Unfulfilled fantasy – Tyra Banks and writing what you (want to) know

Tyra Banks has signed up to write – or at the very least, review the CV of a ghostwriter or two for – a set novels based on the modelling world. She will write three books, Delacorte Press said, the first to be called Modelland and published in 2011.

The story revolves around a teen girl at an academy for exceptional models called Intoxibellas. Banks said the book was “for all the girls and guys who want a lot more FANTASY in their lives and some fierceness and magic, romance and mystery, crazy and wild adventures, and yeah, some danger too.”

I have to admit, I am hugely disappointed by this. The headline actually read “Tyra Banks tries hand at fantasy novels” and I had visions of old-style Dungeons and Dragons fantasy epics perpetuated entirely by rogue supermodels and their team of stylists.

Angular young women, emaciated yet busty, battling dragons and demons and Gods for such arcane and mystical artefacts as the Rod of Hair Straightening, the Sceptre of Waterproof Mascara and a Low Calorie Potion of Might (all the strength, none of the fat!). Displays of stomach-revealing diamante armour, held together by safety pins and attitude and not designed to be used it actual battle by real warriors. (Would they wear in it the Woods of Woe?)

Thrills, spills and more low-blood-sugar-related hissy fits than you can throw a Navi inspired outfit (that tribal blue skin look is so last season, sweetie) at.

But no, it appears Ms Banks has not put on her horned helm and charged off into the realms of fantasy but is writing a book about fashion and the many wacky adventures you can have in the industry.

(I am confused by the fact that the media insist on referring to the fashion industry as “fantasy” constantly. Surely no one has ever mistaken the stuff that the average designer sends down the catwalk as anything else? This year Romance Was Born graced the Rosemount Australian Fashion Week with what appeared to be good and evil candyfloss and a woman who would like to be wearing something fashionable but can’t get out of her volcano.)

So, is it really a work of fiction when the author is effectively writing their own “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, or is it more a re-telling of their life as they and their readers would like it lived? A certain Ms Myers, whose one-size-fits-all-narrator lives the high school and vampiric popularity  dream depsite having no discernable personality, has been accused of blatant wish-fulfillment in her books.

Lest you think I am picking on the good Ms Myers, the basic concept of “write what you know” or rather “write what you want to know” has worked for many authors. Stieg Larsson, writer of the Millenium trilogy and a rebellious political journalist, wrote about a rebellious political journalist who travels to small towns and discovers mayhem and murder and lots of young women who find him inexplicably attractive. To be fair, I am only on book one, perhaps in book two or three he meets a lady who doesn’t pack in the prudery at the first hint of Pulitzer prose.

Stephen King writes, near constantly, about a writer who arrives in small towns to discover weird stuff is happening, usually when his hot new girlfriend goes missing.

Helen Fielding was a thirty-something singleton journalist and researcher when she was to write a column about single life in London. She created the exaggerated and comic self-parody that was Bridget Jones and the rest is history. (And two movies, with a third in the works.)

Perhaps the writers least likely to accidentally write a book starring themselves are fantasy and sci-fi writers who are, by virtue of the genre, expected to make at least a token attempt to hop out of their own head for a few moments when coming up with a premise. Dragons, star ships, aliens and elves, fantasy and science-fiction writers are expected to step bravely into the unknown.

Or perhaps their wishes are just that bit harder to fulfil than Tyra Banks? Perhaps dreaming of a world where genetically-enhanced and aesthetically perfect people abound is more outlandish when you’re not attending a fashion show every day of the week. For Tyra, tales of freakishly flawless people, celebrity parties and designer goods may be more writing about day-to-day monotony than glamour. Perhaps she should write some fantasy after all, all dour dwarves and grotesque goblins, if only to step outside the fantasy world she lives in every day.

A Life in Words – Susan Maushart on writing about your family without being disowned

Ever texted your teen to get them to the dinner table, or had to resort to a Facebook post to get a message across to your family? How about being locked off the family computer by someone intent on playing games, or needing a TV for everyone in your household to stop the rows over what to watch?

For those of you who have been tempted to pull the plug, and the modem, meet journalist and commentator Susan Maushart. For her latest book, Winter of our Disconnect, she not only persuaded her family to allow their exploits to be published, but to sign off from the Information Age for six months. That’s no screens or social media in the home  – iPods, iPhones, Facebook, Twitter and TV were all out. How did they survive it, and more importantly, how did she persuade them to agree?

For Winter of our Disconnect, you persuaded your tech-addicted family to go offline and become a screen less household. How did you convince your children to let you write about them?

I bribed them!

Do they enjoy seeing themselves in print? Do you, or your family, ever “act up” for the story?

I think they more tolerate it than enjoy it. We are all pretty strong willed, opinionated and funny so there’s usually no need to turn on anything extra. Turn it down is more like it.

Do you ever have to run copy past them? Or offer sweeteners (and what sort – I’m thinking it would be a great chance to wangle for a pony)?

No. I have never sought their approval for anything. I’ve been rapped over the knuckles a few times… but I have to say, only a very few. They have been amazingly lenient towards me. Maybe it’s because I’ve been writing about them literally since they were babies…

If this had been a fiction novel, what would have happened?

