The detective and the priest: Leigh Sales’ tales of love, loss and hope

This story originally appeared here, on WAtoday. It’s a long read, but I poured my heart into writing this on Friday, so if you are interested, please grab a cup of tea and give it some time. 

If you’ve ever experienced traumatic grief, you will know a part of you will always be grieving, will never get over it, despite you managing to build a ‘new normal’.

But after some years passed, another part of you might have realised it taught you something, sparked a change.

A girl carries flowers to a memorial wall following the Christchurch shootings, which left 50 dead and 39 wounded.

A girl carries flowers to a memorial wall following the Christchurch shootings, which left 50 dead and 39 wounded. Image: AP

Maybe something big and visible, a new mission. You’ve committed to making a difference in the world, and now you’re got the iron will to achieve it.

Maybe something more private. You’re more compassionate, more ‘present’, more appreciative of the small things.

Are you grateful for these changes? Of course you are.

Would you give them up in a heartbeat just to have that person you lost back? Just to hear their voice one more time, give them one more hug, even for one minute?

Of course you would.

It’s hard to acknowledge anything good could come from the worst thing that ever happened to you.

But just as grief is a universal human experience – as terrible as we sometimes are at talking about it – it might comfort you to know that this unexpected gift of growth is not an aberration.

“I don’t think many people have heard of post-traumatic growth, as it’s a relatively new field of study,” said Leigh Sales, who explores the concept in her new book, Any Ordinary Day.

“Most psychological research in the past has focused on the ways that awful life events impair normal function.

“Post-traumatic growth is the positive personal changes in outlook or attitude people can experience in the wake of something awful happening to them.

“Of course, nobody would ever want this, you’d rather not have the bad thing happen to you and not experience the changes!”

Sales, who appears this weekend at Perth’s Disrupted Festival of Ideas, said it was only 25-30 years ago some US researchers started to ask if, after a period of time, traumatised people might not just return to “normal” functioning but instead in some cases have “enhanced” functioning.

Leigh Sales appears in Perth this weekend.

Leigh Sales appears in Perth this weekend. Image: Daniel Boud

“People sometimes used their awful personal experiences to affect positive change for society as a whole – for example, Walter Mikac, whose whole family was killed at Port Arthur, was a major voice in the gun reform campaign in Australia in the late 1990s,” she said.

“Rosie Batty turned her personal tragedy into a major national campaign for domestic violence awareness.

“[Now] extensive research, looking at people who’ve experienced all kind of cataclysmic life events, from facing breast cancer to dealing with a death in the family, shows that people do develop in positive ways from those experiences.”

Sales, best known for her work on ABC’s 7.30, herself lived a blessedly lucky life until one day, about to give birth to her second child, she suffered a uterine rupture – a rare and often catastrophic event that frequently kills the mother, baby or both.

They both survived, but Sales’ sense of trust in the world had been irrevocably damaged.

She began to dwell on luck and chance, on blindsides, fear and how people cope with loss. Not losses like the expected death of an elderly parent, but the ones that can instantly tear a life apart.

She had spent much of her career trying to avoid direct exposure to these events, she wrote. But her own life in 2014, plus the news stories she anchored afterwards, made her realise avoidance was pointless – like “trying to hide from life itself.”

In an effort to walk towards, not away from, such possibilities, to stare them in the face, she wrote Any Ordinary Day.

Sales interviewed people including Stuart Diver, the sole survivor of the Thredbo disaster, whose wife died beside him; Walter Mikac, whose family died at Port Arthur; and Louisa Hope, a sufferer of multiple sclerosis who was also a hostage in the Lindt Cafe siege.

She crunched the numbers on the actual odds of a person experiencing such happenings and examined the reasons we all tend to be far more afraid of being involved in, say, a terrorist attack, than a car crash (spoiler alert… the media plays a role).

She also spoke to “ordinary” people who had lived through events that never entered the national consciousness, but were nevertheless the stuff of nightmares, asking them and herself: How did you survive? And if it happens to me, how will I bear it?

The answers were unexpected and precious: stories of resilience, love and hope, such as that of Juliet Darling, the priest and the detective.

Juliet’s late partner Nick Waterlow had an adult son from a previous relationship who had paranoid schizophrenia and believed his family was plotting to destroy him.

