read it and write it.
There’s so much to say about this. I have so many opinions! Can’t wait to hear what the others have to say too. Despite living here I am still much less clear on YA in Australia than I am on the genre in the USA.
See you in Melbourne and/or Brisbane!
I will delete any comments offering evidence to the contrary. [↩]
Next Thursday the City of Bones movie opens here in Sydney. Scott and me will be hosting a first-night screening here in Sydney, courtesy of the wonderful Kinokuniya Bookshop.1Cassie herself will introduce the film via a special, exclusive to Kino, recording of joyousness. Because that’s how special this night will be.
If you live in Sydney, and how lucky are you to live in the best city in the world,2 and you enjoy watching movies on the first night with people who are very very excited to be seeing this movie on account of having read the books several million times, then JOIN US.
Also, there’s a costume contest. I plan to dress as I imagine Isabelle Lightwood would if she had my taste in clothing. Sadly I will not be eligible to win the prize. I shall coax Scott into dressing as Magnus Bane. I predict, however, that Scott will be there dressed as Scott Westerfeld.
I imagine this will involve juggling and poker. Even though I always lose to Libba. She’s a total card shark. I bet me and Barry can get Libba to pop out her fake eye. I love it when she does that. We’ll also tell the very weird story of mine and Libba’s second meeting. And talk about that wild, wild weekend in Austin.
SO MANY THINGS FOR US TO TALK ABOUT.
I hope you can join us. Be sure to ask Libba embarrassing questions. She loves that.
10 am? Excuse me? How can I be expected to be witty at TEN ON A SUNDAY MORNING? I should still be asleep! Or possibly contemplating a decadent brunch. It’s inhuman having a panel this early. [↩]
After Scott put up this post about his appearances for the rest of this year, I realised I should do likewise because most of those places he is, I will be also. An eerie coincidence, I know.
Most of the events are in Australia. Sorry, rest of the world, who may have some interest in saying hello. We’ll always have Twitter.
I’ll be interviewing the brilliant and wonderful Nalo Hopkinson on Saturday, 27 April (i.e. two days away) at 2:30PM, Forrest Room 1 & 2 at the Rydges Capital Hill. (Do come say hi. Unless I’m, like, on stage or in the ladies room or something.) Conference site.
INTERNET DEAD ZONE
I am turning off the internet for this whole week. No twitter, no nothing. It’s going to be AWESOME. The mental hygiene, I needs it. Oh, okay, I’m just turning it off for me, yours will still chug along. (Probably.)
It is now TEN WHOLE YEARS since I became a freelance writer.
I know, right? How did that happen? Ten years!
And one more time because truly my disbelief is high:
I HAVE BEEN A FULL-TIME, FREELANCE WRITER FOR TEN WHOLE YEARS.
I know it’s also April Fool’s day but I truly did begin this novel-writing career of mine on the 1st of April. What better day to do something so very foolish? Back in 2003, having sold only one short story, I took the plunge. The first year did not go AT ALL well, but since then it’s mostly worked out.
Books sold: 9: One non-fiction tome, two anthologies (one co-edited with Holly Black), six young adult novels (one co-written with Sarah Rees Brennan)
Books published: 9
Countries books have been sold in: 15 (Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and USA.)
Countries said books have been written in: 6 (Argentina, Australia, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand and USA.)
Published words of fiction: 450,000 (Roughly.)1
Unpublished words of fiction that aren’t terrible: 530,000
Unpublished words of fiction that are so bad to call them bad would be insulting bad: 1,900,045 (Guestimate.)
Books written but not sold: 2 (One I hope will be some day. The other NEVER.)
Books started but not finished: 32 (Guestimate.)
Books about to be finished: 1
Books started that are likely to be finished: 4
Ideas collected: 4,979,934 (Precise measurement. I have an ideaometer.)
For six years I published a new book every single year. In 2006 I even had two books out, Magic Lessons and Daughters of Earth. Not lately.
I’ve slowed down. A lot. There will be no new novel from me this year. And probably not next year.2
Years and years of loads and loads of typing pretty much every single day takes a physical toll.3 I suspect most writers wind up slowing down. Either through injury or just because they’re getting older. Or because they’re so rich they don’t have to write anymore. Ha ha! Just kidding.
I’m not only a slower writer I’m also a writer with a different attitude to writing, to publishing and the whole business of it. I look back on ten-years-ago me and well, I cannot believe how giddy I was. How naive.
Actually I can totally believe it. I totally remember it. I still have many of those feelings including the sporadic disbelief that I’m a working author. It still fills my heart with joy that I can make a living by making stuff up and writing it down. I mean, seriously, how amazing is that?
But so much has changed since then.
My Career, It Has Not Been How I Thought It Would Be
For starters, I am now a cranky old pro.4 *waves walking stick at the young ‘un writers* I wrote this piece eight years ago about how I had no place in the room at a discussion for mid-career writers because back then I had only one published novel and didn’t know anything about the struggles of writers further along with their careers.
My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, are out of print in Australia. Only the first volume is available as a paper book in the USA. (You can get all three electronically in the USA but nowhere else in the English-speaking world.)
Obviously, I knew ten years ago that not all books stayed in print forever. But somehow I couldn’t quite imagine my own books going out of print. The truism that every book is out of print at some stage hadn’t sunk in.
It has now.
Though at the same time the ebook explosion means that fewer books are going out of print because they don’t require warehouses the way printed books (mostly) do. Unfortunately, this non-going-out-of-print of ebooks raises a whole bunch of other issues. Such as protracted arguments over precisely when an ebook can be deemed out of print.
I’d also assumed I would have the one editor and one publisher in my main markets of Australia and the USA for my entire career. That I would be with the publishers of my trilogy, Penguin Australia and Penguin USA forever.
I am now published by Allen & Unwin in Australia. They’ve published my last four books. All with the one fabulous editor/publisher, Jodie Webster,5 and I have high hopes it will stay that way because I love working with her.
In the USA there’s been no such constancy. I have been published by Bloomsbury (Liar and HTDYF) and Simon & Schuster (ZvU) and Harper Collins (Team Human). I’ve worked with several different editors. Only one of those editors is still with the same publishing house. The others have moved to a different house or left the industry altogether. Constant flux, thy name art publishing. I have no idea which US house will publish my next book or who my editor will be. I have only fond wishes.6
Every one of these editors has taught me a great deal about writing. Yes, even when I disagreed with their comments, they forced me to think through why I disagreed and how I could strengthen my book to address their concerns. Being well-edited is a joyous experience.7
Back then I assumed that foreign language publishers having bought one of your books would, naturally, buy all of them. Ha ha ha! Books of mine have tanked all over the world leading, unsurprisingly, to no further sales. My first novel, Magic or Madness, remains my most translated book and thus also the book that has tanked in the most markets around the world.
It also means that some of my books have different publishers in the one country. I’ve had more than one publisher in France, Italy, Japan, Spain and Taiwan.
Australia and the USA are the only countries to have published all my novels. And that is why I am a citizen of both those fine nations. *hugs them to my chest*
The USA is the only place in the world where my non-fiction is published. And, interestingly, those twotomes remain in print. Bless you, Wesleyan University Press. I hope that answers those darling few who ask me if I’m ever going to write a follow up to Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. My desire to continue eating and have a roof over my head preclude any such future scholarly efforts. Sorry.8
The constant professional relationship in most writers lives is with their agent. Jill Grinberg has been my agent since early 2005. She is the best. I honestly don’t know how I would’ve gotten through some moments of the last eight years without her. Thank you, Jill.
YA Publishing Has Changed
Back in 2003 almost no one was talking about ebooks, self-publishing was not seen as a viable or attractive option by most novelists, and very few, even within publishing, had heard of YA or Teen Fiction as it is also frequently called.9
Back then I didn’t know a single soul who’d gotten a six-figure advance. The idea that you could get one for a YA novel was ludicrous. I remember the buzz and disbelief around Stephenie Meyer’s huge advance for Twilight.10 Many were saying back then that Little, Brown had overspent. It is to laugh.
There’s more money in YA publishing now than there was back in 2003. Back then only one YA author, J. K. Rowling, was on the list of richest authors in the world. On the 2012 list there were four: Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Rick Riordan.
They are still outliers. It’s just that YA now has more of them than ever before.
I received $13,500 per book from Penugin USA for my first three novels. At the time I thought that was an amazing advance. And it was. Most of the people I knew then were getting less. I know first-time YA novelists who are still only getting between $10,000 and $15,000 advances. And I know many YA novelists with many books under their belt who have never been within coo-ee of a six-figure advance.
So, yes, there is more money around now. But it is unevenly spread. The difference is that back in 2003 aspiring to be a millionaire YA novelist was like aspiring to be a millionaire garbage collector. Did they even exist? Now, it’s like aspiring to be a millionaire rockstar. Still very unlikely but, hey, at least they’re a real thing.
YA Has Changed
I caught myself fairly recently launching into my standard speil about the freedom of YA: how you can write any genre but as long as it has a teen protag it’s YA . . . when I stopped.
That’s not true anymore. The Balkanisation of YA has kind of taken over. You walk into Barnes & Noble in the USA and there’s Paranormal Romance,11 then there’s the Fantasy & Adventure section, and then there’s the rest of YA. It’s not just the big chains either. Over the years I have seen many smaller chains and independents move towards separate sections within YA. Usually it’s Fantasy & Science Fiction separated out from the rest of YA, which gets called a range of different things. But I’ve also seen separate Christian YA, YA Crime and YA Romance.12
(Of course, the rapid increase of people who purchase their books (ebook and print) online makes the physical weight of these categories less of a problem. It is one of the beauties of online book shopping. If you buy one book by an author you are usually hit with exhortations to buy other books by the same author. I appreciate that as a reader and as an author.)
For those of us who write a variety of different genres it’s alarming. We worry that each of our books are winding up in different sections from the other. So if a person loved one of our books and wanted to read another they can’t find it. Or that they’re all in the one section, which is misleading for the books that don’t belong there. It is a sadness. But apparently many customers find it useful.
New writers wanting to break into YA are being advised they should stick to just one of the many subgenres of YA. That doing so is the best way to have a sustainable career. No one was giving that advice when I started out. Back then advice like that would have made no sense.
I hope it’s terrible advice. But I worry that it’s good advice.
Many in my industry argue that the huge success of the big books by the likes of Collins, Rowling, Meyers and Riordan, (a positive thing which is why YA publishing keeps growing every year), coupled with the rise of ebooks, and the general THE SKY IS FALLING freak out by big publishers because of the emergence of Amazon as a publishing threat and the increasing viability for big authors of self-publishing is leading to many more “safe” books being purchased and less books that are innovative and don’t have an obvious audience.
I heard someone recently opine that the big mainstream publishers are only buying two kinds of YA books (and I suspect this might be true of most genres):
commercial high-concept books they think will be bestsellers
gorgeously written books they think will win prizes
Best of all, of course, is the book that does both.
Of course, neither of those things can be predicted. So the publisher is taking a punt as publishers have always done. They just seem increasingly reluctant to take a punt on the majority of books because they fear that most books are unlikely to do either.
This means that it’s harder than ever to get published by mainstream presses. Fortunately there are far more options now than there used to be. The mainstream houses are no longer the only show in town.
Decline of Non-Virtual Book Shops
There are also, of course, far fewer physical book shops in both Australia and the USA than when I started my career. Almost every one of my favourite second-hand bookshops are gone. However, so far most of my favourite independents are still with us. Abbeys, Better Read than Dead and Gleebooks are still alive and well in Sydney. Pulp Fiction in Brisbane. Readings in Melbourne.
But several big chains have collapsed in both countries. Angus and Robertson is gone, which had such a long and storied history in Australia. As is Borders in the USA.
I fear there will be more bookshop closures in our future. Ebooks are becoming more and more popular as are online retailers of physical books.
I admit that I’m part of the problem. While I am buying more books than ever, most of them are ebooks. I only buy physical books when that’s the only edition available, when it’s a research book, and when I loved a book so much I want a physical copy as well. Who knows if I’ll be able to read all these ebooks five, ten years from now when the formats and devices for reading them have changed?
I do think bookshops are going to survive for many more years but I can’t help looking around and seeing how few music stores are left. The ones that have survived often specialise in vinyl records and cater to collectors.
It Was Ever Thus
I sound depressed about my industry and my genre, don’t I?
I’m not. Publishing has always been in flux, or crisis if you want to put it more strongly. There have been countless booms and busts. There have been paperback booms. The horror boom of the 1980s. In the 1990s the CD-Rom was going to doom publishing. Spoiler: It didn’t.
I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s and, wow, was publishing convulsing then. What with the depression and the complete absence of money and like that. Lots of people in the industry lost their jobs. As they also did in the 1980s up to the present with the takeover of publishers by big media conglomerates and with the merging of the big publishers.
There have been hysterical claims that the advent of radio and television and the internet would kill reading as we know it. Um, no.
In fact, in the USA and Australia and elsewhere, more teenagers are reading than ever. And every year YA grows with more books, more sales, and more readers. It’s the adults we should be worried about.13
Right now publishing is more exciting than it ever has been. We authors have alternatives in a way we never had before. Electronic publishing really has changed everything. We don’t have to stick with the mainstream publishers. We can rescue our out of print backlists with an ease that a decade ago was unimaginable. We can publish those strange unclassifiable projects of ours that publishers so often baulk at.
Every year new and amazing books are being published in my genre. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince published this year truly is unlike anything else out there. It’s a daring, ambitious, beautiful, addictively readable book and it’s published by a mainstream press, Scholastic, who also publish the Harry Potter books. If you want a one-book snapshop of where my genre is at right now that’s the book I’d recommend.
But for me the writing is the thing. I love writing stories even more now than I did ten years ago. I’m better at it and happier doing it now than then. Though perversely I find it much harder. It takes more work to get my novels to a standard I’m happy with than it did. I think that’s mainly because my standards are higher and because with every new book I give myself harder challenges. Can’t get bored now, can I?
All the sturm and drung of publishing expanding, shrinking, freaking out, is just noise that on many levels has zero to do with what I write. Or to put it another way the more time I spend paying attention to YA publishing trends—Crap! Should I be writing a book about a kid with cancer?!—the less able I am to write. When I write I am much much happier than when I am angsting about what I should be writing.
Back in 2003 I knew a lot less about publishing but I was also a lot more nervous about it. I was hearing the tales of publishing’s demise for the very first time. Foolishly I believed them! I was hearing that the Harry Potter fad was over and YA was doomed, that nobody wanted [insert particular subgenre that I happened to be writing at the time here] anymore.
