Interrobang!?!

So, what have I learnt in the first half of my first semester of my Masters in Creative Writing? Lots of new words, for starters, and the most exciting by far is ‘interrobang’. Isn’t it just marvelous? It’s the official name of the ‘non-standard’ mark of punctuation that you deploy when you end a sentence like this – ?!? or !?! Technically, one uses the interrobang to add emphasis at the end of an exclamatory rhetorical question, but I have been known to chuck one in (blithely unaware of it’s offical monicker) to express general excitement or disbelief.

I’ve gobbled up a raft of new terms like interrobang in my Professional Editing course which is delivering high levels of satisfaction. Pragmatic, practical and useful, this subject is both fascinating and directly applicable to improving how I self-edit my own work and potentially as a foundation for future employment as a copyeditor. I’m loving every second of it – even wading through the somewhat dry text book!

Nerdy but fun!

Here are a few more editing and grammatical terms that I’m reacquainting myself with and relishing: em-dash, comma splice, malapropisim, verso, full-out, endmatter, correlative conjunction, recto, cognate, apodosis, subjunctive, caret, gerund, dangling modifier, moropheme, ellipsis, reflexive, pleonasm, homophone, register, neologisism. Delicious!

Less engaging has been the swathe of words and concepts I have had to digest as I wade though my subject in literary and narrative theory. Cop some of these: exode, stasimon, praxis, analepsis, metonymy, materiality, phenomenonology, mimesis, anachrony, diegesis, paratext, scenectomy, parode, focalisation, trope, leitmotif, aphasia, prosidy, actant, autodiegesis, narrativity, deixis, metalepsis, illocution, prolepsis, qualia, fabula.

I have to tell you, I’ve really wrestled with the fabula, a key concept in narratology, which is defined as a series of logically and chronologically related events caused or experienced by actors. The fabula is distinct from story, or plot, or narrative, which all mean slightly different things. Here is a fabula:

a) a crime is planned; b) a crime is committed; c) clues/evidence is found; d) criminal is caught.

The ‘story’ could be told as C-B-D-A, or A-B-D-C or … you get the idea. The narrative is the fully combined result. Apparently, extracting and analysing fabula in texts can be a powerful diagnostic tool. I found studying it powerfully annoying.

Do I care about the technical difference between a fabula, a story and a plot? And do I need to read in-depth treatises on the subject written by academics whose sole purpose in life seems to be to try to write more obscurely and inpenetrably than their peers? Narratology says I should, but frankly I don’t give a toss. What I care about is developing my ability to write a cracking good tale that is populated with engaging characters, grips the attention and leaves the reader feeling happy/satisfied/shocked/excited/sad/amazed/transformed. Grasping the concept of fabula hasn’t really helped …

And have you ever heard of homodiegetic narration? Me neither. But it turns out I wrote a whole book of it! My novel, Under New Management, is narrated in the first person by my protagonist, Tess. Little did I know that I had been dealing with homodiegesis – a narrator who has participated in the circumstances and events about which he or she tells a story. The homodiegetic narrator is not to be confused, of course, with the heterodiegetic narrator (who is not a participant in the story) or the intradiegetic narrator (a character who tells a story within the story). Gimme a break!

It’s not just the academics getting me down. It’s some of the authors we are being compelled to read as well. I noted in my first uni blog that much to my chagrin I had been forced to read Hemingway. Perhaps I should have moderated my expressions of disgust given some of the mandatory reading that has followed. Good ole’ Heminway is positively lyrical compared to some of the offerings I’ve had to digest. Take this lovely sample from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Call me crazy, but isn’t that just gobbldeygook? Oh dear, I think I’m really putting my foot in my academic mouth here. Hating Hemingway is one thing, but dissing the mighty Joyce (‘regarded as one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century’) is another. Perhaps if this gets out I’ll be stripped of my degree, defrocked of my robes and mortar board.

I confess that I’m beginning to find a lot of this academic naval-gazing a bit pointless, and in fact quite dispiriting. Now that my head is becoming jammed with theories on the ‘best’ way to write I fear that I’ll never again enjoy the unfettered, rule-free, joyous authorial exuberance with which I bashed out Under New Management. If I’m carefully crafting a story arc, and slipping in some style indirect libre, and ensuring that I explore character A’s seminal flaws, and messing with narrative form to push the post-post modernist boundaries what becomes of my voice? Maybe that epoch in France was my one true moment of literary creative freedom?

I’ve touched previously on the great debate about whether Masters degrees like the one I’m doing have any value. This week we read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I discovered that Truman Capote weighed in on the topic: ‘I was determined never to set a studious foot inside a college classroom. I felt that either one was or wasn’t a writer, and no combination of professors could influence the outcome. I still think I was correct.’

Capote – not in favour of writing degrees

I’m feeling pretty sympathetic with Truman right now. If it wasn’t for the engaging and eminently useful content of Professional Editing, and the slightly stretchy reading list in Narrative Writing that I’m actually really enjoying, I might be contemplating drastic action. As it is, the best of the reading is keeping me both sane and engaged. In the past fortnight I’ve relished Trent Dalton’s ballsy, soul-baring Boy Swallows Universe, marvelled at Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain and revisited the brilliance of Virgina’s Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. The degree’s process of pushing me bryond my customary reading preferences is deliving just what I’d hoped, opening me up to new perspectives and tickling my creative fancy.

And I’ve just had the results back from my first assignment, the ‘readers’ report’ on Phosphorescence that I submitted for Professional Editing. For a girly-swat student like me, a Distinction can’t help but bring a smile to my face 🙂

An Avalanche of Books!

My life has been inundated with books. Books for uni, books for pleasure, books for ideas, books to read because they ‘should’ be read, books to make, books for escapism, books for procrastination. It’s absolute bliss!

