Scrotumgate and the never-ending debate about what words are appropriate for what age groups made me realise something very important: You USians talk funny!

See, in Australia where I grew up the words that some people think you should never say and others use all the time are called “swear words” and the act of using them is “swearing”. Here in the United States of America they are “curse” or even odder “cuss” words and when you say them you are “cursing” or “cussing”.

Both of which sound unbelievably quaint as well as kind of cute to my ears. It’s as if I’ve been chatting with folks who appear to be from the twenty-first century and then—Bam!—all of a sudden a time machine has landed in their mouths, taken control of their tongues, and they can now only say words from the 1700s. “That blasted sea dog cussed at1 me!”

Okaaay, I think, backing away slowly.

And I use words like “hence” which makes many USians think that the time machine’s grabbed my tongue. These fun linguistic differences are why I keep coming back here. Such larks! (Oh, okay, and the fact that my fella is a Seppo. Details, details!)

Here are my favourite USianisms (some are regional; some have spread far beyond her borders):

    Discombobulate (Best. Word. Ever.)

    Copacetic (A fancy word for “okay”. Who knew? So euphonious. Pleasure in my ears!)

    All the myriad different words for a bad sandwich such as “hoagie”, “hero”, “grinder” etc etc

    Sketchy (Meaning “dodgy”—obviously “dodgy” is better than “sketchy” but it still ain’t too foul)

    On line (As in “Are you standing on line?” I’ve only ever heard this one in NYC)

    Burglarize (Hah! I giggle every time I hear it. Scott has the same reaction to “removalist” back home)

Can’t think of any more right now. What are your favourite American words? Am I alone in finding “cuss” antiquated?

  1. Cussed on me? Near me? See? I don’t even know what the right preposition is! []

Zombies, unicorns, scrotum (updated)

What have I started? Arguments about the relative merits of zombies and unicorns rage across the intramanets. And on each thread someone suggests the zombie-unicorn hybrid. Great minds think alike? Or fools seldom differ?

I was greatly distressed that lovely friends of mine like Holly Black, Cecil Castellucci, Meg McCarron and Literaticat have fallen pray to the false glittery charms of unicorns despite the fact that being virgin fascists unicorns would have nothing to do with them. I guess it falls into the whole desiring-what-you-can’t-have camp. Perhaps to resolve our issues Holly and I should collaborate on a Zombies vesus Unicorns novel? I will write the zombies and she can have the unicorns. Though I’m not sure how well that will work given that she won’t read about zombies and I won’t read about unicorns.

Some school librarians are saying that they won’t have Susan Patron’s Newbery Award-winning novel, THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY, in their library because it contains the word “scrotum” (in reference to a dog). Apparently “scrotum” is an offensive word. I had no idea. I thought it was an anatomical term for a part of the male body. I’ve never heard anyone use it as a swear word and I come from a swearing people.

The New York Times also covers the story but seems to think that authors sneak words like “scrotum” into their novels solely to offend.1 Um, what now? Rosemary Graham responds eloquently to the extremely unbalanced Times coverage. The best reporting on the whole story can be found at Publishers Weekly which points out the role Jordan Sonnenblick and Asif! had in drawing attention to it.

I write novels to tell the best stories I can for teenagers. I try very hard to write characters who are believeable and I choose the language they use accordingly. I do not set out to offend anyone. I’m sorry when that happens, but I’m not going to write less believable stories in order not to offend people. That leads to the worst possible kind of censorship: When you start second-guessing yourself. Can I use the word “pom”? No, that will offend English people. Can I use the word “pink”? No, that will offend pink-haters (and possibly also pink-lovers). How about “jasmine”? No, Margo Lanagan will come gunning for me. When does it end?

Librarians and school librarians in particular have an incredibly hard job. I admire them tremendously. I just wish we were living in a world where people’s response to being offended was to talk about why, to explain the history and context of the word, and how that has made it offensive to them, rather than trying to wipe the books that contain the word off the face of the earth. I mean I am not advocating banning books about unicorns. I just won’t blurb them.

As soon as it is warm enough to go outside I’m off to buy a copy of The Higher Power of Lucky from my local children’s bookshop.

Update: Scott adds his two cents’ worth.

  1. For the record, if concerned adults can find the naughty words we wicked authors sneak into our books then we clearly haven’t been sneaky enough. []

That word does not mean what you think it means

This one breaks my brain.

From the Sydney Morning Herald the Australian cricket team responds to accusations of being arrogant, rude, sledging bastards:

“The way I look at cricket, you do everything possible to win. Some people like the verbal side of the game, some don’t, but you just get one with what your job. I take what Vincent is saying as a backhanded compliment.”

Hayden, Clark’s Australian teammate, was equally indignant.

“If he considers that to be the case, I’m not unhappy about it, to be honest,” Hayden said. “It’s a great clash between New Zealand and Australia and long may it continue. It doesn’t matter what sport—we could be playing kick a cockroach from here to the wall and we’d want to be competitive.”

You know last time I looked “indignant” meant “cranky”, “pissed off”, “ropeable”. It did not mean “bemused”.

Talk about sloppy journalism of the let’s-try-to-manufacture-controversy-even-if-the-quotes-don’t-fit variety. That or the journo truly doesn’t know what “indignant” means. Well, whoever wrote that, I am indignant at your use of the word indignant.

Though maybe they were just being a smartarse? Cause Hayden is just as indignant as Clarke, i.e. not at all.

Milan Kundera & the Unbearable Lightness of Wankery

The 9 Oct New Yorker features an article by Milan Kundera called “What is a Novelist: How great writers are made”. And, um, I really, really hope it was written with tongue firmly in cheek cause otherwise these are the pearls of wisdom Mr Kundera offers:

    Novelists are like lyric poets except that youth is the lyrical age and novelists are old.

    To be a novelist you must tear away your lyrical chyrsalis.

    We are always wearing make-up.

    The novelist must tear through the curtain of pre-interpretation.

    Girl characters are actually based on boy characters.

    Readers don’t read novels they read themselves reading novels.

    We must all embrace the Whole.

    Beat your grandmother.

To which I can only say, “Innit!”1

  1. “Innit” is the one word in the entire world that has the magical property of instantly undoing the pretentiousness of anything previously said. I imagine Mr Kundera must have to use it A LOT. []

Everything dates (updated)

Quite a few writers of books for teens are deathly afraid of producing works that seem old-fashioned and dated within minutes of publication. To avert this dread fate they aim for timelessness and classicness by avoiding slang and brand names and pop culture references. I have good news and bad news for them.

  • The good news is that there are books with dated slang and brand names what remain in print decades after their first printing.
  • The bad news is that all books become dated.

It’s pretty much impossible to write a book without using the language of your time and place. Lots of phrases and words that don’t seem like they could ever date, do. Take “gay”, for example. It used to mean happy and carefree. Remember Cary Grant dancing around Katherine Hepburn’s family house in 1938’s Bringing up Baby, wearing a frilly nightgown and screaming, “Because I just went gay, all of a sudden!” He didn’t mean what you think he means. But who cares? The new meaning of “gay” makes it even funnier. (Update: Walter Jon Williams sets me straight—so to speak.)

Every single one of the movies I love so much from the 1930s and 40s are dated. And yet they’re still widely available and consumed and loved and written and talked about.

Same for the books. Dawn Powell, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are all dated. Very. People don’t talk like that now (if they ever did). The world isn’t the same. Those versions of New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles are long gone. But you know what? The best of their books are still fabulously readable despite their weird forms of address (“doll”?) and the strange way the characters dress (hats at all times for everyone; suits and ties always for the men; gloves for women).

So should you pay attention to advice that says at all costs avoid contemporary slang, avoid referring to things by brand name, and avoid pop culture references?

Yeah, you prolly should, at least, most of the time.

Here’s why. The time when datedness is the biggest issue is in the early days of your book’s lifespan. You have to remember that there’s usually (at least) a year’s gap between a book being finished and a book coming out. A lot can happen in a year. Words that are hip and happening now can be torpid and dated then.

If your characters are obsessed with the hit TV show Dale Susskind’s Food Frolics, but before your pub date the show is cancelled because of the financial and sexual scandal that enveloped Susskind, and “Let’s frolic!” the hip catch-phrase that your characters say a lot has become a reference to a sad and incarcerated man. Reviewers are likely to make note of it and mock you more than somewhat. You better pray your book is good enough for it not to matter.

