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: 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.

Review: River of Salt, Dave Warner

‘I’ve made some enquiries on your behalf. Shaloub’s bodyguard is a giant, name of Granite. Granite’s no professor but he remembers absolutely every piece of tail set foot in the Cross.’
You might already know Dave Warner’s name. He’s an Australian musician who’s authored three previous crime novels, one of which won the Ned Kelly Award.
He was recently in Perth to promote his latest book, River of Salt, and I picked up a copy to see what all the fuss was about – I hadn’t actually heard of Dave Warner myself, but I do love Australian fiction and crime fiction, and I was intrigued by the jacket quote from prolific thriller writer Michael Robotham: ‘Part Goodfellas and part love letter to Australian coastal towns, this wonderfully imagined crime novel is like riding the perfect wave.’
It’s 1961 and Blake Saunders, a former Mob hitman from Philadelphia, has escaped that life to start again in a sleepy town on Australia’s east coast. He owns his own bar, the Surf Shack, plays in a band and surfs compulsively, slowly washing clean the sins of his past. But he can never quite lose the feeling there’s a target on his back.
So when a prostitute is brutally murdered in a nearby motel and a piece of evidence at the scene points towards the Surf Shack, Blake feels compelled to act, to clear the wolf from his door once and for all by solving the murder the police seem eager just to tick a box on.
I’m attracted to the writing early – it’s strong and clean and loaded with evocative similes. Like,
skies grey as an elephant’s belly.
And,
The wind probed their clothes like the fingers of a dead man.
And,
His belly pressed flat into the board, which gently rose and fell like a crumb on the chest of a snoozing giant.
And,
He moved quietly as cancer.
If similes don’t excite you as much as they do me you’re a fool, but I’ll tell you more anyway.
Warner spends the early part not launching straight into the mystery, but sketching out a compelling cast of characters who hook you just as well as a bloodied corpse opener would:
Blake, a brooding heartthrob with a dark past and a killer’s instincts, full of guilt and regret. His yardboy Andy, a simple sap who loves the fish in The Surf Shack’s giant tank, and knows them all by name. Bar manager Doreen, beautiful and capable, but nursing a deep loneliness. Crane the beach bum, an alcoholic and a poet. Kitty the innocent, but smart and gutsy teen who wants so much more than what her hometown can offer.
The scene shift from Philly to Australia makes for an attention-grabbing contrast, and the menace and darkness of the Mob bleeds into the new setting quite perfectly. I had wondered how convincing it was going to be, the American fish out of water, but the details laced through are perfect, consistent and never overdone.
And 100 pages in, this simmering mystery comes to a rolling boil, with twist after twist keeping me wildly speculating, heightened in drama by Blake’s personal drive for a solution – and for absolution.
Blake is bound to appeal to readers: the man with dark stains on his conscience, but a moral imperative to act, and a strong sense of justice. Like Jack Reacher, but with a humanising longing for love and redemption.
Perhaps he should have let it go, left it to Harvey to get it right. But he couldn’t … He did not deserve any of this: playing his guitar in his own bar with a beautiful woman like Doreen working alongside him, surfing in the crystal ocean, watching the sun rise like a gold coin over a sheet of pure silver. He’d suspected all along it hadn’t just been gifted to him, that there must be more to it, some fine print like on a winning lottery ticket. This was the fine print. You have to help those who can’t help themselves, you have to protect and serve those who serve you.
Warner has strongly evoked a time and a place; but he has also riffed on honesty, human connection, guilt and love – and how the past will never, really, quite let you go.