One night at a dinner, Antony stabbed his sister and father to death. His sister’s daughter, a toddler, was also seriously injured.

Any Ordinary Day is Leigh Sales' third book.

Juliet had not gone to dinner. The news of her partner’s death was brought to her doorstep.

But so was something else: people whose actions illuminated the vital role other people can play for another’s recovery.

In the following days, while Juliet was rocked with shock and fear, Father Steve Sinn, who would oversee the funeral, and lead investigator Detective Graham Norris, made countless small and yet infinitely compassionate gestures.

Father Sinn’s first gesture on entering her home was to throw away a vase of dead flowers, without pausing for permission or directions.

At Nick’s funeral, with Antony still at large, Detective Norris slid up to her and murmured, ‘You don’t need to be afraid, you can’t see us but we’re everywhere’, freeing her to farewell her partner without having to glance over her shoulder.

“Often people reported to me that when something dreadful happened in their life, some of their friends disappeared because they didn’t know how to cope,” Sales said.

“It was a bit like being plonked into a foreign land … if you found people who could speak the language, they were like lifelines.

“In Juliet’s case, she had two people who came into her orbit who seemed to speak the language … both seemed to understand death and they didn’t seem rattled or fearful.

“Both acted as if they believed she’d cope, and so that made her feel more calm.”

Three years after Nick was murdered, Juliet’s son George, a healthy 26-year-old, died of sudden and unexplained heart failure while at work.

“She had such a rough trot and she was a lovely person,” Sales said.

“I found her, like everyone in the book, completely compelling and moving in describing what she’d been through and how much insight she had into it. And also her bravery in telling me about some of the worst things in her life because she wanted people to understand what it’s like and to know better how to help others.”

Juliet’s experiences forced her to re-evaluate the beliefs that had previously shaped her understanding of the world.

She had once believed that everything happened for a reason, for example.

And that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.

She now dismissed that as a cliché; no, she believed, something so terrible could easily weaken you.

But she was now more attuned to kindness in the world around her.

And more compassionate towards people who struggled to know what to say or do in the face of loss.

“People can sometimes feel resistant to the idea that such a horrible thing has changed them in positive ways, because of course, the pain of what happened is so much more present than any sense that you’re a more compassionate or present person,” Sales said.

“As I said, nobody would want post-traumatic growth if they had a choice. You’d rather be a lesser person and not have the trauma.”

And of course, anyone would choose to take that trauma from a friend if they could.

But in the absence of such an ability, Sales remembers advice from Father Steve Sinn.

“[This] has stayed with me more than any other thing anyone I interviewed said to me,” she said.

“He said all you have to do is accompany. You don’t have to say the right thing, do the right thing or even have any idea what to do. You just have to be there.”

 

Disrupted: Festival of Ideas runs this weekend at the State Library of WA in Northbridge, with guest speakers Leigh Sales, Karl Kruszelnicki, Geoff Gallop, Tracy Westerman, Bri Lee and more.

All Disrupted events are free and all panels will be live-streamed and on the Perth Cultural Centre screen. 

Full program here

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‘We had no choice’: the silver-haired nannas guarding Australia’s environment

This story originally appeared on WAtoday. 

Property damage, midnight cement mixing, secret meetings with rogue public officials: in her new book, an Australian environmental protester has described the surreal experience of doing what she felt was right, only to find herself on the wrong side of the law.

As debate rages in Parliament over a bill to remove the historic ‘Roe 8′ road classification from Perth’s Beeliar Wetlands, West Australian writer Nandi Chinna has taken readers behind the scenes of the protests on the eve of the state’s 2017 election that won the wetlands’ eleventh-hour reprieve and stopped the clearing for the road.

Chinna, who has published four previous poetry collections and whose doctorate research documented lost wetlands, has just launched The Future Keepers, describing how ordinary people risked injury, confrontation and criminal charges as they wrecked fencing, chained themselves to trees and faced off with police horses; and how public servants risked getting the sack, to support the protesters.

The protesters sought to stop a highway being built through one of Perth's last remaining large urban wetlands.