At the beginning of my career I was terrified I would never sell anything. That fear was so paralysing that for the first year of freelancery I barely wrote a word and I blew my first ever writing gig.
And even after I sold the trilogy there were so many fears. What if these books are my last? What if I don’t earn out? What if everyone hates my book? What if publishing collapses around my ears?
Now I’ve had books that haven’t earned out, books that have been remaindered, books that haven’t won awards or even been shortlisted, books that have received few reviews,14 books with scathing reviews.15 I have had calendar years without a new novel by me. I have missed deadlines with my publishers.
All those things I had been afraid of? They have all happened and I’m still standing and I still have a career.
None of that matters. It really is just noise. What matters is that I write the best books I possibly can. And if injury means that I can’t deliver that book when I said I would then so be it. My health is more important.
My writing is more important.
I have in the past rushed to get books in on time and they were not as, um, good16 as they could have been. Luckily I had editors who demanded extensive rewrites. That’s why I have never had a book I’m ashamed of in print. But I could have and back then I believed that wasn’t as big a deal as not having a book out every year.
I was wrong.
Now I believe that is the worst possible thing that could happen to my career.17 To have in print a book with my name on it that I am not proud of. A book that is not as good as it could have been.
Now, I don’t care about the market.18 I don’t care about supposed saleability. I no longer sell my books until they are finished, which is much kinder to me. Racing to meet a deadline when you have shooting pain running up your arms is less than optimal. Selling my books only when finished is also better for the publisher who wants to know when to realistically schedule the book. I am, of course, extremely lucky to be able to wait to sell my books.
I write what I want to write. I have a backlist, I have a reputation, I am known for writing a wide variety of books. So when I turn in an historical set in the 1890s from the point of view of the first telephone in use in the quaint town of Shuberesterville no one’s going to bat an eyelid.19
If they don’t want it, well, brand new world of ebook self-publishing, here I come! I know just which freelance editors and copyeditors and proof readers and cover designers I’m going to hire to work on it.
To be clear: I’d much rather stay with mainstream publishing. Wow, is self publishing hard work. I have so much admiration for those self-publishers, like Courtney Milan, who do it so amazingly well.
Being a writer can be a very lonely business. Just you and your computer and an ocean of doubt. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have never been alone with my writing. My mother, father and sister have always been supportive and proud of my writing. Without Jan, John and Niki as early readers and a cheering squad, well, I don’t like to think about it. They are the best.
One of the great pleasures of the last ten years has been discovering the YA community both here in Australia but also in the USA. I have met and become friends with some of the most amazing teens, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, parents, agents and others in this fabulous community like the publicists and marketers and sales reps and folks from the art department, and of course editors and publishers. They’ve all made me feel welcome and at home and they all care about YA even more passionately than I do. Protip: You want to talk to a real expert on YA? Don’t talk to the writers, talk to the specialist YA librarians.
The relationships that have been a huge source of strength for me in this strange career are those with other writers of whom20 there are far too many to name.21 Honestly, without other writers to gossip and giggle with, to ask for advice from and, lately, give advice to, this would be a lonely, miserable profession.
Our conversations and arguments have led to the creation of whole new novels and Zombie versus Unicorn anthologies. You are all amazing. I love youse. Even when you’re totally wrong about certain best-selling novels or the importance of the word “effulgent”.
My best writer friend is Scott Westerfeld. It was he who suggested I go freelance ten years ago even though we were stone cold broke back then. Even though I’d only sold one short story. Even though I was really scared. Mad man! It’s he who looks smug now at what a great suggestion it was. Thank you, Scott. For everything.
Here’s to another ten years of writing novels for a living. Here’s to YA continuing to grow and be successful! Wish me and my genre luck!
Or one of Cassandra Clare’s books. Just kidding. Two of Cassie’s. [↩]
I have, however, been writing a lot. I’ve almost finished the Sydney novel. It’s only a few drafts away from being ready to go out to publishers. And I have several other novels on the boil. Including the 1930s NYC novel of which I have more than 100,000 words. Sadly I also seem to be no more than a third of the way into that story. Le sigh. [↩]
Obviously the typing dates back much longer than a mere ten years. [↩]
I have many novelist friends who are laughing right now. Because they have been doing this for twenty years or more and consider me to still be a baby neophyte. [↩]
Those job titles work differently in Australia. [↩]
And in my experience the editors last way longer than the publicists and people in marketing. [↩]
Even when you want to kill them. “But, but, but, I meant the ending not to make any sense. Fixing it will be hard!” *swears a lot* *stomps* *fixes ending* [↩]
Not really. Writing Battle of the Sexes was a TOTAL NIGHTMARE. But I’m genuinely happy that the book has been useful to so many. It was my PhD thesis written for an audience of, like, three. [↩]
Within publishing houses almost everyone calls it YA. But I’ve noticed that many booksellers call it Teen Fiction. [↩]
Twilight was published the same year as my first novel, 2005. [↩]
I’d never heard the word “paranormal” when I started out. [↩]
There are, of course, even more YA categories for books at online book shops. I’ve seen Substance Abuse, Peer Pressure, Dark Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic etc. etc. But somehow online they seem less restrictive than they do in a bricks and mortar book shop. [↩]
Just kidding. A huge number of adults read YA. [↩]
In the trade publications, that is. The blessing of the internet is that these days somewhere, somehow your books are going to be reviewed by bloggers or on Barnes & Noble/Amazon/Goodreads etc. (Though, um, aren’t Amazon and GoodReads the same thing now?) A book receiving not a single review is a rarity these days. [↩]
That would be all of them. Every single one of my books has had at least a handful of this-book-sucks reviews. Turns out this is true for all books ever. [↩]
Worst thing I have control over, obviously. No one can stop a falling piano. [↩]
Which isn’t to say that I’m not fascinated by it. My name is Justine Larbalestier and I am a publishing geek. I’m very curious to see if the big swing against paranormal and fantasy I’m hearing so many people predict really does happen. I’m a bit skeptical. [↩]
The readership for YA fiction continues to grow and grow. Yet for young women today questions of identity, sexuality and friendship remain as problematic as ever. This session asks – how do women write for girls? Join Isobelle Carmody, author of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, Justine Larbalestier, author of Liar, and Vikki Wakefield, author of Friday Brown for a spirited conversation about women and words.
Isobelle is one of Australia’s most popular YA fantasy writers. Her fans span generations and all clutch her books to their chests like they are precious babies. She’s wonderful and funny and genuinely does not think like anyone else I have ever met. I did a panel with her at last year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival and it truly was awesome. Mostly because of Isobelle. So if you’re in Adelaide you want to see this.
I’m looking forward to meeting Vikki Wakefield. I’ve heard good things about her debut novel All I Ever Wanted. Yes, it’s true, not all Australian YA authors know each other. But we’ll fix that after a few more festival appearances.
As the debate about what it means to be a feminist is ongoing, this session brings together three writers, all of whom identify as feminists. Justine Larbalestier is a YA and fantasy writer, playwright Bryony Lavery is the author of iconic works including Thursday, and Chika Unigwe is the author of the novel On Black Sister’s Street, about a group of African women in the sex trade.
This panel marks the first time I’ve ever been on a panel with writers for grown ups (i.e. whose audience is presumed to be primarily adults, as opposed to mine which is presumed to be mostly teens) at a literary festival. I think it’s wonderful that there’s a festival in the world that is actively breaking down boundaries between genres and writers and readers. Honestly, I was so surprised when I saw this I thought they’d made a mistake. Then I looked at the whole programme. And, lo, it’s full of such inter-genre cross over panels. Way to go, AWW, way to go!
I like that they list all the panellists’ nationalities. I was excited when I saw there was a USian on both my panels. But a little bewildered when I looked the other panellists up and discovered none of them were from the USA. I’d been looking forward to asking where they were from, and if they knew NYC or any of the other cities I know, we could compare notes. Which is when I realised that I am the USian on those panels.
In my defense I’ve only been a US citizen for a year. It’s easy to forget.
TL;DR:3 I will be in Adelaide in early March. Come to my panels!
Which, no, I don’t. It was a lot of fun, but. I love weddings! So much love! So many wonderful speeches about love! So many opportunities for it to all go horribly wrong! Especially at doomed weddings between those Who Should Not Marry. Someday I’m going to write a Doomed Wedding book. Though to be clear: the Adelaide wedding was not doomed. Um, I think I’m digressing. [↩]
For the old people that stands for: Too long, Didn’t Read. You’re welcome. [↩]
Yesterday the prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, gave a stirring, passionate and inspiring speech about misogyny and sexism in the Australian parliament and in particular the misogyny and sexism of the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott: Continue reading →
When I was a littlie I hated PE1 with every fibre of my being. I hated the way the PE teachers yelled at us and made us do things we mostly didn’t want to do. I hated being made to compete against the other kids in my class. In PE I would almost always come last the second anything was turned into a race or a competition. I would make no effort because competing stressed me out. I would get out of PE as much as I could. I would conveniently have my period or a note from home explaining why I couldn’t take part.
I was also made to feel from a very early age that I was not good at sport. The kids who showed talent were immediately fallen upon with glee: “A future Aussie Olympic medalist! Let us get them to the Australian Institute of Sport, stat!”2 Those of us who did not show instant aptitude for throwing, kicking, catching or thwacking balls, for running or jumping, or lifting heavy things, or moving through the water quickly, learned that there was little point in us trying because we were crap.
It wasn’t until I left high school that I discovered I, in fact, love many different sports.3 And that while I would never have been professional or Olympic level at anything I was not, in fact, crap. I have decent hand eye co-ordination and I am quite good at picking up physical instruction.
I started with fencing, then there was rowing (briefly), climbing, swimming, tennis, and most recently, boxing, and through all of it weight training and working out in gyms. I discovered that I really enjoy learning how to do physical things and that I particularly enjoy learning technique. I love that I can progress from rubbish to competent with practice.
Dear Readers, I love practising, I love training. My first day on the speed ball I was total rubbish. Have you seen Girlfight?4 They do an excellent learning-the-speed ball montage. Like Michelle at first I could not get it to do anything I wanted it to do. The speed ball annoyed and frustrated me. I wanted to kill the speed ball. STUPID SPEED BALL. But then, lo and behold, with a little bit of practice I got better. I got so I could do it really, really fast in an I AM A FEARSOME WARRIOR kind of way. At which point my trainer taught me a different technique and I was back to square one—maybe square two—and had to learn all over again. Every time I get decent at a particular way of thwacking the speed ball she teaches me a different way and I go back to being arhythmic and rubbish. LOVE IT!
I became fit. I discovered that being fit not only feels physically fantastic but helps my mental health as well. I am a much happier person when I’m exercising regularly. It’s also the only time that I can turn my brain off. When I’m intensely focussed on learning and perfecting (ha!) a new technique that’s all I’m thinking about. I’m not angsting about fixing my book or anything else I’m. Just. Boxing. It’s AWESOME.
I really hope that PE is taught differently these days. That kids are not made to feel like failures if they cannot instantly throw a ball accurately or run fast. That they are no longer taught that competing and winning are the be all and all. That the emphasis is now on being fit and enjoying various different sports and physical activities and not just one competing and winning.
I hope that PE teachers around the world have finally abandoned the idea that only the naturally gifted will excel at sport.
Here’s why: There’s a town in the UK where they keep producing Olympic level badminton players.5 This happened because a top badminton coach lived there and taught at the local school and opened a badminton centre that was available to interested locals 24/7. Those keen kids played there A LOT. The town developed a badminton culture and lo and behold many badminton champions. Few of whom, if tested in childhood, would have demonstrated any particular aptitude for badminton.
Talent helps, obviously. Usain Bolt would not be where he is today were he not a naturally fast runner. But he would also not be where he is today if he was too lazy to practise and train, which he has done relentlessly since he was knee high to a grasshopper. There is no world class athlete in the world today who hasn’t spent the vast majority of their life training until they puked.6
We spend way too much time obsessing about talent and not nearly enough time about hard work, practice, and training. Talent is nothing without hard work.
And, yes, all of this applies to writing too. It applies to pretty much everything. I have known many talented writers who have never gotten around to finishing a book. And many less talented writers with successful careers.7
I know a tiny handful of people who have not the tiniest speck of humility or modesty and—this is the important part—are not obnoxious. They are good people.
What they have is a sense of their own worth and talents that is directly proportional to those talents and worth. They do not sell themselves short, nor do they overestimate their abilities. They have the self confidence and belief to neither indulge in false modesty nor to be crippled by doubt. They know they would not be where they are if those talents had not been nurtured by others or if they had not worked hard.
It is remarkably refreshing and I envy them.
Humility and modesty are possibly the most annoying virtues. Too often the truly modest are neurotic, self-doubters who don’t know their own worth and I want to shake them. YES, YOU ARE TALENTED AND AMAZING! STOP SAYING YOU’RE NOT!
Undervaluing yourself is not a virtue. At its worst self doubt keeps people from doing what they are talented at. I can’t tell you how many brilliant writers I’ve known over the years who’ve never finished a novel because of their lack of self belief, because they are humble, and do not recognise their own talent. That’s a loss to every one of us who would love to read their work. A huge loss.
At the other end of the scale is false modesty: those who live by the humble brag.1 Those who’ve been told they mustn’t talk of their achievements nor blow their own horn, they must be humble and modest but they’re not so they try to disguise their longing to boast by saying, “Oh, this little thing.” “Oh, I don’t know why they wanted me to be the support act for Prince.” Blah blah blah.
Don’t know about you but I’d much rather they were all: “Look at my new dress! I made it! Isn’t it the best thing ever? I love it to death!” Or “OMG! I’m the support act for Prince! This is something I’ve worked towards my ENTIRE LIFE. And now it’s happening! I am so happy! YAY!”
You achieved something amazing. You get to tell people. You get to be excited. You get to jump up and down. Only mean-spirited poo brains would begrudge you your joy. Who cares what they think?
So those confident—but not obnoxious—folk I mentioned at the beginning of this post? All but one are USians. All white. Mostly from loving, supportive families. Mostly male. Mostly not working class. The one non-USian is from a wealthy Australian family. It is amazing how much confidence growing up loved and without the slightest bit of want can give you. Growing up with money does not, of course, guarantee that you’ll be confident. The love part is essential. Sometimes I think the worst start in life anyone can suffer is growing up unloved.