Review: The Scholar, Dervla McTiernan

The ScholarDervla McTiernan’s debut The Ruin, introducing Irish detective Cormac Reilly, was a hit. It’s already been optioned for film by Australia’s Hopscotch Features.
So it’s safe to say this follow-up has been highly anticipated. 
Reilly is first on the scene when his partner, Dr Emma Sweeney, finds a hit and run victim outside Galway University. 
Her instinctive call to him means Reilly lands a case he never otherwise would have been called on to investigate; and it’s a big case.
A security card in the dead woman’s pocket soon identifies her as Carline Darcy, a gifted student and heir to Irish pharmaceutical giant Darcy Therapeutics. 
The profile is high and the pressure even higher as Cormac investigates and evidence mounts that the death is linked to a Darcy laboratory and, increasingly, to Emma herself.
Eventually, he is forced to question his own objectivity. 
The plot’s intricate and satisfying and it’s definitely a page-turner – I made a few half-hearted attempts to put it down, but I kept picking it up again. I was supposed to go to a party that Saturday night. Needless to say I didn’t make it to the party.
Charismatic Reilly and his beautiful, brilliant yet troubled girlfriend Emma Sweeney are intriguing. Not irritatingly virtuous, but likeable and nuanced. I’m already looking forward to seeing how they develop in the next book.
All the characters, in fact, particularly the police – such as lazy and resentful Moira Handley (who sounds creepily close to Myra Hindley), harassed and overstretched Carrie O’Halloran, smart and loyal Pete Fisher – feel authentic, all drawing the reader to invest more deeply in the story. I’m already hoping to meet them again in the next book.
McTiernan is a former lawyer from Ireland who has moved to Western Australia and the book’s glimpses into the Irish police force feel exotic to a Perth reader, and totally convincing in their procedural and legal detail.
Ireland’s an ideal setting for crime novels, with its atmospheric landscapes and complex social history, and I’m not the only one who loves it; before, I only really knew of Ian Rankin, but it turns out Irish crime is booming, leading to nicknames such as Celtic Crime, Hibernian Homicide and Emerald Noir (the latter  coined by beloved Scottish crime author Val McDermid).
I’m so happy to add Dervla McTiernan to my must-read list. Since she now lives in Perth, I get the Irish settings I love with the chance to support a local author. Win-win!
This was a solid read, and I can’t wait to see this writer develop into a stalwart of the genre. I have a feeling Detective Cormac Reilly will be around for a while yet.

Markus Zusak gives glimpse behind the scenes of latest bestseller, Bridge of Clay

Some people were disappointed Markus Zusak’s latest novel Bridge of Clay, about which he will speak in hotly anticipated events at Perth Writer’s Week, isn’t more like the book that catapulted him to global fame: The Book Thief.

Zusak’s six novels have earned him ten years on the New York Times bestseller list and established him as one of Australia’s biggest authors. The Book Thief has been translated into more than 40 languages and is now a major movie.

The Book Thief has been called "the best book of all time"... no pressure, eh?
Markus Zusak

But while The Book Thief’s Nazi Germany and Bridge of Clay’s suburban Australia tell wildly different stories in almost diametrically opposed settings, they share more subtle likenesses.

Both deal deeply with grief and pain, forcing the reader to feel and recall emotions at once deeply private and universally human.

Yet both do so artfully; far from being simple stories about loss, they both employ the device of an all-important, all-seeing central narrator who shows how people’s lives become intertwined through love and shared history.

Bridge of Clay is about a dying mother; but it is about far more than that. The 600-page saga is set up like a mystery, its pages littered with clues: a mattress. A mule. A murderer. An obstacle course. A clothespeg. And the iron gamepiece from a Monopoly set. Just to name a few.

Read the rest of this story on WAtoday.

Read my story on the Perth Writers Week program: Toil, timing and a dash of luck: Perth Writers Week books the big guns

 

The insight and mystery of Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein was an American writer and art collector who moved to Paris as an adult and there established one of the world’s most famous salons, a name given to places where influential artists and thinkers once gathered to socialise and converse, share ideas and inspiration. Those who gathered with Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice Toklas, and whose art and writing she collected and/or inspired, included painters Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Picabia, Thornton Wilder, Ezra Pound, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Stein and Toklas spent World War I in France, acting as a hospital supply unit, and stayed in country France during WWII despite both being Jews; they and the art collection all survived the war.