Er, I would have met a Liam Neeson/Colin Firth lookalike while out on an ipod-free walk with Rupert … and we would have, er, connected?

While the book documents a change from being constantly being connected, what aspect of Social Media did you miss the most?

I didn’t miss social media at all really. I missed my podcasts the most. And not being able to watch movies at home all winter was a real bummer. The cosiness factor is something I hadn’t really thought about.

You describe yourself on The Australian as being a “control freak”. You get total control of the future direction of a social media site – Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, whichever. What do you do, and why?

I laugh about being a control sneak but the truth is I have TOO much control in my life, and too much decision making, and too many opportunities to showcase my life. For these reasons, I’m pretty blasé about social media. My Facebook page is very badly neglected, and I don’t do the others…

Have any of your children shown an urge to write about the family from their point of view, and how do you think you’d handle it?

My daughters have both assisted with publicising The Winter of Our Disconnect, and trust me they DO present their own point of view. The only way writing from life, or memoir, can work is if you are searing honest about yourself and your limitations. It’s a standard I continually strive for, and if they were to go down the same track I would hope they would too.



A tale of two Guidebooks

In just under two months my partner and I will be winging my way off on a round the world trip. I’m excited and a little nervous as, in addition of my home county of Ireland, the trip takes in a lot of terra incognita or lands unknown.

Well, unknown to me. Most people would argue that Fiji, New York and Miami are very well known indeed, and that even my more off-the-beaten-path overland bus-ride from Antigua to Mexico City is well trodden – and well-written about – already.

So, what’s a booklover (and bloke) to do when they want to make the unfamiliar an exciting adventure as opposed to a cautionary tale? Reading up on it is certainly a great place to start. We’re both well travelled, and already have amassed a pretty big travel collection. Part of the fun of a holiday comes from browsing the brochures and guidebooks and travelogues of other people – the bus-ride to work on a rainy day is so much better when you’re reading of far-away lands. And, even when you are back and the last of your tan has faded, taking down that dog-eared guide that found you the best café and perfect sunset stroll brings back the best of the holiday memories in glorious colour.

So, backpacking guidebooks it is. Except for one problem.

He’s a Lonely Planet. I’m a Rough Guide.

We have this argument every time we go to buy a guide book. He favours the – to my mind – more upmarket and expensive Lonely Planets, all climbing mountains for the dawn and seafood restaurants at dusk. I like the – in his opinion – lowbrow and lively Rough Guides, which tend to list more pubs than temples and know where to find the cheapest beds and eats in any given city.

He maintains he’d rather sleep without bedbugs and backpackers cuddling their bottle of local 10% alc by volume beer to their Ripcurl tee-d chests. I maintain that the booze will kill the bed bugs and that I’d rather be learning the moves in the local bars and clubs than basket-weaving my evenings away. And we’re not the only people having this row. I had similar conversations in hostels, in hotels, at bus stops in strange countries. I once had a girl tell me, with a particularly dismissive sniff,  she was after “more of a Lonely Planet holiday” when I suggested coming out dancing with the rest of the hostel.

It’s the battle of the travel guides, and at about 40 dollars a guide, it can get pretty heated.  I’ve tried both, but I’m a Rough Guide girl. But they’re both good guides. Lonely Planets (an Aussie invention) have been running since the 70’s and appeal to the cultured and adventurous traveller, offering a blend of realism and social commentary along with information. It’s like having a debonair uncle show you around the cliques and clichés and fantastic cafes , with a comfy bed at the end of each day.

Rough Guides have been on the scene since 1982, a student scheme that became a series of witty, wacky and inquisitive guides, aiming to combine a journalistic approach to description with a practical approach to travellers’ needs. It’s like having an impoverished but enthusiastic student show you around their home city, complete with the cheapest places and bizarre local hang-outs and all the bits that the brochures don’t feature.

So, cultural odyssey or overseas adventure? Temples at dawn, or partying the night away? After a lot of fighting, only one solution is going to work – we’ll keep our options open and get both. That way we’ll have something to read (and argue) about on those long bus-rides, even if we can’t quite agree where we’ll stay when we get off the bus.

So, are you an LP girl or RG guy, or something else entirely?

A Great Giveaway – Get your mits on a signed copy of Our Family Table

It’s a great time to be a food-lover and a fan of Boomerang Books. We have three copies of Julie Goodwin’s new book, Our Family Table, to give away – all signed by Australia’s first Masterchef herself!  To enter, visit our BoomerangBooks Facebook page here and tell us, what’s your favourite dish?

The book itself is a wonderfully informal look at cooking for family and friends. No shots of sculpted food, almost too terrifyingly perfect to eat, this book  is a celebration of cooking for people you love; warm and friendly and beautifully laid out. It sprinkles family anecdotes in amongst the delicious recipes, and has a blank chapter at the back for you to create your own favourites.  I caught up with Julie to ask her a few questions on coming up with the book design and recipes and what she’s planning  on cooking up next.

