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Through a different lens

This image is a photograph of a letter seen through the magnifying lens of the Reading Room camera at the Battye Library. I chose this one because I wanted to write today about different ways of looking and different ways of thinking.

I’ve been bent over my keyboard for weeks trying to complete some writing by the end of May. It’s been a challenging activity. Some days, my mind has been blocked, twisted into knots with uncertainty. Other days, the words pour out easily and I can’t stop the flow.  When writing feels difficult, I treasure the solace, empathy and support that come from talking with friends who are writers. I know I’m not alone in that. I also find guidance and inspiration in reading. The words on the pages are the building blocks of stories and noticing the way other writers put those words together, sit them next to one another along the lines, that always helps me. But lately, I’ve realised that staying with what I know, the familiar and the comforting, is not the only way to learn and grow in my own work.

I’ve had lots of opportunities in the last couple of months to enjoy the creative outcomes of artists in a range of different media. That’s been a reminder that there are many, many ways of looking and many ways of telling stories. The freedom from words feels a bit like walking a new path that connects two places you know well. You arrive by a different route and the journey is different. You see things you’ve never seen before along the way. Whether the new track you’re taking is music, photography, sculpture or painting, or any other medium, seeing things from a different perspective can shed light in remarkable ways on your own viewpoint when you sit down to write again.

Today I visited the studio of Elisa Markes-Young, a local artist, as part of the wonderful Margaret River Region Open Studios annual event. I’d been in touch with Elisa and her partner, Christopher Young, last year when they held a joint exhibition that included some pieces inspired by the life and work of Georgiana Molloy. MRROS draws in such a wide range of artists in this region that it’s impossible to see everything. It’s an amazing privilege to see creative people working in their own environment so we always try to visit a few studios we haven’t been to before. I heard that Elisa is exhibiting one of the Georgiana works this year so her studio was at the top of my list.

She talked to us about the thinking behind the piece, and last year’s exhibition, and described how she had first come to the idea of representing the journey into botany as Georgiana’s refuge following the death of her eighteen-month old son by drowning. After thirteen years of research, I thought I knew everything there was to know about Georgiana Molloy and perhaps I do know most of the facts but what Elisa showed me was a completely different, new way of looking at the life of a woman I know well.  Something to do with a different viewpoint. Something to do with the life experiences of Elisa herself. Something to do with personal memories and emotions. Something to do with working in a medium that does not rely entirely on words. It was refreshing, inspiring and very moving. And I learned a lot.

One of the images here is from that piece which includes black mourning ribbons, embroidered with words from a letter Georgiana wrote in 1837 about her little boy’s death.

MRROS is on for another week and I’m definitely planning to stretch my mind and heart again over the next few days by exploring artists who work in different media.  If you’re around, or just down this way for a while, don’t miss out!  The list of contributing artists is HERE. Elisa and Chris are number 73 in the list and their delightful studio is close to Margaret River town centre.

 

 

 

Perth Writers Festival 2017

I look forward to three days of immersion into the world of books every year at the Perth Writers Festival, held at the UWA campus. It’s always exciting but this year I experienced a different kind of anticipation. I was there as invited author with two panel sessions to take part in and a 3-hour writing workshop to run for twenty-five people. Packing for what was clearly going to be one of the hottest weekends of the year, I wondered how I’d manage to look cool and calm while my nerves were speeding along in overdrive. How would I know what to do, where to go, how to get there and when?

I needn’t have worried. From the moment I arrived at the hotel, the PWF team had everything under control and the organisation behind the scenes worked like a very well-oiled machine. I was helped and looked-after in every way, including ensuring there was vego food available and literally guiding me from one place to another between sessions.  Even so, it was hard not to feel the world around me was surreal, especially when I first saw my own book on the shelves in the Green Room alongside publications by all the other authors at the festival, including some of my favourite writers like Patrick Holland, Jessie Burton and Hannah Kent.

The first panel session took place in the Tropical Grove amid the sound of parrots and the fringed shadows of palms, a perfect outdoor setting for a discussion about a botanical collector and an artist who painted birds. Convenor Barbara Horgan expertly guided Melissa Ashley and me through a lively discussion about the iconic women who are the subjects of our books. We did have one short interruption, when two members of the audience passed out from the heat!  If you haven’t already read Melissa’s beautiful book, ‘The Birdman’s Wife’ I highly recommend it. You’ll find that Elizabeth Gould and Georgiana Molloy had much in common.

The second panel, convened by Vivienne Glance (who so skilfully drew out the less obvious connections between my book and that of Amy Stewart) was just as lively and even standing room at the back of the lecture theatre was full. Feeling a bit more relaxed after two days of nervousness, I found myself laughing as loudly as everyone else at Amy’s hilarious descriptions of the personal research she and her husband ‘had to do’ on the alcoholic beverages that are the subject of her book, The Drunken Botanist. If you fancy creating your next tipple entirely from plants, you’ll need to try her recipes!

