I grew up in Redcliffe in the 70s and 80s, when it was pretty rough and socially disadvantaged. In fact, I was pretty rough and socially disadvantaged too. We were welfare class. My dad had an accident at work and was on sickness benefits, which he spent almost wholly on beer. My mum worked hard to support us all. I was bullied at school, never really fit in, and went to work in rubbish jobs in fast food. Then I finally got my shit together, went back to high school, then got out of town.
For a long time, during my university studies and with my new inner-city friends, I was faintly (if not entirely sometimes) embarrassed about having been a Redcliffe chick, one who used to hang out with boys in cars or wag school to sit on the jetty and smoke. I didn’t speak of it. I made myself anew; I tried to stop saying “Me and my friends” went somewhere or did something, or “brought” when I meant “bought”. I got a PhD. I published books and spoke elegantly and eloquently in public places.
Then one day I was coming home in a plane from Sydney, and we flew over Moreton Bay, that body of grey-blue water that I grew up looking at. And it struck me how magnificent the bay is, how it gives me the feeling of being home, of being somewhere that everything is all right. I looked down at the islands, and a story idea came to me. The story became Ember Island, the book I worked on over the summer (a Kimberley Freeman book). Imagine my surprise and delight when they sent me the cover and the jetty on the front is actually Redcliffe jetty. “We managed to get an actual picture of Moreton Bay,” the publisher told me excitedly. But she couldn’t know just how familiar that part of Moreton Bay is to me. Redcliffe jetty, on my book cover. Fifteen years ago I would have been appalled. But now, this just fills me with strange pride.
I am a Redcliffe girl. I am rough as guts. I did work at every fast food chain you can think of. And then I did something different; and I am not a better or worse person for growing up bogan. I am so proud of this book and the fact that it is set somewhere unexotic, maybe even parochial. I am what I am, and I am fucking proud to own it.
It’s important, while writing novels, to make sure you’ve slipped into something more comfortable while you work. I do a great deal of my writing in the early morning, when I first wake up, and this means that I tend to work a lot in my pyjamas. I’ve spent the last few days finishing book number 23 (yes, let’s all pause a minute in due reverence), and I was struck by just how unglamorous this writing gig is.
A glamorous nightie, unlike mine
If you’re squeamish, stop reading now.
The last few mornings I’ve set my alarm for 4.30 a.m. I’ve been wearing a light cotton nightdress because it has been so hot here in Brisbane. Humid, sweaty, violently hot. Even sleeping with the aircon on has been a little sticky. So there I was in my nightie and breakfast would come and I’d eat it and I’d keep working. Eleven o’clock would come and I’d think, “I really should shower.” Then I’d step out of the shower and look about for something cool and comfortable to wear and… well, it was right there, folks, so I put the nightie back on and wore it all day, then to bed again, and so on. On the second to last morning I spilled an entire cup of tea all over self and floor and notebook (not computer, thank God). I sponged the nightie out and let it air dry. In my crazy-artist paranoia, I had begun to believe that the nightie was the thing that kept me writing. If I took it off to wash it, I might lose my powers; like Samson when he gets his hair cut. I wore the nightie for almost 72 hours straight in one the hottest weeks of Brisbane summer. It was foul. When I finished, I finally peeled it off and showered. Free of the fetid nightie, free of the deadline.
So next time you think writing is a glamour career, please remember the story of the fetid nightie. And when the book comes out (go check out Kimberley Freeman’s blog for more details), stay in bed with your own stinky pyjamas on, just to keep in the spirit of things.
*This blog is so named to honour my Sistah Sal, whose birthday was on finishing day, and who thought it would be a good title for something.
I have been sitting on some pretty big news for the last few months, and I’m only just now at liberty to talk about it. It seems that my alter ego, Kimberley Freeman, has attracted some serious attention internationally. Wildflower Hill, my twenty-first novel, has done some very big things. Back in May, I was offered a very very VERY significant deal by a German publisher. There was bidding, offers, counter-offers. It felt as though I was living somebody else’s life for a little while. When the final offer came in via email I just sat there looking at it, speechless, for a full twenty minutes. Then I went out and bought a new car.
I thought that might be it for me, all the staggering news my modest career could support. But then I had word that Wildflower Hill had been selected in the United States as the Target Book Club Pick, and in Canada for the Walmart Book Club. The number of books ordered to meet the projected demand probably amounts to more than I’ve ever sold of all my books in all territories combined (and did I mention there’d been 20 of the mofos?).
But this post isn’t just a shameless brag (thought it is, absolutely, a brag). These wonderful successes have really got me thinking about the wheel of fortune. Not the game show (which, I might add, I was very very good at), but the tarot card that symbolises a radical shift in fortune. You’ll see from the picture that when somebody’s at the top, somebody else is at the bottom. The message is that those positions aren’t firm, can shift any time, in your favour, or against you. I have had times when I’ve felt as though the bottom is the only aspect of the wheel I’ll see. I tend to keep my career disappointments to myself–after all, I am published and established so mustn’t complain–but I assure you there have been many. The wonderful thing is that now, while I’m sitting smugly at the top, I am very much aware that it can’t last, not forever. I’ll enjoy the view while I’m up here, for sure. But my real successes are measurable in the relationships I have built, the love that I have given and received, the good will that I have enjoyed in every facet of my life. And, as the song goes, they can’t take that away from me.