Our Family Table is a very sociable cookbook, full of stories of family and friends. What made you want to write this book in a style so different to lots of books out there?

Our Family Table was never intended to just be a collection of recipes.  I have always loved the community and sharing aspect of food and cooking, and that is what I wanted to explore when I wrote the book.  I asked many friends and family members to tell me about their favourite food memories and recipes.  This book is the result of their answers, and my own.

How did you find the process of working on the book? What did you enjoy the most?

I loved the process of writing the book.  I enjoyed testing all the recipes (so did the family!) but most of all I loved the conversations that we had and the memories that came up.

There is a blank chapter waiting for the addition of the readers’ favourite family recipes. What have you currently got cooking up to be added in there someday?

There are tons of my favourites that need to go in the back – steak and Bearnaise, Fettucine Carbonara, home made sausage rolls – they’re all family favourites that I haven’t written down yet.

Did Masterchef change the way you cooked? What do you do differently now?

I learned so much from Masterchef and all the wonderful people who shared their knowledge and talent with us.  Since then I have more time to make things from scratch so I make a lot more of my pasta.  I have also bought a very fancy ice cream machine which is getting a bit of a workout!

I can see this book being gifted to a lot of people who are starting to cook. Which recipes would you recommend as a first project for an aspiring Masterchef who is still working out how to get started in the kitchen?

My best advice to anyone who wants to learn to cook, is to start with something that they really love to eat.  That way, they know how it should look and taste.  Then they should practice it until they are happy with the result.  That will build confidence.  Then, choose another dish that they would really love to eat – and on from there, building a repertoire one dish at a time.

Finally, if you could invite any person in the world for dinner with your family, who would it be and what would you cook them?

I would invite the MasterChef judges and their families. I’d love to be able to cook for them in my own environment, my own kitchen in my own time.  I would put on a huge feast of shared food in the middle of the table – roasted meats, BBQ seafood, vegetables, sauces, bread, wine, beer, cheese, desserts…by the end hopefully the kids would be running wild around the back yard and the grownups would be groaning on the couch.

Hating the Classics

Last week I wrote on the refreshing honesty and downright rudeness some authors display when they dislike a book. From the bluntness of Stephen King saying Stephenie Meyer “can’t write worth a damn” to Dorothy Parker’s caustic book reviews (“[this] novel is not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force”) there is no shortage of pithy putdowns amongst the literary set.

But what if you are not in the literary set? It’s all very well to dislike a book when you are a writer yourself, but when you haven’t got ten bestsellers and a Miles Franklin to your name, it seems a little cheeky to declare a book a waste of text.

Especially if you take on the canon of the classics. It took me three re-readings of Lord of the Rings – three! – to finally acknowledge the truth. I don’t like it. In fact, I actively dislike it.

My reasons for disliking it are as long and self-indulgent as the opening scene of the novel itself, which takes approximately 100 pages for something actually happen, other than a rather dreary party full of furry-footed and insufferably twee hobbits. I try not to over-share and normally don’t start frothing too much. I usually spare people the full recital of my wishes to see the nauseatingly cheerful hobbits rounded up and dropped into the Mines of Moria, and the Elves strangled with their own straight-and-shiny-and-oh-so-lovely hair.

But I still get shocked faces when I come out with it. “Yes, Lord of the Rings is a classic, and an amazing piece of work. I just don’t like it.”

I like to compound this by opining that Salinger’s Holden Caulfield – the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye and all-round emo before it was fashionable – would benefit from either a stint in military school or blunt trauma with his own incoherent prose and that Joyce’s Ulysses was – in the words of both his and my people, the Irish – a load of old bollocks.

(If you are offended by my profanity in describing Joyce, do yourself a favour and don’t read Ulysses.)

How can you admit to hating the one of classics without feeling a bit, well, stupid? How can I happily stick my hand up and complain about an author that has his own festival, Bloomsday? That you enjoyed the Twitterature version far more than the real thing? (Written by two 19 year olds, and containing such delights as Romeo and Juliet: “Her nurse asketh if I want to marry Juliet. She is the sun but this is waaay too fast. Am I being punk’d? Where’s Ashton?”)

It’s tempting to conclude, in a universe where these books have stood the test of time and become classics, that I must lack any and all literary taste. That reading enjoyment is not subjective and that my personal opinions are actually wrong.

But sometimes by voicing the unspeakable, you discover how your opinion might be more common than you think. I’m not alone in disliking Tolkien. At his own literary group, The Inklings, Hugo Dyson complained loudly, and Christopher Tolkien records Dyson as “lying on the couch, and lolling and shouting and saying, “Oh God, no more Elves.”” A small subset of my English class used to escape after lectures to drink coffee and have a good rant about Mansfield Park. (I can’t even begin to tell you how much more I enjoy Murder at Mansfield Park than the original.)  It’s a huge relief to stand up and say, “Yes, I know it’s a classic. But I don’t like it.” And even more so when you realise, as you almost definately will, that you are not the only dissenting voice in the world.

So, which are the classics that you would cheerfully toss in a volcano and flambé ala Frodo?