Growing up in Australia I learned that talking positively about your own achievements was one of the worst sins ever.2 “Don’t write tickets on yourself,” should be our national motto. Getting too big for your bootstraps is a national crime and leads to all sorts of contortions as far too many people fall over themselves to seem less smart, talented, and interesting than they are. Not a pretty sight. On the other hand it does lead to some gorgeously self-deprecating wit.
Meanwhile in my other country of citizenship they’re mostly being taught to boast their arses off. Truly, I do enjoy US confidence. It’s so refreshing compared to Australia. But, oh my, when that confidence is married to ignorance and stupidity and blind self belief? Things get very ugly indeed.
These are, of course, caricatures that are mightily affected by intersections of race, class, gender etc and how loving the families we grew up in were. Both countries have folks hiding their lights under bushels.3 They both have less talented folks under the sad delusion that they are The Most Talented People in the Entire Universe.
What we need is a mix of the two cultures so we wind up with the happy medium I started this post with. Nations of people who know their own value and feel neither the urge to constantly boast about it: I AM NUMBER ONE AT EVERYTHING EVER! Or to pretend that their ability to whip up a divine, multilayered, delicate-as-air, intricately decorated cake out of almost nothing is no big thing.
So I’ll end this post telling you something I’m proud of: I’m proud of the book I’m almost finished rewriting. It feels like a big step forward and that makes me happy and proud.4
Though quite a few of the tweets labelled “humble brags” aren’t. Many with big breasts do not find them so wonderful as the world imagines they do. I’ve known way too many big breasted women who’ve longed for smaller breasts. Not to mention several who’ve had breast reductions because the back and shoulder pain was unendurable. [↩]
Especially if you’re female or working class or not white—but the rule applies to everyone. [↩]
If I wasn’t out of keystrokes for the day I would so finally look that expression up. Where on earth does it come from? Lights? Bushels? So weird. [↩]
And this is me suppressing the urge to undercut that boast, er, I mean factual statement with a self-deprecating comment to indictate that I’m not really up myself and you shouldn’t hate me. Aargh. *sitting on my hands now* [↩]
Hi Justine! Firstly, thank you for all your posts about writing novels and the basics; I’m a young writer and your blog has really helped someone so inexperienced!
I’m in high school in Sydney and if you grew up around here I assume you completed the HSC? Or an equivalent, if it’s more recent than I think. I was just wondering what subjects you chose. English is obviously essential for any student who wants to be a writer, but did you find any other subjects particularly helpful? Thanks!
Thanks for your kind words. So glad I’ve helped.
I would definitely advise doing some kind of tertiary study, be it at university, or some kind of trade school. Getting qualifications so you can get a decent paid job is a really good idea. Because the vast majority of published writers do not earn enough to make a living. So those who want to be writers need to figure out what is the best job to enable them to write on the side.
Back in the day, I decided that being an academic was the best way to support myself while I wrote. And that’s what I did until I became a freelance writer in 2003. I went to university got two degrees: BA (Hons) and a PhD. In the course of doing so I had many other jobs: I worked retail, I was a receptionist, cleaner, admin assistant, researcher, IT help and probably some other stuff I’ve forgotten. I had a scholarship to do my PhD and also taught at the university part-time. I then got my first real full-time job as a postdoctoral researcher.
While all of that was going on I was doing my own writing on the side.
That’s one of the many cools things about being a writer. It is the most transportable of talents. It can fit in with any other job you can name. It can be done anywhere and anytime.
I know other writers for whom technical writing is the main job. I know writers who are also lawyers. One who works in a museum. One who’s an ambo. And many who are teachers and librarians and journalists.1 And even more who work in the publishing industry. Mainly as editors.
I know writers who look at having to have a job other than writing as a burden and a penance and it drives them nuts. But I also know plenty who find that their day job feeds into their writing and who say that without it what would they write about?
It’s a good point: the more experiences you have the more you see of the world and how it works, the better equipped you are to write about it.
I do not know a single full-time pro writer who has not at some point in their life had a different job. We have all worked at something other than writing novels.
As a writer you can do any job you want.2 I would strongly advise not planning your course of study at high school or university around writing. As it really is one of the very hardest jobs to make a living at. While at the same time being, unlike, say, acting, one of the easiest to keep doing while holding down another job.
Deciding what to study for your last years in high school should be shaped by a few things:
Do you want to go to university? What do you want to study there?
If you want get a degree in something with a high entrance score3 then you need to pick the courses that are required for that degree and you need to pick subjects you’re good at and likely to do well in. Maiximise your chances of doing as well as you can so you have your choice of universities and courses.
Don’t forget about the sciences. There’s a huge demand for scientists, not just in this country, but all around the world. And every science is brimming with cool ideas. Perfect for a writer.
If you don’t have a bent for scholarly study or are good with your hands then consider a trade. There are loads of tradies who make more money than your average university-degreed person. Skilled plumbers and electricians and carpenters etc. are always in demand. Plus how many novels are there from the plumber’s point of view? Or the sparky’s? The world needs more of those novels and NO MORE novels from the point of view of middle-aged male university professors. I’m just saying . . .
Other than writing what are your passions?
I have a friend who has always loved the sea. She was a trained scuba diving instructor while still in her teens and now has a PhD in marine biology and a career she loves. Yes, she writes too.
It could be you have a skill, like scuba diving, that could lead you to a career perfect for you.
My sister has always been visually gifted, good at photography. She went on to study art and wound up in the visual effects industry. She has worked on blockbuster films like those in the Matrix and Harry Potter series all around the world.
Many people will tell you that studying art is useless. It wasn’t for my sister.
If you do go to university why not pick subjects you think are cool? That fit into your passions. Who knows where it will lead you? I know plenty of people who are now doing jobs that didn’t exist when they were in high school.
But maybe writing is all you can do and all you want to do. Fine, then. Do what Garth Nix says.
But whatever you decide remember that no one path is irrevocable. You an always change your mind. Most people these days wind up with more than one career during their lifetime.
Good luck, Lucy!
P.S. I did, in fact, do my HSC here in Sydney. A. Very. Long. Time. Ago.
Though that last one seems to be a dying job. Or if not dying a transitioning one. [↩]
Within reason. Could be you live somewhere with high unemployment. [↩]
I’m keeping this generic so it applies to people outside NSW where the HSC does not exist. [↩]
I have been called an expat because I have lived in New York City on and off since 1999. The off time was spent living here in Sydney. I live in two countries and I am not an expat.
When someone in Australia calls me that they’re usually saying I don’t have the authority to comment on what’s happening here because I’ve been away too long. People like Germaine Greer1 and Clive James are called expats. Often with a sneer.
I am not an expat.
I am not an expat in the sense that Australians use it: “Someone who has abandoned Australia and has no clue about it anymore.”
I have never lived outside Australia for more than a year.
I am not an expat in the sense that many others use it either.
I have no Australian friends in NYC. I do not go to Australia clubs to hang out with the other Australians. I don’t eat at Australian restaurants. To me that is expat behaviour. To go to another country and try to live there as much as you can like you were still back home.
Now, part of my not seeking out other Australians in NYC is because I also live in Sydney and there are quite a few Australians here. When we’re in Sydney we’re with our Sydney friends, most of whom are Australian. In NYC we’re with our New Yorker friends, none of whom are originally Australian.
I admit I’m puzzled by people who want to live in another country but once there only hang out with people from their own country. Why not stay home?
Yet, that is what my grandparents did.
But they were refugees. They ran from the Nazis and landed in Australia.2 They did learn English, but it took a long time, and they were never comfortable speaking it.3 All their friends were East European refugees like them. They weren’t wild about Australian food. Sometimes I got the feeling they weren’t too impressed by Australians either.
But, you know what, they lost almost their entire families, almost everyone they’d ever known or loved. They were forced to leave their home. Refugees get a pass.
And their children and their children’s children are very much Australians.
Refugees can’t be expats. To be an expat you have to have chosen to leave your home country; not be fleeing certain persecution.
Those who move to another country to live, who engage with that country, rather than perch on top of it, are migrants, not expats.
I’m a migrant, not an expat. Some of us migrants go back home. A lot. Some of us live in more than one country.
Ever since I started living in two different countries I’ve met more and more people who do the same. I’ve met even more people who would love to do that but simply can’t afford it.4 The old path of migration meaning you left your country forever and ever amen is not the only path.
I have a friend in NYC, originally from Guatemala, who goes back there for a few months every year. I’ve met many Mexican-Americans who go back and forth between Mexico and the US. And Indonesian-Australians who go back and forth between Indonesia and Australia. The closer your country is to the other country you live in the easier it is. Not that I’m jealous . . .
I know loads of mixed national couples like me and Scott who alternate what country they live in. Even couples with kids who do that. Though they tend to do years-long chunks in each country. The Belgian/Australian couple I met recently have just spent five years here and now are moving there with their two children where the kids will be attending a trilingual school.
In conclusion: do not call me an expat! Or something . . .
I don’t think I’ll ever understand why Germaine Greer is so hated here. Mostly by men. I love her. She’s hilarious and has been amazingly important to feminism. Yes, she can be wrong. Yes, I disagree with her as often as I agree. So? She’s a possum stirrer. Always has been. It’s a noble pursuit. Though it sure does seem to be more admired in men than women. [↩]
They would have preferred Argentina but the Australian visas came through first. [↩]
Me and Scott took the day off last week to go to the movies. I cannot remember the last time we did that. Sat down in an actual cinema with actual other people and watched a movie. It was a great audience. We mocked the Australian-Mining-Will-Save-the-Environment ad together. Then we laughed and cried and cheered our way through The Sapphires.
The Sapphires restored my faith in movies. I was on the verge of sticking to TV and never bothering with movies again. The Sapphires pulled me back from that brink. I walked out of that cinema elated and happy and almost a week later the feeing hasn’t worn off yet.
For those not in Australia, The Sapphires is a new movie about an Aboriginal girl group who performed for the US troops in Vietnam in the late 60s. It is now screening in Australia and France and will be released in NZ in October and UK in November. It will also be screening in the USA but I haven’t been able to find out when yet.
If you get a chance to see it DO SO.
The Sapphires is a biopic in that it is based on the lives of a real Aboriginal girl group who performed in Vietnam in the 1960s. But unlike so many biopics, such as Ray, there’s no boring bit after they get famous and take to drugs/alcohol and then are redeemed because The Sapphires don’t become famous. It’s not that movie.
It’s also astonishingly gorgeous. The cinematography by Warwick Thornton, the director of the also visually stunning Samson and Delilah, makes everything and everyone glow. When I discovered the budget was less than a million dollars, which for those of you who don’t know is a microscopic budget for a feature-length film, I almost fell over.
Deborah Mailman is, as usual, the standout. She’s been my favourite Australian actor ever since Radiance in 1998. I would even go see her in a Woody Allen movie1 that is how great my love for her is. Wherever Mailman is on screen that’s where you’re looking. And no matter who she’s playing I find myself on her side. She could play Jack the Ripper and I’d still be on her side.
The Sapphires is a movie where you see the effects of systemic racism AND you get joy and hope and MUSIC. The movie was upbeat and heartbreaking and funny and left me full of optimism for the entire world. Things do get better! Amazing things can be achieved even in the face of racism and sexism.
The movie manages to convey how the civil rights movement in the USA was important to Aboriginal people in Australia deftly and economically. (I had just been reading about Marcus Garvey’s influence on indigenous politics here in the 1930s, which was an excellent reminder that Australia’s civil rights movement goes back much earlier than most people realise.) It covers a great deal of the terrain of racial politics in Australia in the 1960s without ever losing sight of its genre.
This appears to be a problem for many of the reviewers in Australian newspapers. The reviews are all weirdly tepid in their praise. They refer to The Sapphires as a “feel good” movie and a “crowd pleaser” as if that were a bug not a feature. Um, what? It’s like they went in expecting Samson and Delilah—a great film don’t get me wrong—and are mildly annoyed that this one didn’t rip their heart out and stomp on it. The thinking seems to go: I walked out of The Sapphires wanting to burst into song. It must be lightweight fluff.
The Sapphires is a movie that aims to make you laugh, fill you with joy, jerk some tears from you and to maybe make you think, if you’re white Australian like me, about how deep seated racism is in this country. It succeeds in all of those goals. How does that make it “merely” entertaining? Gah!
I will never understand the attitude that says serious = deep, funny = shallow. It is a widespread view. Take a look at all the award-winning books and films. Very few of them are funny. Or could be described as light. What’s up with that?
I have a list of books and movies I turn to when I’m down. What they have in common is that they are excellently well-made and they make me feel good. It’s a lot harder to write one of those books or make one of those movies than you’d think.
Yesterday I did my first school visits in Sydney.1 I went to Willoughby Girls High and Ravenswood Girls School on the North Shore.2 I was dreading it as I always am when I have to speak in front of people I don’t know. Why can’t I stay home and write?! Waaah! I hate public speaking! I hate school visits! Etc.
But then, as always, I got to Willoughby Girls High and everyone was lovely, especially the school librarian, and my talk on how Team Human went from idea to finished book didn’t seem to put anyone to sleep. Not even the teachers.3 I didn’t faint or vomit or drop my water or show the wrong images and best of all the question and answer portion of proceedings went exceedingly well.
I love Q & A.4 That’s the part where I get to hear what other people are thinking. I know what I think. I spend all day listening to my thoughts. I rarely get to hear what schools girls on the North Shore are thinking and interested in. Willoughby Girls High Years 8 and 9 did not disappoint asking many smart questions.5 I think we were all disappointed when the bell went that we couldn’t keep on asking and answering questions for a few more hours. Though that might be because their next class was maths.6
In fact, yesterday’s talk was inspired by questions I’d been asked at previous such talks. People outside publishing are always bewildered by how long it takes for a book to go from sold to a publisher to being in the bookshops. I’m frequently asked how long it takes me to write a book, and how I made my books’ covers. So I took them through the whole process. And I even brought some cover elves along to demonstrate how a cover is made. They went over a treat.
Afterwards me and the librarians and some of the teachers were talking about how we’d never had author visits back when we were in school and how lucky these kids were. Back in the day we hadn’t even been aware that people who wrote books were alive. Much less someone you could meet and ask question of.