Stein published more than 20 books and numerous plays over her lifetime but in 1933 when she was almost 60, Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became her first popular success. With sardonic literary sleight-of-hand, she had told her own life story through the voice of her partner and this was the book that made her famous. It’s arguably her most readable work and resulted in a year-long lecture tour of America in 1934-5 that cemented her celebrity status.

I have no idea how this book fell into my hands as a teenager or why it captivated me. Maybe it was the audacious trick of writing your autobiography using your own partner as a sort of puppet. Maybe I was agape at the accounts of all these incredibly famous historical figures actually gathering somewhere to talk with friends, about art. The closest experience I had was university tutorial groups where I thought most of my fellow students were meatheads. Maybe it was the arch tone and the style utterly unlike anything I’d ever read. At any rate, it fired my imagination and a sense of nostalgia for nothing I had ever known and has survived years of successive culls, remaining one of the few non-children’s books in my more-or-less permanent collection.

Many years later in a moment of serendipity I recognised her name on the cover of a different book: Everybody’s Autobiography. 

As its intro explained, not everyone had loved The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein pissed a lot of her friends off, chronicling them in totally unvarnished terms. And Stein herself was somewhat troubled by the unaccustomed celebrity it had brought after years of her work being published. She was having a bit of an identity crisis and, it seemed, needed to face herself head-on and not use Alice B. Toklas as a kind of invisibility cloak.

Everybody’s Autobiography is both an account of the lecture tour through Stein’s home country of America that the success of the first Autobiography had brought, and this personal need to set the record straight. So it’s closer in format to a straight autobiography.

If you could ever call it “straight” when it performs another twist of identity in calling her own story “everybody’s”. And when its stated commitment to stay in the “present” means, in practice, a ramble through memories and the reflections they spark, in the form of largely unpunctuated streams of consciousness, pulled up with a jerk every time she needs to re-centre in the time and place of the story.

It’s challenging to read; much more so than the first Autobiography, which stuck to plain-ish English and punctuation; but it’s also much more intimate, and allows you further into Stein’s head. Sometimes with the pithy, the funny, the relatable:

When there is a great deal of unemployment and misery you can never find anybody to work for you.
~
Everybody knows if you are too careful you are so occupied in being careful that you are sure to stumble over something.
~
Native always means people who belong somewhere else, because they had once belonged somewhere. That shows that the white race does not really think they belong anywhere because they think of everybody else as native.
~
The French women always used to say that a woman’s silhouette should change every ten years. It should not grow less it should grow more and mostly it does.
~
Sound can be a worry to anyone particularly when it is the sound of a human voice.
~
I do want to get rich but I never want to do what there is to do to get rich.
~
I like to be driven around if I do not have to go inside of anything, and be shown anything that I do not much care for that, but I do like driving and I like seeing country.

Other times, deeper into what she’s thinking, and some of it is so deep I conclude she’s allowed to forget about commas, since she’s grappling with concepts altogether bigger.

Of genius:

Being a genius is not a worrisome thing, because it is so occupying, and then when it is successful it is not a worrisome thing because it is successful, but a successful thing does not occupy you as an unsuccessful thing does, certainly not, and anyway a genius need not think, because if he does think he has to be wrong or right he has to argue or decide, and after all he might just as well not do that, nor need he be himself inside him. And when a dog gets older there is less of it and it does not worry him. When a genius gets older is there less of it and does it then not worry him.

Of ideas:

The real ideas are not the relation of human being as groups but a human being to himself inside him and that is an idea that is more interesting than humanity in groups, after all the minute that there are a lot of them they do not do it for themselves but somebody does it for them and that is a damn sight less interesting.