Real life reading

At my house-warming, people commented the fact that my bookshelves are full not of novels and fiction (although there is plenty of them there too) but what I like to call Real Life Reads. How-tos and travelogues, biographies and historical reconstructions, science, philosophy and psychology, oh my!  Why do I find non-fiction so appealing? It could be that – in spite of what all the fiction told me – I never got a pony for my birthday.

I am still very bitter about this. I got books about ponies* and girls with ponies, and specifically girls who got ponies for their birthday. This lead to certain expectations being built. Every Christmas and birthday I’d wake up early and then sprint to my bedroom window, hoping to see a pony out the back garden. I even expected it to have a big red bow around its neck.

This would probably have more pathos if I hadn’t continued doing it until I was seventeen or so.

But false promises of ponies aside, there is nothing wrong with a bit of fiction. I love a good chick-lit read, adore fantasy and horror, and you’ll need to peel me off the satire and humour books with a stick. But books don’t just mean novels, and it is real world reading that fascinates me most. I’m a sucker for business and psychology books and any books that explain scientific discoveries in an entertaining way aren’t safe around me. Travelogues inspire me to take off and see the world, and memoirs let me see it from someone else’s perspective.

I may be a little too fond of books. Friends hide their non-fiction when I come over to the house. Autobiographies try to hide and cookbooks tremble their glossy and delicious looking pages in fear.

I haven’t always been this way. If someone had told me when I was in school (all sulky and spotty and smuggling my Stephen King’s in to read under the desk) that I would someday find non-fiction books fascinating, I would have… well, I would have probably ignored them and continued reading my Stephen King book. But here I am, ten years on, with a love of non-fiction that borders on the obsessive; biographies and travelogues, memoirs and how-to’s and textbooks, oh my!

Perhaps my voracious fiction habit as a child and teenager led to this – I know that Elyne Mitchell’s evocative Silver Brumby series, set in the Snowy Mountains, was at least part of the reason I was interested in seeing Australia and my love of Stephen King’s horrror eventually led me to his memoir, On Writing, where I found the truth of his life just as fascinating as his books . It started with fiction but my reading habits are now in love with real life reads and all that they can do.

Here at Read Up On It. I’m hoping to create an entertaining celebration of reading and a place to share my love of books, specifically my love of non-fiction. The ability of books to inform while entertaining is something that I look forward to exploring further here, and to hearing your recommendations. If you have a real life book you think everyone should read, give a shout-out in the comments and let me know.

Books about ponies, of course, are especially welcome.

Potplants, red in tooth and claw

Yesterday I had to catch the train home from work with a Venus Fly Trap plant in my handbag. I’m blaming Sir David Attenborough. His voice may be soft, but his enthusiasm is contagious, and after watching the epic documentary Earth recently and re-reading my copy of the Life of Mammals, I was filled with wonder and fascination for all things for all things natural.

So, when I wandered by a gardening centre and discovered they had a special on carnivorous plants, I just couldn’t resist the tiny Venus Fly Trap, with its fringed green and red maws open and begging for treats. But in my enthusiasm I had forgotten I was catching the train home. I wasn’t sure what to do with the plant. Taking a bunch of flowers on the train is one thing, but a carnivorous plant? People would think I was nuts. Perhaps I should play to the crowd. I considered glaring at nearby passengers while stroking the plant saying “soon, my pretty, soon.”

Common sense triumphed, however, and I managed to stash it in my huge handbag (all the better to carry books with, my dear) and get it home, where it now has pride of place on the top of the bookcase. It likes heat and humidity and plenty of light, and I’ll need to catch flies for it to keep it happy and grow it. I’m quite looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

It will, unfortunately, probably end up in the potplant graveyard on the balcony. Along with the geraniums, some big leafy things and the apparently “indestructible” ivy that I killed in a record three weeks.

My love for pretty houseplants is completely unrequited. I don’t so much have green fingers as black thumbs. Need to defeat the Triffids? Make my living room the first stop on their world conquering itinerary and they’ll be dead in a week. I alternate between utterly ignoring my plants for weeks on end and then deciding to lavish them with enthused, but ineffective, love.

My Mum, who has just arrived over from Ireland, is horrified by the potplant graveyard and asked how I’ve been treating the plants. On hearing I never fed them and they’ve been in the same pot for the last three years she looked at me like I had said I keep small children in the attic and feed them buckets of fish heads once a week. She thrust half a bottle of fertiliser and some pots at me and made “I’m going to call the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Plants” noises until I started to pay them attention. So my plants have been potted and composted and fed and watered and are currently getting lots of attention. They’d better enjoy it while it lasts.

Plants rarely survive in our house. We have bought several, but the only one to survive is some sort of potted stalky bamboo-y type thingy. (That’s the common name for it, of course. The Latin would be as Nescio Quis Abyssus, or the I Dunno What plant.) We ignore it apart from sporadic watering and occasional de-leaving when it goes brown, the tenacious thing continues to grow ever taller. Every few months it sprouts up another inch, and in the process puts out two improbably big leaves that quiver gently in the wind. All the leaves lower down have fallen off and now it resembles nothing so much as a tall skinny man wearing an absurdly large toupee. It hates attention. When we tried to move it to a better spot, it shed all its leaves. When we tried to repot it, it died for a few months. Basically, it finds my ministrations so abhorrent that it feigns death rather than put up with them.