The protesters sought to stop a highway being built through one of Perth’s last remaining large urban wetlands. BILLY AMESZ

It describes the lead-up: years of attempts to toe the line and work within approved Environmental Protection Authority and Supreme Court channels, and the eventual failure of these attempts leading to the last resort of physical protesting. One of the biggest Perth has witnessed, at its peak huge police teams were on site daily, protecting machinery the outgoing government rushed into action before election day.

Chinna’s poems flicker through images like a film: of official meetings at the EPA offices, conservationists and public officers poring over a 368-page report full of tea-stained maps; of clandestine meetings in anonymous cafes, where government workers against Roe 8, but afraid of losing their jobs, used cafe detritus – napkins, salt, sugar and water bottles – to demonstrate the scientific principles that would bolster the protesters’ arguments.

“How alienating it is to talk about nature in those terms, to have these graphs and statistics and offsets … if we take this we will give you something else,” Chinna told WAtoday following the launch of her book.

“They can measure the species, the flora, the fauna, hydrology, geology, but they don’t mention things like the experience and reality of it, the wonder and beauty, the extraordinary.

“To go through all these supposedly protective channels … then to find that there is no protection.”

Chinna reveals, after all else failed, the dislocation of being an everyday citizen – a longtime community volunteer, who saw herself as a good and law-abiding person – suddenly undertaking acts of civil disobedience in an increasingly hostile conflict that saw numerous injuries, arrests and charges laid.

Nandi Chinna

Nandi Chinna. FREMANTLE PRESS

 

Anxiety rises from the pages like steam as Chinna describes damaging fences by night, the local hardware store running out of spanners as the contractors repaired the boundaries daily.

So many older women took part that they had to cover their silver hair so it would not shine in the moonlight as they wielded their spoons – not over mixing bowls of biscuit batter, like good grandmothers, but over buckets of cement to be poured into the holes of the fence posts.

They recorded licence plates of utes driving in and out, even followed them, in their efforts to document gaps in the wildlife trapping process; and they donned armguards, thumbcuffs and even nappies, preparing not for admittance to a nursing home, but to trespass barriers and spend long nights chained to trees.

One passage shows protesters trying to stop the movement of a drilling rig, a mounted police contingent forming a line to drive back the people who tried to hold their ground.

“A friend held my hand, and they kept coming and came straight into us and knocking us out of the way with their horses,” Chinna said.

“We were stumbling and falling as this line of police and horses just kept pushing.

“We were just a bunch of people; of all ages, old ladies, older men and women and all sorts of people there just standing in the road.

The footage appears to show a police horse trampling on protesters at Roe 8.

“A lot of the police in attendance were very decent people, but there were just like in any crowd, people who were pretty rough.”

She described a young policeman, who confiscated her phone.

“He was only about 20, and being so rude and aggressive, I said to him: ‘You know, I’m old enough to be your Nanna.’ He snarled at me that I should start acting like a proper nanna. And I thought, I am! I am trying to protect this world for future generations. Isn’t that what a nanna should do?”

Chinna said the effort to attend repeatedly, as one poem puts it, to “the latest urgent request to bear witness” caused tension so intense it was at times nauseating.

“To watch a place you know intimately to be destroyed is a gut-wrenching, horrible thing,” she said.

“There were several times there when I suppose I lost it. I cried when I watched the tawny frogmouths being killed, the woody pears being torn out of the ground, the beautiful flowers that I had known from years of walking and being among them, weeding and planting.

The Future Keepers is out now.

“But … that was the only way we were going to stop this thing. We didn’t enjoy it. I don’t think the police enjoyed having to be there. But at the same time we felt that we had no choice.”

Meanwhile, government and media commentary painted them as ‘dole-bludging scum’, she said.

One morning, she stopped by the blockade about 7am on her way to work, and stood there with an elderly woman.

“People would do that; before work, or after, or some would get the day off work if they needed to,” she said. “Someone drove past and honked and yelled, ‘get a job, you bastards’. This lady turned to me and said, ‘I am a retired teacher. I am 80 years old. What do they expect me to do?’

“We were all sorts of people just asking the government for better solutions for transport. I know there’s been talk about putting Roe 8 back on the agenda and it seems to be the battle that is never won; but really I think people should learn from what happened in that suburb: that the community really won’t put up with this anymore.