But in twenty, forty, sixty, two hundred years time most people won’t have heard of Dale Sussskind’s Food Frolics. Your book will no longer create cognitive dissonance for your readers.

Think of it as like fish. There’s the fresh, good-to-eat period shortly after being caught, then there’s the hideous rotting stage, but then—glory of glories—there’s the fossilization phase where the stink’s gone forever. And if your fish was lucky enough to be smoked it stays edible and tasty even longer.

Of course, the bad news is that most books go out of print within six months no matter how fresh they were on publication. But then not many fish make it to the fossilization stage either.

Dope, proofs, hoops, words

Today is going to be insanely off-the-charts busy so instead of the long and thoughtful post on the meaning of the “sublime” that I’ve been working on I’ll

  • recommend Sara Gran‘s Dope what I recently read and loved. Imagine a noir 1950s novel if it was written much more spare, set in New York, and narrated by an ex-(teetering on the edge of non-exness) junkie prostitute who now makes a living boosting jewellery. Not going to tell you another thing about it. Just that it’s short, there’s not a word out of place, and it made me cry. (Mind you Qantas ads make me cry.) Read it immediately!

    Any of you read any read-immediately books you’d like to recommend? Dope was recommended by Marrije. Thank you!
  • and exhalt in the page proofs of Magic’s Child what arrived. It looks like a real book! All typeset and stuff! So purty! So far the proofer has spotted a minor plot oopsie (someone not having something and then somehow out of nowhere having it) and reminded me once again that I’m the world’s worst punctuater. All she does is shift my commas around and remove and add semi-colons. Bless her! And sigh on my inability to ever understand the simple comma.
  • boast of my squeaky wheelness. I wrote to one of my favourite blogs, women’s hoops—twas a mournful letter whingeing that they hadn’t blogged the Aussies winning the World Championships and here’s how they responded. Bless ’em!
  • The ABC has this fabulous wordmap project where they’re trying to map the regionalisms of Australian English. It doesn’t take a second to add regionalism of your own. My problem is I’m not at all sure where I picked up the words I used. I had no idea “grouse” was more of a Victorian word. I’ve never lived in Victoria. Only New South Wales, the ACT and Northern Territory. I reckon tellie, books, and radio must muddy the waters of pinning down regionalisms more than somewhat.

And now I roll up sleeves and get to work.

John Green and The Art of Lying

“And now that she was doing something difficult
and familiar and never quite predictable,
namely lying, she felt a sort of mastery again,
the same sense of complexity and control
that the alethiometer gave her.”
—Phillip Pullman The Golden Compass

John Green, whose latest book, An Abundance of Katherines, is out this week is stopping by my blog today to be interrogated interviewed by me about lying, on account of how he is somewhat partial to spouting the tall ones.

John’s partialness is by no means unique amongst writers. (Truman Capote, anyone?) In the interview we ponder the connection between the telling of lies and the writing of stories. Do you have to be a good liar to be a good storyteller?

Justine: So, John, were you always a liar?

John: Presumably there was a time before I could talk when I was honest, but I’ve been a liar since at least the age of four, when I convinced my preschool teacher my home had been burglarized, and that the burglars had stolen our television. How about you?

Justine: My memories are hazy, but I do remember trying to convince my younger sister that she was adopted, but even though she was very little at the time she wasn’t buying it—we look a lot like each other.

Do you think that lying and being a writer go together?

John: One time I was on a panel with Markus Zusak, and I made some joke about how when I was a kid I figured that the only things I was good at were sitting and telling lies, so I decided to become a writer. And then someone was blogging about this event later and said something like, “Shame on John Green for claiming that fiction writing is lying.” Shame on me? Am I wrong? Is it NOT lying?

Justine: I think so. The kind of creativity you need to get away with an elaborate lie is very close to what you need for writing fiction. But at the same time if a book’s labelled as being fiction then it’s not actually lying. I can see the point, just not why people get so upset about it.

Why do you think people get hot under the collar about calling fiction writing lying?

John: I have no idea. People can be very persnickety about what writing is, and how to do it, and what writing ought to do.

I will acknowledge that the mere ability to lie well is not the same thing as being able to write good fiction, but they are surely related talents.

Justine: Indeed. I’ve heard people from certain religious backgrounds say they weren’t allowed to read novels on the grounds that they are nothing but a pack of lies. Jane Austen makes reference to the supposed moral laxity of novels in her books. Maybe people are still angry that used to happen?

Or perhaps it’s because some people agree that lying is a terrible sin and believe that liars can’t be trusted. If you lie, they believe, you’ll also cheat and steal and murder.

But I think there’s a big difference between kinds of lies. Lying for gain or to cheat are bad, bad, bad things. But lots of lies are completely necessary and good. If people are coming to kill your family and friends and you know where they are hidden, saying you don’t know is the only honourable, good thing you can do. Telling the truth in that situation would be reprehensible.

Also sometimes telling someone the truth can really, really hurt them. I once told a friend that her boyfriend was cheating on her. She hated me for it and we’re still not friends. I have never done that again. There are some things people don’t need to know or need to find out for themselves.

Is there anyone you would never lie to?

John: The true answer is no, although I’d like to say yes. I very rarely lie to my wife, and never about issues of substance. But I’m with you on the nobility of some lies. I am WILLING to lie to anyone, if the situation arises. I’ve always felt that lying can be perfectly noble: Say, for instance, that Sarah (my wife) got into a duel, and her opponent cut off her nose (as happened to the astronomer Tycho Brahe). Okay, so if a half-conscious and noseless Sarah said to me, “Am I losing a lot of blood?” And I would say, “No,” because I’d want her to stay calm and wait for help to arrive. That’s an ethical lie, I think.

Justine: I’m adding that to my list of folks it’s okay to lie to: semi-conscious, noseless people. I don’t lie to Scott or my parents or sister. Well, not unless I confess instantly in a ha-ha tricked-you way.

Is there anything you would never lie about?

John: Oddly, I don’t think I would ever lie about my lying. Does that make sense? Like, I am perfectly happy to answer these questions honestly. I don’t think we, as liars, should be ashamed. There are shameful lies, certainly, but I don’t think the enterprise is in and of itself bad. Lying is like the Force: It can be used for good or evil.

Justine: Absolutely! I don’t lie for gain. I could never be a confidence trickster because I find parting fools from their money deeply wrong. We’re all of us foolish about something, so we can all be tricked. The conman believes that they’re better than everyone else. They’re grifters; we exist only to be their marks. That’s psycho thinking.

Did you make a distinction between the different kinds of lies you tell? (I have many categories for different kinds of lies.)

John: Oh, yeah. What are your categories?

Justine: Reinventing-Yourself lies, Making-a-Better-Story lies, White lies, Getting-Out-of-Trouble lies, Exaggeration.

When I was young Reinventing-Myself lies were my favourites. I moved around a lot as a kid, so every time I was the new kid in school I had a new opportunity to reinvent myself and my family. A lot of the lies were wish-fulfillment lies. I would say that I was on the verge of selling a novel, that I’d been asked to become a model/actor/singer/trapeze artist/DJ but turned them down because it seemed like too much work. Stuff like that. My parents weren’t too worried about it cause the lies were mostly so outrageous no one believed them for long. (They were a bit miffed though when I said they’d met fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War on account of they’re not nearly old enough to have done it. Not really born enough, either.)

John: Reinventing-Myself lies were also very popular with me, and I still occasionally find myself telling a Reinventing-Myself lie when I feel nervous or uncomfortable. A few years ago, for instance, I was having dinner with a woman I’d just started dating, and before I could even stop myself, I started talking about the two weeks I’d spent in Uzbekistan just after graduating from college. In fact, I’ve never even been to England, let alone Uzbekistan. To me, the Reinventing Myself lie is the surest sign of adolescence and/or immaturity.

Justine: Also of boredom. Me and my sister being on the run from an evil cult of nuns who killed our family and ate our family cat and now being in witness protection with our fake parents was way more exciting than my actual life. But now I think my actual life does not need to be improved by adding evil nun cults.

I also used to tell a lot of Making-a-Better-Story lies. When retelling a story I smooth things, leave the boring bits out, add more interesting bits in order to make the story more story-like. Real life is irritatingly messy and usually does not translate well into a story unless you bend things.

John: I am also quite fond of the Making-Better-Story lie. I’m sure that all of my stories contain them, although I’ve been telling some of those stories so long I don’t even know what’s false memory and what isn’t. The narrator of The Great Gatsby notwithstanding, very honest people rarely tell good stories, in my experience.