Of course, if I don’t treat the Venus Flytrap right (Dionaea muscipula, which is actually its correct name), it is carnivorous. You have to wonder why they are having a special on these plants. Perhaps they eat the people who get it wrong. Perhaps the plants have sent something to extract vengeance for all their fallen kin on the balcony.

Or perhaps, this time, I should just pay the darn thing some attention and feed it before it eats me.

Literary Feuds – Popular Authors at Dawn (or Twilight)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any book in possession of popularity must be in want of literary merit. If it sells well, it must be lowbrow. And, when other popular writers are the ones to say this, it causes no end of fuss.

Last year Stephen King, the king of high-selling horror, took a pot shot at one of the biggest names out there, Stephenie Meyers. “Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people… The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a damn. She’s not very good.”

There was uproar. Not very good? Meyer’s star is currently at its peak, and her huge army of Twilight fans (or Twi-hards) were aghast on her behalf. According to some sources, they suggested drowning Stephen King in hate mail. (Bear in mind, Stephen King is a man in poor health in his sixties. You’d probably only need one small bag.)

Not very good? As of March 2010, the Twilight series has sold over 100 million copies and been translated into at least 38 different languages. It has inspired major movies, parodies and countless fan sites. How do you quantify “good” in something as subjective as writing if not by how many people like it, her fans asked? Meyers herself did not join the indignation. Some Twilight fans thought this might be because she was richer than the Queen and doesn’t care anymore. Perhaps Meyers was too busy drowning under cheques to respond to poor Stephen (who was, presumably, drowning in hate mail written on scented paper and in red ink)?

But, while it is true that the Twilight saga is selling by the bucketload, what the Twi-hards seem to miss is that popular authors taking a pop at each other is a time honoured tradition. And Stephen’s off the cuff insult was relatively mild compared to what some authors have had slung at them.

Jane Austen was the popular author of her day, but not everyone liked her. Fortunately didn’t live long enough to hear Mark Twain declare her so poor a writer he thought of desecrating her grave.

I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

Mark Twain’s writing wasn’t so great either, according to William Faulkner. He believed the moustachioed Twain “[a] hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven sure fire literary skeletons with sufficient local colour to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.” Likewise, Evelyn Waugh was unimpressed by French novelist, Marcel Proust. “I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective.”

And acccording to James Dickey; “[if] it were thought that anything I wrote was influenced by Robert Frost, I would take that particular work of mine, shred it, and flush it down the toilet, hoping not to clog the pipes…”

It makes Stephen’s fit of pique look almost cute.

Meyer has not responded. Perhaps she recognises the clacking of typewritten literary insults for what they are – a membership card to the club of lucky authors whose books are popular enough to merit discussion by other authors. Perhaps she realises that Stephen King is, in his own snarky way, welcoming her onboard to the Big Boys club.

Or perhaps she’s still struggling under her royalty cheques.

For the record, I love King, like Austen, enjoy Twain and couldn’t get past Book 1 in the Twilight Saga. I haven’t read Faulker. He’s on the list of authors-I-swear-I-will-read-someday but keeps getting dumped for travelogues and chick lit. It’s a long list, full of very worthy books and authors, and probably a post for another day.

A Life in Words – Bianca Nogrady on collaborative writing

The traditional image of a writer is an eccentric eking out a lone living on a typewriter in the attic (fingerless mittens optional but encouraged). Indeed, for many aspiring artists labouring in office jobs, the lack of constant human contact and interference is a perk of the job.

But for some writers, and particularly writers of non-fiction, it’s a more social affair. When freelance science journalist Bianca Nogrady was offered to a chance to collaborate to collaborate with James Bradfield Moody (Executive Director, Development at CSIRO and a regular panellist on the ABC television show ‘The New Inventors’) on a concept for a new book, the Sixth Wave, did having two writers double the fun or the trouble?

What was your initial reaction when James suggested collaborating?

I was flattered that he thought so highly of me as a journalist! Then, once my ego settled down, I became very excited about the whole idea of the book. It’s a positive, exciting look at the next 30 years of humanity, which makes such a refreshing change from all the doom-and-gloom.

How did it work in practice?

We had a few face-to-face and over-the-phone brainstorms to work out the structure of the book. Then, with each chapter, James would map out the skeleton – sometimes it was a loose sketch, other times he would write out the entire chapter – then he would pass it to me.

I would research, interview and ‘sprinkle fairy dust’ – turn it into something that I like to think is readable, understandable and entertaining. Each chapter would go back and forward several times with each of us tweaking, reworking, adding and editing, before it was finished.

What was the biggest advantage of collaborating? And the biggest argument?