“We want progressive solutions … to retain green spaces … not just ovals; places other species can live in. To have our shops and goods and transport and retain our natural systems as well.”

It was this hope that lay at the heart of her work, Chinna said; hope and celebration of conservation work taking place in Perth, such as at Kings Park and Botanic Garden, where Chinna was the first ever Writer in Residence in 2016, and which inspired a whole section of her book as well as its titular poem, The Future Keepers.

“The quietness of the work they do is such that I don’t think people know about it,” she said.

“They work all over the state and internationally working to revegetate old mine sites and preserve endangered species; they are at the top of their field and they are such amazing people.

“There is a metaphorical thread through this book that we can work together, respect Indigenous knowledge, and protect this extraordinary planet.”

The Future Keepers is published by Fremantle Press at $24.99

Torn from two mothers: Perth MP’s 10-year labour brings stolen boy’s story to life

This story originally appeared on WAtoday. 

 

On Christmas Day 1957, Bruce Trevorrow’s father Joe was concerned about his baby son’s incessant crying. He knew little Bruce wasn’t well.

In bookstores now.

Joe was an Aboriginal man, who had no way of getting from his home in South Australia’s Coorong region to Adelaide Children’s hospital, a two-hour drive away. He walked in the blistering heat, cradling his feverish son, into the nearest town and pleaded for help. A relative of his wife agreed to drive Bruce to hospital, to the panicked father’s enormous relief.

That was the last time he ever saw his son.

Fifty years later, Bruce Trevorrow became the only member of the Stolen Generations ever to sue an Australian government for compensation – and win.

Tony Buti, now a member of the West Australian Parliament, was at that time a legal academic and expert on the Stolen Generations.

After reading the judgment on the Trevorrow case handed down in 2007, Dr Buti could not forget it.

“It was an incredibly beautifully constructed judgement; logical and at times poetic,” he said.

“I wanted to bring this story to life.”

Six years of interviewing and research followed, considerably slowed by the sheer volume of material and by his election to Parliament.

“I essentially did it over summer periods and weekends but I could never spend long stretches, because in this job there is always another commitment,” he said

“I considered giving up … but I felt an obligation to the people that I interviewed.

“I also knew this story should be given to a wider audience.”

Buti after a long road to publication.

Buti after a long road to publication. FREMANTLE PRESS

It took ten years to complete A Stolen Life, launched this month to a sell-out crowd just ahead of NAIDOC Week, an account of the ruining of a child that is all the more devastating for the careful precision of its language.

Joe and Thora’s home was a shack Joe had built himself. It was basic, with a swept dirt floor, but clean. ‘Native welfare’ officers had inspected, but not reported it unfit for children. They found no evidence of neglect. None of Bruce’s siblings were ever removed.

Yet on January 6 the hospital allowed a foster family to take the recovered baby ‘Brucey’ home without so much as a fostering licence.

The laws of the time stated that to remove a child from their family, there had to be either parental consent or a government order. Neither happened.

Bruce’s frantic mother, unable to get to the hospital, wrote multiple letters to authorities asking how Bruce was and when he could come home.

They responded that her baby was still not well enough. Thora only discovered the truth when it was far too late to reverse.

Bruce’s foster mother had her own mental health issues, which worsened when he grew older and began to display signs of emotional trauma.

“There was love there, but it was always a problematic relationship,” Buti said.

“She was having difficulty coping, he was being a difficult child and she would threaten to send him away so he felt this great sense of insecurity.”

When Bruce was around eight and his skin had noticeably darkened his older foster sister bluntly broke the news of his Aboriginal heritage, and the boy’s sense of rootlessness deepened.

He eventually met his birth mother Thora on his ninth birthday and soon afterwards authorities abruptly decided he would be better off – after all – back with her.

They told Bruce he was going to Thora’s for the school holidays and removed him from his foster mother without warning or allowing for goodbyes. The 10-year-old, with little experience with Aboriginal environments, who had not been emotionally prepared to leave his foster mother, was thrust back into an Aboriginal environment he had no knowledge of and taken to meet a host of strange relatives.

Bruce’s father had already died. He never bonded with his siblings or mother and adulthood brought full-blown psychological problems and alcoholism.