I’ve always been a big reader, but in the past two weeks I’ve achieved levels of reading almost unparalled in my experience. In fact, the only other time I’ve read this much was the year I quit work in my mid-30s to ‘write my novel’ and then promptly spent six months not writing it, but instead reading voraciously anything I could lay my hands on. I concluded at that time that I wanted to learn, not write, and took myself off to uni to do my Masters in Public Policy which launched me on a happy eighteen-year career in international development.

Again it is a departure from the world of work and the commencement of a Masters that has triggered my reading frenzy but this time I’m actually compelled, required and enforced to read in sweeping swathes well beyond my usual literary menu.

First cab off the rank (after polishing off Madame Bovary) was Julia Baird’s wonderful Phosphorescence, my copy of which was signed by the author at Writers’ Week (as previously reported). This was a uni mission. My task, was to write a Readers’ Report on the book, imagining that the manuscript had arrived unsolicited at my publishing house and I was writing a recommendation review for the powers that be on whether or not they should publish it. For a chronic optimist like me, this luminous book was pure pleasure from start to finish. I strongly recommended publication in my report – my first formal assessment submission for this Masters.

Feel-good fuzzies 🙂

Then I started in on George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, mandatory reading for the Postmodern Literary Techniques segment of my Theory and Creative Writing subject. Let me tell you, that in my normal life I’d rather chew my way through 5 kg of bran than read a book like this. Showered with prizes, acclaimed by every literary pundit on the planet and noted for its radical innovations of literary form (which I generally translate as meaning that it’s totally incomprehensible and written by someone mesmerised by their own brilliance) I was prepared to throw it down in disgust after five pages. Which I did.

Genius or gobbledygook?

I then embarked on an extended and highly dedicated path of procrastination and avoidance in which I reached for anything readable that might delay the moment when I would have to turn back to the Bardo. First to hand, on the grandchildren’s bookshelf at my friend Rachel’s house was this little gem:

Outrageous!

Would you believe I had never, ever read any of the Famous Five books as a kid? Reams of other children’s books, inlcuding other Enid Blyton titles, but never the Famous Five. I laughed myself into stitches! This book was a wonderful adventure romp, but also the most singularly politically incorrect text I’ve come across in decades. It made my Saturday morning. That Saturday just got better and better and culminated in a teeny, tiny book-making marathon. Rachel is the immodestly-proud owner of a palatial Edwardian dolls’ house and there are terrifyng numbers of empty bookshelves in the gent’s library. Three and a half hours later we had managed to produce 62 incey books, enough to fill just one shelf. Who knew you could have so much fun with scissors, balsa wood, textas and glue?

Book binding!

Staying at my mum’s place, there was no shortage of emergency reading material at hand. In fact, she had just procured the latest adventure of Venetian detective Commissario Guido Brunetti, by the fabulous Donna Leon. Picking up one of Donna’s books makes me smack my lips in anticipation, wriggle my hips down into a comfy cushion and let out a sigh of absolute bliss. Mum and I discovered that we both read these books as slowly as possible in order to prolong the pleasure they inevitably provide.

30th investigation of Comissario Brunetti

While not on my uni reading lists, Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate) routinely appears on lists of ‘the 100/1000 books you must read before you die’ and I never have. So when I unearthed Malinche in mum’s bookshelf I thought why not? Mystical, lyrical and moving, this account of Conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Aztec interpreter Malinalli was unputdownable.

Evocative

My final discursion was another offering from Rachel, a short text book on writing micro stories. I was on a mission to produce micro-fiction of my own for Narrative Writing last week, so I felt spending my Sunday whizzing through this one was a good investment. And it was too! Who knew you could pack so much brilliance into 100 words? Take this example, entitled ‘Faithful’, from Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology – I laughed so much I fell of my chair at the punchline.

Finally, I was forced to return to the Bardo. And to my very great surprise once I’d pushed my way to about page 20 I found I was getting into it. By the end, I had to admit that good old George really was a bit of a clever clogs. Lincoln in the Bardo, brilliant as it is, is still not the type of book I would read for pleasure, but it is just the type of book that I hoped this Masters would compell me to explore.

So, what’s next on the reading list? Well, the haul I brought away from Writers’ Week (below) is mighty tempting, but beyond Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe (another uni read) these pleasures will need to be deferred. The weekly reading requirements for this course are pretty stupendous and I reckon I’ll probably be limited to the essentials until my mid-year break.

Forbiden Fruit

The exception will be a bunch of books (thanks again Rachel and Mum!) which in various ways provide background reading for a couple of nascent writing ideas that I’m percolating. Happily, as well as analysing realism, post-modernism, poetics, and other esoteric branches of authorship, my Masters requires me to deliver substantial chunks of creative writing. Watch this space …

Inspo

Hating Hemingway, Loving the Julias

Well, I’m a week into my Masters of Creative Writing, and one thing I can say with absolute conviction is that it is definitely delivering in the challenging and mind-stimulating departments. I have been well and truly pushed out of my comfort zone with the Week 1 readings which, as well as addressing some interesting fundamentals of book editing, have included Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Aristotle’s Potetics and a short story by Ernest Hemingway called Hills Like White Elephants.

Sophocles and Aristotle don’t really make my socks roll up and down, but you have to be impressed by the fact that they hold academic and narrative theory currency more than two millenia after they were written. But Hemingway?

I’m going to make a risky confession here. I hate Hemingway. For many in the literary world this is the rankest aspostasy, though disparaging Heminway isn’t quite the crime it was a couple of decades ago now that more revisionist attention has been paid to his less-than-PC personal behaviours.