Of our relationship with time:

Human beings have to live dogs too so as not to know that time is passing, that is the whole business of living to go on so they will not know time is passing, that is why they get drunk that is why they like to go to war, during a war there is the most complete absence of the sense that time is passing. After all that is what life is and that is the reason there is no Utopia, little or big young or old dog or man everybody wants every minute so filled that they are not conscious of that minute passing. It’s just as well they do not think about it you have to be a genius to live in it and know it to exist in it and express it to accept it and deny it by creating it.

Other passages deal with writing as a craft and directly with her sometimes alienating style.

They asked me to tell why an author like myself can become popular … writing what anybody feels they are understanding and so they get tired of that, anybody can get tired of anything everybody can get tired of something and so they do not know it but they get tired of feeling they are understanding and so they take pleasure in having something that they feel they are not understanding … my writing is clear as mud, but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear, perhaps that is the reason but really there is no reason except that the earth is round and that no one knows the limits of the universe.

Yet while she defends it, she still, touchingly, after so many books and so much fame, shows that as a writer she still experiences what just about all writers do: self-doubt.

Of course naturally in the meanwhile I went on writing, I had always wanted it all to be common-place and simple anything that I am writing and then I get worried lest I have succeeded and it is too common-place and too simple so much so that it is nothing, anybody says it is not so, it is not too common-place and not too simple but do they know anyway I have always all the time thought it was so and hoped it was so and then worried lest it was so. I am worried again now lest it is so.

I can’t really sort through my reasons any better than I did when I was a teenager, apart from recognising the echo of truth in her words: sometimes what we need most is what we don’t quite understand. To test those unknown limits of the universe.

But like a glutton for punishment without punctuation, I will seek more out, hungry for more knowledge about the extraordinary lives of Stein and Toklas. Starting with the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Yes! Toklas wrote her own books, including a cookbook. Which has a chapter on how to cook for famous painters. Don’t you just love it…

 

The 57 books I read in 2018, my top 10 and holiday reading recommendations

Fiction

  • Presented in the order I read them.
  • Green: WA writers, because reading local is awesome.
  • Red: Children’s books, because kids need books and books need them.
  • Blue: Crime and thrillers, all trustworthy holiday reads.
  • Black: literary fiction (read on for the top five).
  • First eight by L.M. Montgomery. What can I say? Memory lane beckons.
  1. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery 
  2. Anne of Avonlea, L.M. Montgomery 
  3. Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery 
  4. Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery 
  5. Anne’s House of Dreams, L.M. Montgomery 
  6. Anne of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery 
  7. Rainbow Valley, L.M. Montgomery 
  8. Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery. 
  9. Dustfall, Michelle Johnston
  10. Finders Keepers, Stephen King 
  11. Extinctions, Josephine Wilson
  12. The Sisters’ Song, Louise Allan 
  13. Survival, Rachel Watts 
  14. You Belong Here, Laurie Steed 
  15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
  16. The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante
  17. Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King  
  18. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (audio)
  19. Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
  20. NW, Zadie Smith
  21. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
  22. Body Double, Tess Gerritsen
  23. Vanish, Tess Gerritsen
  24. The Mephisto Club, Tess Gerritsen
  25. Afternoons with Harvey Beam, Carrie Cox 
  26. Insidious Intent, Val McDermid
  27. The Outsider, Stephen King 
  28. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
  29. A Girl in Time, John Birmingham
  30. The Golden Minute, John Birmingham 
  31. The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton
  32. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje
  33. Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller
  34. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith 
  35. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
  36. Past Tense, Lee Child 
  37. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
  38. End of Watch, Stephen King 
  39. 101 Dalmations, Dodie Smith 
  40. A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett 

