Blink. Bloody Couch

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Do you remember the ‘Doctor Who’ episode called ‘Blink’? The one where angels prey upon humans but turn to stone the moment they are looked upon — so the only way to prevent them killing is not to blink. As soon as a person shuts their eyes, the angels move, incredibly quickly — though of course, the person doesn’t see that, because their eyes are shut. And then, when they open their eyes, the angels are closer each time, but completely still, statues. A reverse Medusa.

It’s a very creepy episode. And it occurred to me this morning, it’s a bit that way with couch grass — you know the kind that grows stems out from a central root and each stem puts down roots as well. And, just to be even more rampant, sends down rhizomes underground, creeping and expanding.

We’ve spent hours — hours we’ll never get back — weeding the tendrils of couch from our veggie patch. And all because we looked away. It was more than just a blink, though; it was lots of blinks — weeks, probably months, busy with writing, not noticing the silent weed encroaching.

A friend describes couch as the cockroach of the floral world, and I think he’s right. It has been said that when we’re all gone, destroyed by one or another global catastrophe, it’s the black armoured insects that will survive. As I was pulling out roots and stems from beneath the weed mat this morning, I wondered why couch hasn’t taken over the whole world by now. It doesn’t need lots of water; it puts out pointed tendrils that will burrow through and around all sorts of obstacles, and it keeps on growing from any tiny piece you happen to leave in the ground. What’s to stop world domination, I wonder.

Pondering all this as I was, I decided that couch grass must have been the inspiration for The War of the Worlds: alien life nurturing its attack from beneath the ground, unbeknownst to us, and then, taking over in an endless network of rhizomes that strangle any other kind of life. Very couchlike!

I had hoped that the endless monotony of digging, pulling, sifting, and shaking dirt off roots and tendrils would become a kind of meditation — a chance to mull over the next chapter of the novel, allow some new ideas to arise — but instead I found myself making these wayward comparisons. Tendrils of irrelevance and silliness creeping into my mind.

Like this, the ‘Blink’ cat video, with Dr Who commentary, if you’d like to join me.

I don’t usually read that genre, but…

How much do you read according to genre? I’ve been mulling over this for a while now, and especially recently, when I read Up and In, by Deborah Disney, a novel that’s been on my list for a while. I’d met Deb at a HarperCollins author lunch last year, both of us newbies to the publishing worlds. We found each other by the drinks table — as you do — and hung out together over a glass of white. She was great company, and we shared stories of finally getting a book accepted: excitement, amazement, terror and anticipation.

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I really enjoyed Deb’s novel — full of energy, wry humour, and sharp observation. It explores the territory of school mums: in this case, the pressures and striving of parents sending their children to an elite private school. I’ve had some experience of all that, and it’s not something I wanted to revisit. But it was the portrayal of the main character and narrator, Marie, that kept me reading as she plays out so many of her foibles before us, striving to keep up with and stay ‘in’ with the main group, while deep down knowing it’s not worth it. She’s frustrating, willfully blind, but the freshness of her voice had me thinking again about the importance of developing ways to keep the reader engaged with the narrator even as you explore their weaknesses. I think the book would be called ‘chick lit’, and it’s not a genre I usually read, but …

Now that’s a comment I’ve heard so many times in comments about The Anchoress: ‘I don’t usually read historical fiction, but …’, and I realise how much a genre label can influence expectations of a novel. I had never thought of myself writing within a genre, only writing a story about people and places from the past. I know, though, that every genre will come with some expectations, and I tend to do the same thing. But fortunately for me, last year’s reading took me into territory I wouldn’t normally tread, as I prepared for panels shared with other authors at writers’ festivals.

For Perth Writers’ Festival, I read Half a King by Joe Abercrombie — historical fantasy, perhaps — and not a book I’d ordinarily read (there it is again). But … I was surprised, and I enjoyed it so much that I went on to read the sequel, Half the World. Again, it was the nuanced portrayal of character, and the energy of the writing that I especially liked.

I thought again about those comments a couple of weeks ago when I heard the replay of Kazuo Ishiguro talking about his latest novel, The Buried Giant, set in an Arthurian landscape. A real fuss unfolded in response to his concern that readers would pre-judge his work: ‘Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?’ In the interview, he suggested that genre borders are breaking down, and that’s a good thing: ‘I think genre rules should be porous, if not nonexistent.’ I especially appreciate his comment that the ‘metaphorical landscape’ allows him to make universal points.