I believe everyone has a book in them, but I’m yet to find mine, so it was great to have someone else come to me with their idea, particularly someone as intelligent and full of good ideas as James is. We both brought so much to the table, and complemented each other’s skill sets and knowledge base. We had the same vision for the book so it was rare for us to disagree on something and when we did, we were always able to negotiate a compromise.

And while I like to think of myself as having some degree of fame and notoriety, James’ celebrity and networks far eclipse mine. He has contacts I can only dream of, which opened some very impressive doors, not the least of which those at Random House Australia.

The only significant downside is that instead of one person trying to meet a deadline, there are two, so things inevitably take longer than you think they will!

The Sixth Wave is your first book. Would you do another the same way?

I would definitely do this again. I think we were lucky in that we worked well together and found our working groove fairly quickly. We both knew our strengths and were happy to play to those rather than either of us trying to dominate the process.

And what advice would you give people on making co-operative writing work?

You have to get on with the person you’re working with! It might sound obvious, but I don’t think The Sixth Wave would have worked nearly as well if James and I had personality clashes.

Work out what you each can bring to the table in terms of skills and strengths. I’m a science journalist, not an economist or innovation theorist, so while I was confident to research and write about the science and technology, and confident in my skills as a writer, I was very happy to defer to James’ expertise when it came to the big picture, the economics, the theory etc.

Have a clear action plan and timeline. We worked chapter by chapter, which suited us, but we did end up with a last minute panic (that lasted about 3 months!). I remember one night where I was so stressed about getting it done that I ended up on the computer at 2am in the morning research carbon trading schemes. At the time my bub Nina was waking up every 1-2 hrs at night so I figured there wasn’t much point in lying in bed freaking out and waiting for her to wake up.

My other advice would be don’t try to conduct interviews with a baby around. I had one horrendous phone interview with a bloke in the UK, while Nina was doing her 100 decibel Bon Scott imitation from her cot in the next room. Does wonders for the concentration.

Finally, what advice would you give aspiring non-fiction writers?

I write about science because I find it fascinating, and I like to think that makes me a better writer, researcher and interviewer. I would say write about something that interests you, or find something interesting in what you write about. It’s very well to want to be a writer, but for me the more important question is ‘what do you want to write about?’.

Bianca Nogrady is a freelance science journalist and broadcaster who has written for publications such as Scientific American, The Australian and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation science and health websites. Bianca lives in the Blue Mountains with her husband and daughter.

Throughout modern history, the tide of innovation and progress has ebbed and flowed but a clear pattern exists – five waves of innovation, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, have each transformed society, economies and industry. The fifth wave was dominated by information and communications technology but a new, brighter star is emerging. The sixth wave of innovation will be about resources – natural resources, human resources and information. THE SIXTH WAVE is a business book, a motivational book, a bold prediction and a roadmap to the future, for anyone interested in understanding how the next wave of innovation will change our lives, and how to succeed in a resource-limited world.

An embarrassing cook-up

There were undoubtedly some red faces at Penguin Group Australia yesterday when they announced they were reprinting 7,000 cookbooks over a recipe for pasta.  The “Pasta Bible” recipe for spelt tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto was supposed to call for black pepper but due to a “silly mistake” by a proofreader, it specified a decidedly more macabre ingredient be used – “freshly ground black people”.

Penguin were quick to issue a statement and apologise to anyone offended.

“Misprints are always unfortunate and they are doubly unfortunate when they carry an unintended meaning. As the Pasta Bible is a cookbook, there was obviously no intent behind this mistake – it was simply a regrettable error. […] In this case it is clear that a spell-check error crept in, the recipe incorrectly suggesting the addition of salt and freshly ground black people instead of freshly ground black pepper. Normally such an error would be picked up by proof readers, but they would have been concentrating on checking quantities, a common source of error in cookbooks.”

7,000 copies of the Pasta Bible were immediately quarantined in Penguin’s warehouse and pulped, and revised edition of the Pasta Bible will be available from late May 2010. The recall will cost Penguin $20,000, according to the head of publishing, Bob Sessions,  in the Sydney Morning Herald . ”In one particular recipe [a] misprint occurs which obviously came from a spellchecker. When it comes to the proofreader, of course they should have picked it up, but proofreading a cookbook is an extremely difficult task. I find that quite forgivable.

As someone who tends to be a little slapdash with my keyboard and skim rather than re-read carefully, I’m sympathetic. I have sent out a few corkers in my time. Probably the most embarrassing was an e-mail I sent to several members of management in a company I had just started work with, cancelling a meeting and apologising for “any incontinence caused”.

I can tell you, when that meeting was rescheduled, no one wanted to sit next to me.

Still, Penguin aren’t the first publishers to have this problem. Printers’ errors are fairly common, and calling a book a Bible seems to be an invitation for trouble. In addition to occasional heavy-handed translation, the Good Book has an impressive history of errors and bloopers. Like the Pasta Bible, The Fools Bible of 1763 contained an expensive misprint; Psalm 14:1 reads “the fool hath said in his heart there is a God”, rather than “…there is no God”. The printers were fined three thousand pounds and all copies ordered destroyed.