Nonfiction

  • Presented in the order I read them.
  • Red: true crime
  • Blue: books about writing/literary/artistic memoirs
  • Green: personal development
  1. Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl
  2. Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner
  3. Work Strife Balance, Mia Freedman  
  4. The First Stone, Helen Garner
  5. Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Helen Garner
  6. Draft No. 4, John McPhee 
  7. Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss 
  8. French Women for All Seasons, Mireille Giuilano 
  9. Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick (audio)
  10. A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis 
  11. The Passion Trap, Dean D. Celis and Cassandra Phillips 
  12. The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton 
  13. How to Be a Writer, John Birmingham 
  14. Essentialism, Greg McKeown 
  15. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell 
  16. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard 
  17. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein

Top 5 fiction (in the order I read — too good, and too different, to be ranked)

  1. The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton (literary fiction)
  2. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje (literary fiction)
  3. Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller (literary psychological thriller)
  4. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (literary crime/mystery)
  5. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides (literary fiction)

Top 5 (nonfiction) in the order I read — too good, and too different, to be ranked

  1. The First Stone, Helen Garner (true crime)
  2. The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton (literary memoir)
  3. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell (memoir/diary)
  4. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard (literary memoir)
  5. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein (literary memoir)

The Emma Awards

Funniest 

  1. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell 
  2. How to Be a Writer, John Birmingham
  3. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

Best crime:

  1. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (crime/mystery)
  2. End of Watch, Stephen King 
  3. Insidious Intent, Val McDermid

Most inspiring: 

  1. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard
  2. Essentialism, Greg McKeown 
  3. Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl

Most beautiful writing:

  1. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard
  2. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje 
  3. All three titles by Helen Garner

Most difficult (all women; coincidence?) 

  1. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein 
  2. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
  3. NW, Zadie Smith

Best holiday reads: 

  1. Past Tense, Lee Child 
  2. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
  3. Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King

Hope these lists help you with holiday reading ideas 🙂 If you have any questions about the titles, leave a comment! 

Sheep, goats, God and man: Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut

When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth grey rumble going under me everything’s hell different. Like I’m in a fresh new world all slick and flat and easy. Even with the engine working up a howl and the wind flogging in the window the sounds are real soft and pillowy. Civilised I mean. Like you’re still on the earth but you don’t hardly notice it anymore. And that’s hectic. You’d think I never got in a car before. But when you’ve hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months, when you’ve had the stony slow prickle-up hard country right in your face that long it’s bloody sudden. Some crazy shit, I tell you. Brings on this angel feeling. Like you’re just one arrow of light.

 

Our culture is shackling men to a toxic misogyny that is not doing either men or women any favours, and stopping our society moving forward.

This was the subject of Winton’s electrifying speech delivered at the 2017 Perth Writer’s Week and of his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut.

Obviously, Winton’s hour-long speech explains his point much better than my attempt at a one-line encapsulation, so don’t argue before you listen to it (this recorded in Melbourne, but same speech).

And The Shepherd’s Hut tells the story of Jaxie Clackton, raised with domestic violence and emotional poverty, in a small town that turns a blind eye to his mother’s bruises. She won’t leave his abusive alcoholic father. Her escape is to die of cancer, leaving her teenage son to endure the thrashings alone.

It’s told in the first person, giving fucked-up, foul-mouthed Jaxie room to let loose: “the prose equivalent of a good long slug of room-temperature rum,” Good Weekend described it.

When his father dies in a sudden accident in the opening pages, Jaxie is terrified he’ll be blamed and flees north deep into the Wheatbelt. Starving and dehydrated, he comes upon a vast salt lake. And on its border, an old shepherd’s hut.

There lives Fintan, a defrocked Irish priest hiding a secret. He’s been there eight years. Twice a year someone drives in supplies and asks him to atone for his sins. He never does and the sins are never revealed, though there are hints at some kind of political scandal. He takes Jaxie in, gives him food and water, and nurses him into health and a prickly, cautious friendship.

He give me a pannikin of tea and he sat back down and drunk his slow and methodical. I looked back at that bead thing on the shelf. It was way out of place in a hut like this, in an old dude’s stuff, and he could see me sussing it out and I thought for sure he’d get on his hind legs and say fifty-nine things about it but the look on his face said that wasn’t gunna happen, like it was off limits.
Good chops, I said.