Not so cool, Mr Hemingway …

But here’s the thing – I just don’t like his style. Pundits rave about his simplicty and directness, the pared-back beauty of his unadorned prose, the unimpeded dialogue, blah, blah, blah … Happily, I’m not quite alone in my subversive views. Blogger Rich Siegel says it all for me when describing his experience of reading Hemingway.

“All impenetrable. All boring. All overrated, as far as I’m concerned. Call me a lightweight. But if I want a healthy dose of obfuscation that requires tedious reading and re-reading, there are plenty of planning briefs I can get my hands on.” Yep.

I have also been catapaulted into a re-read of a great classic, Madame Bovary, a copy of which I just happened to have on my bookshelves. What were those 60s cover designers thinking?

Classic cover!

My mission is to consider Flaubert’s master work from a realist perspective, presenting my findings to our Theory and Ceative Writing class on Tuesday (and subsequently producing a 3000 word analytical essay). Watch this space to find out how I handle my first tussle with literary theory in several decades …

It’s been wonderful to immerse myself in student world and I’ve had heaps of nerdy fun setting up notebooks, pens (colour coded of course), email files and archive folders for each of my subjects. For me, studying – whether or not the subject matter is my particular cup of tea – is pure, unadulterated pleasure.

Also eminently pleasureable is meeting writers I admire, and currently being in Adelaide, I’ve been able to sneak in a few hours at Adelaide Writers’ Week, Australia’s largest, longest-running and most prestigious literary festival. I’ve been a regular attendee in the past, but this year there has been the added spice of finding several of the authors from my Masters reading list on the programme so I bustled off with signing copies in hand.

Not on the Masters syllabus, but certainly not to be missed was former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, discussing her second book (co-written with newly appointed WTO head Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala). Women and Leadership.

Signing groupies – me and Rachel in action

Julia’s pithy retelling of women’s stories from the frontlines of global political leadership was both fascinating and compelling and I can’t wait to find time to dig into this enticing book. My friend Rachel and I were a bit like starry-eyed groupies as we lined up to meet the great woman.

I also had the chance to hear from Maggie O’Farrell, author of a moving reimagining of the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, Pip Williams who has delighted readers with her feminist telling of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Dictionary of Lost Words, and another former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who was spruiking his autobiography, A Bigger Picture.

But my favourite session was with broadcaster, adacemic and very cool woman Julia Baird, who’s book Phosphorescence has sold more than 150,000 copies since it launched at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic in March last year. I love, love, LOVE this book! It’s full of the kind of hope and possibility and optimism in the face of darkness in our world that I hope to be able to capture and convey in my own writing.

Luminous …

I’ve chosen Posphoresence for an assignment in my Professional Editing Course where I will be writing a ‘reader’s report’ on the book, assessing it as though it was an unsolicited manuscript just landed in the letterbox of a prospective publisher. Needless to say, I will be strongly recommending publishing! At the signing, I disclosed to Julia that her book was the subject of Masters students’ deliberations and she was both amused and, I think chuffed. Funny, articulate, humble and insightful – what an author! I’d love to add her to the panel session with Kate Mosse in that future writing festival at which I’m hoping to appear …

Fabulous Julia Biard

The Next Adventure Begins …

It’s been nine long months since I put fingers to the keyboard and bashed out my last post on this blog. Along with millions of others around the world I’ve wrestled with pandemic dislocation and upheaval, along with some challenging circumstances on the personal front. I don’t plan to go into those circumstances in this blog – I mention them only becuase they have propelled me into a new life adventure.

After 15 extraordinary years with World Vision, I made the difficult decision to step away and last week I signed-off from my career in international development with enormously mixed feelings. It’s been a great privilege to belong to this organisation that truly changes the lives of vulnerable children, and the crowning glory has been meeting and working with extraordinary colleagues from around the world.

Global family

I’ve represented the organisation at the UN in New York, delivered training to staff and leaders in more than 40 countries, led local advocacy community consultations, planned campaigns and advocated for child rights in dozens of fora. But it was getting to meet with, learn from and be inspired by the children and communities we served that always really made my socks roll up and down.

Along the way I also had opportunities for flitting mini-adventures and take with me so many incredible memories – hangin’ with the Maasai, whitewater rafting the source of the Nile in Uganda, getting up close and personal with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, making buuz in a yurt in Mongolia, and soaking in the wonders of the immortal Taj Mahal and the truly glorious Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar to name only a few.

Incredible adventures …

My work mates gave me a stupendous send-off with many kind words about the impact that I have made and the legacy I have left. It touches me deeply to feel that I really have achieved, in some small way, what I set out to do – to make a difference. It’s been an incredible journey and I’m filled with gratitude.

So, what’s next?

Of couse it’s writing. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do and no matter where my career vicissitudes have taken me my heart keeps on leading me back to pen and paper (OK, or keyboard). So now that life has opened this door of change I’m seizing the moment once and for all and throwing myself at this authorship caper with everything I’ve got.

To kick things off I’ve enrolled in a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. Why study, I hear you ask? I’m fully aware that there is a whole world of debate out there about the merit of studying writing. One school of thought says that either you’ve got writing talent or you haven’t – no amount of studious navel-gazing and can generate genius. These proponents argue that a writing degree is just a very expensive piece of paper and wanna-be writers would simply be better off sitting down at their desks and getting on with it.

Others, obviously including the universities that offer such courses, claim differently. Graduates speak of the benefits of exploring their writing style in a supportive environment, the saluatory nature of structured feedback and the opportunity to learn about the nuts and bolts of the publishing industry.

Since I’ve signed up it’s pretty clear that I’m placing myself in the second camp. Yes, I could just plonk myself at my keyboard and start writing. But I’m looking for ideas and inspiration, for challenges and stretch tasks that will push me out of my comfort zone, and for the mental stimulation and sheer, unadulterated pleasure of studying and learning. I’m also pretty keen on addressing the gaps that I know I have around editing and publishing. Hence the UTS Masters. It’s got a great combination of academic interrogation, flexible creative writing subjects (including novel writing), and those pragmatic topics focused on getting your book into print.