Less expensive, but probably more embarrassing at family parties was the Lions Bible where Kings 8:19 reads “thy son that shall come forth out of thy lions”, rather than “loins”. Let’s not bring them to the zoo, shall we?

Some of the Bibles advocate unorthodox approaches to morality. The Unrighteous Bible or “Wicked Bible” published in 1653 by Cambridge Press omitted a “not” before the word “inherit”, making Corinthians 6:9 read “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?” and the Sin On Bible of 1716 exhorts readers to “Go and sin on more” rather than “Go and sin no more”.

My favourite is the “Printers Bible”, of 1702 where Psalm 119:161 reads “Printers have persecuted me without cause.” The first word was changed, possibly by a disgruntled typesetter, from “Princes”.

I suspect that poor proofreader at Penguin Books knows exactly what they mean.

That sinking feeling

This day 99 years ago the Titanic sank into the Atlantic Ocean, taking 1,517 lives with it. I grew up ten miles from the Titanic’s last port of call – Cobh in County Cork, Ireland – and the sad tale of the ship was familiar to me from a young age. My Dad told me it.

And just down the road off the coast of Kinsale is the wreck of the RMS Lusitania, an ocean liner torpedoed by a German U-boat in May 1915. She sank in eighteen minutes, killing 1,198 of the 1,959 people aboard. In fact, there are over 65 known shipwrecks off Cork, which is even more horrifying when you realise the county is only eighty kilometres wide, almost all of which my father was only too delighted to share the terrifying details of.

So growing up with a father with a penchant for horror stories, as far as we were concerned, ships sank. A lot. The more “unsinkable” the better the odds they would be on the ocean floor by sundown. When my family’s first ever experience with rough weather at sea happened we were understandably nervous.

We were on a huge car ferry from Cork to France and a force nine gale had sprung up out of nowhere. The wind howled around the boat and the ship listed erratically from side to side, making walking around almost impossible. My father had been in the Navy and read several books on the wrecks. You would think he would have consoled his two children, one of whom needed to be seasick, with cheerful thoughts on how maritime law had been updated from the cautionary tale of the Titanic to provide enough lifeboats for everyone and how hardly any large passenger boats sank these days.

Oh no. My Dad saw a chance to regale a captive audience with tales of terror, and he went for it. They wouldn’t be able to send out the lifeboats, we’d be on our own. Our own lifeboats would capsize in the swells. And there was no point sticking on a lifejackets – if the boat sank, he explained, the wake of it would pull us down and we’d drown. Even if we avoided that, we’d get hypothermia. And possibly sharks. EVIL sharks.

The result? Two terrified and traumatized children, one of whom needed to be seasick. My Dad’s work here was done.

My father’s love of expanding on harmless situations by listing the worst available outcome may be where I get both my worry-wart tendencies and my interest in worst-case scenarios  and what happens when things go wrong. And specifically, how to survive it. To understand how people behave in a crisis is the first step, according to many books, in getting through that crisis. In the absence of clear instructions and peer action, people freeze. They don’t take advantage of what is called the “Golden Time”, the brief period where you can still affect what happens next.

To that end, I can only recommend the Worst-case Scenario series. Thick enough to use as a weapon and handily indexed for those moments when speed is of the essence, they provide a humorous but helpful guide to getting through disasters, perfect for the worry-wart in your family or for shutting up the disaster master when they are hauling you down Pessimism Alley.  Need to deal with a sinking ship, elephant stampede, mine collapse or a nuclear attack? Here’s your guide.

And, as an added tip, if my father starts telling you stories, you can hit him with it.

The Stars, up close and personal

Clash of the Titans may be the latest 3D must-see movie, but I haven’t gone yet, and I am not sure I want to. I’m bizarrely attached to the old version from the 1980’s, complete with Harry Hamlin hamming, stop-motion monsters and a jerky Pegasus, and I’m not sure I want to see the new look version, shiny and all as it will undoubtedly be.

Clash of the Titans is an old favourite if mine for another reason – it started me looking at the stars. The movie has scenes where they overlay the constellations with images in the sky; an odd Y shape becomes the warrior Perseus, sword in hand, and a few twinkling lights becomes Pegasus, flying through the skies.  It was the first time I had heard that stories of the shapes of constellations. My uncle was a keen stargazer and, realising that he might be able to use my love of ponies to talk about something other than ponies (I was a very single-minded child), he took me out to show me the night sky through his telescope. I was hooked.

I stayed interested in star-gazing into adulthood – although in Ireland it can be a bit of a letdown, what with the near-permanent cloud-cover and rain for most of year. One of the reasons visiting Australia excited me was seeing the stars of the Southern Hemisphere for the first time. (Another, and please do not hold this against me, was to see if water flushed the other way round in the toilets once you crossed the equator due to the Coriolis effect.)