The book is highly readable. By 50 pages in, compulsion sets in and I rip through it at warp speed. Writing Jaxie, Winton lets you look straight through the eyes of a rough kid staring down the barrel of a hopeless future. He’s gone full immersion, Stanislavsky style. The voice of our country’s most famous writer is entirely subsumed by this angry little dero, all burred up like a scorpion about to strike, as his own girlfriend describes him. Winton’s not building complex characters and scenery like in his other books; it’s all narrative drive.

The writing glows like a hot coal. He builds the story like he’s building a fire, first placing your empathy, then your hope, then slowly your foreboding, priming you for the explosion you know is coming.

But it ain’t genre fiction, no matter how thrilling, and so, as with much good literary novels you’re required to do a little head scratching at the end.

My boss Fran and I were both puzzled, and we came up with zilch, so I did a little research and I present below some hints on how to think about it all. Don’t worry; no spoilers.

Think about the old priest as a Christian shepherd. He’s living in a shepherd’s hut, but there are no sheep left. Being too old to hunt roos for meat like Jaxie, he lures and traps goats into a backyard water trap to slit their throats. He does no shepherding, until he takes Jaxie in and saves his life, giving him food, drink and succour in the Christian tradition of welcoming a stranger.

The mysterious old sinner is both a bad shepherd and a good shepherd.

And the symbol of the sacrificial goat will appear again.

In the Australian Book Review, Brenda Niall says this notion of a priest atoning for sins in the desert recalls an 1850s painting by Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat.

“Hunt bought a white goat. He took the goat to the margin of the salt-encrusted Dead Sea, where he set up his easel. A piece of red cloth, representing the sins of the world, was tied to the goat’s horns,” she wrote.

“Hunt was dramatising the Old Testament text in which ‘the Goat shall bear upon him all [the people’s] iniquities unto a land not inhabited’. This, in Christian belief, is in accord with the idea of the suffering Christ as the bearer of the world’s sins and sorrows.”

Whether or not Winton was purposefully invoking this particular painting, you are left with clear symbols: a shepherd, the sacrificial goat, Jaxie as an ‘instrument of God’.

Is Jaxie receiving a sacrifice as the son of God, made in his image as Christianity tells us all people are, and therefore deserving of a brighter future?

And, more obviously: how can Jaxie avoid becoming his father, and make his own brighter future?

How can our society do better than ignoring suffering, allowing a poisonous and violent version of manhood to continue, letting evil flourish?

Winton told the New York Times his ability to describe the world he sees makes him rich despite his modest upbringing; that this book is a nod to those boys without that luxury.

“Such a narrow lexicon, range of words, strong feelings with no way of expressing them except with their fists,” he said. “That’s poverty.”

 

And I drive like that, just under the limit, with a chop in one hand and the wheel in the other. Laughing hard enough to choke. For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you.

But it wasn’t always like this. I been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. and for fucksake don’t get in my way.

 

 

In other Winton news, two of his other Booker-shortlisted books have now been picked up for films after the success of Breath (highly recommended). Dirt Music will likely be filmed in WA. And…! My favourite Winton novel The Riders will be produced by Ridley Scott! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen King’s The Outsider

I always feel frustrated when people tell me they don’t like the kind of books Stephen King writes, because invariably they don’t know what “kind of books” he actually does write.

He has written horror, yes, but throughout his productive 35-year career he’s also written fantasy, speculative fiction, crime  fiction and thrillers. Some works, such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and the Dark Tower series, are closer to literature, albeit with usually some hint of the supernatural (he can’t stop being fun altogether). As a writer he defies easy classification and smug dismissal.

Recent examples: Sleeping Beauties, with his son Owen King was nominally apocalyptic fantasy, but the epic was set firmly in hyperreal small-town America, like the earlier Under the Dome (which the TV series utterly failed to do justice to).