The adult Trevorrow was always able to work but he grew familiar with psychiatric hospitals and ended up in court repeatedly for hitting his wife. He never connected with his children.

When this lost soul walked into the office of Joanne Richardson, who was working at Adelaide’s then-equivalent of the Aboriginal Legal Service, he was her age but she couldn’t believe how much older he looked.

“He was a man who didn’t feel comfortable anywhere. He didn’t exude warmth. He wasn’t an attractive person to be near,” Buti said.

“But when Bruce told her his story, she felt it needed to see the light of day.”

It took thirteen years for that day in court.

The ALS had few resources. Richardson carried a heavy load, dealing with civil matters, and had a couple of paralegals and another lawyer assisting her but was engaging barristers to help out. Every time she engaged a barrister, that barrister would then get promoted and leave.

Things turned a corner when Richardson’s persistence secured the now-famous Julian Burnside QC, whose initial reluctance to take on such an uncertain case turned into a burning determination to win after meeting Trevorrow and, like Richardson before him, being shocked by his appearance.

The trial went for 38 days. The state threw everything at it; no member of the Stolen Generations had yet successfully sued the state and they were worried about opening the floodgates. There were skilful advocates on both sides and keenly contested expert evidence.

Trevorrow, although he had difficulty communicating, was a good witness in the very truth of how he stood in court: as a broken man. The appearance of his siblings, who had had every success in life, underpinned his case. Their strong family upbringing and connection to culture meant they coped with their ups and downs in life, ending up with important leadership roles in the Aboriginal community. His older brother even lectured at Harvard.

This brother, Tom, told the court Bruce was very quiet, and “different”, from his first visits.

“He’d missed out on – how could I say – our way of life, because he was raised differently and we had to be aware sometimes when we talked, and we’d talk in our language,” he said.

“We’d talk about somebody, or we’d talk about something, that Bruce wasn’t familiar with … even sometimes our actions of what we do with our body language, our Ngarrindjeri ways.

Tom told the court later in life, Trevorrow would sit with family on his intermittent visits, and “tears would run down his cheeks in front of his eyes, he was hurting and didn’t want to show it … everybody knew of what happened to him and it wasn’t fair and we knew that the way he was carrying on is because he couldn’t fit in again, even though we tried helping him fit in, he couldn’t … it’s hard to put into words sometimes; it’s what we feel as blackfellas, as Ngarrindjeri, inside, what we sense about each other.”

It was hard, he said, to put into whitefella words.

“They belonged to a world that Bruce never belonged to,” Buti said.

“Bruce … was caught between two worlds, unsure of who he was, and without the security of a family that would allow him to forge his own identity.

“He was stolen and it just seemed so cruel.

“That they weren’t told what happened to him. That the state lied about it. That he never saw his father again. That he was not prepared to be stolen a second time. That he could not form a close relationship with his mother, or his siblings. That he could never reconnect with his Aboriginal world or the non-Aboriginal world. And perhaps most greatly that he could love or care for his own children.”

Justice Tom Gray awarded damages in respect of injuries and losses, unlawful removal and detention, misfeasance in public office and false imprisonment, totalling $525,000. Bruce Trevorrow died the following year, aged 51, months after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered his famous apology.

A Stolen Life is in bookstores now.

This story originally appeared on WAtoday. 

Review: Driving into the Sun, Marcella Polain

How can she go forward, go anywhere but back, when the past is all we see? Future a creature always approaching, striking us always from behind?

 

I like a balanced book diet. Classics to further my education and knowledge. Non-fiction to give insight and navigation skills for the modern world. Random recommendations, to ensure ‘wild cards’ and connect with my loved ones who are also readers. Literary fiction to challenge myself intellectually and inspire me and savour words. Easy children’s, crime and horror novels to relax and escape.

All give equal joy, in different flavours, and keep my brain healthy and happy.

Like all diets it could be improved. I could seek out more international authors, for example. More books from minority voices. But already there is so much and sometimes such a program gives rise to an uneasy consciousness that there isn’t enough time.

It was this mindset in which I picked up Driving into the Sun, the first literary fiction work I’d read for a while, and felt myself trying to storm through it like it was the new Dervla MacTiernan crime thriller.

Well, it does open with a death: the cruelly sudden taking of a man, a husband and father.