Justine: My next category is White lies. Even though I don’t lie nearly as much now as I did as a kid, I still sometimes tell social lies to people I don’t know that well. “Your dress is beautiful.” “I loved your book.” “Sorry we couldn’t make it to your party—we were both a bit under the weather.” Etc. etc.

John: Yeah. With my closest friends, the white lie is unnecessary, because I can just say something like, “I want to go home now,” and that’s fine. But with acquaintances, the white lie is a great blessing.

Justine: Getting-Out-of-Trouble lies are the kind I always felt the guiltiest about. I usually wound up confessing to my misdeeds later.

John: I rarely tell these anymore, because I’ve become such a boring homebody that on those rare occasions when I get myself into trouble, I sort of enjoy it.

Justine: Me neither. When I was a kid, getting in trouble was the worst thing in the world. I’m completely inured to it now and will own my bad deeds. Mostly because I try hard not to commit any.

Exaggeration’s the last kind of lie on my list. Most of my lies are of the poetic kind, embellishing stuff to make it cooler variety. The ceilings were twenty metres high! The walls painted such an intense gold your eyes watered just looking at it! Though it prolly belongs in the Making-Better-Story category.

John: Yes, I’m also given over to these.

Justine: Do you have any categories of your own?

John: Well, I would add the Compassionate Lie (outlined above, in the example where Sarah gets her nose cut off during a duel). I’m a big fan of the Compassionate Lie, although it can be a bit of a slippery slope. It’s easy to convince yourself you’re telling a Compassionate Lie when you’re really just telling a regular old self-interested lie. Here’s an example: Say I killed your pet llama by accident. Now, I can tell you that your pet llama ran away, or that it went to go live on a farm. And that’s kind of a compassionate lie. But mostly, I just don’t want you to be mad at me about killing your llama.

Justine: Oh, yes. I used to tell people what I thought they wanted to hear when they asked me if they looked okay. But now if there’s something correctably wrong I will tell them: “Your tag’s sticking up.” ‘There’s schmutz on your face.” “Your pimple is glowing red.”

John: I’d also say that for me, Telling-Better-Stories lies and Reinventing-Myself lies are subcategories of Trying-to-Make-People-Like-Me lies. Basically, all of my lies were Trying-to-Make-People-Like-Me lies.

Justine: Once again we are in complete agreement.

Do you lie as much now as when you were kid?

John: Oh God, no. It would be impossible to lie as much now as when I was a kid. When I was younger, I was able to devote all of my resources to lying. Entire days could be spent on the construction and telling of lies. Now I have to, like, do the dishes and go to the grocery store. But also, as I get older, I feel less compelled to lie. Partly, this is because I’m happier. I have friends now who like me, which is most of what I wanted to get out of lying. The Trying-to-Make-People-Like-Me lie just doesn’t appeal to me like it used to. I’ve discovered, belatedly, that pretending to have spent two weeks in Uzbekistan does not actually make people like you.

Justine: Me neither. For much the same reasons. In fact I don’t tell anything other than white lies and exaggerations these days. Of course I’m stuck with the legacy of my lying past. No one in my family believes a word I say. I am the family’s unreliable witness and even though I’m almost entirely lie-free and have been for years—they will always doubt me. That’s my warning to the kids who read this: The tale of the Boy Who Cried Wolf is absolutely true.

Do you have that reputation within your family?

John: To an extent. None of my complaints are ever taken seriously, because they’re counted upon to be exaggerations. But they’ve learned to trust my stories. Or at least they pretend they do.

Justine: Do you think part of why you lie less now is because the lying part of you gets enough exercise from writing novels?

John: That’s a good observation, and I think writing has lessened my desire to lie. I can now get immersed in a fictional world without having to deceive my friends, and you never have to feel guilty about making things up in a novel. When I’m working on a book, during those periods where I’m just working day and night, I get to spin whatever lies I want about those characters. Reinventing-Yourself lies and Exaggerations and Making-a-Better-Story lies and lies that help me get the characters out of trouble. Not all the lies go into the book, of course, but it’s fun regardless.

Justine: Yup. I got a huge kick out of some of the more elaborate stories I used to tell, the friends I invented and their stories. I get to use all those skills when I write novels but this way I don’t get in trouble for it, I don’t lose friends, and I get paid!

What’s the worst trouble you’ve ever gotten into for lying?

John: Well, my fourth grade girlfriend Julie Baskin broke up with me because of my lying, which sucked. But I think the worst consequences for lying are emotional: If you tell the wrong kind of lies, it prevents intimacy; it makes it impossible for you to be a whole person in communion with others; it poisons your relationships. That hasn’t been an issue for me in adulthood, thank God, but it’s something I think liars must always stay mindful of.

Justine: Yes, indeed, the erosion of trust is a biggie. It’s why I don’t lie to the people I care about. Or not about anything important.

Who is your favourite fictional liar? Mine’s Lyra Silvertongue from Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. She is brave and courageous and true and totally understands the difference between good and bad lies. I adore her.

John: I can see the case for Lyra Silvertongue, but of course I can’t pick her because fantasy isn’t really literature. Oh, God! I’m kidding! Stop hitting me! I have to go with Huck Finn. And then maybe Jay Gatsby, but Huck Finn stands out to me as the best liar, real or fake, in all of history.

Justine: Who is your favourite real person liar?

John: Well, I’m quite fond of you. And Sarah knows how to tell a tale, certainly. Sometimes, I’ll see a flicker in her eyes when one of her stories takes a turn, and I’ll know, but even when you know, it is a sweet pleasure to watch a master work.

Justine: Yes, indeed! Watching Scott telling stories is prolly one of my favourite things in the universe. Even though I’ve heard all his stories a gazillion times he changes them depending on who he’s telling them to and what the context is. I loves it. (And, natch, I too am fond of you.)

Disclaimer: This entire conversation is, itself, a pack of lies.

Good writing, bad writing

This whole defying Margo thing has led to much thought (which I usually try to avoid) and several long excellent convos about writing—especially the one I had yesterday with the glorious Holly Black1—about the ins and outs of writing advice, the different aesthetics of writing, etc. etc. So I decided to write a long and elaborate post, but, today I am tired and lazy. So instead I offer my quick and dirty method of becoming a fine writer.

    1. Look at writing you admire. Figure out what exactly is being done that you like so much. Is it the deployment of $100 words? Of adjectives? The way the rhythm of the writing reflects what’s happening? Employ said techniques in your own writing.

    2. Looks at writing you despise. What exactly about it is shitting you? Is it the deployment of $100 words? Of adjectives? The way the rhythm of the writing doesn’t reflect what’s happening? Avoid such techniques in your own writing.

    3. 2 is easier than 1.

Let me know how it goes!

Anyone else got any quick-and-dirty advice?

  1. How come talking about writing is always so much more fun than actually writing? []

Defying Margo Lanagan (updated)

Because Margo Lanagan is one of the best writers I know, and is wonderful in every way, and has written two of the best short story collections ever published (White Time and Black Juice)—I should probably follow her rules of writing to the letter.

But, see, she has this list of banned words and every one of those words sings to me:

    obsidian* (Margo says, “only okay when used to describe arrowheads”.)
    roiling* (Margo says, “must be used with care”.)

There are heaps more but I can’t remember the rest. Help me out, Margo? Margo’s Clarion students?

Update: *Are Margo Lanagan additions to the list.

Ever since I heard of the existence of Margo’s banned words list it has become my goal in life to use every single one of them whenever possible. (I’m proud to say that one of the chapter titles in Magic or Madness is “Maelstrom”.) I can’t tell you what a difference it makes to have such a noble purpose. It was like being reborn.

Thank you, Margo! You’ve not only given me wonderful works to read, but a purpose in life.

And maybe I can inspire all of you in turn to start accreting wondrous corruscating volumes of words whilst smelling the sweet sweet sweet jasmine that is succour to all us arty writer types . . .

Write well, little angels, write well!

Names & titles

Over at Miss Snark’s some folks get all snooty when agents address them by first name. I find their crankiness weird and am wondering if it’s a generational thing or because (as another commenter says) I’m Australian and we’re less uptight more relaxed than USians.

Personally, I’m more squicked when people insist on using a title with my name. My name is Justine Larbalestier, it’s not Ms Justine Larbalestier, certainly not Miss or Mrs Justine Larbalestier and you’re risking life and limb if you ever use Mrs Scott Westerfeld, though FYI Scott adores being called Mr Justine Larbalestier.