I haven’t yet made it to Ishiguro’s book, but I have read Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, described on his site as ‘genre-defying’. It’s about an evangelical pastor who travels to a newly colonised planet to minister to the native inhabitants and I hesitated ­— but not for long, because I love Faber’s writing. Still …. space travel, alien creatures? Sounds like sci-fi. Really? It is about a strange planet, yes, but that setting is like Ishiguro’s metaphorical landscape, allowing Faber to explore, among other things, what it is to be human, to love, to be separated from a beloved, and the hopes of healing. Quietly, slowly, the alien world brings the reader profoundly home. Its genre? That doesn’t really matter.

So, I’m not suggesting that I’ll begin searching out chick lit novels or historical fantasy, though I’ll definitely read Deborah Disney’s second novel when it appears. But I’ll try not to pre-judge a book by its genre label. What about you? I’d love to know if you’ve been surprised by a book that has played outside your genre expectations.

What Edinburgh Taught Me

wheel of fortuneThere are some times in life when the Wheel of Fortune seems to sit you at the top for no particular reason. That was me, up the top there, in late August, at the Edinburgh Book Festival. There was nothing not to like, and everything to love: Edinburgh’s beauty; the writers’ yurt (a real, felt-carpeted and cushioned yurt); appearing on a panel with the lovely Cecilia Ekbäck (Wolf Winter) in the gorgeous Spiegel Tent; meeting other authors, and listening to yet others. And the weather was mostly sunny!

But there are two events I will always remember. The first was hearing Anne Enright speak about her latest novel, The Green Road, but most of all, hearing her read from it. Anne has a gorgeous Irish accent, and she has the Irish gift of story-telling aloud. I so admire writers who not only write well, but can also read spectacularly. (Perhaps all writers should do a drama course somewhere along the line…) The audience was mesmerised, so much so that Anne read two quite long passages. The novel continues her interest in family relationships, some of which reminded me of gatherings of my extended family in England when I was a child. I’d never imagined seeing what Anne can see: that they could be fascinating and excruciating at the same time.

The second reading was a description of a woman at the supermarket on Christmas eve, shopping for Christmas dinner. As someone who hates supermarkets, and especially busy ones, I couldn’t imagine a less attractive subject to write about. Really. But through some kind of magic, Anne’s writing is riveting and funny, while still dancing around the questions of family. And her reading was superb. In the questions session at the end, one woman asked when Anne would be coming to her house to read the novel to her. We cheered. Bring it on.

The second highlight for me was being asked to do a short reading at the Amnesty International tent. Each evening, three or four writers were asked to read accounts of the experiences of those who are imprisoned or persecuted, and each day, an audience of about 50 people came to listen. It was physically an easy thing to do, even if the material was confronting, and it was honestly an honour to be asked. I was grateful to be able to do something publicly that wasn’t about me or the novel. Just before we went in to read, I commented to one of my fellow readers that I was glad to do this: ‘Writers’ festivals are great, and I’m so grateful for the opportunities, but they can easily be …’ I hesitated. ‘Self indulgent?’ she said quickly.

Exactly. And that’s not a fault of the festivals themselves. It’s a matter for us writers. We work hard and writing can be hard, but it’s a great life, to live from words. Festivals are the cherry on top. Reading the words of someone else, about someone who has been persecuted for their words, is a good dose of reality, and helps put this writing gig into perspective.

We Are Better Than This

IntisarThis blog has been dozing for a few weeks now, perhaps even months (but who’s counting?). Life for me, on the other hand, has been anything but sleepy. Writers’ festivals in Australia, one in Edinburgh, and a writer-in-residence gig in Wales have kept me on my introvert-twinkle-toes (photos to come, when I sort out the techno-wrinkles).

And just before I headed off overseas, I finished editing a book of essays on asylum seeker policy, called We Are Better Than This. A couple of days after I arrived home, the book was launched in Canberra by Jon Stanhope.

So, I’ve shaken this blog out of its slumber to share with you some details about the book.

The seed of the idea for this book was sown a year or so ago at the vigil for Reza Barati, the young Iranian man, only twenty-three years old when he was bashed to death by guards while in an Australian detention centre. For me, and I think for many of us, the brutal death made personal and visible the real horror of what Australia had come to. Before that, we knew conditions in detention centres were bad, and we had some figures and some smuggled reports, but all was so secret, so hidden. The government’s cone of silence kept so much from us. And, for me at least, it was so hard to comprehend that this was really happening under our watch.

But with this single photograph of a young man, Reza, a man with an intense gaze, a slight smile on his face, now clubbed to death and buried, the truth became gut-wrenchingly real. For me, the silence of the vigil at Garema Place in central Canberra was important and appropriate; we owed him that solemn candlelight, our time, our thoughts, perhaps our prayers. And so often, silence can be the best, most fertile place to begin, before we act.

I think most of us here would share an abiding sense of dislocation: is this really our government, acting in our name? How have we come to this place of torturing the people who have risked everything to ask for our help? How have we become so apparently powerless to demand justice, mercy and compassion?

