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 …

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…