If you must use a title the correct one’s actually Dr, which I’m not wild about either, but at least I earned that one after almost four years of blood, sweat and tears (oh, yes, tears, lots and lots and lots of tears).

But how to negotiate this web of correct name/title useage? Even though I think it’s fusty and weird to want to be addressed by a title I also don’t want to offend anyone (not unintentionally anyways). So what are you supposed to do when some folks will spit the dummy if you don’t use a title, and others if you do?!

Here’s my cunning solution: echo how they sign off. If they sign off Dr Massively Stuckup, then you respond thus:

    Dear Dr Massively Stuckup

And sign off how you would prefer to be addressed:



Simple, eh?

But what to do if you’re the one writing the first letter? If you have a mutual acquaintance ask them. Otherwise play it safe. In the US of A I would use title plus full name (unless I can’t figure out whether they’re a sheila or a bloke or whether they have a phd or not in which case I’d use full name). In Australia I use full name sans title. Then I wait for the reply and adjust my salutation accordingly.

Aren’t you lucky to have me here to solve all etiquette problems?

Ask Dr* Justine

I know I’m a teeny bit obsessed with search terms that lead to my website (especially when deadlines loom), but today’s list was a truly bumper crop. Here are my faves:

Q: does euphoria mean something bad?

Dr Justine says: It can. It really really can. Over-the-top happiness can lead to all sorts of injuries. I broke my toe that way once.

Q: where does andrew symonds lives 2006?

A: Ya know, I have a feeling it’s prolly better that you don’t find out. Leave the poor bastard alone. He’s injured and in South Africa. Stalk someone else!

Q: what genre do first time novelists publish easiest?

A: What now?! There is no answer to this question. There is no magic path to publication. Write the best book you can in the genre you know best. Even then publication is not guaranteed. (Though, actually, I hear mainstream domestic novels like The Ice Storm are a complete doddle to write. No research, don’t you know . . . And highbrow domestic novels are always in high demand.)

Q: similies and metaphors for counselling?

A: Umm. Kind as a sweet-tempered viper?

Q: justine in hippie goddess?

A: Not to my knowledge.

*Yes, I am a real doctor. No, not that kind of a doctor. The same kind of doctor as Dr Kim, Dr E and Dr Jenny.

I’m in Hebrew!

Well, not me so much as my essay “Too Young to Publish”. Awhile back Didi Chanoch asked if I minded if it were translated? I did not!

So now Itay Shlamkovitch has translated “Too Young to Publish” and Bli Panik has published it. If you read Hebrew check it out. (Is your Hebrew coming back, Da?) Hell, even if you don’t. It’s pretty.

This is the first of my writings that’s been translated. I’ve sold translations rights to Magic or Madness and Magic Lessons but the actual publishing of those translations hasn’t happened yet. Oh, the glory of online publication. So very fast!

Oh, and I think this is my name in Hebrew: ×’’סטין לרבליסטר

Cool, eh?


So, last night we got to hang out with the smartest group of folks I’ve hung out with in an age (and I hang with much smartness, let me tell you). At the Teen section of Elizabeth Library, New Jersey, we read a little bit, we told anecdotes, got asked very smart and very funny questions, I got to talk Spanish, and afterwards we got to eat great pasta and drink good wine and enjoy more ace conversation.

I read from my great Australian cricket mangosteen Elvis fairy novel, which I feared would tank with the seventeen-year-olds, but they laughed harder than the Brooklyn audience. Yay! I finally wrote something that cracks people up. And some of them knew about cricket. One guy plays it with his Pakistani neighbours. How cool is that? And many loved basketball and knew about the WNBA, not just the NBA! Heaven.

Scott read from Pretties which kind of tanked, and then from Peeps, which went over huge guns. He read about toxoplasma and there was much speculation about who has the parasite and who doesn’t. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Then you’ll have to read the book, won’t you?) So many of them had read at least one of Scott’s books. One had read all of them and was full of smart questions. I made Scott do his Donald Duck voice and it slayed them best of all (he can harmonise with himself—next time you see him, just ask—he loves to perform on command). There was a queue of people wanting to have their photo taken with Scott. How fab is that?

And at the end, the library gave everyone a copy of one of my books (they had a choice of Magic or Madness or Magic Lessons—yup, Penguin genorously gave them a whole stack of galleys) and one of Scott’s many books. Though some tried sneakily to take two of Scott’s books. The competition over copies of Peeps was intense. We signed for all of them and thus got to talk one on one to everyone. Great idea, no? It was fabulous fun and I want to do it again.

Have I ever mentioned how much I love libraries? And librarians? And people who love libraries and librarians? No? Well, I really, really, really do.

How long does it take to write a novel?

I was asked that question (sort of) by “annonymous” when I mentioned that I have only four months to write the final Magic or Madness book. “A fan” also asked if writing a book in such a short time meant that it would suck.

Good questions.

Obviously novels can take any amount of time to write. I wrote the first draft of Magic or Madness in about eight weeks. The first draft of my as-yet-unpublished epic Cambodian novel took eleven years. Writing the third book in the morm trilogy in four months is not that fast, especially as the first two books were only 65 thousand words long. (Most adult novels are around 80-100 thousand words long.)

What’s due on 30 December is not the polished, perfect, every-word-glistening final draft of MorM 3. It’s the first draft. That first draft bit is important. Because there will be months of rewriting after I first hand it over to my editors, Liesa Abrams and Eloise Flood. For me that’s when the real writing begins.

I write novels (or, at least, I wrote the first two MorM books) like this:

Every day (or there abouts) I try to write at least a thousand words. At the beginning of the draft getting to a thousand words is a struggle by the time I’m about three quarters done and finally know where the book is going it (usually) becomes dead easy. I start each day by editing the previous day’s words and then moving forward. Every few days I read a chapter or two out loud to Scott and then begin the next day by incorporating the changes that come out of his criticisms.

Once I have a finished draft I read through the whole thing and rewrite it. When that’s done I’m so over the whole thing I can’t stand to look at it. That’s when I send it out to my faithful crew of first readers. Because I’m usually on a deadline I ask them to get back to me with their response asap, which around 70% of them do. Yay first readers! I then fume at the injustice of their stupid comments rewrite based on their comments and then send it off to my editors.

They then get back to me with notes, which if the first two books are anything to go by, boil down to this:

Make it less subtle. Less implying; more showing.

I ratchet everything up so that it’s horrendously over the top and send the manuscript back to them. They send back more notes:

Make it less subtle.

I fume. How could it possibly be less subtle than it already is!? I show Scott so that he can confirm the injustice of my editors’ comments. He agrees with them. I consider divorce. Then I do what I can to make everything horribly obvious. They respond with more demands for less subtlety. And repeat until my editors declare themselves satisfied.

At which point I realise they were right all along: the novel had been a bit undercooked. I decide that there are still too many anaemic threads. I go through the novel thickening each one. I continue this process obsessively all the way up to, and including, the proofreading stage.

The whole process takes about ten months.

So, to answer “a fan”. Yup, often that first draft is very sucky indeed. Fortunately I’ll have heaps of time to unsuck it.

Thinking about something else, anything else

Margo Lanagan reminds us all to be careful of the words we use. Just so! For me ’twas a timely reminder as I am perusing the proofreader’s pass of Magic Lessons and making more changes (mostly deleting “just”. Aaargh!)

Jim McDonald made me laugh with his lessons learned from British folk ballads. I’ve been a tad obsessed with ’em since I was a wee lass.

Gwenda points to this incredible exhibition of spirit photography currently on in NYC. Given our deadlines and imminent trip out of town, the odds of my seeing it are not good. Hell, we don’t seem to be able to get it together to see our friends here . . . Must not sign up for more than one book a year!

Clarification (Updated)

A while back I wrote an essay, “Too Young to Publish”, which has been much linked to and discussed around the traps. Very gratifying that people have found it useful and thought provoking, cause, you know, that’s why I write these things. A few people, however, seem to have read me as saying that if you’re young you can’t be talented and shouldn’t be published.

Not no way never.

I’m glad Sonya Hartnett, S. E. Hinton and this really great fantasy writer whose name I’ve completely forgotten (update: Joyce Ballou Gregorian) who died very young (update: She was 21 when her first book pub’d and 44 when she died) after only two or three fab books (whose titles likewise are escaping me—update: The Broken Citadel 1975, Castledown 1977 and The Great Wheel 1987) published when they did. They were well and truly good enough.