Then on the way home I remembered that I had in fact had an author come to my school. I was stunned I’d forgotten about it because it was totally scarifying. In a good way. When I was in Year 10 at the Australian International Independent School7 there were two boys in our class who were on the verge of getting into serious trouble. They were at the minor breaking of the law stage. But they had started to steal cars and go for joy rides. Our teacher decided to scare them straight by getting the author of the book that the movie Hoodwink was based on to come in and talk about life as a prisoner.8
This guy was the leanest, hardest looking bloke I’d ever seen. He walked into that room and we all went quiet and we were a noisy lot. He told his story. That he’d been a bank robber, that he’d gotten caught and been sent to prison. Loads of time. He said being sent inside was not an occupational hazard but an occupational certainty. He didn’t know any bank robbers who weren’t done eventually. He’d gotten early release by pretending to go blind and fooling everyone including eye specialists. He had a bit of a grin on his face describing it. It’s an amazing story and we were amazed.
He talked in great detail about how awful it is in gaol. How it breaks you and hardens you. He spared us no details. He talked about how the young blokes were always raped. You could feel the air go out of the room when he said that. When we got to the Q and A part he went out of his way to deglamorise every aspect of his outlaw life. What living in hiding is like. How you make almost no money from being a bank robber. And even when you do get a big haul and get away with it you get busted as soon as you spend it. Etc.
I raised my hand to ask what it was like in women’s prisons. Surely that wasn’t as bad as the men’s? No, he said, it’s much, much worse and went into detail about just how awful it was.
I don’t know about the two boys at risk but that author visit certainly scared me into total law abidingness.
In conclusion: Don’t rob banks! Read books! Author/school visits are educational and fun and sometimes scary! Ask questions!
Did any of you have an author visit that has had a big impact on you?
Actually, they were my first visits as an author to any school in Australia. That’s because for the duration of my writing career I have mostly been in Australia during the summer when schools are not in session. [↩]
Or as we inner city types think of it Here Be Dragons. [↩]
True fact. I have seen teachers nod off during these things. Yes, while I was talking. [↩]
So much that every Monday I find myself watching the ABC’s Q and A and yelling at the television set and swearing that I will never watch that damn show again. And yet there I am the following Monday yelling at the tellie. [↩]
Unfortunately, I got the timing wrong at Ravenswood and there was no time for Q and A. 🙁 My bad. [↩]
Seriously, high school students everywhere, maths will be really useful later on and if you’re like me and paid no attention whatsoever and are a maths moron you will be lost at tax time and understanding stuff like royalties and other number related things that are important to you and oh, how you will regret your decision that maths was stupid lo those many years ago. /lecture [↩]
A hippy school at North Ryde that was all about internationalism and peace studies. It was excellent. But full of kids who’d been chucked out of other schools or were gently asked to leave. *cough* [↩]
I have done some limited googling and failed to find the name of the book or the author that the film was based on. If you know please to tell me! [↩]
Yesterday I listed some of my favourite recent US TV shows. It got me wondering what your favourite shows are and why? Because I’m just about to finish the first season of Legend of Korra and will have to find something else to watch that’s every bit as wonderful.
I only noticed that I watch completely different kinds of TV in Australia than I do in the US. Here in Australia I watch lots of non-fiction: Australian Story, Four Corners, pretty much all the cooking shows, lots of sport, Rockwiz. Stuff like that. My US shows as listed yesterday are mostly fiction, genius shows like The Wire and Deadwood.
So what are you watching wherever in the world you are? Yes, anime counts. Please to tell me!
So yesterday I came across this tumblr, Underground New York Public Library. And, fellow readers, it is marvellous! Glory in the gazillions of photos of people reading books on the subway. Complete with the names of the books. It is a truly glorious portrait of New York City. Of what I love about that city.
I am sure if you read this blog you are like me: when you are on public transport you cannot stop yourself from trying to figure out what people are reading.
I have been known to accidentally on purpose drop things so I can bend down to pick them up and thus read the title of the book that’s being held too low for me to read otherwise. Yes, I am one of those dreadful people who reads over people’s shoulders on public transport. I’m just curious is all. Not creepy. Honest!
I love to know what people are reading. Then along comes this tumblr to satisfy my curiosity. And, wow, what a wide range of books. Almost every genre under the sun. Though not that many romances. I figure those are mostly on ereaders. It’s a shame that means they don’t represent in the vast numbers they are being read.
Don’t get me wrong I love being able to read books electronically.1 But it does make it that much harder to figure out what people are reading. And has massively increased my already obnoxious habit of reading over people’s shoulders.
On the other hand it means I will never again have some arsehole being all judgey because I dare to read in public a romance or YA or some other genre certain people like to sneer at. Yes, I have had people say rude stuff to me because I was reading a book they did not deem to be good. Get over yourself, judgey poo heads! I bet you read Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski. I am sorry you are so insecure in your masculinity you have to read misogynist dross like that to make you feel better. Um, *cough* judging people for what they read is wrong.2
I was particularly filled with joy by this picture of two men reading books by women. See? There are men who are brave enough to do that! In public!
This tumblr made my heart almost explode with joy. And, um, lose several hours pouring over every photos and reading every comment. What? I’m on a break between first and second draft of novel. So it’s not even procrastination.
Happy reading, everyone! What’s the best book you’re read recently? And why did you love it?
Mine’s Sumner Locke Elliott’s Careful He Might Hear You which I adored because it has sharply written dialogue and so evocatively brings 1930s Sydney to life. Also it is heartbreaking. Everyone should read it if only for a masterclass in how to write great dialogue.
In my case I read them on my phone and don’t have an ereader, but, you know, same thing. [↩]
Do not get me started on those who read Ayn Rand in a non-campy way. [↩]
Some of you wanted me to write about my home country. But it’s a big ask to cover the entire country in one blog post so I’m narrowing my focus to my immediate surrounds: Surry Hills:
View of Surry Hills
Surry Hills is an inner-city suburb (or neighbourhood as USians would say) of Sydney, Australia where I live. Or as some call it Slurry Hills. Or the Hills as it used to be called. Or Razorhurst as it was called by the Sydney Truth1 back in the 1920s when it, Darlinghurst, Woolloomooloo, Kings Cross and Paddington were all called Razorhurst on account of the razor wars that took place on their slummy back streets.2 Back then the area was dirt poor and full of drugs, prostitution, illegal gambling, and illegal alcohol.
Surry Hills street art
These days there’s still prostitution but then brothels are legal in Sydney and almost every suburb has one or two. Also drugs. There’s a legal needle exchange a short walk from where I live. There are no legal casinos in Surry Hills, but there are plenty of pokies (slot machines), as there are in virtually every pub in the entire country. And it’s legal to serve alcohol until fairly late at night. There are even 24 hour licenses. Thus eliminating the need for sly grog shops. Why there is even an absinthe bar near by.3
Surry Hills is full of gorgeous overgrown lanes, wonderful street art, it has Australia’s oldest home Cleveland House, as well as some of the newest, coolest warehouse conversions.
Cleveland House from 1823
Surry Hills is not dirt poor anymore. It’s home to some of the most expensive real estate in the inner city, some of the city’s best restaurants, bars and cafes. There are loads of fancy furniture stores. Within a short walk there are not one, but two, places to buy Apple computers. It is high end, chi-chi, and full of hipsters. Though, fortunately, most of the male hipsters have not taken to the crazy unibomber beard look that so many of their US counterparts have adopted.4
Surry Hills: where teddy bears go to die
Fortunately, it’s not all hipsters.5 There are still plenty of people living here from before it became uber-trendy. There are still homeless shelters, needle exchanges, housing commission homes. To which, phew. Surry Hills remains economically diverse. Though less so every year.
The backs of some working fashion warehouse on one of my favourite Surry Hills lanes
Despite its long-term reputation as dangerous and slummy and full of crime, which Surry Hills has had from around 1900 until, um, now, it’s really a pretty safe area. The main employer throughout those decades was the rag trade. Which is still here. Lots of working rag trade warehouses and lots of places to buy good fabric if you’re a clothes-making kind of person. There’s even a place that will dye your old clothes to give them a new lease of life. I’ve been using them since, um, the olden days.
I love this place. I love the light, the tree-lined streets, the decrepit falling-apart warehouses, the great food, the people, the art, the everything.
An awesomely trashy rabble-rousing newspaper from back in the day. One of its editors was obsessed with alliteration and wrote that Lord Dudley was given to “libidinous lecheries and lascivious lapses.” What is not to love? So sad The Truth no longer exists. [↩]
The gang wars were fought with razors because handguns were banned which meant if you were busted with one you were instantly in the lockup. But if you were busted with a razor who could claim you were about to shave. [↩]
To which: VOMIT. Have you ever tried absinthe? It’s horrible. [↩]
Look, goatees are fine. But could you leave looking Amish to the Amish? Thank you. [↩]
Not that there’s anything wrong with . . . Eh. Whatever. Hipsters are the devil. We all know that. [↩]
I’ve already had a few people ask me why Team Human is not available via iTunes. My ANZ publisher, Allen & Unwin, does not yet have any books available for sale via iTunes but they’re working on it.
In the meantime my publisher says that Team Human is available for Apple devices via the Kindle app and the Kobo app.
Or you can purchase Team Human through Booki.sh where you can buy the ebook AND support your local independent bookshop at the same time! Readers whose local indie is Gleebooks (Sydney), Readings (Melbourne), Fullers (Hobart), Mary Ryan (North NSW/Qld), Avid Reader (Brisbane), or The Turning Page (Blue Mountains) can buy Team Human via the links provided.
So, it turns out I really don’t have a lot to say about Australian slang. Or rather I don’t have anything to say that wouldn’t bore you. I did start writing this post and it rapidly turned into an old person cranky rant about how US slang is overtaking Australian slang. For example:
Why do Oz teenagers not know that “rooting for your team” is not something Aussies do because typically it’s not an activity that helps other people. I mean not unless they’re taking part, which, well, let’s not go there. Aussies “barrack” for their team. Except that I keep hearing Aussies under twenty-five using “root” in the US meaning of the word. AND IT FILLS MY HEART WITH DESPAIR. Why take on the language of the Yankee infidels? Why abandon your own rich and glorious venacular?! What is wrong with you?!
Which was only going to end with me waving my cane around and screaming at kids to get off my non-existent lawn. Not to mention fill me with shame because tedious adults were ranting about the exact same thing when I was a kid. And according to older friends of mine, not to mention my parents, they where hearing rants about insidious US English taking over the Australian vernacular from the 1940s onwards.
I so do not want to be that person. *shudder* I rejoice in the vibrant living, changing thing that is language.
Not to mention that some of our words are spreading out beyond our shores. “Bogan” for instance is now in the OED:
An unfashionable, uncouth, or unsophisticated person, esp. regarded as being of low social status
And apparently not only has “bogan” spread from Victoria to the rest of the country but it’s made the leap over the Tasman to New Zealand. Hey, Kiwis, are there old cranky people waving their canes and yelling at you lot not to start using Aussie slang? Or do they just rant against US slang too?
Though I would argue with that definition of “bogan.” While there’s definitely a class component to it. I don’t think it neatly fits with whether the person labelled thus is poor or not. I.e. of “low social status”. There are many people who would get called “bogan” who are very well off indeed. Though I guess the modification of “cashed up” takes care of that.
What are your favourite examples of Australian slang? Living or dead examples. I admit to loving “smoodge,” “drongo,” “as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike,” “zambuck,” “daggy,” “date,” and “bosker”. Some of which are so obsolete you probably won’t be able to google them and others of which I say on a daily basis. And, no, not giving you definitions. Research! It’s good for you.
Since a few of you expressed mild interest in the speech I gave at Sirens in October last year I thought I would share it with you. The theme was monsters and my speech involved me showing many monstrous images. Yes, that’s my disclaimer, I wrote this to be spoken to a real life audience with funny pictures and the funny may not work so well without the kind and appreciative live audience. Or something. *cough*
Here it is:
Monsters I Have Loved
Ideas = Brain Monkeys According to Maureen Johnson
Like every other writer ever I get asked “where do you get your ideas” a lot. Today I thought instead of answering that question in the Q & A at the end, I’d show you.
Here’s how I got the idea for the speech I’m about to give, which is very similar to how I get ideas for the novels I write.
Excellently recursive, yes?
I knew I had to write a speech for Sirens more than a year ago. For many, many many months I didn’t think about it at all because, you know, other deadlines, basketball games to watch, old movies to pillage for info about the early 1930s, issues of Vampires & Rosario to read. But in the deepest darkest recesses of my brain those monkeys were juggling the nouns associated with this year’s Sirens: feminism, YA, monsters.
Then one day in July, or possibly August, I was walking around New York City with my headphones on listening to music. That’s unusual for me. Usually I walk around listening to podcasts from Australia when I wander about the city. But on this particular day I’d run out. So I was listening to one of my favourite playlists. And for some reason I started writing this speech in my head. When I got to my office I immediately wrote everything down. It flowed out of me like magic.
Nah, not really.
When I got to the office I gossiped with the doorman on the way in, and answered a phone call from my agent on the stairs on the way up (how fancy am I?), and then gossiped with the receptionist. By the time I took off my walking-around-the-city-listening-to-podcasts-and-sometimes-music headphones and donned my-talking-to-the-voice-recognition-software headset I’d forgotten everything I’d thought of on the walk over except this:
Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis
Am I right?
I can tell long-term readers of my blog—both of you—knew where I was going with that.
Hmmm, looks like I may have to explain myself a bit more.
Me and Elvis
My parents are anthropologists/sociologists. (I always understood the difference to be that anthropologists studied people with a different skin colour to them and sociologists study those with the same skin colour. That may perhaps be a tad unfair.) When I was little my family lived for a time on two different Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory: Ngukurr in Arnhem Land and Djemberra (now called Jilkminggan) not far from the predominately white town of Mataranka. It is the part of my childhood I remember most vividly. For many reasons.
The red dot up top is Jilkminggan. The purple dot is Sydney. For scale: Australia is roughly the same size as mainland USA.
I remember the hard red earth, the heat making everything in the distance shimmer, towering termite nests, brolgas, eating food that had been hunted or found that day: kangaroo, emu, goanna, crayfish, turtle eggs, wild honey, fruits and tubers I don’t remember the names of and have never seen or (more sadly) eaten since.
I remember being allowed to run wild with a pack of kids (and dogs) of assorted ages and skin colours (though none so pale as me), swimming in the Roper River, playing games like red rover for hours. I remember learning that I was white and what that could mean, and that the Aboriginal kinship system my family had been adopted into meant that I could have many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousines and grandparents than the bare handful I’d been born with. I became fluent in a whole other language, of which only two words remain: “baba” meaning brother or sister, and “gammon” meaning bullshit (sort of).
Yes, um, that is a smaller me. I am being extremely helpful getting the fire hot enough for them to brand cattle. EXTREMELY helpful! Thanks for the photo, Dad.