So. It hath happened. Wildflower Hill has hit the shelves. My bestie took this photo at the airport, so I have evidence. There’s always an awkward feeling of vulnerability when I have a book published (yes, even after 21 occasions). It’s almost impossible to explain but let me try. Imagine you are at the supermarket, and you look down and realise you are wearing only your underwear. People may be appreciative of you in your underwear, but nonetheless you feel exposed. Later, when you go home, you try not to think about it, but your mind returns to it again and again. What have people seen of you? What do they now know or presume about you, from that moment of exposure?
You may remember Wildflower Hill from such tortured posts as this and this and this. But now it is a real book in the world and real people will read it and they will have their opinions. Oh yes they will. Some of them will write and tell me their opinions, which is always nice if they like the book; but is a form of torture if they don’t (not because I can’t handle criticism, but because the accepted wisdom is that one does not write back snarly emails full of swears) (oh, and I lied: I also can’t handle criticism). Also, there is book promotion to do. This involves being interviewed and having my photograph taken. Do you like having your photograph taken? Yes, well, now imagine that the photographs are printed in public places before you even know whether or not they make you look like a half-witted yet slightly lascivious Amish milkmaid.
All of it makes me want to crawl under a rock and hide, but there is still that little part of me that hopes that people will read my book and like it, and like the people in it. Because for a little while, when I was writing it, they meant an awful lot to me.
In 1920s Glasgow, Beattie Blaxland falls pregnant to her married lover Henry just before her nineteenth birthday. Abandoned by her family, Beattie and Henry set sail for a new life in Australia. But life is not about to follow the plan that Beattie had hoped for and fate will play her a cruel hand… In 2009, London, prima ballerina Emma Blaxland-Hunter is also discovering that life can also have its ups and downs. Unable to dance again after a fall, Emma returns home to Australia to recuperate. But on arrival she is presented with some surprising news – her recently deceased and much-loved grandmother Beattie Blaxland has left her Tasmanian property to Emma. Told through the eyes of a young Beattie Blaxland and a contemporary Emma Blaxland-Hunter, this is an emotionally charged, seductive tale of self-discovery, secrets and surprises.
“evocatively written” – Australian Women’s Weekly
“the reader is helpless to do anything but turn the page” – Bookseller & Publisher Magazine
Just back today from Tasmania, where I finalised my research for “Field of Clouds”. I’ve been to Tassie half a dozen times now, but have never seen it so green (and so cold! sub-zero nights and mornings!) I must confess to having developed a much greater appreciation of the Australian landscape through writing this book. I am ordinarily such a Europhile. But the contrast of the rolling English-style countryside with the eucalypts and lomandra is so unique and so beautiful. I wrote a whole page of notes describing mist, cold, trees, fields, and shadows. I also did a complete read-through of the MS and marked up all the things that need fixing (there are many). I had a long chat, too, with the owner of the farm we stayed on, and that was invaluable. A few ideas in the book that were ad hoc and a bit random came together beautifully. When that happens, writing feels like a kind of alchemy: elements transformed. I really like this book. Really, really.
My title borrows from a canto of Byron’s Childe Harold poem.
My task is done — my song hath ceased — my theme
Has died into an echo; it is fit
The spell should break of this protracted dream.
The torch shall be extinguished which hath lit
My midnight lamp — and what is writ, is writ —
Would it were worthier!
On Friday night, I finished “Field of Clouds” after a marathon 9000-words-in-9-hours writing effort (and if you were part of my FB cheersquad, I thank you very much!). I haven’t blogged until now because I simply haven’t had any words left in me. But now I’m here in the post-book vacuum, reflecting on the immediate aftermath of the book. I feel:
I can’t yet enjoy all the things I said I’d enjoy when I was done: reading–meh, gaming–meh, drinking a bottle of Veuve Clicquot–well, okay, that was fun but only while the bubbles were still popping.
BUT, the book is finished and that is a relief. Even if I doubt it now (and I don’t always… sometimes I think it might be quite good) I’ve got a complete story to work on: to massage and to coax into shape. And the promise of something new is always a good way to console oneself. Goodbye number 21, hello number 22.
I have 20 000 words left to write (hit 100K yesterday morning at 6.25am), and I am damn well going to finish the book this week even if it kills me. And it might. I have a virus and have lost my voice (this is irritating, as I can’t rouse at my children and they are incredibly naughty most of the time) and I have a big pile of marking to do at work.
Some people compare writing a novel to giving birth. I usually roll my eyes when this happens, especially when men say it, because unless you’re squeezing a hardcover out your left nostril the comparison is flawed. But this close to the end of the process, there is the same kind of awful momentum, the same irresistible compulsion to get something outside yourself that has been growing within for a long time. I have lost the world; there is only the story. My family talk to me and all I hear is “bwah bwah bwah” like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. My brain is finding the ends of threads and pulling them together, tying them, untying them, retying them different ways. I shouldn’t be allowed to drive.