The essay was addressed to the impatient, overly-convinced-of-her-own-genius, fifteen-year-old me. Even though I wouldn’t have listened and would have told the current me to bugger off. I was inspired to write it by teenage writers who wrote asking me about the age thing, and one of them kinda reminded me of me at that age (only less obnoxious).

Everything I said applies to a beginning writer of any age. No matter how old you are when you start writing, making being published your first priority and being driven into a deep, dark depression when you’re not is a waste of time. Improving your craft, learning to be a writer, a really good writer, is the thing. There are writers in their sixties who still don’t get this and writers in their teens who are all over it.

Translating Magic or Madness (updated)

Israeli editor, Didi Canoch, just read Magic or Madness, and while he enjoyed it, thinks it’s untranslatable into Hebrew. Colour me disappointed, but I found his reasons why, and the enusing discussion in the comments fascinating.

So far, the book has sold to Taiwan, France and Thailand. I confess I have been wondering how those translations were going to get around the linguistic play in the book between Australian and USian English. Especially as I don’t speak any of those languages and don’t know much about them. Didi reckons a French translation could make use of Quebecois French.

Which got me wondering: wouldn’t using Quebecois French or, say, Mexican Spanish—were Magic or Madness ever to be translated into Spanish (fingers crossed)—raise different questions? There’s a particular set of relations between France and Quebec; between Spain and Mexico. Weird, mixed up colonial/motherland questions. But Australia and the US of A don’t have that kind of relationship. Neither country colonised the other, I mean, not in the way that England colonised them both. Am I overthinking this?

Obviously, translation is always about approximation, so you go for the best solution available. I’m dead curious about how they’ll deal with these problems. Or whether they’ll even bother. I can see a possible translation that would simply leave out the differences in the way the characters speak. Though I do think the translation would lose something if they went that way. But then most people reading it wouldn’t know the difference, would they?

The whole thing reminds me of Rome which just started on HBO in which everyone talks with an English accent so that it’s easy to figure out what class they are: toffee English accents for the upper classes etc. Yet it’s a USian production. US English has a huge variety of accents, many of which are marked for class. I wonder why they didn’t have posh Romans talking like Boston Brahmins (think Katherine Hepburn) and the lower classes talking like working class New Jerseyites (think Tony Soprano). Too close to home, maybe?

Rome, by the way, is a hoot. I, Claudius updated and with a bigger budget. Much camp fun. I can’t wait for the second episode. Maybe they picked English accents because they’re so much camper than the accents of any other English speaking nation?

Update: for those not familiar with the book, Magic or Madness is told from three different points of view. The two Australian characters have their chapters in Australian spelling and grammar, and the one US character has her chapters in US spelling and grammar.

Definitions (updated)

In an excellent essay on fantasy Teresa Nielsen Hayden elegantly points out the problem with trying to define fantasy literature:

It’s hard to come up with a good definition of fantasy literature. It’s easy to come up with a definition that includes fantasy, but most such definitions also take in a lot of other kinds of storytelling. For instance, it has been observed that, in a sense, all fiction is fantasy. This is true, but it isn’t useful.

That’s why my favourite definition of science fiction is Damon Knight’s: “science fiction is what I point to when I say science fiction” (or something like that). Most of us know what we mean when we talk about a certain genre, trying to narrow it down absolutely, and get other people to agree with you is futile—way more trouble than it’s worth.

Update: What Knight said was something like this: “Science fiction is what we mean when we point to it”.

Query Letters

Barry Goldblatt, all round good guy and big time young adult lit agent (he reps such mega stars as Angela Johnson and Holly Black), explains what he wants in a query letter. It’s very clear and to the point. Useful stuff.

For those who don’t know a query letter is the letter you send to an editor or agent to say that you’ve written this very cool novel and would they like to see it.

Personally I’d rather write a novel than a query letter. Hmm, that doesn’t put it strongly enough, because I love writing novels. I’d rather eat my own eyeball than write a query letter. They’re so hard!

Especially the pitch bit. Uggh. I hate it when people ask me to describe what my books are about. I um and ah and go into too much detail or not enough. Or if Scott‘s there I get him to do it. Scott has the pitch gene, I do not. His pitch for Lord of the Rings:

Midget saves the world!

I guess you have to hear him do it . . . See? I can’t even repeat other people’s pitches without rendering them less than stellar. Sigh.

Puce Redux

My friend, Ron Serdiuk, proprietor of the wonderous Pulp Fiction bookstore in Brisbane, just added this comment to the long ago puce thread. I think it worthy of elevation to a post of its own. He wrote:

I know that the historical origins were worked over and the flea blood/shit thang was put forward and everyone was fairly happpy with that and it seemed to be the end of the discussion . . .

but I don’t think that’s all there is.

I think the actual colour changed—and relatively quickly in hostorical terms—and became something else entirely.

Certainly now – according to Richard (source: decorator and paint charts) and Leanne (source: printers’ colour guides)—t’s either a cherry-ish red or an orange-y pink.

But even as far back as Heyer’s georgian setings I think it had already taken this road. whenever it’s used in her works it either—if used in the context of a male wearing it suggest dandyism or effeminacy—or when a woman is involved it seems to be vulgarity or a younger girl wearing something showy and inappropriate.

Neither suggest a sedate flea blood/shit purple-y brown to this little black duck.

I think we need a whole social history here. could be a great idea for a thesis . . . or maybe a popular history volume to supplement that wonderful book “mauve” from a few years back – (tho’ doubt one could find that puce made nearly as earth-shattering an impact as that aforementioned shade of purple! astonishing!)

One way or another, it aint over yet . . .

Says Justine: Interesting . . . there certainly aren’t many people who can carry off pinky-orange! Though I’m not sure I’d describe this colour as “sedate”.

non sequitur

Just reading the 8 & 15 August issue of the New Yorker which includes Louis Menaud making the following assertion about Edmund Wilson:

When it came to most physical activities, he was inept. He did not, for instance, know how to drive a car.

Excuse me?

Many people do not drive cars. Some of them are highly ept at a whole range of physical activities. They have simply chosen not to learn how to operate the greatest killing machine of this century and the last. Any fool, ept or not, can drive a car. Takes a wise person to choose not to.


My friend Justine (also an Australian) asked me the other day what colour puce is. I’ve read a tonne of Georgette Heyer where it’s a colour that pretty much no one looks any good in, so I had always imagined it was a kind of cacky yellow-brown (on a puce=puke or puce=poo etymological model). It had never occurred to me to look it up. But Justine did. And read that it was a non-saturated red (I forget the whole description), but it sounded like terracotta, which is a lovely colour.

Here’s what the OED says:

puce [pjus], a. (sb.) [a. Fr. puce sb.:-L. plex, -icem a flea; couleur puce flea-colour (17th c.).]
a. attrib. or as adj. (orig. puce colour): Of a flea-colour; purple brown, or brownish purple.

1787 Best Angling (ed. 2) 83 Dip a feather in aqua fortis, put it on the ash,..and it will make it a cinnamon, or rather a puce, or flea colour.
1791 Hamilton tr. Berthollet’s Dyeing I. i. i. ii. 32 Colours inclining to red on the one hand and black on the other, such as mordoré and puce colour.
1820 Chron. in Ann. Reg. 197/2 A rich twilled sarcenet pelisse, of a peuce colour.
1834 Mrs. Carlyle Lett. I. 10 The old black gown (which was dyed puce for me at Dumfries).
1893 J. Ashby Sterry Naughty Girl ix. 79 His puce silk suit, his muslin cravat.
b. As sb. = puce colour.

1882 Garden 16 Sept. 260/1 Blooms of..rich dark puce, suffused with maroon.
1897 Daily News 25 June 2/6 The mountains had all put on..the purple puce of twilight.
1900 F. H. O’F. in Lond. Let. 26 Jan. 133/1 Varying shades..from palest peach to deepest puce.
c. Comb. puce-coloured adj.

1812 Sir H. Davy Chem. Philos. 212 The puce-coloured oxide of lead.
1874 Garrod & Baxter Mat. Med. 410 Cochineal yields when crushed a puce-coloured powder.

That also sounds like a colour that’s all over my wardrobe. A gorgeous colour. Except for the bit about fleas. Flea-coloured? Huh?

Nark, not Snark

A friend recently pulled me up for saying someone was being narky, telling me that the word is ‘snarky’, not ‘narky’.

Uh no, I said ‘narky’ and I meant ‘narky’.