Course enrollment!

So, I retun to this blog with a new purpose. Another year, another writing story. This time my plan is to document my Masters experience and see what conclusions I come to about the merits or otherwise of studying writing. I also intend to have a jolly good crack at bashing out manuscript number two before I’m done. I still haven’t completely given up hope on Under New Management (for new readers, see earlier posts on my literary adventures in France), but I’m deeply cognisant of the fact that authors’ first efforts are rarely the ones that launch their careers. My motto may be a cliché but I’m sticking with it: if at first you dont succeed, try, try again!

To fire up my synapses I’ve just read Stephen’s King’s excellent On Writing, which my dear friend Rachel gave me for my last birthday. I’m ashamed to say it had been gathering dust at the bottom of my ‘to read’ pile, but I guess it was just waiting for the right moment. As you can see from the number of sticky tabs I’ve used as markers there are heaps of writing wisdom nuggets that I plan on applying in this new phase of my work.

Here’s what Stephen has to say on writing courses: “I’m often asked if I think the beginning writer of fiction can benefit from writing classes or seminars. The people who ask are, all too often, looking for a magic bullet or a secret ingredient, neither of which can be found in classrooms or at writing retreats, no matter how enticing the brochures may be. As for myself, I’m doubtful about writing classes, but not entirely against them … Writing seminars and courses do offer at least one undeniable benefit: in them desire to write fiction or poetry is taken seriously. For aspiring writers who have been looked upon with pitying condescension by their friends and relatives this is a wonderful thing … You might not learn the Magic Secrets of Writing (there aren’t any – bummer huh?), but you’ll certainly have a grand time, and grand times are something I’m always in favour of.” Me too!

Stephen also states emphatically that writers learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot. I intend to heed this advice to the full! To this end I’ve been busy this weekend converting my World Vision home office into a writer’s study. Perched in front of me now are my collected works on writing and some other selected inspiration sources. I’ve also made a raid on the local library and am relishing working my way through a fascinating and eclictic pile of reading goodies. Finally, my World Vision colleauges farewelled me with a voucher for Dymocks Books (thanks heaps guys!) and I’m poring over the catalogue and licking my lips in anticipation of uni book purchases.

I hope you, readers old and new, will enjoy this new writing adventure and blogging journey as much as I know I am going to 🙂

Inspo!

A Year On …

It seems surreal, but on this very day last year I sat down in front of my window of wonder in Carcassonne and penned the first words of my manuscript.

Surrounded by my inspiration kit – Thoth (the Egyptian god of writing), my snarling inner critic, an antique lithograph of a falcon, a small bunch of lily of the valley, my mock-up book cover and a gleaming castle on a hill – I plunged into the creative vortex from which I would emerge eleven weeks later with the first draft of my book.

And she’s off!

In my post-bushfire, present COVID-isolation world I gaze at my photos and posts from that time in bemusement. Did it really happen? Did I truly gaze in wonder upon the pyramids of Giza and amble down Prague’s cobbled lane-ways? Did I actually imbibe that giant beer at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich and casually decide to take a day-trip to Perpignan? Was I really so brimful of confidence, energy and inspiration? Did I really live that long-held dream of writing for three months in the south of France?

Indeed I did. I have the blogs to prove it. And my manuscript, of course. But from the bunkered-down world we now inhabit it seems impossible that such a short time ago we could hop on a plane and travel the world without a care beyond possible lost luggage or a missed flight connection. The assumption of an open globe freely available to host our every travelling desire seems as ephemeral as dawn mist rising on frosted grass.

What if COVID had struck last year? What if I’d had to abandon my long-service-leave, my window of wonders, my daily baguette delight and been repatriated home to immure myself in Narooma? I’m pretty sure my book would never have seen the light of day. After so many years of anticipation, and months of over-excited preparation, I would have been beyond devastated.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about all those countless millions of people whose special dreams have been annihilated this year. The brides and grooms mourning cancelled weddings, the grandparents denied the soft touch of their newborn grandchild’s skin, the disappointed school-leavers about to take their first solo back-packing ventures into the wider world, the long-anticipated family reunions put on hold, the athletes whose arduous Olympic preparations have been set at naught.

And more somberly, I’ve been thinking about the world’s most vulnerable people for whom such dreams were never even a possibility and whose reality wrings my heart. I’m talking about the children who are living in refugee camps, favelas, shanty towns and slums where there is no running water or sewerage system let alone hand sanitiser and toilet paper. The children whose parents relied on daily subsistence earnings and are now living in desparate fear about how to feed them tomorrow. The children who live in places where there are no hospitals to speak of and where health systems already broken beyond repair have no hope of coping with a pandemic.

My job with World Vision is a great privilege, but it brings with it a necessary knowledge of the darkest implications of this new world in which we are living. Only this week the World Food Programme predicted that the number of people facing starvation could double by the end of this year to over 250 million. And World Vision released it’s own report, Aftershocks, showing that as many as 30 million children are at risk of disease and death because of the secondary impacts of COVID-19.

What do we do with our dreams when faced with such grim realities? What do we do when our window on the world is not a magical casement in Carcassonne but a relentless barrage of deadly statistics and contested views on social media feeds?

Window of wonder …

As a self-confessed chronic optimist I can usually find a silver lining in just about any situation, but even I’m struggling a bit right now. I’m clinging to the fleeting glimmers of light which are shining through the darkness – our world breathing more freely with the reduction in emissions; the surge in creative home-based artistry from everyone from ballerinas and operatic tenors to mums, dads and kids jamming together and and dancing up and down their stairs. I’m delighted by the humour of #binisoliationouting and sustained by hope and mindfulness analysis that is reminding us that this situation could be our best chance ever to reset the future.