By contrast, Mr Mercedes marked a confident move into crime fiction, bringing the King characterisation and suspense into a straightforward, if horror-tinged, murder mystery (the Hulu TV series for this did a lot better). Finders Keepers loosely carried on this genre, storyline and characters, as does The Outsider; at least at first.

The official blurb:

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.

I won’t say how this novel begins to depart from the pattern set by Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers. That way spoilers lie. Suffice to say it is set some years afterwards and, while borrowing a character or two, is a standalone story. Another glossy, fat, happily page-turning read that requires you only to surrender disbelief and enjoy.

And enjoy I did. If you read and liked the first two, I would definitely recommend it, but I do warn that like Finders Keepers, it doesn’t quite live up to Mr Mercedes. So if you’re new to Stephen King’s crime fiction, do start with that one instead.

 

Why fiction is necessary, according to Arundhati Roy, and me.

I have heard research shows it is mainly women who read novels now. I have heard multiple men say before that they do read, but only nonfiction. As though fiction is somehow frivolous. This grieves me.

It shows ignorance of all that fiction can teach you, and inspire you to reach for further learning, as they knit together complex realities in a way only an imaginative product can.

“Only a novel can tell you how caste, communalisation, sexism, love, music, poetry, the rise of the right all combine in a society. And the depths in which they combine,” author Arundhati Roy told The Guardian after the publication of her new novel.

“We have been trained to “silo-ise”: our brains specialise in one thing. But the radical understanding is if you can understand it all, and I think only a novel can.”

In 1997, this woman’s first novel, The God of Small Things, astonished people around the world. It won the Booker Prize, which had never before been given to an Indian who actually lived in India. Or an Indian woman for that matter. It’s now sold 6 million copies.

It followed the lives of a woman embroiled in an illicit, intercaste love affair, and of her twin children: how, as it says, “they all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.”

It created the twins’ childhood world in a voice so individual it has haunted me for the past two decades. It remains a standout of my reading life.

But Roy is primarily a nonfiction writer. She’s spent the 20 years since The God of Small Things’ release embroiled in politics, producing essays on topics such as major government dams, the  2002 state-sanctioned massacre of as many as 2000 Muslims in Gujarat and the brutal suppression of tribes whose land is being mined. These will be published in collected book (i.e. brick) form next year.

The news she was publishing a second novel was exciting for the book world; I finally opened The Ministry of Utmost Happiness with the greedy happiness of someone who has a box of chocolates all to themselves.

I soon realised the story unfolds against a vast backdrop of modern Indian history that I frankly didn’t understand.

Here’s four paragraphs I wish someone wrote for me before I started:

  • ‘Partition’ means the division of British India in 1947.
  • It divided three provinces, based on district-wide Hindu or Muslim majorities, to create India and Pakistan.
  • This displaced over 14 million people along religious lines, creating overwhelming refugee crises and large-scale violence, with up to two million dead.
  • It created an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that continues now.

Or, as Roy put it,

God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbors turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness opens in Delhi in the 1950s, where Partition still reverberates.

The first part follows a transgender outcast called Anjum who lives in a graveyard. There, she has set up a funeral home and guest house, and dreams of motherhood.

Yep, you read all that correctly.

On her first night in the graveyard, after a quick reconnaissance, Anjum placed her Godrej cupboard and her few belongings near Mulaqat Ali’s grave and unrolled her carpet and bedding between Ahlam Baji’s and Begum Renata Mumtaz Madam’s graves … her desolation protected her. Unleashed at last from social protocol, it rose up around her in all its majesty – a fort, with ramparts, turrets, hidden dungeons and walls that hummed like an approaching mob. She rattled through its gilded chambers like a fugitive absconding from herself.

The stories of Anjum’s life are brilliant in themselves.