For the friend who still thinks I’m making it up I turn to the Macquarie Dictionary:

–noun 1. an informer; a spy, especially for the police. 2. a scolding, complaining person; one who is always interfering and spoiling the pleasure of others.
–verb (t) 3. to nag; irritate; annoy: “This made me a little narked, then I realised that I was only young and he wouldn’t have thought that I was applying for the job myself.” –ALBERT FACEY, 1981. 4. Obsolete to cause (a person, plan, etc.) to fail: he tried to nark my scheme
–verb (i) 5. to act as an informer. [Romany nak nose]
narky, adjective

and to the OED:

narky Irascible, vexed, bad-tempered, sarcastic. First citation: 1895 Leeds Mercury Weekly Suppl. 13 July 3/8 “Doan’t let’s get narky ower it”.

Okay, that’s enough narkiness out of me.

Australian versus US English

Pardon me while I geek out about the diversity of the English language.

One of the cool things about writing a trilogy populated by Australian and US characters, and attempting to use both vernaculars, has been coming across differences between Australian and US English. Yesterday, while defining "bitumen" for the glossary of Magic Lessons, I learned that not only do USians not know what "bitumen" is, they don’t call a road made from bitumen a "sealed" road. I don’t know why but it had never occurred to me that a sealed road could be called anything but a sealed road. Apparently they call them paved roads. Huh.

This is weird to an Australian because "paving" is something you do to garden paths, or around swimming pools, not to roads or streets. Unless they’re made of cobble stones and frankly, I’ve not come across many cobblestoned streets in Australia.

Here’s the Macquarie Dictionary (Australia’s premier dictionary—I adore it) definition of "sealed road": a bituminised road. (That’ll explain everything to a bewildered USian.) And of "pavement": 1. a walk or footway, especially a paved one, at the side of a street or road. 2. a surface, ground covering, or floor made by paving.

Naturally enough, Webster’s and the American Heritage Dictionary don’t have a definition of "sealed road". But here’s how the American Heritage defines "pavement": 1.a A hard smooth surface, especially of a public area or thoroughfare, that will bear travel.

Not the same are they? To "pave" something in the US can include laying out asphalt on a road. The Maquarie Dictionary definition of "to pave" is you have to be laying out tiles, stones, bricks, the stuff that we refer to as "paving". It took many minutes of incomprehension between me and Scott before we sorted it.

I also had a US character say, "He wants in to the house". My editor queried it. I didn’t understand what the problem was, so I asked Scott, who changed it to "Looks like he wants to get into the house." To my ears that sounds too formal, but apparently in US English "to want in" can only mean that you want to be included, as in "Jo wants in on that bank robbery". In Aussie English "wanting in" can mean both wanting to be included and wanting to be (literally) inside.

At one point another of my US characters said that they were "made to go" there. Once again my editors cranked out the red pen, and once again I was confused. Turns out that to a USian if you say that you were "made to" do something, it means that you were created for the purpose of doing that thing, not that you were forced to do it. In Australian English we have both meanings, so that "I was made to write the first great Australian, feminist, monkey knife-fighting, cricket & Elvis novel" can mean either that you were created for the purpose of writing such a novel (which I was) or that that you were forced to write it (which I could be if someone would pony up the dosh).

I also learned that US English doesn’t include "a dog’s breakfast", "demountables", or "unco". Which made me sad for US English, until I remembered some of their great words and expressions, such as "write me", "geek out", "sketchy" and my all-time favourite: "discombobulate". Best word ever!

New York City, 2 May 2005

On Punctuation

I was never taught how to punctuate. I dimly remember being told some time (in First Grade maybe?) that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop, but after that nada. No helpful hints about punctuation in primary school or high school or university. I did encounter style manuals in uni but skipped past the fifty-page sections on uses of the semi-colon and went straight to the how to do footnotes and bibliographies.

Shortly after Scott read my first story, he shared his horror at my punctuation skills, or lack thereof. I wasn’t as taken aback as I would’ve been two years earlier, but since I had foolishly taken to hanging out with lots of writers, and, even dumber, started showing them my feeble efforts, I’d been getting an earful about the infelicities of my punctuation. (Thanks Karen, Kelly, and especially Richard, who actually examined my laptop to check whether there was a functioning comma key.)

I admit I’d been surprised by their horror at my commas. At that stage I was way educated—twelve years of primary and secondary plus two university degrees. No one had ever told me I couldn’t punctuate before. At first, I figured it must be a USA versus Australia thing. They spelled differently to me; it figured they’d punctuate differently too. But then I got similar comments from some Australian and Canadian professional writer and editor friends. It appeared that I really did have comma issues, though it also became clear that everyone had a different solution in mind.

Scott was the one to sit me down and explain how it works (or, at least, how it works with English in the USA). I learned the difference between an en-dash (-) and an em-dash (—), the uses of the semi-colon and suspended hyphenation, and above all else how to distinguish a run-on sentence in desperate need of that capital letter and full stop from a long, elegaic sentence a la Jane Austen or Dorothy Dunnett.

He announced recently that he’d had little hope at first, thinking I was simply retarded when it came to punctuation (as many people, including many excellent writers whom I won’t embarrass by naming, are), and was much relieved to discover that I was, in fact, educable.

Scott used a red pen and lots of withering sarcasm. I’m not sure it’s a method I’d recommend, as it does lead to many tears, but he has managed to steer me along an unbelievably steep punctuation learning curve. I figure I’m about halfway there. Possibly. (But feel free to email me drawing my attention to any punctuating infelicities you may notice.)

Of course, a large part of my becoming a better punctuater (or should I say less bad?) was actually re-reading what I wrote more than once or twice. I used to think the aim was to get published as quickly as possible, so why waste time rewriting? The concept of polishing, multiple rewritings, and not attempting publication until what I’d written was good as I could make it, had escaped me for many years (and, oddly, so too did publication).

I have discovered that my lack of education on the punctuation front is by no means unique, and my whole punctuation ordeal—er, wonderful learning experience—has left me wondering why punctuation isn’t taught anywhere except on the job as a copy editor or proof reader. Why don’t schools (at any level) push beyond capital letter, full stop? Why for that matter have schools stopped teaching grammar? The two are inextricably linked—if you don’t know where the clause boundary is how are you going to know where to put the comma?

If any of my gentle readers have any answers to this quandry or brilliant campaign suggestions for improving punctuation everywhere, let me know. It’s time we made the world a safer, better-punctuated place.

San Miguel de Allende, 22 February 2004

Eight Weeks in San Miguel de Allende

Feels like we’ve been living here for years. San Miguel is every bit as fabulous and addictive as Scott warned me. It’s cured my writer’s block, improved my Spanish, and kept throwing the most amazing people across my path, though none so wonderful as Silvia (the maid at our first rental house) and Alejandra (my Spanish teacher).

Since we arrived on the first of December I’ve written the entire first draft of my first sold novel (crikey!); read a novel in Spanish; discussed local politics (old mayor versus new mayor), Australia/USA and Mexico/USA relations (sadly the Mexico/Australia relations conversation is not a long one) and many other topics with Silvia and Alejandra; and met many writers, layabouts, journalists, cartoonists, teachers, adventurers and travellers (okay, only one cartoonist).

We’ve eaten at almost every restaurant in town: from your friendly hole in the wall to fancy pants high-end, where we’ve consumed sopa azteca, mole, guava mousse, hibisicus quesadillas, jicama, fresh fruit salads, devil eggs, mushrooms in garlic chilli sauce, dry soup, mango tacos, and guacamole and pastries until they’re coming out our ears. We’ve drunk (in order of volume) water (see, parents, we very good), the best tequilas I’ve tasted in my life, margaritas, red wine and piña coladas (yeah, yeah, whatever, but they’re yummy).

We’ve seen the insides of five San Miguel houses: from the two we’re renting here (cheap and small for the first two months; bigger for the last month when the guests arrive: Hey Gwenda! Hey Christopher! Hey Lloyd & Betty!) to a several centuries-old huge dark pile which has a plaque on the outside declaring that it was used during the Inquisition—I’m guessing not for making hibisicus quesadillas. Every one of them gorgeous with high ceilings, lots of light, gardens, patios, roof-top areas for watching the sun set, fountains, and best of all, no firm boundary between inside and outside.

