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…