Anjum called her guest house Jannat. Paradise. She kept her TV on night and day. She said she needed the noise to steady her mind. She watched the news diligently and became an astute political analyst. She also watched Hindi soap operas and English film channels. She particularly enjoyed B-grade Hollywood vampire movies and watched the same ones over and over again. She couldn’t understand the dialogue of course, but she understood the vampires reasonably well.

But after a while I began to wonder where it was all going.

Then the book enters its second part, with an abrupt switch in setting to Kashmir, a region Partition plunged into territorial disputes between India, Pakistan and China that continues today, resulting in almost continuous warfare and civil unrest.

It also switches to a second protagonist, Tilo, an architect who gets involved with Kashmiri independence fighters.

Between these two parts, both told in third person, a first-person narrator is introduced: a drunk hiding out in Delhi while he’s supposed to be in rehab, and one of three men who see Tilo as the love of their life.

I have constructed myself around her. Not around her perhaps, but around the memory of my love for her. She doesn’t know that. Nobody does, except perhaps Naga, Musa and me, the men who loved her. I use the word love loosely, and only because my vocabulary is unequal to the task of describing the precise nature of that maze, that forest of feelings that connected the three of us to her and eventually to each other.

The narrator dips in and out once or twice more alongside a huge cast of secondary characters. While Tilo and Anjum provide some humanity, some whimsy that lightens the darkness of the political setting and the horror and trauma of the country’s warfare and politics, they are never fully revealed psychologically in the way novels conventionally develop characters.

Instead, they form what The Guardian calls an “extraordinary and visceral state of the-nation”.

It was peacetime. Or so they said. All morning a hot wind had whipped through the city streets, driving sheets of grit, soda-bottle caps and beedi stubs before it, smacking them into car windscreens and cyclists’ eyes. When the wind died, the sun, already high in the sky, burned through the haze and once again the heat rose and shimmered on the streets like a belly dancer. People waited for the thundershower that always followed a dust storm, but it never came. Fire raged through a swathe of huts huddled together on the riverbank, gutting more than two thousand in an instant. Still the Amaltas bloomed, a brilliant, defiant yellow. Each blazing summer it reached up and whispered to the hot brown sky, Fuck You.

I spend most of the novel loving this writing, but overall baffled, following gamely along and waiting for it all to come together. The two parts of the narrative do join in the end, and a bit of happy redemption takes place. Yet I’m left still grasping for meaning.

Roy told The Guardian: “What I wanted to know was: can a novel be a city? … can you stop it being baby food, which can be easily consumed?”

She sure can.

“It’s a book that doesn’t pretend to universalise anything or conceptualise anything. It’s a book of great detail about a place,” she goes on. “Writers are being reduced to creators of a product that is acceptable, that slips down your throat, which readers love and therefore can be bestsellers, that’s so dangerous.”

The Atlantic reckoned she went too far, criticising her for a lack of self-editing, confusion about point of view and a lack of humanity for “the very people she tried to humanise.” It called the book a “fascinating mess”.

But she’s still a must-read for me. I’ll probably open her third novel with equal excitement, but more wariness. Like it might either be a box of pralines or a bomb.

Because her writing is still astonishing, like no other writer I can name. It’s not just the magic realist style; it’s like she’s invented her own language. And while it doesn’t mesh as harmoniously with these characters as it did in The God of Small Things, it’s still delightful. Sentences becomes sandcastles, sweet and ephemeral, just existing for the fun of it.

Two men – one white, one Indian – go past, holding hands. Their plump black Labrador is dressed in a red-and-blue jersey that says No. 7 Manchester United. Like a genial holy man distributing his blessings, he bestows a little squirt of piss on to the tyres of the cars he waddles past.

Look, unless you adored The God of Small Things I won’t recommend this. Especially if you’re one of those men who have given up fiction. Starting with this would scare you back off for life.

But it challenged me. We need to be challenged. And if you do read it, now you know at least one person who’d be happy to discuss it with you afterwards!