What I love most about the houses here is that from street level you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to find inside. All you see is a door and occasional windows in a flat wall, not telling you a thing. In Sydney I can tell from the front of a Newtown terrace or cottage the exact layout inside, how many rooms, where the stairs will be, frequently how it will be decorated. New York City, too, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the outside of an apartment in each particular neighbourhood.

In San Miguel you can find almost anything behind those huge wooden doors with their beautiful brass handles. The five houses all have completely different layouts. I’ve opened the door and stepped into a huge courtyard with balconies from the surrounding rooms looking down. Or a large foyer with places to hang your coats, leave your umbrellas, tether your donkey, and then up an elegant winding staircase to the house proper with its persian carpets and grand piano. Another front door opens onto a hallway with two large guest rooms on either side. At the end of the hallway another door leads to an elaborate garden with a fountain, the rest of the house is on the other side. We peaked through the doorway of one place we pass all the time, only to discover that there’s no house there at all, just a huge garden, with what my Sydney eyes identify as Moreton Bay fig trees (could that be possible?).

We’ve started looking in real estate agent windows here, checking out the prices of houses, but failing a bigtime Hollywood movie option, they’re all out of our reach—not New York City or Sydney out of our reach, but still way too rich for our blood. Looking at houses is a sign of wondering what it would be like to live here for a year or more, not just three months. San Miguel is a sticky place. We keep meeting people who came here on a holiday five, ten, twenty years ago and somehow never quite managed to leave.

I’ve met Italians, English, French, Canadians, Australians, Moroccans and, of course, lots of USians who live here. I’ve heard that as much as ten per cent of the population is foreign born. Many of the Mexican (not to mention some of the foreign) population complain that the foreigners have made the prices of everything go through the roof, especially real estate. Many born-and-bred Sanmiguelenses can no longer afford to live in the centre (this is a sentiment I understand, harbouring similar feelings about North Shore types moving into the Inner West of Sydney). The foreigners have also, and I’m quoting Mexicans here, led to a cleaner town, better restaurants, more active charities, a much better library and the improvement of many other services from the internet to sanitation.

Other than real estate prices, the most common complaint I hear is about how many of the gringos (and it is largely the USians) arrogantly expect everyone to speak English—despite this being Mexico where English is not, in fact, one of the national languages. I have seen a USian woman at the artisan’s market trying to bargain a man down on the price of a small trinket. He was asking about AU50c and she wanted him to drop down to around AU30c (or pretty much free in USian money). She waved her jewel-encrusted hands about, hectoring the poor man in English of which he clearly understood not a word. To be fair, Silvia claims that it’s more tourists who are like that than residents.

I always speak Spanish first, but many times people respond in English and stay in English no matter how long I go on replying in Spanish. Alejandra says it’s because they’re so used to gringos demanding English and not because my Spanish sucks so much they can’t bear to hear me speak it. She is perhaps too kind; I don’t see that the two explanations are mutually exclusive.

The other unavoidable horror has been the weather. While New York City’s been tormented by snow, ice storms, and blizzards and the temperature’s dropped to 20 below zero, here in San Miguel we’ve also been suffering colder than usual weather. Several nights it’s gotten below zero (that’s below 32F for the celsius challenged) and there have been days where we had to wear more than a T-shirt and jeans. I have been very good and not entered into any bitter recriminations with Scott about keeping me away from another glorious Sydney summer (not to mention the cricket season). I haven’t even complained during the golden hour when we sit on the roof watching the sunset, with great flocks of birds flying overhead, sipping our beers doused in lime, eating jicama and sweet cheese pastries and I’m shivering despite the extra jumper (sweater, USians) and jacket.

San Miguel de Allende, 26 January 2004

Esteban el Centauro

I just finished reading a novel in Spanish, Esteban el Centauro
by Gilberto Flores Patiño (Atenas, Mexico, 1985). My first
ever. Admittedly it’s a very short novel: only 82 pages, coming
in at around 25,000 words. Barely a novella really. But as someone
who’s only managed to struggle through kid’s picture books, and
short simple stories and poems, it felt like a major achievement.
I read the whole thing through without an English translation by
my side. I read it and I understood it and it made me weep. I cried
and cried and cried and cried. And books hardly ever make me cry.
Except for Wide Sargasso Sea and Bridge to Terebithia
and Pride and Prejudice and In Cold Blood and,
okay, lots of books make me cry. But they’re all really good ones.
(Except for the really crap ones which make me cry for different

Esteban is the perfect book for someone with my level of Spanish who can’t cope with reading badly written exercises for people with my level of Spanish. It’s written from the point of view of a small boy, Esteban, talking to his constant companion, his wooden horse. (Hence the title Esteban the Centaur: half boy, half wooden horse.) There’s lots of first and second person (yay, my favourites). Hardly any subjunctive. Not a lot of new vocab, except for all the stuff to do with horses. And lots of repetition: "Because the sea is very big very big very big. Bigger than anything! It has lots and lots of water".

The clause structure is not complicated either, barely a "which" or a "who" in sight. It’s all this and then this and then this. Open any page and it’s littered with "ands", even more visible in Spanish because "and" is "y". An effect I will attempt to duplicate by using "&" in place of "and":

My mum & her friends & their girlfriends were walking & looking at the sand & they were picking up shells & one woman put a shell to her ear & she said she could hear the sea. Then I thought that the sea was talking & the voice of the sea came out of the shells, because all the señores & señoras & my mum were putting the shells to their ears & they started to laugh & say yes yes yes, I can hear it too. & because no one told me what the sea said, I looked for a shell & I put it to my ear, but I didn’t hear anything, & because they were all saying that they could hear the sea I thought that my shell was no good & I threw it away & looked for another & I still heard nothing & I looked & looked & looked, but none of the shells that I put to my ear had the voice of the sea.

I don’t remember the last time I read a story from a small kid’s point of view that so gorgeously captured the rhythms of a child’s speech, the endless stream of questions: "Who invents the words in dictionaries?" and their view from below—looking up at the grown-ups—trying to parse that strange adult world.

And to help my comprehension, Esteban el Centauro is partly set here in San Miguel. Esteban walks down streets I know, goes to Mama Mia’s looking for his mother, sits in the Jardin, looks at the Parroquia. Esteban’s childish eyes capture, too, some of the complex interractions between the Mexican and gringo inhabitants of this fine city. Something else I’m increasingly familiar with.

I’m not sure there’s another book in Spanish so perfectly designed for me. Following my teacher Alejandra’s suggestion, I tried Aura by Carlos Fuentes which also has the virtue of shortness, but it’s wham bam straight back to adult land: complicated structures, zillions of words I’ve never seen before. I can barely read a clause with even partial understanding. Fortunately my edition’s bilingual so I can cheat.

Still, I read a novel in Spanish! And I will keep trying to read others, the way I keep trying to have conversations with people, even though I stumble over verb conjugations, pronouns, masculine and feminine, and haven’t managed to fully erradicate my lisp. But if people don’t talk too fast or use too many unfamiliar words or phrases, I can understand them. And, on occasion, I can even manage a long conversation about tricky subjects, like the relationship between servants and their employers in San Miguel. I even had a shot at explaining cricket. Not recommended. But then I’ve never managed that successfully in English either. Amazing how many otherwise intelligent people fall apart when confronted with phrases like Hit Wicket and Silly Mid-Off. I shall never understand it.

San Miguel de Allende, 22 January 2004

English Language Soup

Studying Spanish and struggling to read newspapers, toothpaste packaging, movie subtitles, and, trickiest of all, struggling to coherently speak with locals, I’ve been thinking about language a lot. In Mexican Spanish the future tense as a verb conjugation is on its way out. My Spanish teacher has dutifully taught it to me, mourning the fact that fewer and fewer people use it in spoken discourse. A hundred years from now, she says, shaking her head it’ll be gone.

In English useful distinctions between certain words like "disinterested" and "uninterested" are all but gone except amongst a fanatical, pedantic few. The subjunctive, too, is on its last legs. My Spanish teacher says one of the hardest things about teaching English speakers is trying to explain the very concept of the subjunctive, let alone how it’s used (a lot) in Spanish. When’s the last time you heard someone say, "Would that she were still here?" My point exactly.

Two weeks ago I discovered that there’s no concept of the double negative in Spanish nor any notion of the split infinitive. Hooray for Spanish! Split infinitives and double negatives are about as meaningful and useful as the weird USian rule about not wearing white shoes after Labour Day. I mean, huh?