(I’m making it sound more romantic than it was. I’m forgetting the flies—more flies than I’ve ever seen before in my life. So many you soon stop waving them away because there’s no point. Many of those kids had cataracts. And, yeah, we kids ran together and the dogs were always underfoot, but they were so underfoot that when the numbers got too big—authorities—mostly white—would come in and shoot them.)
I was a city child. I knew nothing about the outback. I was alien to those kids and those kids were alien to me. Until, after a few weeks, we weren’t.
That year changed me completely. Especially my thinking about race. I want to be clear, however, that I’m not saying those experiences made me magically understand what it is to be “The Other.” (And, ugh, to that term, by the way.) To my horror, when I’ve told these stories of my childhood in the Territory too many people have understood me to be saying “I lived with people who weren’t white so I know what it is to be oppressed.”
What I learned was that I was white. I had not thought about the colour of my skin or what it signified. I had not been aware of whiteness or what it meant.
What I learned was that race and racism exist. Which was something I’d had the privilege of not learning earlier because I was white growing up in a predominantly white country in predominantly white bits of that country. Spending time in a predominately black part of Australia made me aware of my whiteness before the majority of my white peers back in urban southern Australia did.3
It was also the year I discovered Elvis Presley.
My first Elvis memory is of the juke box in one of the pubs in the white town of Mataranka. There were only two pubs which in Australia means that it was a very, very small town. The jukebox had records by Slim Dusty and Elvis Presley and no-one else. When Slim Dusty played it caused the child-me physical pain. As far as I was concerned it was noise, not music. But when Elvis played, well, that was heaven. The best music, the best voice I’d ever heard. For years I couldn’t stand Slim Dusty, but I’ve always loved Elvis.
I was not alone in this judgement, by the way, cause almost all the kids—and a fair number of the adults—of Jilkmingan liked Elvis too. Added bonus: my dad couldn’t stand him.
My second memory is of watching a 1968 Elvis movie, Stay Away Joe, on the outdoor basketball court at Ngukurr. The screen was hung over the hoop. We all crowded onto the court, restless (the last few movies had been total busts) and excited (there was always the hope this one wouldn’t suck), sitting in each others’ laps or on our haunches on the gravel. We’d pull each others’ hair, poke each other with fingers, elbows, feet and knees, throw handfuls of gravel at each other. The adults would laugh at us, or tell us to shut up or both.
This time the rowdiness only lasted through the opening credits. We settled down quick because we loved it. Stay Away Joe is set on a Native American reservation. Elvis plays an Indian. Everyone on the basketball court recognised what they were seeing up on screen.
Like the movie reservation, Ngukurr was full of crap cars, there were dogs everywhere, houses fell apart, and there was high unemployment. There was also a tonne of singing and dancing.4
Some of us kids really thought Elvis was Native American.5 I’m sure my parents disabused me of that notion pretty quickly, but for a long time I wasn’t quite sure who or what Elvis was. When I returned to southern Australia none of my school friends liked Elvis (if they’d heard of him). They thought I was weird. I associated Elvis with indigenous Australia, with the Territory, with stockmen & rodeos & outdoor crappy movie projectors.
The way I discovered Elvis made him seem racially fluid.
I have always thought that one day I would write a novel about that Elvis.
I also thought Elvis wrote all his songs and that he was the first person to sing them. Frankly, until I was ten or so I’m pretty sure I thought Elvis invented rock’n’roll, if not all music.
Then someone played the original recording of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton for me.
Turned out the song had been written for her by Leiber & Stoller and she recorded it in 1952. Her original version was number one on the billboard R&B charts for six weeks in 1953. There followed multiple cover versions, mostly by white bands. Elvis discovered the song, not through Thornton’s version, but through a white band, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’s live version that he heard in Vegas. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys? (I for one cannot think of a sexier or more dangerous name for a group, can you? Don’t answer that.)
They changed the lyrics because they were considered too dirty for a white audience. “Snoopin’ round my door” was replaced with “cryin’ all the time,” and “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” was replaced by “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
Elvis’s recorded the Bellboy’s lyrics. The original lyricist, Jerry Leiber, was appalled, pointing out that the new lyrics made “no sense.” Which they really don’t. In Elvis’ version I had no idea what the hound dog wanted or why it was a problem. Was the hound dog crying cause it couldn’t catch rabbits? Then why was Elvis so unsympathetic?
Here’s Elvis’ version for comparison:
I’ve never liked Elvis’ version as much since.
Listening to Big Mama Thornton’s version exploded the song for me. It didn’t mean what I thought it meant. It was bigger and sexier and BETTER.
Elvis was not an orginator. He was a borrower. He was a remaker of existing things. He didn’t write songs. Those lyric changes to “Hound Dog” weren’t even his changes—that was Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. At the time I decided that meant he was no good. He could wag his tail but I was done.6
Then not too much later I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Their retellings of the fairy tales I grew up with changed those stories utterly: made them bigger, sexier, better. Elvis had made “Hound Dog” worse. Was that the difference?
Had Elvis appropriated Big Mama Thornton’s Houng Dog?
Was it appropriation because Elvis was white and Mama Thornton black? Because his version went to no. 1 on all three Billboard charts of the time: pop, c&w, and r&b. Whereas her version was limited to the R&B chart only? Because to this day his version is more famous than hers as he is more famous than she is?
Elvis’s success was monstrous. Both in scale—it’s more than thirty years since he died—and he’s still one of the most famous people in the world. I have bonded with people over Elvis in Indonesia, Argentina, Turkey & Hawaii. He’s everywhere.
But there’s also an argument that his career is a testament to the monstrous power of racism. He was the first white kid to do what dozens—if not more—black performers had done before him. (Especially Little Richard.) His success was dependent on an appropriation of black music, black style, black dancing, black attitude. He become famous for bringing black music to a white audience. But if Elvis had actually been black then I would not be talking about him right now.
I have often thought of writing a novel about that black Elvis. The black female Elvis. It would probably turn out that she was Big Mama Thornton.
Given my track record as a white writer who has written multiple novels with non-white protags, appropriation is, naturally, something I think about a lot.
My initial reaction to discovering that Elvis, not only didn’t write his own songs, but that sometimes the original versions were better than his, was horror. I had, like, many of you, I’m sure, grown up with the notion that originality is the thing.
Before the 1960s a popular singer was not looked at askance if they did not write their own songs. They were singers! Why would they write their own songs? Then came the sixties and the singer-song writer revolution and suddenly if all you could do was sing then you better join a band with someone who could write songs for you or you were screwed. And song writers WHO COULD NOT SING AT ALL started singing. Yes, Bob Dylan, you are one of the worst. True fact: Dylan songs are way better when sung by Elvis.7
In English classes through high school & university the highest praise given to a writer was originality. I remember asking a lecturer why there were no women writers on his post-modernism course.
He gave me a disdainful look and asked, “Who would you suggest?”
“Angela Carter?” he sneered. “Light weight! Completely unoriginal!”
He then spent the rest of the course carefully delineating the antecedents of all the boy writers we’d been assigned. Astonishingly none of them had stepped fully formed from a clam shell either. No originality anywhere! But somehow magically their penises protected them from lightweightness. Maybe penises are really heavy or something?
It’s a moment that’s stayed with me. Not just because of his why-are-you-wasting-my-time dismissal but because of the way everyone else in the room looked at me. There was much rolling of eyes. But two of the women in the room smiled. We became friends.
At the time I thought about writing a novel in which a white middle-aged male lecturer writes a novel about seducing all his female students to ease his mid-life crisis, which every publishing house in the entire universe passes on, so that he ends his days in a padded cell with only Angela Carter to read. But the thought of staying in his point of view long enough to write a whole novel was too depressing so I wrote a 13th century Cambodian epic instead.8
And my point? Right, as you all know: all art comes from somewhere. Nothing is truly original. If it was we’d have no way of making sense of it.
Octavia Butler and Angela Carter and Tanith Lee are three of the biggest influences on my writing. I see traces of them in every novel I have written.
But so is Elvis and my childhood experience on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory and a million and one other things. People who know me, and sometimes strangers, point to other influences I hadn’t even thought about. I find that scarily often they’re correct. My writing is the sum total of everything that has ever happened to me, everything I have ever seen, or read, or tasted, or heard, or felt, or smelled.9 That’s how writing works.
I am no more original than Elvis.
Can Feminists Love Elvis?
But how can a feminist love Elvis? How can someone who believes in social justice and racial equality love Elvis?
He starred in a movie sympathetic to the confederate lets-keep-slaves cause, Love Me Tender, there’s a tonne of Elvis memoribilia out there which juxtaposes his name and/or face and the confederate flag. Good ole boy Southerners often adore Elvis. Every single one of his movies is jaw droppingly sexist. In Elvis movies all a woman wants is a man. All a man want is a good woman, lots of bad women, and to be a racing car driver. Correction: a singing, dancing racing car driver.
How can we love any number of cultural figures and artefacts that are sexist, racist, homophobic etc? Can I remain untainted by my Elvis love? (Or by my love of Georgette Heyer’s anti-semitic, classist, sexist regency romances?)
In loving something that’s monstruous do we become monstrous? Which gives me another idea for a novel. What if a girl falls in love with someone who she’s always been taught to believe was a monster? And vice versa. Hmmm. I have a nagging feeling that’s been done.
No! Yes! Um, maybe.
Yes, your typical, sparkly jumpsuit wearing, monstruous-sideburned US male.
Here’s one of Elvis’s more egregiously sexist recordings, US Male, and not coincidentally one of his sillier songs. Written and first recorded by Jerry Reed, who plays guitar on the track. It is a dreadful and very wrong song. And pretty much impossible to take seriously. I do not for a second believe that it was written with a straight face.
I adore it.
US Male owns woman if she’s wearing his ring. If another man is interested in said woman US Male will do him in. Woman has no agency in any of this, the song isn’t addressed to her, it’s for the perceived rival. So far so cave man-esque10.
Yet it’s so over the top. So absurd. The terrible puns! “Male” as in a bloke plus “mail” as in letters. “Don’t tamper with the property of the U.S. Male” and “I catch you ’round my woman, champ, I’m gonna leave your head ’bout the shape of a stamp,” “Through the rain and the heat and the sleet and the snow the U.S. Male is on his toes.” And the half-spoken, half-sung tough guy-ese delivery! It makes me laugh. It’s so freaking camp.
I start to imagine the U.S. Male’s woman sitting there chewing gum and rolling her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You done? No, the waiter was not looking at my rack. Gonna give the poor guy a tip already? A big one. Bigger. Okay. Now, sing me a song.” I suspect eventually she would set him on fire though that would probably qualify as tampering with the US male.
You all make up stories that go with songs, right?
That’s how I feel about a lot of Georgette Heyer’s work not uncoincidentally. Makes me laugh it’s so freaking camp. And also witty and well written. (Pity about the anti-semitism.)
Heyer’s regencies have had a ridiculously big influence on YA today. You would not believe how many YA writers are also huge Georgette Heyer fans. It’s scary. Come to think of it most of her heroines are teenage girls . . . So they’re practically YA in the first place.
I have been meaning to write my own Heyereseque YA for ages. One in which the rake-ish hero is actually the villian and has syphillis from all that raking around.
But, Heyer kind of already did that with Cotillion in which the hero is a barely-in-the-closet gentleman, who is not in the petticoat line, but adores picking out excellent gowns for the heroine. (The villain is the bloke who in many of Heyer’s other books was the hero. His syphllis is clearly implied.) They get married. I imagine them having an awesome future of many shopping trips to Paris and fabulous dinner parties with assorted lovers and friends.
So now my Heyeresque YA is going to take place below stairs because I’m sick to death of the equivalence between the aristocracy and worthiness. I want a democratic regency romance! Where people earn what they get from hard work and not because of who their family is! Workers’ revolution! Solidarity forever!11
As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this speech the germ of it came to me while I listened to music while walking to my office. That day it was my 1960s Elvis playlist with super campy songs like US Male and the scary stalker song Slowly But Surely, those songs set this whole chain of thoughts—and this speech—in motion.
And led me to wondering how I have come to adore such monstruously misogynist songs. I mean apart from them being AWESOME. I guess I manage to set aside the monstruous parts and revel in the campy deliciousness. But it’s not just that: I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can critique the bad, take the good, and add whatever I want. That is a pretty accurate description of my novel writing process. And of my reading (in the broadest sense) process.
My fond hope is that every time I do that—every time we do that—the power of those monsters is eroded.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the worst monsters: the monsters of misogyny, of bigotry . . .
Most especially the monsters in my brain and under my bed because they are where I get my ideas.
At the Sirens conference everyone in the audience looked at me like I was a crazy person and insisted that no one on the planet thinks that Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis. I remain unconvinced. Plus I am on this planet, am I not? Don’t answer that. [↩]
I was going to have NO appear a thousand times but I think I can trust you all to imagine it. [↩]
The Zombies Versus Unicorns debates have spread around the world! This Thursday, March 31, at 6PM we will be having one at Kinokuniya Bookstore here in Sydney, Australia.
Join us at Kinokuniya as Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld (Team Zombie) face off Margo Lanagan and Garth Nix (Team Unicorn) to determine who reigns supreme, the zombie or the unicorn? This is an event not to be missed!
Edited by Holly Black (Team Unicorn) and Justine Larbalestier (Team Zombie), Zombies Vs Unicorns is a unique short story feud that pits horned beasts against the shuffling undead.
Contributors to this unique collection include bestselling teen and YA authors Garth Nix, Meg Cabot, Scott Westerfeld, Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, Maureen Johnson and Margo Lanagan.
Zombies Vs Unicorns challenges you to pick a team, and stick to it. But be warned, these are stellar story-tellers, and they can be very convincing . . .
The event is free to attend, but please register your interest at the Information Counter or on 9262-7996.
Thursday, 31March, 2011
Level 2 The Galeries Victoria
500 George Street
Sydney 2000 NSW
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Margo Lanagan is probably the award winningest Australian YA writer of all time. She deserves every single one. When I’m asked who I think the best living YA writer is, which is a really dreadful question given how many wonderful ones there are and how I know so many of them, I say Margo Lanagan. I am in awe of her writing and never tire of her voice. Even when she says wrong things. If you haven’t read any of Margo’s work you need to fix that.
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Margo Lanagan has written for children, young adults and adults—she’s best known for her YA fantasy writing. She’s put out 3 collections of short stories (White Time, Black Juice and Red Spikes, with Yellowcake to come out next), and her novel Tender Morsels was a Printz Honor Book and won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Margo lives in Sydney all year round, except when her glamorous writing life affords her the opportunity to travel. She has silver hair, brown eyes, a GSOH, and no pets.