And I’m still dreaming my book dreams. It’s been wonderful to see that online book sales have gone through the roof as the home-bound reach for literary escapism. As an insatiable reader, my mother’s greatest fear at the onset of the lock-down – and the ensuing closure of library – was that she’d run out of books. She’s since developed a wonderful relationship with a young lad at her local bookshop who is personally delivering fresh supplies to her doorstep on his way home from work.

True, authors who’s novels are being released in the time of COVID are having to adapt to virtual launches and Zoom meetings with their fans, and publishers are developing new ways of working. But I don’t think books are going to be a COVID casualty. I think, more than ever, that the world will be looking for stories of hope and possibility. Perhaps mine will be one of them …

The Things You Find in Boxes …

Like many of us, I’ve been using some of my isolation time to dig through old boxes and files. My original intent was to finally address long-overdue de-cluttering and take a small step towards minimalism, but I’ve ended up rolling on the floor laughing at some of my finds … particularly when I unearthed the box where I stashed my authorial juvenilia.

As previously noted, I’ve dreamed of writing a book since I was about seven years old, and I’ve found evidence aplenty that I set about my mission with wide-ranging zeal. The earliest effusions appear from when I was about nine, inspired by a wonderful teacher called Mrs Lowden.

Budding author, aged 9, with brother Simon

Epistle number one is called The Marsh Monster, a harrowing tale of a giant rabbit that terrorises a country town. The heroine, Pam, single handedly saves the day and is awarded a special medal by the Mayor.

My output surged exponentially over the following years, with some clearly derivative works (eg. Ingrid, below, which bears a remarkable resemblance to What Katy Did) but many other highly original narratives primarily in the thriller/adventure genre. I can’t resist sharing the dazzling opening sequence of Adventures in Space (aged 11):

Nick and I were in our secret hideout down at Hallet Cove when the waves suddenly came in. For what seemed like hours we were underwater rolling around and floundering for our lives. Then we were spurted out of a chute and landed in a little room. “Where the giggers are we Charlie? Billy asked me. “Don’t ask me, I am just as kerfuffled as you are!” I gasped.

Prolific author …

I even dabbled with children’s fiction in my opus Magic in the Night (aged 12), an illustrated tale of a midnight animation of a family of dolls, a teddy, a toy train, a tin soldier and (sorry, pre-PC) Bobo the golliwog. They break out of the toy box and go on a jaunt to the park where Teddy falls in the pond. Jamie, the toys’ owner, can’t imagine what happened when he wakes up holding a wet bear. Note my children’s lit nom-de-plume, Cathy B.

Not satisfied with writing alone, I wanted my books to be proper books – with covers, and illustrations, and binding. I spent hours drawing and mucking about with innovative wool and string binding solutions which have proven to be remarkably durable.

Grade six was a highly productive year when I also branched out into non-fiction, specifically autobiography. In Me, (below) I explore the trauma of breaking my brother’s leg (aged 2) and the finer points of keeping pet mice (Pixie, Dixie, Snowie, Fairie, Muffie and Squigie). It’s hard to see, but the faded end-piece pic is of me with assorted mice on my head.

Adventures in autobiography

Clearly taken with the genre, I explored the speculative realm in the fascinating Autobiography of Billie the Bee (aged 12). So enamoured was I of my creation that I was driven to replicate him in the physical realm as a hand puppet who still has pride of place on my study bookshelf. I recall Mum being seriously cross with me for nicking her stocking socks to make Billie’s wings.

Billie the Bee

But it was in my first year at high school that I discovered the oeuvre that would become my most creative and prolific writing home for many years – doggerel poetry. In a very early post on this blog I gave an extract from my first work, also called Me (hmm, do you think maybe I was a bit self-obsessed?). For posterity, here is the full work:

Perhaps it was Mrs Holthouse’s positive reinforcement, perhaps sheer joy at making words rhyme, but from this point my juvenilia box is jam-packed with reams of poems on everything from leaves and spring (has there ever been poet who didn’t ode upon the spring?) to more original themes such as the inner ponderings of goldfish and the wages of sin.

As I laughed my way through these dusty boxes it was borne in upon me that I have, indeed, always been a writer. And I still want my books to have covers and bindings …

I’m Back!

Dear readers, when I signed off from this blog on the day before New Year’s Eve last year little did I know what was in store. The very next day HWB and I were hurling our most precious worldly goods into our car as we prepared to evacuate our home ahead of the raging bushfires that ravaged our country for the next seven weeks (more later on that little adventure), and barely had we unpacked and stashed away our smoke masks than we were pulling on new ones to protect ourselves from COVID-19.

A tale of two masks

I blithely predicted that my life would be pretty boring for a while as I worked through the less-than-scintillating process of polishing and sending my manuscript out into the world. I didn’t think my story would be worth sharing in my blog. Well, things have been quietish on the writing front, I confess (one or two tiny distractions …), but there’s no doubt there are stories to be told. I keep seeing posts online urging people to write journals and record this astonishing time a strategy for keeping sane, and as a putative author I’ve decided it’s time for me to get back in the blogging saddle.

So, where to start?

Let me let you in on a secret. Back in October I stealthily entered my novel in the Varuna Publisher Induction Program. The program, run by a mob dedicated to supporting emerging writers offers the lucky winners the chance to work directly with one of eight major Australian publishers. I felt Under New Management fitted the criteria so I held my breath and pushed the send button.

I didn’t want to raise expectations so I didn’t announce this exploratory foray at the time. And I even kept quiet in March when I was thrilled to learn that I had been shortlisted!