The writing workshop on Saturday morning was a great pleasure for me, working with twenty-five writers at just about every different stage you could imagine. There were writers of fiction and non-fiction, writers who had already completed a first draft of their manuscript and others who were still making early notes, experienced writers and even writers who didn’t yet think they WERE writers. Working with others opens the mind, especially if they bring fresh new views about how and why we write. I always learn as much as I pass on and this time, I’m sure, I’ll be seeing a few names I recognise on publishers’ lists of new releases before too long. Good luck, everyone!

I must admit to you that meeting some of my favourite authors, having dinner with them and having photographs taken with them while we sat in the book-signing area was a huge thrill. How could it not be? I’m a reader! But there were other wonderful things to remember. My publisher, Picador, is based in Sydney but the team were in Perth for the festival so it was very special to have time for long discussions. Phone calls do their job but nothing can replace talking face to face. But the best thing of all was the same thing that always means most to me and often makes my eyes fill up with emotions I can’t really describe. My biggest thank-you goes to all the readers who came to my sessions, asked questions, bought the book, talked to me and told me snippets of their own stories, so many people I’ve never met before. Somehow, the book I wrote, the book you read, has forged a link between us in the magical way that happens when readers and writers connect. In the end, you’re the only reason I believe it’s all true and I really am a writer.

 

One of my fan-girl moments. My book on sale next to the latest by Sebastian Barry, one of my favourite books of 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

Endings or beginnings?

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When the frenzy of writing has been going on for more than a year it begins to feel like the only thing there is. It invades every waking moment and sometimes the sleeping time, too. I dream of words. Not sentences or meaningful phrases, just words. Then suddenly, it comes to an end, on the day a complete manuscript is saved and printed.

That happened to me recently and I hadn’t experienced the feeling of closure for two years, something seemingly enormous, finished. I sat at my computer the day after the manuscript was sent off to my agent and looked at my ‘writing wall’ as I have done for hours every day through a summer, an autumn, a winter and a spring. It’s a large board, covered in pictures, photographs, snippets of text and anything else that captures the essence of the places and people in the story. Photographs of old portraits provide faces for me to stare at while I search for the best words to describe a nose, or a smile, or a way of standing. Landscape paintings show me the settings I’m trying to recreate in words. Since part of the plot is set in places I’ve never been, these add something more to the other research that underpins everything. I don’t need my writing wall any more but I can’t bear the idea of a blank canvas in front of me so it will stay right where it is until I begin collecting images for the next one and that won’t be until after Christmas.

Time at the end of December has already been set aside for the reading I’ve missed out on for months. The Reading Pile has become The Reading Tower. There’s always at least one book on the go but it’s a long time since I’ve been able to do that delicious thing of disappearing into a book and devouring it from beginning to end in one long gluttonous read. Reading is still the most important part of writing, for me anyway, because that’s where everything begins – characters, places, lives, words. Especially words.

Sorting through the piles of loose papers on my desk today, I’ve realised that finishing one thing isn’t an ending, it’s a beginning. There’ll be a lot more work to do on my manuscript next year. There’s a historical writing project to begin in January, that’s been waiting patiently in the wings for months. And there’s a backlog of transcription that I can’t set aside any longer if I want to write more on the story of Georgiana Molloy, to make new information available before the end of next year.

I never like to wish time away but I’m looking forward to 2017. Here’s the exciting news: at the end of February, I’ll be joining about 60 other authors at the Perth Writers Festival. I can’t think of much that could be more thrilling than taking part in my own local festival to celebrate reading and writing. 2016 is ending on an equally exciting note too. The wonderful crew at ‘Readings’ bookstores in Melbourne included ‘Georgiana Molloy: the Mind That Shines’ in their list of ‘50 great reads by Australian women in 2016’.  While I was writing the book I had no idea I might create something that could be described as ‘a good read’ so that means a great deal to me.

There are so many times when writing makes you feel vulnerable and inadequate, useless and foolish, but other writers tell me they often experience the same self-doubts. We have to keep going, bent over notebooks and keyboards, finding a way through to the end of the story. And then beginning another.

 

See the Readings bookstores list of ‘50 great reads by Australian women in 2016’ here.

Lizard on a log?

Well, that hasn’t been me over the last two months since my last blog! I haven’t been slacking but the current projects have been moving forward in fits and starts in a busy diary of events including a few overnight trips to Perth. Last week was the final booking until November so I’m back to editing my new manuscript and working on some transcriptions that have been patiently waiting, so I’m hoping to tick a few longstanding things off the list very soon. A week of illness was frustrating – sneezing and coughing but no writing – though there was a bright side: all that thinking time and now I have a brand new file on my computer: the title of the next manuscript. It even contains some character and plot notes. If I ever get to the writing (2017?) it will be a prequel and that feels like an interesting challenge.

img_6563 St Bartholomew’s, East Perth

Last weekend was the wonderful, annual Perth Heritage festival and I was lucky enough to speak in two very special venues, each so different. Perth Town Hall was grand and impressive, the most elegant stage I’ve ever been on to talk about Georgiana Molloy.  St Bartholomew’s in East Perth was small and intimate, a beautiful little building and a very moving setting because two of Georgiana’s daughters were buried there.  A big thank you to Heritage Perth and to the National Trust for inviting me. The sore throat and disappearing voice arrived just hours after I finished the second talk so it was lucky timing!

Perth Town Hall img_6571 img_6574