And so, we all do what we can. For me, that was to use my skills with words to challenge the government’s appalling secrecy, spin, disinformation and lies. At a rally, one speaker pointed out that so many people who supported the turn-back-the-boats policy really just didn’t have access to the facts, and one thing we could do was to talk to them, help them understand.

And so, I thought that I would find those who knew so much more about the facts and ask them to write, gather together some essays in one place, get some honest and clear information out there.

I just want to make one small comment about the title of the book. It is a statement that has been widely used, and I remember well that Julia Gillard used it of asylum seeker policy in her very first speech as prime minister, though whatever was in her mind then, it didn’t bring about change. Tim Winton used it in his Palm Sunday speech. I used it once, and a friend said to me, ‘But no, apparently we’re not.’ His comment stayed with me, but I do think that we have to stay with the determination that we are. We are better than this. It is, for me, a statement of hope, not naivety.

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The book is available now from ATF Press, Adelaide,

http://atfpress.com/atf-press/we-are-better-than-this.html

Essays by: Julian Burnside, Mark Isaacs, Eileen O’Brien, William Maley, Emily Rutherford, Stephen Pickard, Kieran Bradley, John Minns and Frank Brennan. Poems by Sr Elizabeth Young. Front cover design by Intisar, a refugee.

And in other news …

While for most of this year, I’ve been absorbed in the world of The Anchoress, life at our place has been exciting too. We have two alpacas, Gambol and her (snipped) son, Pacino. A little over a year ago, Gambol was introduced to a big, brown alpaca (that I nicknamed The Bloke), that made all the right noises and apparently did all the right things, though we had to wait 11 months to find out. Alpacas don’t look very much bigger when they’re pregnant, and by April we had begun to give up hope.

And then, as I walking through the paddock in early May, there she was, sitting next to her mum, head up and wobbling a little, still damp. We figure she was no more than an hour old. She staggered to her feet, tried out her long, long legs, fell over, stood up again and walked toward us. Our daughter-in-law drew on her Mexican heritage and suggested we call her Paquita, little package, little hay bale. It was perfect!

Newborn cut

Of course, as timing would have it, the next night was the first of the frosts and temperatures were heading down below zero. Alpacas are bred for the freezing mountain areas of South America and their wool is incredibly warm. We knew all that, but her newborn wool seemed thin. Anxious parents that we are, we went back to our research and discovered that we could wrap good old bubble wrap around her tummy to help keep her warm. Little package indeed. Paquita was warm and we worried a bit less.

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The nights have been even colder since then, and Paquita’s wool is thick and warm, even when there’s ice on her back on a frosty morning. Slowly, slowly, she’s learning to trust us (even if her mum doesn’t) and she comes to gives us a kiss on the nose when we visit.

New life, young life — it is such a sense of hope. In these days, when I feel like I don’t have the resilience to listen to another news report, I hang onto that kind of hope.

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Ellie

A few weeks ago, a dear friend sent me this poem. If you’ve read The Anchoress, you’ll recognise the subject. I love it! What better gift than having a poem written about one of your characters? Eleanor lives on.

          Ellie

Sticking like a burr
with grubby hands
hot breath and urgent words  swallow hand
on the make
and in the know
innocently undermining
sanctity and rectitude
bearing and wearing
humanity’s stain

Irrepressible.

                                                 Sue O’Brien

Counting down

Anchoress US Edition2

So, it’s now the countdown to the release of The Anchoress in the United States. What a surreal thing to write!

This is the jacket. If you’ve been to my website before, you might have noticed that the original design was a swallow, but the publishers have decided to go with the profile of a woman. I really like the simple, austere quality.

It has been fascinating to watch publishers in four countries decide on the best design for a cover, and even though the UK and Australian covers feature a swallow, they create a different atmosphere, I think. I love the beautiful, shimmery Australian cover, and so many people comment on it. In one bookstore I visited, one of the shop assistants asked me to sign her copy, covered in plastic, so that it wouldn’t get scratched. How lovely! Sometimes, when people congratulate me on my beautiful novel, I think they’re referring to the cover as much as the contents! I gasped when I first saw the UK cover with red font, dripping slightly, creating a gothic atmosphere. The simplicity feels just right to me, as well.

And now the US cover. I had been hesitant about featuring a woman on the cover because my anchoress is sealed away, in the dark. But this picture creates, for me, a feeling of a woman who has made a decision and is about to face its consequences. The beginning of her story.

And the French cover: I’ve seen the early draft, and so I can’t say much except to say that I love it, and it’s very French!

What is so exciting for me is to think that the words I’ve written have been represented in four quite different ways, though all of them beautiful. How good is that?!