For Orla, a child living in suburban Perth in 1968, her Daddy was everything.

After his death she, her mother and little sister are ripped from their comforting nuclear bubble into a fractured family with a single working mother, in financial and personal limbo.

Orla’s mum is not particularly maternal and her little sister Deebee is not particularly sweet. They all cope in their own private ways, leaving scant room for comforting each other.

Orla, already a quiet child, folds into herself as she grapples silently with a new situation she can’t accept in a world she already scarcely comprehended.

She lacks the bearings we get as adults: the means to tell ourselves stories about what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen.

This book strips away that comforting narrative, catapulting you back to a time in which you had no power and no meaning, except that you could make from your senses, and later, scraps of sentences caught from adults who tossed them carelessly away within earshot.

Orla had overheard her mother telling Kit that he was living with a woman up north. At school, Orla has looked in the atlas. There was a lot of world up north. Maybe Cora missed him like Orla missed her father. If she did, she never let on. And they were adults, Cora, Henry, Kit. She was a kid. And they must know what’s best: not talk about things pretend everything’s normal, and that way it would be.

Privy to Orla’s sight, touch and hearing, and with the benefit of experience, the reader is in the unusual position of knowing what is happening to a character better than the character herself.

This is the second novel of Western Australian author Marcella Polain, whose first novel, The Edge of the World, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize.

She has also published three books of poetry – and who but a poet can better speak the sense-language of a child, inhabit those levels below conscious meaning?

There was a sound like the flap of a bird’s wing that made her press her eye to one of those gaps. She had seen the old lady before, folding clothes at the washing line next door and she was there again, her back turned, this time pegging up a shirt. She bent slowly, took another from the basket, held it along its bottom edge and flicked it, one, two, three times, that wing-billow sound, then pegged it up beside the other. Shirts hung upside down like kids on monkey bars.

Yet like when reading poetry (or growing through childhood for that matter) a different pace applies. When I tried to read it fast, to find out ‘what happens’, impatient with Orla’s fumbling through life, it began to slip through my fingers.

I was recently at a writing workshop with the author Brenda Walker who spoke about books such as Elizabeth Jolley’s, or Joan London’s – books that “take the reader on a kind of dance”.

“You don’t read them to be taken on a charge through the plot,” she said. “You read them for the atmosphere.

“You have to throw yourself into the sea … it’s quite frightening, but it bears you up.”

She noted that forces such as Netflix and the TV revolution have fundamentally changed storytelling, made it almost entirely about plot and character.

That readers seldom now want to truck “with the oblique and the poetic” – that they respond instead to “limpidity and simplicity”.

I don’t want to be like that, I thought suddenly, 80 pages in. I just bought a novel that took 10 years to write. Why this need to get it done in a weekend?

I slowed down, and began to concentrate. And then I fell in love with this book, which is one of the most pure and true descriptions of grief I have ever read.

It teases you with hope and the possibility of simple redemption and healing, only to trick you back to square one again and again – just as grief itself does. On page 237, completely absorbed, I began to cry.

Polain captures utterly what she has herself phrased as “the complex interior life of children”: that time in which you were so aware of the way everything looked and felt and sounded and tasted, somehow bigger and more intense than now; that time in which your parents were your entire universe, frightening and mystifying and utterly necessary.

So don’t buy this book if you want a whodunit. Buy it if you love words, and want your heart, like Orla’s, to lurch “with loss and wishing”. If you want to explore the deepest experiences of human existence: grief and love and guilt and coming of age.

Buy it if you want to throw yourself into the sea, and have it bear you up.

 

 

From pitiful draft to a publishing contract: meet my mentor in shining armour

My proud mum and me after hearing about the contract.

I’m not reviewing a book today. I’m reviewing a writer and a mentor whose support was paramount in my manuscript, The Last Bookstore, being one of three shortlisted for Australia’s newest and richest literary prize – and now, being offered a publishing contract with Fremantle Press!

I have just heard that Laurie Steed has added one-on-one formal mentorship to his existing suite of literary teaching services.

It’s the perfect opportunity to say out loud: the quality of The Last Bookstore and my ability to steer it this far through the industry has been thanks in large part to his guidance.