I’m in a scary place for other reasons, too. Five years ago, after I wrote Rosa and the Veil of Gold, I took a sabbatical from writing adult fantasy because I felt I’d said all I had to say in that genre. So I’ve been busy doing young adult books, and children’s books, and Kimberley Freeman books. But now I’m being called. No other way to describe it. I’m not a mystical new-agey pan-flutey person in any way at all. But I am being called, and I’ve got a story waiting just at the edge of my consciousness. I can feel it, but I’m terrified to write it. What if I can’t anymore? What if it’s not a grand idea and just a piece of silly nonsense with shouty characters? What if none of it matters to anyone ever in the history of anything?
I guess I’ll just write it anyway.
First of all, WTF has happened to my blog roll? It’s disappeared. Seems to be some kind of WordPress issue… please don’t be offended if your link is missing. I am working to restore normal transmission.
My husband pushed me out the door with my laptop on Saturday, and sent me to a hotel in the city to write. There is something amazingly motivating about paying that much money for a night’s accommodation: to make it worth my while, I racked up nearly 9000 words, taking me to the 90 000 all together or roughly 3/4 of the book. I wanted to keep going today, but the book has changed gears just here, so I need to rest and regroup a day or two. I had hoped to join the QWC writers race Tuesday night this week, but don’t think I’ll be ready to go. (For those who are members of the QWC and have an AWM online subscription [worth it!], they run writing races every Tuesday night between 8 and 9: fabulously motivating). But the story is nearly d0ne; I can feel the pull of the end.
Then, this morning, I heard the wonderful news that I’d won the William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review at the Ditmar Award ceremony last night. Woohoo.
So all in all, a most satisfying weekend. Now, where’s my champagne?
I’ve been too busy writing (my book) to write (my blog). Some days there are just no words left, especially seeing as how I’m working on an academic paper at the same time. Still, that’s no excuse. I guess I’ve been waiting for something interesting to blog about. Sometimes interesting stuff happens but it’s not interesting enough for a whole blog topic.
Today, something interesting happened. Hurrah! I crossed the 60K threshold. Given I am planning for the book to run to 120K, that means I’m officially halfway. Some of the writing is horrendous, I must confess, but just yesterday as I was telling my mum about the story, I got a real sense of what the book is all about. I can’t wait to get to the end, so I can go back in and tweak all the things that need tweaking, make it all sit straight and work. Put simply, it’s a story about a girl who thought her grandmother was a nice old lady, and discovers–when she inherits her grandmother’s old house in Tasmania–that Gran was a lot more complex than originally thought. It has a bit of mystery, a bit of romance, and a lot of sheep. Lol!
The only downside to my recent output has been that I need to get to bed by 9.30 every night in order to get up early and write. And I’m still tired and cranky the whole time. In any case, it has seriously cramped my gaming time.
I’ve also been working hard on an application for arts funding for a fantasy project, and gloating hard over the shortlisting of my paper about Australian fantasy fiction to the Ditmar list. It’s up for the William Atheling Jr award for SF criticism. If you’d like to read it, it will be at this address for a brief time. All praise be to Sean Williams for hosting this for his technically-unsavvy friend.
I am at home. I am not in Tasmania, where I was supposed to be. Instead, I am stealing a few minutes while the children watch a Yo Gabba Gabba DVD, to catch my thoughts.
Astrid came down midway through the week with a violent gastro bug, and Mirko and I have been cleaning up vomit and diarrhoea pretty much around the clock for a few nights (they are all starting to blur into each other, so don’t ask me to be any more precise than that). She was certainly not fit to travel, so we have cancelled the whole trip. (Can I just say that I was mightily impressed by Virgin Blue who bent the rules to save us losing our entire fare, and to Europcar and Curringa Farmstay, who were so bloody understanding and didn’t charge us any cancellation fees whatsoever: so rare for companies to show such good will). The cancelled trip means that my crucial research will not get done; this means that my plans for my novel are in turmoil.
Between bouts of irrational fury (for surely it was some careless parent who sent their still-sick child to daycare who is to blame for my work being disrupted) and teary despair (now the book will never get written), there is one hugely important lesson in this for me. I have a sick little zombie girl, who’s all floppy and still, and all that matters is that she gets better on her own time, with lots of cuddles and love (and a mattress on the floor in front of the television). My current predicament is the embodiment of those wise words by Stephen King in On Writing: life is not a support system for art; it’s the other way around.
Workwise, I’ll try to turn this week into a positive. Ordinarily it’s impossible for me to write out of order, but perhaps I’ll just have to do that, and save the scenes that need the most research until a time when I can get away to Tassie. I’ve pulled out my notebook, and I’m going to break the story down, scene by scene, and see if I can set myself the goal of writing 15000 words this week (thus reaching 40000) by just plugging away with what I can do, rather than moaning about what I can’t.
I can hear a little squeaky laugh from the other room; she’s getting better. What is there to be miserable about?