I have no idea how the double negative rule originated (and now that I’m not a professional scholar, buggered if I’ll do the research to find out) but I do know that the idea of the split infinitive is a hold over from Latin grammar. From those halcyon days when grammars of English were first being written and it didn’t occur to anyone that you might write one by making actual observations about how English functioned. What a ludicrous idea that would be. No, no, best we base our grammar wholesale on the Latin one. Those Romans know from grammars. And let’s stuff our brand new grammar full of dumb rules that get in the way of making meaning.

Splitting your infinitives is impossible in Latin—they’re one word. For some insane reason those early grammarians decided to decree the non splitting of the entirely splittable English infinitive. It made no sense then; it makes no sense now. To boldly go where no one has gone before. Got quite a ring to it, that does. To go boldly where no one has gone before. Boldly to go . . . I don’t think so. Every time I hear someone tut-tutting over the Star Trek motto, muttering about infinitives being split, I want to sit them down and ask them to explain to me exactly what about sticking an adverb in between the preoposition "to" and the verb interferes with making meaning? I bet you gazillions of dollars they would have no response other than: "it just sounds better." Ignore them, people, they’re insane.

Far more annoying though is the idea of the double negative. The English language, people, is not maths. If someone says, "I ain’t got no love for him." It’s pretty clear that person is not about to propose. The classic example, of course, is more along the lines of "No, I do not want to not have him in my life." The problem there is not double negatives, it’s incoherence.

I remember a bewildering array of nonsense exhortations to not commit grammatical felonies when I was enduring my primary, secondary and, sadly, tertiary education. (For that matter, I’m still coming across some of these nutteries in red line comments from editors). Never end a sentence in a preposition or conjunction. (An impossibility if you’re an Australian, but). Avoid repetition at all costs. (A particularly egregious one which leads to all sorts of horrifying burly detectivisms [scroll down]). Never begin a sentence with "but" or "and". (But why not? And how am I supposed to avoid it?). A sentence must have a verb in it. (Why? Because.) Never use "I" in an essay; an essay written in first person cannot be objective. (Post-structuralism seems to have killed that one dead. Yay, post-structuralism.)

One of the hardest things about learning another language is trying to figure out aphorisms and other idiomatic expressons. I know, I know, I shouldn’t try. Most of the time you can’t understand them, you can only memorise them. There are still expressions in English I don’t understand. I only learnt what "A stitch in time saves nine" means when Scott explained it to me a few days go. Never learned to sew, me, so sewing metaphors aren’t exactly second nature. And what on Earth does "Don’t come the raw prawn with me" really mean, and more to the point, why?

As they say in Spanish, "nunca va a hacer casa de azulejos" (you’re never going to build a house of tiles). Or, more to the point, "nunca falta un roto para un descosido" (never miss a broken thing for an unstitched one).

Feliz año nuevo (happy new year).

San Miguel de Allende, 6 January 2004

Language Soup

My fractured Spanish came into play at immigration, mere minutes off the plane.

How many days were we planning to stay?

"Ninety," Scott said.


"No, ninety."

A puzzled look.

"Noventa," I said, dredging deep for the word. A delay caused by my innumeracy as much as my crap Spanish.

Raised eyebrows followed by (I think) a joke about staying in Mexico for such a long time. I smiled. Scott smiled. The official behind the counter smiled, then scribbled down 90 on the form. So far, so good. (What was the equivalent expression in Spanish? I had no idea.)

On the bus to San Miguel de Allende I stared out the window at all the signs, trying to figure out what they meant. Idiosyncratic advertising syntax and a barrage of words I’d never seen limited my success. Spanish words and phrases started buzzing in my head. What did rincón mean? Palapa? Relox? A reloj is a watch, my brain told me, remembering at the same time how to say: "I don’t remember what any of these words mean."

I studied Spanish in my first year of university with very average grades. Two years later I stayed in Salmanca in Spain for five months, studying the language and culture intensively for four. By the end of my stay in Spain, I was able to have reasonably fluent conversations about pretty much everything. My tenses tended to stay in simple past and present with a tiny smattering of conditional, subjunctive and future. I’d still muck up the two different forms of the verb to be, feminine and masculine, prepositions, subjunctive (except in the formulaic sentences where it’s always used), and erred on the side of paranoia with my use of the formal you, causing much hilarity.

I learned how to lisp on Zs and many Cs and Ds, to drop the d in words that ended -ado so that all such words rhymed with Bilbao (our teacher hated us doing, this but that’s how the people all around us spoke including our teacher when she wasn’t concentrating), and to pronounce "ll" so it sounded more like a j then a y (this last one was our teacher’s fault too, haling as she did from Madrid.) Somehow these pronunciations became embedded in me.

Back in Sydney, and later in New York, the only Spanish speakers I came across were from Latin America. When I spoke to them, they laughed. Apparently the lisping is heard by some as a posh accent. Imagine someone from, say Norway, who has learned their English from teachers at Eton and Harrow and now sounds like a Norwegian Prince Charles with mangled grammar and limited vocab, but lots of plummy vowels. Shudder.

I became increasingly reluctant to speak Spanish. If I spoke without the lisp, I lost all fluency, forgot most verb cases, and indeed most words. If I said bugger it and lisped, I got laughed at. So over the twelve years since I studied in Salamanca my Spanish has dwindled away, but turns out not to have died completely. One day in Mexico and I had the same headache I once knew so well. Head throbbing from too much input, trying to access words and sounds and ideas long buried, straining to really, really listen, to make meaning from the words and phrases uttered all around me. I am both better and much, much worse than I thought I’d be. It’s does my head in.

Because Scott has never studied Spanish, and on his visits to Mexico has been wrapped up in writing books in English, he has very little Spanish. He navigates, I talk.

I can do everyday interactions, but am hopeless at overhearing conversations. There are so many words and expressions I don’t recognise. They don’t have the same plural you as in Spain. I haven’t heard any of the slang I knew. Is that because they don’t use that slang in this part of Mexico? Or because it’s now completely out of date? Or both?

Until Thursday night, not one person had laughed at the lisp (except Scott). One man asked me where I learned my Spanish. When I said Salamanca, he was delighted. Told me how much he loves Spanish accents. He seemed to think it was cute. Scott says he was just trying to chat me up (how do you say that in Mexican Spanish I wonder?).

Thursday night we went to a restaurant/bar further up the hill. Drank margaritas (our first here) and ate jicama and enchiladas and had two more margaritas and then ended up in the bar talking to the manager’s brother and girlfriend and another couple. My Spanish was firing along, fuelled by tequila. I understood most everything that was being said. (The manager and his brother have lived in the USA as much as Mexico, so Scott had someone to talk to).

The guitarist played songs by Silvio Rodriguez and then joined us. We talked about how superb Rodriguez is, about John Dos Pasos, Enrique Bostelmann and what Australians and Mexicans think of the United States (don’t worry, USians, as you can imagine, it’s all good). Through all of this more rounds kept being ordered. Someone seemed to think it would be a good idea for us to try shots of local tequila, and my Spanish began a precipitious decline to the point that when we left, I was unable to understand a simple query as to whether we would be returning.

Lesson: two glasses alcohol, good; any more, bad. Next morning a hangover added to the language headache. Surprisingly much writing was done.
Today I begin one-on-one tutoring. Three hours a day of Intensive Spanish for five days. By the end of the week I hope to have the language soup under control and my lisp eradicated.

San Miguel de Allende, 8 December 2003

Why I Use the Term USian

Because everytime I forget and call them “Americans”, I get in trouble from my Mexican and Canadian friends. I hate being in trouble.

The Mexicans tell me I should call them “gringos” or “yanquis”, but then it turns out that they’d also call Canadians or English people or me a gringo (okay, gringa, whatever), thus limiting the usefulness of the term. I have a Texan husband who points out that yankee does not apply to the people of the southern states of the USA. (Though from my brief sojourns in the south I noted that Southerners more commonly use the term “damnyankee” to refer to USians from the northern states.)

I’d love to call them sepos, but sadly the word derives from yankee: septic tank rhymes with yank. Apparently this was first used during World War II when there were too many sepo soldiers (overpaid and over here) polluting the streets of Sydney and Brisbane, luring away “our” women with their nylon stockings and chocolate (those bastards). The straight Aussie boys were not well pleased. (I don’t really care whether this is the true derivation. I like it and will continue to quote it no matter what convincing contrary evidence the gentle readers choose to send in my direction.)

My Canadian friends use “USian”. It’s ugly, looks foul on the page, trips awkwardly from the tongue, but perversely I kind of like it.

New York City, 22 October 2003