Step AWAY from the page
Where did I hear, the other day, that some well-known, well-published writer had decided to give writing away? She’d done so, she said, because she was ‘sick of the sound of her own voice’. And I knew exactly what she was talking about, because there are times when I stop writing, temporarily, for the same reason. (Note: this is not the same thing as writer’s block.)
Tiring of your own voice can happen when, because you’re so darn regular and dutiful in your writing habits, your writing rate overtakes your generation-of-ideas rate. Lots of writers are very fierce about the notion of applying your bum to a chair on a regular basis, and they’re not entirely wrong. There is a time for regular bum-application—when you’re partway through a draft or a revision of a novel, you have to work steadily. You need to keep the entire novel and all its offshoots uploaded to your mind for a sustained period, if you want the story to have integrity at the end.
But there’s also a time for running around outside, or partying-and-then-sleeping-in, or having a glut of reading for several weeks, or just moping off to the day-job and back. There are times, and they’re more frequent than a lot of people like to admit, when it’s a bad idea to sit down, set your jaw and force yourself once again to your story. You learn to judge, after many years of trying to be so determined, of forcing yourself to this uncomfortable duty, when to press yourself into the story’s service, and when to just disengage, banish the thing to your subconscious mind, and leave its problems alone to work themselves out.
But this isn’t about problem-solving. This is about feeling as if you’ve got nothing new to say. You sit down with what you thought was a good idea, and you start out on it, or you’re halfway through, and you find yourself reaching for the same similes or images, the same kinds of phrasing, the same plot turns as you always do. And it’s not reassuring, it’s not interesting, it’s not good. Everything is stale and worn-feeling; nothing makes you sit up and care about what you’re doing. Curses, another wet young protagonist who thinks too much? Can’t you create any other POV character? Can you not stop using the words ‘dark’ or ‘great’ before every damned thing you describe? Does everything you write have to be so sad, or so ambiguous, so qualified by cynical asides? What is wrong with you?
You begin on something else, some idea you’ve been hoarding and really looking forward to. Perhaps if you treat yourself, give yourself free rein, you’ll find new energy; before you know it you’ll be galloping off over the hills, gasping in fresh air and tossing your mane with the sheer joy of creation. And you bang away at it for a while, but then . . . you find yourself just nibbling weeds in the corner of some chewed-flat field again, berating yourself, bored to sobs.
I did this once just after I finished one of the drafts of Tender Morsels. I went off to a 5-day workshop of intensive writing. It was a fine workshop, full of stimulating tasks, full of fellow workshoppers doing wonderful things. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, all over the shop. None of it was useful; none of it came to anything. Not a single story was born of 5 days of solid writing. At the end of it I flipped through the dutiful words, page after page of them, and I knew there was nothing there. Even now I don’t like to look in that notebook; the deadness, the effortfulness of the sentences, the absence of direction, is too dispiriting.
Sometimes you’re just drained; sometimes you’re just used up. Sometimes you’re not the kind of person who can get useful material from writing every day—I’m certainly not, not month in, month out. Sometimes you have to lie fallow for a while, remove yourself far enough from your own words, your own style, that you can come at them afresh later. Sometimes there’s a good story waiting, but your subconscious hasn’t worked out how you’ll approach it yet. Leave it alone; let it grow, unforced, un-angsted-over.
I wonder if she will give it up completely, that writer, whoever she was? Maybe she just needs to move beyond her current self a bit, get out of the shadow of what she’s already written, break out a different part of herself into her writing somehow—use a pseudonym? Try something funny? Have a crack at the lyric poem? Who knows? Maybe her public declaration is just her way of pushing herself far enough away from her past to feel free to move on?
Or maybe she really is done, for good. Maybe she’s said everything that seems to need saying. Maybe no stories are presenting themselves to her any more, and there’s plenty else in her life to fill her days and keep her sane. I can’t imagine what it would be like to run out of story, and it sounds like an awful thing to happen. But perhaps it isn’t; perhaps it feels quite natural; perhaps life is none the poorer for not including writing. Now, there’s a new thought.
What do YOU do when you get sick of the sound of yourself? Have you ever given up writing entirely—for a spell, or forever, or just one particular genre or form? Can you imagine retiring from writing (because I can’t, and I’d be fascinated to know what it’s like)—and if you can, what do you think would fill the gap?
I have been very pleased that so many of you are concerned that our Sydney garden will suffer in our absence. Thanks for writing and let me know! Nice to know I am not alone in loving that garden. Oh, how I misses it . . .
To reassure you: the garden has an automatic irrigation system. On top of that my parents and my sister are keeping a close eye on it and handwatering any of the plants that seem in need. They’re also killing any caterpillars or other evil beasties they come across. Do I not have the best family ever?
Here is the last photo I took of my beloved garden:
Look at the gorgeous new leaves on the gum tree. So pretty. And the grevillea. Gorgeous!
I think I shall go to the famers’ market and buy some herbs that can survive on a window sill. So far the only one I’ve had success with has been marjoram. Anyone else successfully grown other herbs on the window sill in teeny tiny pots in a very polluted city? Please to advise me!
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Jaclyn Moriarty is a wonderful Sydney writer who used to be a lawyer and is responsible for some of my favourite Aussie novels of the last few years, especially The Betrayal of Bindy McKenzie and Dreaming of Amelia. But, trust me, all her books are amazing. Be careful though they seem to have different titles in every territory they’re published in. I also love her blog. It’s as gorgeously written and thoughtful as this post. Though her notion that blogging ever day as anything to do with precision is kind of hilarious. It has a lot more to do with a different word beginning with p: procrastination.
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Jaclyn Moriarty is the author of Feeling Sorry for Celia and The Year of Secret Assignments. She grew up in Sydney, lived in the the US, the UK and Canada, and now lives in Sydney again. Her latest book, Dreaming of Amelia, will be published in North America as The Ghosts of Ashbury High in June.
Every time I drive on Shellcove Road I have this thought: Blogging is leaves blowing backwards.
I don’t want to think that. I’ve got other things to think. But it’s there, every time, along with an image of a man in a coat, leaning forward, hunched into a storm, leaves blowing back into his face.
Then I turn the corner and a voice in the backseat says, ‘Where did Santa Claus go?’
He means the giant inflateable Santa Claus that was standing on the front porch of a house on Shellcove Road last December. They took him down in January.
‘Where’s he gone?’ Charlie asks, every time we pass that house.
‘The north pole,’ I explain.
Sometimes I add something educational: ‘They’ve got snow there, you know, in the north pole. And polar bears. And elves.’
Then I glance in the rear view mirror, to see if he’s impressed, and that’s when he says, with weary resignation, ‘I’m not in the mirror. I’m here. See? Look around. I’m sitting back here.’
I have a blog, but I don’t do it properly. Months go by, years even, without me writing. Then suddenly I write a lot. Other people—I’m thinking of Justine, for example—other people blog properly.
Also, when I do blog, I mostly just write about my kid. How cute he is, three years old, sitting in the backseat, telling me he’s not in the rear view mirror, and it must drive people mad. (There’s the issue of his privacy, too. I once wrote a thesis on the Privacy Rights of the Child.)
The other day I subscribed to the Herald, so I could start collecting other things to talk about on my blog. And I’m thinking I should get a dog. The dog can shred the Herald, and I can take photographs and post them—cute, apologetic dog, paper in pieces at its feet. I never wrote a thesis on the Privacy Rights of the Dog.
But I haven’t got the Herald or the dog yet, so there’s the kid. Last week, I took him for a haircut. Charlie in the big black cape, little face in the mirror, blonde curls. The hairdresser asked me what his starsign was.
‘Virgo,’ I said.
‘Huh.’ She raised her eyebrows, looking thoughtful.
‘What does that mean?’ I said. ‘Him being a Virgo?’
‘I haven’t got a clue,’ she said. ‘I was just making conversation.’
She snipped for a while and we were all quiet. Then she added, ‘He could be a Leo. I’m half-Leo.’
‘But he’s not a Leo,’ I said, and we were quiet again.
So, you see, there’s episodes like that. The little episodes.
And there’s the questions he asks. They make you think. Questions like:
‘What’s the fridge doing?’ and, ‘Mummy, what does this word mean? Are you ready? Here’s the word: why.’
Also, he collapses time and identity: ‘Last night, when I was a baby’, or: ‘Next week, when I grow up, and I’m you.’
I have child-safety gates around the house that I don’t use any more. I leave them open. But Charlie uses them. Wherever he goes in the house, he turns around and carefully shuts the gate behind him. Then he’s stuck. He shuts the gate, turns around, and is instantly outraged: ‘Let me out! The gate is closed! Somebody rescue me!’ In other ways, he seems very bright.
Partly, I write about Charlie because that’s my days—me and the kid. There’s also writing books of course, but what is there to say about that except, here I am, you know, writing? And I never take my book to get its haircut. But I think that the real reason I write about my child so much is this: before he was born, there was a single image in my mind of what it would be like to be a mother. In this image, it is night time, maybe a fireplace, and somebody small in pyjamas is coming down a flight of steps. I look up at the child in pyjamas on the staircase, then I look across at the child’s father. It crosses back and forth between us for a moment: the sweetness of the child.
As it turns out, I’m on my own with my child. And one thing I now know is this—that the small and remarkable fact of a child is something that has to be shared. That’s what the image was saying, I think. So my typing fingers are always spilling with words about my child that have not been shared.
People sometimes talk about the moment when you first get glasses, and you realise you’re supposed to see the leaves. All along you thought that trees were a green blur, but no, there they are, separate leaves. (A doctor on Grey’s Anatomy spoke very movingly about this experience in an episode last season.) Anyway, it happened to me when I was nineteen years old, and angry with professors for writing in such tiny, blurred print on the board up the front. They needed to get crisper chalk, I thought.
The optometrist who checked my eyes said, ‘Do you drive?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘You’re driving home today?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘You mind if I call my wife and tell her to stay off the roads?’
The next week, when I picked up my glasses, I saw the leaves on the trees, and the road signs painted neatly, and the professors using crisp white lines.
The reason I don’t blog every day is because I am slow. New Yorkers find me indescribably so. I’ve always been slow at figuring things out—school, university, driving, conversations, the fact that I am practically blind—it’s not quick, snapped fingers for me, it’s a slow awareness rising. I figure things out in the end. Afterwards, I look back and think: aaaah. And I remember what was said and who said what, and I think: ‘Now I get it.’ In the end, I am actually so confident that I’m judgmental.
But until I’ve figured things out, I’m lost. Life for me is leaves blowing backwards. If I try to blog about it, I’m just snatching from the air. I have to wait until I’m clear of the leaves. Then I can look back and see what pattern they’ve been making, and their colours, and the fineness of their outlines.
Other people are not lost at all. The precision of people who can blog all the time. It startles me, that clarity of leaves.
Right now I am at Auckland airport and it is nothing like Sydney airport. For starters there are All-Blacks jerseys everywhere and people are laughing at my accent and not Scott’s. It’s Bizarro-world!
Now a serious question for my USian readers. Do you guys have any theories as to why so many of the USian blog reviewers of Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead are under the impression that her extremely New Zealand book is set in Australia? Many NZ cities are named, such as Christchurch, where it is largely set. The South & North Islands are frequently mentioned as are many other very very very Kiwi things and people. No mention is made of Australia.
What gives? Are you taught at school that NZ and Australia are one and the same place? I am also wondering if this happens to all New Zealander writers when their books are published in the USA. Are USians the only ones who can’t tell the difference between our fine nations? Or do the French and Armenians and Chileans labour under the same delusion?
I am confused. Your explanations are most welcome.
Update: To re-iterate because apparently I was not clear: my question isn’t about ignorance per se, it’s very specifically about the way this one book is being read as Australian, even though it’s very clear that it’s set in New Zealand. Yes, including using the words “New Zealand” in the text. That’s not mere ignorance, but a really interesting and consistent misreading of the text. That’s what’s been puzzling me. Are there people who think that New Zealand is part of Australia?
I don’t think that USians are any more ignorant than any other peoples in the world. Nor do I expect everyone in the world to know all about Australia or New Zealand or any other country for that matter.
First up here’s one of our lovely Eucalyptus ficifolia or flowering gum. They’re incredibly common here in Sydney. I swear almost every street in Surry Hills is lined with ficifolia. I miss them like crazy when I’m in NYC. Hence the need to have some on the deck:
Isn’t that adorable? Baby ficifolia reminds me of a puppy dog whose feet are way bigger than the rest of it. Only it’s the leaves that are outsized compared to the currently spindly trunk and branches. I do wonder how those branches manage to support the weight of the jumbo leaves. (Why, yes, that is a stake holding it upright.)
Did you notice the native violets (Viola hederacaea) underneath? Eventually those lovely violets will go cascading over the sides of the pots. It will be so gorgeous!
Here’s a close up on some NEW GROWTH. (Um, yes, I am kind of obsessed with the garden. I am aware that plants tend to grow.)
But still that’s actual new growth that happened while it was on our deck. Can you see why it fills my heart with such joy? I swear every morning when I go out to check that they’ve survived the night (*cough* *cough*) I find a new tiny spurt. *sigh of happiness*
Though I also tend to find that some evil beastie has been doing some munching! Grrr.
If I find the culprit I destroys it. How dare it eat our garden?! The outrage! Okay, yes, I know that it’s all part of the beautiful cycle of life and blah blah blah but they can go eat someone else’s baby ficifolia.
I wasn’t sure about having grass trees. They’re so amazing in the wild that I wasn’t convinced they’d look okay confined to a wee pot. But they look incredible. I spend hours on the deck just watching the wind move through their fronds. I think I am in love with our grass trees.
Lastly here is the new view from our bedroom:
That’s Syzygium luehmannii or as it’s more commonly known lilli pilli. There’s now a wall of it guarding our bedroom and giving us good dreams. Bless you, lilli pilli.
And for me to gaze at longingly when I’m far from here. [↩]
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Ron Bradfield Jnr blogs as Belongum. I discovered his wonderful blog via Cellobella, another fabulous WA blogger, who I met at the Perth Writers Festival last year. See sometimes you can discover fabulous blogs via real life. Amazing, innit?