The Last Bookstore has been (so far) three years in the making. A full one year on the merry-go-round of taking it to agents and implementing their feedback.

One asked for new beginnings which I tried to provide but missed the mark. Another told me not all the characters were working. One said the writing didn’t work but the story was good. Another said the story worked but the writing didn’t. One said it lacked “sparkle”; another said it was too “quiet”. Suffice to say my manuscript wasn’t wowing anyone.

I had been smashing out work on my own for years. I’d gained foggy hard-won insights from being alone with my own work. Gleaned tips from books on writing. Agents who took time to provide feedback gave me valuable course corrections.

But it was all so difficult, so demoralising. And something still wasn’t working.

Like a couple whose relationship was on the rocks, The Last Bookstore and I were “on a break” when I drafted my second manuscript.

An excerpt from that won me a place in the 1st Edition Retreat at Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre – three days of intensive mentoring workshops with Laurie Steed.

you-belong-hereLaurie assessed countless manuscripts as a former editor at Margaret River Press, and I had read and loved his own first novel, You Belong Here.

In his workshops, lightbulbs began flashing.

Laurie taught me about beginnings and endings. Why they matter. What they do. How to analyse them in other texts and see what mine were missing.

About scenes and chapters, what the hell they are for and how to look at my own manuscript and identify the narrative arc and what was lacking.

About including sensory detail, how to truly “show” not “tell” and how to interrograte a paragraph.

Crucially, he also reassured me that I could, in fact, write.

And suddenly things began to happen.

First, they became fun. The second draft of my second manuscript was so much better, easier and more enjoyable to write (stay tuned for some good news on that book, hopefully soon!)

And I picked up The Last Bookstore again with a vow to do another structural edit, feeling the bravery and commitment necessary to tackle it, to a depth both totally agonizing and absolutely necessary.

Another new first chapter. Every scene analysed for its function, then rewritten. Bits chopped off. New bits written and sewn in. Characters cut. Others given room to breathe and open their mouths. And a new ending. Finally coming to grips with my story. And then, an oral edit, reading 84,000 words aloud and stopping to rewrite every paragraph.

Mel Emily Laurie Emma

Laurie with me and my fellow 1st Edition-ers Mel Hall (recently longlisted for the Fogarty Award) and Emily Sun (recently shortlisted for the Deborah Cass Prize).

Yes, I put in the hours, but without Laurie I would not have known what to do in them,  these past six months. I had been at the end of my tether. It was those final two rewrites using what he taught me that got it over the line.

He also dusted me off after rejections and gave advice on handling agents, building a coherent career, using social media without selling out. Even his emails are so beautifully written, so uplifting, I sometimes can’t quite believe he’s real.

I’ve never bit the bullet on a professional manuscript assessment. I looked at the price tags and went, “nah,”; struggled on. Imagine if I actually hired Laurie to go through this manuscript, two years ago. I might have got this contract sooner, and had more joy along the way.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you are working, you must exit your hobbit hole and get professional advice.

If you have a manuscript in the bottom drawer that needs something – but you’re not sure what – I urge you to get in touch with him here.

To Laurie and KSP – thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Review: Australia Reimagined, Hugh Mackay

Being a journalist up close to the political and media spin cycle, seeing oppositions become governments that fail to live up to our hopes as miserably as the predecessors who get voted out, while social and environmental problems only deepen, is endlessly disillusioning. I spend many days battling cynicism and weariness.

In particular, reporting on and reading about climate change, seeing David Attenborough’s Our Planet burst onto screens in all its beauty and urgency, knowing potentially irreversible destruction is happening right now without action to avert it fills me with a creeping despair that is increasingly clouding life. I am far from alone in this.

As the screws have been tightening, a review copy of Australia Reimagined by Hugh Mackay, Australia’s best known social researcher, has landed quietly on my desk.

It sat there months, among other things that needed dealing with (e.g. climate change!)

One day I picked it up. I needed something to amuse me during a lunch break that wasn’t a screen. I had no preconceptions. I enjoyed a previous book of his, The Good Life, but I expected this to be a bit boring, to be perfectly frank. A book about Australian society? Yawn!

I was entirely unprepared to be swept swiftly away, by a surging river of ideas.