Last week I was advised that I wasn’t successful in reaching the final selection in the first round, but am still in play for a possible second round of offers. Cue another month of waiting… Being shortlisted for this prize is beyond exciting! It confirms that at least three people who really know their stuff think I’ve produced something of merit. In fact, despite saying that they don’t provide individual feedback on submissions, my advisory email delivered the following sweet words: “Please be reassured that this has been a very competitive process, and your manuscript was very highly ranked. We would really encourage you to submit to other publishers if you aren’t successful in this second round, as our assessors all felt that your submission had strong publishing potential.” Wow!

Since my last post I have also made submissions to a couple of agents (one rejection, one still in play) and entered myself in the Banjo Prize – Harper Collins’ primary vehicle for identifying emerging Australian writers. And next weekend I’ll be finalising my entry for the Richell Prize, the gateway for publishing with Hachette. Fingers crossed!

I’d love to be able to say that since my last blog I’ve been furiously getting on with the draft of my second manuscript but, um, unfortunately not. The fire terror and the COVID-19 storm have pretty much consumed my life. I’ve mentioned previously that I work for World Vision, a global humanitarian organisation, and I’ve now been co-opted to become part of World Vision’s global pandemic response. My role will be far from heroic, unlike those of our staff on the frontlines, but I’ll be doing my bit by helping to coordinate our global external engagement with UN bodies like UNICEF, the WHO and the UNHCR.

My job is often pretty full-on and I’ve been privileged to visit some astoundingly amazing places. But my last trip may be my most memorable. Just before the world went crazy I was in New York, now the epicentre of the worst outbreak on the planet. I’m in daily touch with colleagues from the Big Apple as they live through this calamity and continue to go about their world-saving work. They are awesome.

Can’t believe I was there …

While lock-down has changed the lives of millions, my days are not so very different to life PC (Pre-COVID). I’ve been working from home for a decade and I’ve been a Zoom operator for almost a year – so pretty much same-same on the work front, albeit operating at an increased emergency response speed. My lovely Half Moon Yoga/Pilates studio has gone online so I can do my workouts on my lounge room floor and because we live in a small, remote town we’ve been able to continue to go for exercise walks on our beautiful beaches and in our stunning bush.

Sunday exercise outing 🙂

The one thing I’m yearning for is the company of friends and family for dinners out/BBQs/picnics and other assorted food-sharing adventures. When our isolation is over the first cab off the rank will be a New Year’s Eve dinner with our mates Hannah and Nick – the first attempt having been aborted due to the fact that we were cowering in fear of our lives as the fires raged around our town. Yes, New Year’s Eve Mark II is something I’m really looking forward to.

My leisure activities are also largely unchanged, though perhaps there has been a bit more Netflix screen-time than is good for me. However, my main recreation remains reading, and I’ve been comfort-bingeing some old favourites.

James Herriot’s endearing tales of life as a country vet in the Yorkshire Dales never grow stale. I’ve read them about about twenty times and still laugh out loud at Tricki Woo going flop-bott and crackerdog and Tristan flooring himself after an inspired rendition of the Mad Conductor. Herriot writes with such simple, disarming charm I’m always left goggling at his artistry.

Similarly engaging are the adventures of the inimitable Horace Rumpole of the Old Bailey. John Mortimer is a master storyteller who created a legend in the wine-swilling, wise-cracking, cigar-smoking old barrister and his formidable wife, Hilda (otherwise known as She Who Must Be Obeyed). Such is their appeal that my well-thumbed copies of the Rumpole ominibuses are starting to fall apart.

Observers of the literary world have made much of the fact that book sales seem to be surging upwards in these challenging times, with people reaching for a read during lock-down – whether it’s dystopian/apocalyptic escapism or literary chicken soup for the soul like Mortimer and Herriot. I hope this appetite for books continues and is enough to sustain the publishing industry, keeping hope alive for writers like myself who are dreaming in isolation of breaking into the scene…

Adieu 2019

Well, 2019 is almost at a close and I resume my seat at the keyboard after an extended haitus for a bit of self-reflection and a summing up.

Eager readers will have noted that I have posted only once since October after assiduously writing just about every week in the earlier part of the year. The subject of my last post goes some way to explaining my radio silence – it’s been hard to focus on the comparatively trivial topic of my writing endeavours in the face of much bigger questions about life and death.

That’s not to say I haven’t continued to make a few small moves in the direction of getting my manuscript published. I have. But somehow the momentum has slipped away and I’ve drifted into becalmed waters in recent weeks.

One step I did take was to attend another great workshop with Writing NSW, this time on the topic of finessing my synopsis. For those not in the know, this little 300-500 word blurb is just about the most important – and harrowing – document any writer can produce. Condensing the glory of 90,000 words into such a compact format is agonising. But a great synopsis is the gateway to agents, publishers, grants, awards and prizes, so I figured it was worth investing in refining mine.

Laurel Cohen, the facilitator, was kind enough to say that my initial draft was already good, and by the end of the workshop she was urging me to try my luck and get the newly buffed and polished version out there.

A few weeks ago my finger quivered over the keyboard before I pushed the send button conveying my synopsis to the first of my chosen agents. This was a seminal moment – it was exposure time – and I quailed at my temerity.

The problem is that agents and publishers are a ruthless lot. This particular agency is open for submissions all the time, which is great – many will only accept unsolicited manuscripts when Venus is retrograde on the third Thursday in July, between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. – or when dozens of other such prohibitive conditions apply. However, my chosen agent doesn’t acknowledge receipt of the submission. If they like it and want to know more they will contact me. A nil response means they are not interested. I have eagerly perused my inbox each morning, but so far no news. I have to wait for three months until I know which way the cookie will crumble!