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Ron Bradfield Jnr is a contemporary Bardi man because he has to be. His mob come for the tip of Cape Leveque, north of Broome, Western Australia. He was born and brought up, away from his Country and worked extensively through remote and rural communities all up and down WA. He works with visual artists (via Artsource) and it’s been said many times before in his presence, that herding cats would be a darn sight simpler! In his spare time, he writes. Mostly that consists of blogging, although he is also guilty of publishing in various related work-related magazines as well. It all depends on the two little people in his house and their fantastic mother. Family always gets squashed in there somewhere. All in all, Ron loves what a good yarn can do. Sharing our respective cultures in respectful and healthy ways is the key. Poking people in the eye with it—just makes for a bad experiences all-round and has us remembering them for all the wrong reasons. Our respective cultures make us the richest species on the planet—yet we don’t celebrate this in any way that helps us connect well to each other. Ron’s crossing his fingers in the vain hope that it’s all not too late and that we continue to share. You can find out more about the world he lives in on his blog.
It’s All English to Me
You’ve undoubtedly heard . . .
. . . the phrase ‘lost in translation’. It’s a phrase I see confirmed on many levels here in Australia. All irony aside, most Australians born and living in our English speaking country, probably don’t realise the trap that our familiarity with the English language brings: it leads us to assume certain things, based upon particular meanings. It fails to acknowledge other associated depths to a word—spoken or written—especially those relevant to other cultures. Most particularly—mine!
I am of two worlds. I have a foot in two culture camps here in Oz: that of the Aboriginal peoples (Bardi Mob in particular) of this country and that of the Irish who were brought, or settled here. I have lived a pretty varied life so far; it has seen me fail my early ‘schooling’; learn and work in my trade; sport two military uniforms for this country; work extensively with isolated and damaged young people; assist Aboriginal communities and now—I get to yarn with some of Western Australia’s most amazing visual artists.
My journey into the arts has allowed a fantasy of mine to come true: it’s given me a perfect excuse to write. I’ve always wanted to—I was just never allowed to explore this kind of opportunity as a kid. In general, our education system didn’t invest much in Aboriginal kids when I was young. It was just the way it was here in
Australia in the early 80’s. Thankfully though; at an early age, I discovered books.
They took me places my education couldn’t and allowed me sneak-peaks at worlds I didn’t believe existed. They showed me very early in life that words had an amazing power and they raised questions in me—I was reading of other people’s experiences—but none of them were mine.
Let me correct that some; none of them, were of my Mob. Not too many of these wonderful books brought me the Aboriginal meanings I had come to associate with certain English words. I recognized similar notions in other cultures that weren’t English based and only because the depth associated with the word was often accompanied by descriptions that took my mind along other paths to build the picture I needed. Rather than tell me a concept, my favourite writers showed me. In doing so, I was allowed the room to let MY cultural notion of the words exist without constraint. My understandings of these words were included and—as most people of another Culture in this country already knew—this was a rare experience indeed.
A simple example? Well, in my Mob (and for that of most Australian Aboriginal and Islander peoples) we call all our birth mother’s sisters, ‘Mum’. This is the translation in English of course, although each of the differing nations or language groups have their own term for this, but essentially—the notion of the word ‘Mum’ or ‘Mother’ in English—tends to fit. It’s not as limited in its use within our communities though. We don’t have only ONE Mum—we have many. Yep, I know, we’re just greedy that way.
The English word ‘Aunty’ just doesn’t fit here either and, should it be used (as it often is in other Aboriginal and Islander communities more impacted upon by our backward past policies of taking our children away), it’s used as the word’s actual meaning defines it—but the underlying cultural context—tells you a completely different thing entirely. Past government policies have managed to break our families apart, exterminate so many of our languages and cultures and almost rendered us lost to today’s Australian society—but it has NEVER squashed our own sense, of ourselves.
I know this to be true, simply because when I use the words Culture and Country—they take on a completely different meaning for us, than it does for the vast majority of those who live here. Please understand that I don’t say this to NOT include you dear readers; just to highlight a point. If anything I believe that if you call this Country your home – than you should understand these concepts as part of your own Australian heritage (despite what some people will tell you—you’re actually welcome to do so) and culture. Country is where I come from, what I’m
connected to and it defines who I am (to others). Culture is what connects me there; it feeds my centre and keeps me whole. I can’t explain it any simpler than that. It’s something I’d need to show you—as it can’t be captured completely in English.
English Dictionaries will tell you a completely different thing and that is an absolute shame. The English language is a tool. It shouldn’t govern the meaning you place upon your written words to the N’th degree—not like that. You—or should I say WE—as writers have a huge responsibility placed upon our shoulders. We have to convey actual meaning (real living and breathing meaning) to our readers and we have such a limited language with which to do it.
Think I’m exaggerating?
Ask those who have already contributed here their thoughts on how the English language constrains the notion of other people’s Culture. It’s a mark of their skill (and yours) as writers that they can bring their world into this one—the one you’re reading right now—the world of English.
My hat’s off to you all and I mean that sincerely, because achieving that, is no mean feat!
Coda: A Few Words on the Word ‘Mob’
Mob. There has been a tendency to use the word Tribe when describing each of the different language groups that exist in Aboriginal and Islander peoples cultures across Australia. This is actually incorrect. If anything we more closely represent family Clans (not all that different to Celtic and Gaelic ones). Language groups in distinct areas—broken further down to smaller family clans—better able to survive across harsh country—coming together at set times in the year—to trade goods and marry. Or at least this was the case a long time ago—when it was
Instead of the word Clan, we tend to use the word Mob. Aboriginal and Islander people will say “Which Mob?” or “Who your Mob?” when trying to narrow down who you belong too. It’s an important question—it tells another Aboriginal or Islander person where you come from and who you’re likely to be related too. This determines how you should be addressed and who might be responsible for you—laying down the groundwork for a complex protocol system that nearly all Aboriginal and Islander children know backwards by the time they are 5 years old.
There are over a hundred language groups still surviving in our country. All of us have different cultural bases—yet all of us are similar in particular ways. This website doesn’t do a bad business of explaining this further—as my explanations are very simple.
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today’s guest bloggers are two Allen & Unwin editors. Allen & Unwin publish me in my home country1 and I think they are absolutely wonderful. One of the two editors might even be my editor there. They are based in Melbourne2 and have generously said that they’re happy to take questions. You could ask them what a design brief is for instance. For contrast I recommend you also read USian editor, Alvina Ling’s post and the comments, to get a sense of the different approaches to editing childrens & YA books in the two countries. Keep in mind that Alvina works for a very big US publisher, Little, Brown. Allen & Unwin is a much smaller operation.3
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The Alien Onions say:
Every day is different at the House of Onion. Different, yet the same. Every day is all about the business of editing, publishing and championing fabulous books for children and teenagers. Books we are very proud to publish. Including the extremely funny How to Ditch Your Fairy and the incredibly brilliant Liar.
The process of taking a book from manuscript to wonderful shiny new book on the shelf has many stages. In order to demystify this process somewhat, we have been posting an occasional series on our blog Alien Onion entitled What do Editors Do All Day. We have tried to accommodate those who thrive on visual learning as well as those who have a preference for text-based information acquisition.
So far our series has covered copy-editing and structural editing. Stay tuned for future entries on design briefing, blurb writing, correction checking and cake eating.
Today for our guest post on Justine’s blog we are providing a different kind of insight into life at the House of Onion. A sneak peek into the days of two of the Alien Onions whose roles in the House are different, yet the same.
ANY GIVEN FRIDAY at the HOUSE OF ONION
7.45: Leave house, walk to tramstop reading excellent MS4 on iPhone. 7.47: Narrowly avoid lamppost. 7.50-8.00: Wait for tram. Spy on reading material of stylish lady waiting nearby. Spy on shoes of stylish lady waiting nearby. 8.01: Hop on tram, find seat (miracle!), continue reading MS. 8.20: Arrive at work. Discover work keys not in bag. Chastise self. 8.21-8.55: Sit on front step and read excellent MS on iPhone until colleague arrives with keys. Praise iPhone and colleague. Praise MS to colleague. 8.56-9.09: Read excellent MS on iPhone while waiting for computer to boot up. 9.10: Receive coffee delivery from tall designer. Praise tall designer. 9.11-11.00: Copyedit, Copyedit, copyedit.5 11.03: Congratulate self on being excellent and efficient copyeditor. 11.05: Ask for opinion from colleagues on recalcitrant sentence. 11.10: Copyedit.6 11.15: Scramble to find the per-unit cost of a recently reprinted book so the Rights Department know if they can make a special overseas sale. 11.20: Copyedit. 11.25: Give opinion (solicited) to colleagues about matt lamination versus gloss and how it will effect the colour of already dark artwork. 11.35: Copyedit. 11.37: Give opinion (unsolicited) to colleague on e-book revolution. Ask opinion from colleague on same. 11.40: Copyedit. 11.45: Stare out window. (Where I can just catch a glimpse of the light towers of the MCG. That’s the Melbourne Cricket Ground for you USians. Where they play the cricket, you understand.) Chastise self. 11.47-12.30: Copyedit, copyedit, copyedit. 12.31-12.50: Eat lunch. Noodle around on favourite kid lit blogs (also Cakewrecks). Formulate an idea for Alien Onion post. 12.56: Advances of picture book arrive in reception. Squeal. Gallop downstairs. 12.57-1.20: Rip through 17 layers of packaging to reveal advances. Squeal. Admire. Congratulate self. Gallop upstairs to show publisher. Squeal, admire, congratulate selves. Ring author. Squeal down phone. Congratulate author. 1.21: Return to desk. Too het up for copyediting. 1.22-2.00: Write design brief for YA cover. 2.05: CAKE CAKE CAKE! 2.20-4.00: Update publicity/advertising/marketing copy for three books. 4.01: Wonder if it’s wine-time yet. 4.02: Sigh with relief that no books have to be sent to the printer today. 4.03: Panic that three books have to be sent to the printer next Friday. 4.04: Keep panicking. 4.05: Argue with tall designer over the relative merits of hyphenating a word at the end of a line of text and thus making it difficult to read, versus keeping word whole and having too much white space in the line. 4.10: Reach compromise with tall designer. 4.11: Read email reminding everyone that 4.15 on Friday afternoon is a good time to archive some of that paperwork from now-published books. 4.12: Look at towering piles of paperwork. 4.13: Place head on desk. 4.15-5.10: Resign self to Fridayafternoonitis and resume reading excellent manuscript. Do internal happy dance. 5.11: Confer with colleagues about readiness to downtools and have a small glass of wine. 5.11 & 30 seconds: Retrieve wine and glasses while colleague emails office. 5.15-? : Drink delicious cold wine, talk delicious shop, trade delicious gossip, moan about less-than-delicious printing error, enthuse about delicious authors, smell delicious vanilla beans that colleague has ordered on the internet which have been delivered vacuum-packed.
Eventually head to tram stop, hop on tram and read excellent MS all the way home.
7.45: Look up from laptop rested on knees to discover it is well-past time to stop checking emails and GET OUT OF BED. Chastise self. Continue with email management. 8.01: Narrowly avoid tripping over pile of unread ms beside bed. 8.41: Arrive at station. Discover train not due for ten minutes. Procure caffeination from conveniently located coffee emporium. 8.52: Lean against train doors, juggling coffee and e-book reading device (which is MUCH easier to juggle than coffee and unwieldy ms—praise Mothership for facilitating test-drive of e-book reading device). 9.12: Walk through Fitzroy Gardens enjoying lovely morning while making mental to-do list. 9.22: Arrive at office. Transcribe list of to-do items into notebook while computer boots up. 9.27: Consider list. Hyperventilate. Highlight in orange items that truly need to be completed today. Hyperventilate. 9.30: Refine blurb for graphic novel design brief. Compose email to designer explaining both design brief and why so many elements of design brief are still to-be-confirmed. 9.45: Save design brief email as draft in hope that to-be-confirmed items are confirmed by afternoon. 9.46: Consider next item on list. Hyperventilate. Compose replies to backlog of emailed author enquiries instead. Save replies as drafts to allow thinking time. 11.20: Respond to Rights colleague about request from Korean magazine for editorial article to accompany Korean publication of book. 11.25: Solicit opinions about the matt lamination. Ruminate on responses. 11.30: Check over contract to ensure all details of accepted offer are correct before sending to agent. 11.37: Engage with colleague, who has taken up residence in comfortable chair in office, about imminent e-book revolution. 11.40: Return to contract checking. 11.46: Catch sight of to-be-read ms pile. Try to keep guilt at bay. 11.47: Consider second coffee. Will tall designer to have second-coffee craving too. 11.49: Send draft-agreement email to agent. 11.50-12.48: Open New Book Notes template to complete so assistant can enter details of three new books into production database. Become distracted by recollection of MS number one. Email author to gush about brilliant, heart-wrenching ms. Save New Book Notes as draft. 12.49: Email colleague to say she is genius and should upload clever, funny Alien Onion post immediately. 12.50-12.55: Check next item on list. Hyperventilate. Open Publishing Proposal template and compose pitch for fabulous picture book ms to be presented to publishing acquisitions team. Save as draft. 12.56 : Hear squeal from colleague’s office. See colleague gallop downstairs. Hope colleague doesn’t trip. 12.57: Catch sight of ms to-be-rejected pile. Fail to keep guilt at bay. 12.59-1.03: Admire colleague’s GORGEOUS brand new advance copy of picture book. Squeal over endpapers. 1.03-2.00: Return to desk. Consider pros and cons of publishing fabulous picture book proposal while eating lunch. Do costing for fabulous new picture book proposal. Hyperventilate. Open PDF to reacquaint self with fabulousness of picture book proposal. Do happy dance. Complete Publishing Proposal and send to publisher colleague for comment before distribution to wider team. 2.05: CAKE CAKE CAKE! 2.20-4.00: Check over long-lead information for October 2010 books. Meet with editor to hand over ms for February 2011. Relay editorial discussion with author so far, enthuse about vision for book, confirm specifications and suggest cover ideas. Confer with colleague about titles to be pitched at Bologna Book Fair. 4.01: Wonder if it’s wine-time yet. 4.02: Check in with editor about progress of three books scheduled to go to the printer next Friday. 4.03: Confirm specifications for exciting new box set project. 4.05: Send replies to authors after adding ideas that have percolated over day. 4.15: Ignore email reminder about archiving. 4.15-5.10: Open New Book Notes template with aim of completing notes for second and third new book projects before overwhelming Fridayafternoonitis sets in. While writing pitch for new teen fiction, get distracted by recollection of how good ms is. Do happy dance. Save New Book Notes as draft. Congratulate tall designer on short-listings in Book Design Awards (Link is pdf). 5.11: Confer with colleague about readiness to downtools and have small glass of wine. 5.11: Email office to inform all that it’s time to celebrate successes (or drown sorrows) by gathering in reception with conveniently chilled wine. 5.15-6.30: Drink delicious cold wine, talk delicious shop, trade delicious gossip, moan about less-than-delicious printing error, enthuse about delicious authors, smell delicious vanilla beans that colleague has ordered on the internet which have been delivered vacuum-packed. 6.30: What happens after 6.30 on a Friday stays after 6.30 on a Friday . . .