I began to read the book every lunchtime. At the end of every lunchtime I put it down with increasing reluctance. And at the end of the week I put the book on the back of the bike, brought it home, and spent the weekend devouring the rest, with the kind of fervour that’s usually more to be expected from new-release crime fiction.

Anyone – and I’d hazard a guess that it’s many of us – anyone who feels even vaguely, even a niggle, that there might be something somehow wrong or contradictory about the way we live in this country today – despite all our luck and progress and privilege – should read this.

In a marching argument loaded with insights on the Australian-specific version of Western culture, Mackay examines our trends in privacy, technology use, religion, marriage, loneliness, anxiety, multiculturalism and gender and demonstrates how these trends are feeding into each other, affecting our social cohesion, dragging us down as a people.

It’s a story about ourselves we need to hear. But it’s not a lecture and while it’s at times shocking, it’s never depressing. Quite the opposite: it’s illuminating, empowering, hopeful.

Mackay offers new ways to think about reviving and transforming our broken and disenchanting political system, our crippled public education system, our toxic gender stalemate – and more.

For someone feeling so broken-down by the situation described in my opening paragraphs that sometimes, in my darker moments, I struggle to see the point of even continuing to work, it’s like a breath of fresh air.

His ideas made me want to spring up from my chair after every chapter and take some kind of practical, actionable step. I think anyone who read this would feel the same, but depending on their own problem or passion, the action they would take might look quite different from mine.

Therefore, at various times while reading I wanted to thrust this book under the noses of my brother, sister, mother, husband, boss, colleague and friend, and there’s no better recommendation for a book than that. It would make a great gift (I’ve already lent mine out!)

If I had known how much I would love it, I would not have let it languish in a ‘to read’ pile; I would have placed it on top and read it before anything else.

As should you.

 

Review: The Dry, Jane Harper

My colleague Heather handed me a book. Just read the first page, she said.

It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.

 

The drought had left the blowflies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra levelled their rifles at skinny lifestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions, as the tiny town shimmered under day after day of burning blue sky.

 

‘It’ll break,’ the farmers said as the months ticked over into a second year. They repeated the words out loud to each other like a mantra, and under their breath to themselves like a prayer …

 

The body in the clearing was the freshest. It took the flies slightly longer to discover the two in the farmhouse, despite the front door swinging open like an invitation…

 

Of course, I instantly borrowed the book, a debut novel from Australian journalist Jane Harper that has bagged so many awards that the stickers jostle for space on the cover.

I had to find out what happens next, as enigmatic federal agent Aaron Falk goes home for the funeral of Luke Hadler, the best friend of his childhood and teens – who has, it appears, taken his own life.

It’s no ordinary funeral, though: before his final decision, Luke also shot his wife and little son, sparing only his baby daughter.

The town largely accepts that the searing drought, the heat, and perhaps the prospect of his farm going under all combined to send Luke over the edge.

But Luke’s parents are desperate for some alternative answer. And so Falk, a financial crimes specialist, makes a reluctant promise to them that he will have a poke through Luke’s affairs.

In part because of old loyalties, in part to protecting a secret of his own from that long-ago past he and Luke shared.

Falk finds that the local police sergeant has his own doubts and suspicions about what happened on that farm and together they begin an off-the-books investigation.

But things get increasingly nasty in the town as the heat builds, and you begin to wonder if Falk can solve this increasingly sinister riddle before violence breaks out once more.

Harper’s parched and lonely setting forms a backdrop to a plot that’s like kindling, artfully laid to build to a fast and furious burn.

And her crackling creation of Kiewarra proves itself as much a character as Luke, or Falk, in the heart-stopping role it plays in a nailbiting climax.

I never expected this debut novel to be quite so complex and layered – I guessed again and again, but the truth shocked me when it came, like a cold plunge into a deep river on a sweltering day.

A riveting blend of literary and crime fiction, it is full of disquieting truths about about rural life and community.

I had to work to make myself keep it going for three days; luckily, I’m late to the Jane Harper party, so I can immediately go on to the sequel, Force of Nature, also published by Pan MacMillan.

There’s also the film version coming, optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, starring Eric Bana as Falk.

Read and liked The Dry? Then you might enjoy this recent interview with Jane Harper on literary podcast The Garret in which she discusses the book and her path to publication.