And because agents and publishers don’t like it if your manuscript has already been shared with others, I have to send out my feelers one at a time. It’s going to be a long ride methinks. My next targeted agent isn’t open for submissions until February, and the couple of publishing prizes for which I’m going to throw my hat into the ring don’t open until March/April. Cue the drumming of fingers on the table …

But – and here’s a key point – this haitus has allowed time for reflection. Before I jetted off to France I read many admonitions from writing gurus that one shouldn’t fall in love with one’s first manuscript. Often, they said, the first book is only a prelude to the more scintillating and successful second or third book which ends up being the one to leap forth in published form to take the world by storm.

Like many such authorial admonitions, I ignored this one. When I dropped the final full stop in Carcassonne I knew with every fibre of my being that my baby was absolutely perfect in every way. Bestseller glory was within my grasp! It was a given that I’d be sitting next to Kate Mosse having a good old chin wag at a writers’ festival within a few months. I could see my book stacked in great gleaming piles at airport book stores …

Delusion? Wishful thinking? Possible future? Who knows. But a couple of weeks ago an astounding thought flashed into my mind. What if Under New Management is not the book? What if it was only a practice book?

Pre-France Catherine would have been horrified at the mere suggestion. I wasn’t going on this venture to practice! I was going for gold! I was out to achieve the real deal!

December Catherine is a little older and perhaps a little wiser. I still think Under New Management is good. But I have a creeping feeling that I can do better. Ideas for book number two are bubbling away in my brain and I’m thinking of all sorts of ways I can apply what I’ve learnt this year to build a new book of more substance and sophistication.

There’s one tiny flaw in this thinking, however. Long service leave comes only once every ten years and I simply cannot wait that long to have another crack at this. I’m going to have to summon the discipline to write while working, a bogey that stalled my literary aspirations for thirty years.

Please be assured, I’m not giving up on Under New Management. I’m going to nibble away at the submission process until I am thoroughly convinced there is no hope. But I’m going to put more of my energy into honing my craft and focus on the creation of book number two – notionally called The Ladies of Club M

As for this blog? When I began posting in January my intention was to tell the story of my writing adventure until the end of this calendar year, or until I achieved a publishing contract. The publishing contract looks like it may still be some time away, and somehow I don’t think weekly posts about waiting are going to make particularly scintillating reading.

So this is adieu for now, my friends. Should new developments emerge I’ll return to the blogosphere firing on all cylinders. ‘Till then, I wish you a very happy new year and encourage you all to pursue your imaginings in 2020, no matter what form they take. As this year has taught me, there’s magic, wonder and fulfillment in the pursuit of one’s dreams.

Requiescat in Pace, Carmen

On Thursday, HWB’s beloved mum and my dear mother-in-law, Carmen, passed away peacefully at home after a long battle with cancer. We are grieving.

Last pic: Carmen rocking her Duchess of Windsor look

A few years ago I took the opportunity to record some oral history with Carmen, and she spoke happily about her early years. I treasure this record, and what I write now comes from her own telling of her story.

Carmen was born to Aida and William Vassalo in Rabat, Malta, in 1934. She was the youngest of six siblings, and part of a large and lively extended family who embraced the Maltese passions of laughter, great food and fun times.

Though Carmen was only six when World War II broke out she vividly recalled blackouts, the wailing of sirens and midnight dashes to bomb shelters. As Malta’s ports were blockaded and convoy’s bombarded, food began to run out. Carmen remembered a time when her mother received special ration cards from her RAF squadron commander uncle and commandeered a karrotzin (horse and cart) and dodged bombs to retrieve food for her family from the other side of the island.

Carmen (right) and her sister Josephine

At seven, Carmen became a boarder at St Dorothy’s Convent in Mdina, as was the tradition for the girls in her family. Later, her sister Marie became a nun within the Dorothean order there. Carmen fondly recalled hiding illicit feasts in the dormitory with her friends when they heard the distinctive rattling of the nuns’ rosary beads as they approached to inspect their supposedly sleeping charges.

Carmen was sixteen, going on seventeen, when she met a dashing young man called Godfrey Dingli at a thé dansant at the Phonecia Hotel. Sporting a red dress with a white sailor collar, Carmen accepted Godfrey’s invitation to dance despite the fact that she was interested in another boy at the time. After the dance, Carmen proved elusive, but Godfrey was persistent. “I said no, and no, and no, but he kept phoning,” she said.

True love drives a man to desperate measures. Godfrey resorted to stalking Carmen and discovered that she attended Rabat Cathedral to confess her sins. “So then one fine day I approached the priest, asking him to convince her that I’m a good boy.  Truly!” Godfrey assured me.

It took Godfrey eight months before Carmen said yes to their first date. They went on swimming expeditions and to see films and when Carmen turned nineteen they married.

Family is central to Maltese life, and Carmen and Godfrey didn’t waste any time in creating one of their own. By the time Carmen was in her late twenties they had been blessed with five children – Mariella, Raphael, Peter, Martin (HWB) and Anna. Her husband and children were forever the abiding core of Carmen’s life.

Assembled Dinglis

And it was for the future of her children that Carmen endured the biggest challenge of her life – migrating to Australia. By the mid-seventies, the political climate in Malta had become fraught under the regime of socialist Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff. For many old families like the Dinglis and Vassalos associated with former British rule, life became difficult. The Dingli’s decided their children would have a brighter future and more opportunities in the antipodes.

Following a forty-day sea journey, the family settled in Melbourne and set about discovering their new home. Carmen started a business making knitted garments and later took up catering, a role where she could utilise her remarkable culinary skills and in which she remained busy and active right into her seventies. After some initial culture shock the children flourished, and Carmen became more and more proud of their achievements.

Travel was an lasting passion for both Carmen and Godfrey. They returned to Malta many times, and enjoyed extended holidays in Europe and South America. They also made one more big move – to Canberra – in their sixties to be closer to their grandchildren.