Which is why they say lovely things about my books. [↩]
You can tell from the frequent mention of trams. Sydney is tram-less alas. Also the mention of the MCG. Here in Sydney we have the SCG. Both are most excellently wonderful places. If I had a view of the SCG from my office I would get no work done. I have a view of the lights of the SCG from our deck and that’s bad enough. [↩]
Just reading the two posts you’ll notice terminology differences such as in Australia a “blurb” is what they call “cover copy” in the US. In the US a “blurb” is a quote recommending the book from a reviewer or author that appears on the book jacket. [↩]
*GASP* ON SCREEN? Yes on screen. Always on screen. On screen is my friend. *Drowns out cries of, ‘The horror the horror’ with the efficient clacking of the keyboard.* [↩]
Clearly, this is a copyediting day. Anytime the word ‘copyedit’ appears in this timetable, it could be replaced on any given day by: structural edit, structural edit, structural edit, or check corrections, check corrections, check corrections, or meetings, meetings, meetings, or photo research, or blurb writing, or permissions chasing, or proof checking, or manuscript reading, or author/illustrator phoning/emailing. You get the idea. [↩]
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
I have known Lili Wilkinson for many years now. She’s one of the most talented, driven, organised people I have ever met. I am in awe of her. (Yes, even when I’m asleep.) She has had many wonderful books published in Australia as well as the UK and Germany. Her first novel to be published in the US is Pink which is one of her very best. It will be out in Fall of this year from Harper Collins. Trust me, USians, you want this book. Her post today is a wonderful follow up to Sarah Rees Brennan’s post on double standards in Hollywood.
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Lili Wilkinson is the author of five books, including Scatterheart and Pink. She tends to write nerdy chick-lit for teens. She’s currently enjoying Battlestar Galactica and likes making monsters out of wool. You can find her at www.liliwilkinson.com, her blog, and on twitter.
There, I said it. Lots of other people have been saying it lately as well, particularly in Australia. Because a couple of weeks ago the leader of our Opposition party, Tony Abbott, told the Women’s Weekly> that he hoped his daughters1 would wait until they were married until they had sex, and that a woman’s virginity is “the greatest gift you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving.”
That was the beginning. Then 17 year old YA author Alexandra Adornetto weighed in in Melbourne’s The Agenewspaper. She said some reasonably sensible things about self-value and the desire to have meaningful experiences. Then she said that “virginity is not highly valued among teenage boys” and that girls had to protect their reputations, which I kind of thought was a bit sexist and disrespectful to all the boys out there who are also looking for meaningful experiences.
Then 16 year old author Steph Bowe wrote a response on her (awesome) blog. I must restrain from quoting the whole thing here, but Steph’s basic opinion is, “if sex is legal, consensual, and there’s mutual respect, I really don’t see the issue.” I highly recommend her piece.
Reading the comments on these two articles are almost as enlightening as the pieces themselves. They cover both sides of the argument, and frankly both sides are offensively judgemental.
Anyway, I’ve got some opinions of my own on the matter, so I thought I’d take this particular forum to share them. So without further ado, here are the six things I’ve learned about sex.
We have to respect other people’s choices. If someone chooses to wait until they’re married, then good for them. If they don’t, please don’t inform them they’re going to burn in the fires of Hades.
There’s a lot of talk about people wanting their first time to be special and amazing and perfect. I totally respect that, but let me tell you from experience – there’s a strong chance it won’t be. You know how the first couple of pancakes are always a bit weird, until you get the consistency and heat just right? Well it’s a bit like that.
Virginity is not a gift. Losing your virginity is an important experience, but it doesn’t define you as a person. It’s like losing your baby teeth. Does anyone ever say “I want the first time I lose a tooth to be really special”?2
Sex is a gift. I don’t want to sound like someone’s slightly batty aunty here, but sex is something important that you should share with someone who you trust. It should be fun. It isn’t something that a girl sacrifices for a boy, never to have it back. It is, in fact, the gift that keeps on giving.3
People make mistakes. Some of them involve sex. I think if we didn’t place quite so much mystery and awe around the whole thing, this might not happen so much.
You are totally allowed to disagree with my opinions and my choices, just as much as I’m allowed to have them in the first place.
As a writer I’ve never included an actual sex scene in a book, because they’re REALLY hard to write. But there’s some implied sex. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. Some of it will be regretted. Some of it won’t. Because I think that reflects the reality of sex. There can’t be any blanket rules of you have to be THIS old or THIS mature. It just doesn’t work that way.
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today we have Randa Abdel-Fattah and not just because she’s a Sydneysider like me. She’s one of those amazing writers who manages to produce novels while holding down a demanding job and looking after her kids. (Little known fact: the majority of novelists have day jobs.) Enjoy!
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Randa Abdel-Fattah is the award-winning author of young adult novels Does My Head Look Big in This?, Ten Things I Hate About Me and Where The Streets Had A Name. She is thirty and has her own identity hyphens to contend with (Australian-born-Muslim-Palestinian-Egyptian-choc-a-holic). Randa also works as a lawyer and lives in Sydney with her husband, Ibrahim, and their two children. Her books are published around the world. Randa is a member of the Coalition for Peace and Justice in Palestine. She writes on a freelance basis for various newspapers and has appeared on television programs such as the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, ABC’s Q and A and SBS’ Insight. You can find out more about Randa or contact her through her website.
A couple of the guest posts have discussed books and race/ethnicity and it’s a topic I feel very passionate about so I thought I’d add my two cent’s worth. I’ve presented some parts of my post below in various talks but have added some more to it as well (once I get started on this issue, it’s very hard for me to stop).
It sounds trite to say this (forgivable in a blog post?) but a love of books transcends race, culture, ethnicity, colour. To be uplifted by words, moved to tears of joy or sorrow by a story, travel through the past and present, knows no nationality or religion. Books have the ability to transform people. As writers we wield immense power and there is something at once magical and terrifying about this. About our power to create subjects and objects; judges and judged. We take our pens (okay, our keyboards) and purport to portray individuals, communities, cultures and races using a frame of reference that can sometimes do little justice to those we seek to portray.
Okay, so it’s no secret I’m Muslim so I’m going to offer my insight into this problem from my personal point of view. That kind of power represents one of the difficulties Muslims have faced in the sea of books that have sought to characterise, sermonise and describe them, as though we’re some kind of crude, monolithic bloc. I mean, how many times do you trawl through the shelves of bookstores only to see that Muslim women only ever feature as protagonists or characters in crude orientalist-type narratives in which women achieve ‘liberation’ because they have ‘escaped’ Islam or are victims of honour killings, domestic violence and oppression because of Islam? I have a habit (I can’t let it go) of checking out bookshelves just to annoy myself. You know the shelves, holding a list of unimaginative but prolific titles: Beneath the Veil, Under the Veil, Behind the Veil, The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Princess, Desert Royal, Sold, Forbidden Love, Not Without My Daughter , Infidel . . .
I’m conscious that the fact that I’m Australian-born, that I’m a Muslim, that I have a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother who have both lived longer in Australia than they have in either Palestine or Egypt, has both closed and open doors for me in my life. I’m conscious that I’m neither part of Australia’s dominant culture nor part of a minority. I‘m conscious of the fluidity of my identity because it is an impossible demand of a country founded on immigration to expect a pure demarcation between citizenship and heritage, between minority and majority.
Despite the fact that I’m Aussie-born, I’m sometimes deemed to be part of a minority because of my Muslim faith and my Middle-Eastern heritage. Growing up, and sometimes even now, I have felt both marginalized and included. I have felt that I belong and I have felt like an outsider. But when it came to the books I read as a child and a teenager, and the movies I watched, I only ever felt that that part of my identity that was Muslim and Middle-Eastern was strictly slotted into a minority status, invariably represented in terms of crude stereotypes. I learned fairly quickly that I would not, as a Muslim of Arabic heritage, survive the country in which I was born and was being raised without choosing how I would define myself. Without demanding the right to self-definition I was a nappy head, a tea towel head, a wog, a terrorist, a camel jockey, a fundamentalist, an oppressed woman, a slave to Muslim men. The negative imagery of Islam and Muslims I saw saturating the arts pushed me to insist on my own self-definition and to take a proactive approach. I was motivated to provide readers of contemporary fiction with an alternative narrative and to give agency and a voice to a Muslim female character who defied the usual stereotypes.
When I wrote my first YA novel, Does My Head Look Big In This?, I wanted my readers to suspend their judgments and prejudices and engage at a very personal level with a Muslim teenager, Amal, and her journey of self-discovery. I wanted to invite my readers to challenge their preconceived notions about Islam and Muslims and encounter a story in which a Muslim teenager explores what it means to come of age in the sometimes stiflingly conformist world of the young.
Using humour to tell Amal’s story was strategic. When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? I was acutely conscious that given the breadth of stereotypes and misconceptions I wanted to confront, there was a real risk that I could sound boringly preachy. I therefore found that Amal’s self-deprecating, humorous outlook on life was the best way to humanise ‘the Other’ and avoid preaching to my readers. Humour enabled me to confront people’s misunderstanding of Islam and Muslims without plaguing my characters with a victim complex (oh, plus the fact it’s rare to think of ‘Muslim’ and ‘humour’).
But hang on a second. Let me make it clear that I’m no apologist and I certainly don’t seek to write novels which selectively present the ‘cream of the crop’ of Australian Muslims, denying the existence of Muslims who distort Islamic teachings to oppress women or who confuse culture with religion to exact an appalling abuse of Islamic teachings (plenty of examples of that happening around the world).
My second novel, Ten Things I Hate About Me, is a novel in which I sought to confront the reality of Muslim teenagers who experience great difficulty straddling between their Aussie, Muslim and Arabic identities and who withdraw to the safety of anonymity in order to achieve acceptance by their peers. The novel also addresses the sometimes sexist rules applied to brothers and sisters by their parents and the dishonest conflation between culture and religion (you know the kind, ‘the girl has a curfew but the guy has no limit to when he gets home’ etc). To write from a platform of legitimacy and to be taken seriously requires an honest insight into what is happening in Aussie Muslim communities (interestingly, I’ve received mail from around the world from teenagers of all different backgrounds, not just Muslim, who identify with Ten Things I Hate About Me).
I’ve always been concerned about identity issues for young people and as an Aussie-born Muslim I feel I am better ‘qualified’ to give expression to young people’s experiences than somebody of non-Muslim background who writes about Muslims through a prism of us/them, subject/object.
A critic once implored me to see the importance of writing about issues faced by all sorts of Australians, rather than limiting them to those of my culture. I reject this. Anglo writers do not attract that same instruction.
Australians of Anglo background are not defined as ‘Anglo writers’ (that applies to any westerner). It almost sounds absurd. And yet I am sometimes described as a ‘Muslim writer’. When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? and Ten Things I Hate About Me my objective was firmly set in my mind: I wanted to write about the lives of two Australian girls. I wanted to challenge the typical definition of the mainstream, of dominant culture, and show that these two girls, one who wears the veil, one who is of Lebanese descent, are a part of the mainstream, rather than interesting deviations from the norm. I wanted to normalize their experience, demonstrate that it is embedded in their Australian identity and life, rather than migrant or foreign identity.
There is no doubt that my first three novels have centered on my own personal world (my fourth novel to be released in Oz this year is a crime fiction/legal thriller for teenagers but that’s another topic, with its own issues, altogether).
So far I’ve been navigating identity struggles, family politics, community and relationships. Although works of fiction, I’ve drawn on my own religious identity and ethnic heritage, not because I seek to add another title to the ‘exotic Islamic/Middle Eastern’ bookshelf, but because I believe it is high time contemporary fiction recognised Muslims as human beings and dispensed with the one-dimensional Muslim caricature. For me, it’s about taking ownership over how my faith is represented and narrated.
I thought it would be fun to share with you its current state:
Yup, that’s all we got a stray plant growing between the cracks on the balcony railing. The twenty cent piece and quarter are there for scale. It is teeny tiny.
Here is the bare, bare balcony, which we aim to transform:
I shall keep you posted with more pictures as the garden grows. It will be a slow process because we’re having large wooden troughs made to house the profusion of plants I’m determined to have. But it will be wondrous! Oh, yes, it will.
Our new digs has a large L-shaped balcony, which at the moment is completely naked. It cries out for plant life and I aim to supply it with all it desires. I’ve decided I want to go with Australian natives. Because, well, I love so many of them. However, my knowledge is a bit on the small side. I know what I like but I don’t have much idea of what goes well in pots in direct sunlight. We face north-west and north-east and there is loads of sun.
Here’s my list of Aussie plants I like the look and/or smell of:
If any of you have any experience growing any of these in Sydney I’d love to hear about it. And if you can suggest other gorgeous Aussie native plants that would work I am all ears. Thanks to the twitter folk who’ve already made suggestions. No non-natives though. I am being very jingoistic in my plant selection. Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Um, etc.
Update: added kangaroo paws at Patty’s suggestion.
This year Scott and me hosted the family xmas at our new digs. This is the first time in my entire life it’s been held anywhere but at my parents’ place. Made me feel very grown up indeed.
Because of our recent Istanbul sojurn we went with a Turkish feast. Here’s me and Scott putting the finishing touches on the main course patates bastisi (potato casserole) and çingene pilavi (gypsy salad) and part of the mezze (first course) haveuç köftesi (carrot rolls with apricots and pine nuts):
And here’s the mezze spread on the table. The dishes are aci domates ezmesi (chilli tomato paste), yoghurt with garlic and lemon juice to go with the carrot rolls, kisir (bulgur patties) which you squeeze lemon on (see the wedge on everyone’s plate), humus (which my sister made), and muhammara (walnut and capsicum dip):
The meal was powered by garlic (it was in every single dish—even dessert! Just kidding! Or am I?) and our mighty mortar and pestle (two of them: one huge, one wee). All the recipes come from Classic Turkish Cookery by Ghillie Başan, which is dead good.
Hope you’re all eating and drinking as well as we are!