Carmen and Godfrey on the move in Malta

Carmen liked to laugh. A lot. And she loved cooking. But most of all she loved having a houseful of her children and grandchildren and cooking up massive feasts of Maltese delights. Her hospitality was boundless.

Happy times

Carmen was seventy when I met her and I fell in love with her (and the rest of the Dinglis) as well as with HWB. She made me so welcome and was unstintingly generous with her time, advice and cooking classes. Under her experienced eye I mastered the art of pastizzi and torta tal mamurat, though I have never yet quite succeeded in achieving the exquisite fluffiness she imparted to her choux pastry.

Carmen was deeply faithful and her spirituality illuminated her daily life. Not long after she was diagnosed with her final illness I had the opportunity to whisk her away for a silent retreat with the Benedictine nuns of The Abbey at Jamberoo. We grew very close during our shared days of quiet reflection and participation in the liturgy – a gift for which I shall always be grateful.

Carmen and Father Keiran

The last few weeks have been very difficult for all of the family as we’ve striven to honour Carmen’s wish to remain and be cared for in her own home. Carmen’s passing has rightly absorbed our lives and, as you may understand, caused my recent radio silence on this blog. I hope to do better in coming weeks.

Carmen was keenly interested in my writing adventures, but sadly was too unwell to finish reading my draft manuscript. I know she’s up in heaven somewhere cheering me on and when it’s published she will be clapping, and beaming and saying Prosit! (congratulations).

Forever in our hearts and sorely, sorely missed …

And the verdict is …?

It’s been three weeks since I’ve written and there are several good reasons. Let’s just say I’ve run the full gamut of emotions – happy and excited but also terribly, terribly sad. I’m not going to get into the sad part in this blog today – it’s too raw and an unfinished story. So I’ll confine myself to the bubbly parts, especially the long-overdue feedback on my manuscript assessment!

Before HWB and I headed to Sydney for the big reveal we were invited to join our great friends Hannah and Nick for their work Christmas outing – a whale-watching cruise and BBQ. Yes, the summer BBQ season has officially launched!

Hangin’ with friends

Unfortunately I was prevented from joining the gang on the boat as I was doing an interview for a new job – still with World Vision but in a role which would present exciting new challenges (still waiting for news on that one …). But HWB went out and had a fabulous time communing with dozens of dolphins – his favourite creature of all time.

Despite blustery conditions, the following BBQ down by the wharf was lots of fun and the perfect location to take in views of our fabulous inlet.

HWB and the lads were in their element charring things on the grill.

Lads 🙂

The following day we hit the long road to Sydney. It’s a five hour drive from Narooma and I was quivering with anticipation, hope and fear all the way. On the morrow I would hear – from someone who really knows – whether or not there was a glimmer of publishing hope for Under New Management.

The verdict was delivered at Writing NSW by publisher and editor Linda Funnell. And …???

She really, really liked it. “Lively and engaging writing style…page turner … topical setting … appealing protagonist … strong opening … well-handled dialogue…”. In short she skipped straight to the bit about how to get the manuscript out to agents and publishers!

Linda 🙂

As we dug into the details, Linda helpfully delivered some pithy advice on a couple of areas for fine tuning and happily confirmed my instinct to stick with the susurrus. She also advised me to retain my controversial title. Some beta readers haven’t warmed to Under New Management. Sorry guys, it’s staying – for now anyway 🙂

I floated from our session filled to the brim with renewed enthusiasm and plans to dive straight into final editing. But first HWB and I planned to make the most of our time in the big city of lights.

Since HWB hails from Malta via Melbourne and I’m an Adelaidean, neither of us know Sydney very well and on previous visits we’ve generally stayed in the tourist hub of Circular Quay and The Rocks. This time we stuck a pin in the map halfway between Writing NSW and the city centre and found ourselves at the very lovely Verona Guest House in Glebe.

Verona Guest House

After exploring this gorgeous locale, Glebe is now my new favourite Sydney destination. It’s like a village within the city, buzzing with boutique eateries, adorned with Victorian and Edwardian architecture and pulsing with a friendly, community vibe. But its best gift was a dinner with dear friends of ours, Jeremy and Bettina, who joined us for a wonderful evening at Pizzeria Alfredo.

Happy times 🙂

The fun didn’t stop there! On Saturday afternoon we shopped till we dropped (we tend to go a bit crazy when we visit places with more than one shoe emporium – Narooma’s totally gorgeous, but a teeny bit short on boutiques) and then headed to our favourite Sydney restaurant for a nosh.

Quaffing 🙂

Malabar in Darlinghurst serves up divine south Indian cuisine, with each flavoursome, aromatic dish excelling the last. I’m not generally into posting food pics (except when dining in Michelin-starred restaurants in castles in Carcassone), but Malabar’s spinach chaat deserves recording for posterity. Who knew that chickpea-battered spinach leaves could taste so ambrosial?

Spinach chaat – yum!

We rounded off our city adventure with an evening at Happy Endings Comedy Club where we laughed ourselves silly for several hours – a pre-emptive exercise that buoyed us up for what was to become a difficult week ahead.

Bright lights- the iconic Kings Cross Coke sign

I now draw a veil over the last seven days. It was precious, and painful and poignant and not to be spoken of lightly.

This afternoon as I sat quietly back at home I was filled with a deep gratitude for the great joys of life – family, love, inspiration, adventure, friends, nature. I found that it’s not possible to be entirely sad when a king parrot is chirping madly on your deck demanding that his seed dish be replenished.

Now, as the sun sets behind the spotted gums, I’ve come to a place of tranquility. I know that whatever the week ahead brings HWB and I will be ready to meet it, hand in hand …