The majesty and mystery of the night sky has captured the imagination of many people, from our ancestors who looked up into the universe and saw their legends and gods, to the science fiction writers of today who imagine life amongst them. The stars have amazing stories and many people tell them well. While there are factual guides of the sky and useful atlases to find your way around, an excellent introduction to the sky that blends instruction with entertainment is Legends of the Stars, by Sir Patrick Moore. He brings the names of the stars and their ancient myths to life – Orion battles and Pegasus soars and for those of you worried you may be left behind, there are helpful celestial pictures to follow the action. If you are looking for a book to introduce the depths of the stars to a budding enthusiast, here is your Holy Grail.

Looking to explore the heavenly bodies that are a little closer to Earth? Legends of the Stars is a celestial guide with its feet firmly on the ground but Dava Sobel’s Planets defies classification. A lyrical biography of our near neighbours, mixing poetry by Blake and Tennyson with factual explanations of the deadly acid atmosphere of Venus, it is strange and wonderful guide to our Solar System. The planets are explored through myth, astrology, astronomy, music, literature and science-fiction and Sobel’s prose guides you surely from the Big Bang and the Sun in Genesis to the outer reaches of the Oort Cloud with both a sense of wonder and a sense of humour, in this surprisingly personal and intimate look at the planets.

For an even more human perspective on exploring the Solar System, Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter is the story of the great Italian scientist Galileo and his daughter, Virginia, as told through their letters and contemporary accounts of their lives. Galileo – “the father of modern physics” – was a keen astronomer and scientistm was tried for heresy when he put forward the astounding proposition that the Earth actually moves around the Sun. His illegitimate daughter was a nun, and this book explores their relationship through their lives, the stars, and their shared interest in science and religion.

Whether you choose a classical, modern or human perspective on astromony, it’s a fascinatingly beautiful subject, and I’ll always have a soft spot for Clash of the Titans for bringing it into my life. What perspective on the skies do you enjoy, and do you have recommendations for budding astronomists?

iPads and the end of books – can we grow the pot?

After my recent rambles on comfort books and moving house, I’d like to post on something a bit more serious today. Something I am both passionate and optimistic about – the future of reading.

I love books. So much I worked in a bookstore for a pittance rather than earn a decent wage when I was in college. It was a small business, staffed and owned by people who also loved books, and the expenses and income tended to be alarmingly close. One morning we got word that another big brand bookstore was opening in the city. Panicking and dismayed, most of the staff prophesied that we would be undercut and unemployed in a month. By the time the manager came in, we had worked ourselves into a frenzy of hair-pulling, chest-beating and despair.

He wasn’t screaming, though. He was smiling. His view? This wasn’t a disaster. This was a chance to , to borrow a poker term, “grow the pot”. This is a great read, but I'm still terrible at poker.The pot was the amount of people who bought and read books in the city, and my boss believed that a big brand presence in the city would raise interest in reading and bookstores generally. The advertising they spent would trickle back to us in people hearing about books. If we continued to concentrate on doing what we did as well as we could, there was a good chance that this development – instead of killing the store – would create more readers in the city, which could only be a good for us.

Over-optimistic? We thought so, but he was right. We stayed the course and the shop didn’t close – the pot grew. Now, reading about the upcoming release of the iPad and discussion of electronic publishing, I am reminded of that confused morning in the store. While people alternate between hailing e-books and the iPad as our saviour from tyranny of paper or the death knell of literature, but seeing the market for e-publishing and paper publishing as a static and self-cannibalising sphere, to me, is not the best way of looking at it.

Are we really looking at the death of books? Or are we looking at a profound shift in the way publishing works, and a bigger pot overall? Nielson Book, which collects and aggregates English language book data from publishers in 70 countries, is cautiously positive. Despite the rumblings of a possible recession in 2009, the number of books sold in Australia grew by 5.8%. The number of new books published in the UK in 2009 was the highest within the last 15 years. According to Nielson Book, the increases “can be accounted for in part by growth in print-on-demand (POD) and digital product, which we expect to continue to increase in the future.”

And across the pond, according to the Association of American Publishers (AAP) total book sales in the United States, in 2009 book sales fell 1.8%; but e-book sales rose by 176.6%. Overall, book sales have been steadily climbing since 2003. Books are (to most people, booklovers like me aside) a discretionary purchase; apparently you don’t need them. So, in a year in America where payrolls fell 6% and unemployment doubled, book sales did pretty well. The pot may be splitting, but it’s also getting bigger.

I’m not going to go into the in’s and out’s of the iPad and e-publishing in depth. That’s already covered by Joel over on The Smell of Books, who discusses the various issues with a depth of knowledge that I don’t have (honestly, my main technical concern with the Kindles, iPad etc is “will they fit in my handbag?”). But, technical issues aside (if it does fit in my handbag, can I get one that matches my handbag?), I’m looking forward to the future of books. I’m hoping that e-publishing will mean not just a bigger pot, but a more diverse and easily accessible one.

And a whole new load of people to share my love of books with.

Comfort reading

The post-Easter atmosphere in the office is pretty sullen. Email boxes are swollen like our chocolate-filled tummies and there’s plenty of work to be done, but no one wants to be back from their break.

Now that the hot cross buns are gone, the fruit bowl is a stern reminder of how much we let the diet slip over Easter. The bill for four days of lying-in and eating chocolate for breakfast (and lunch and dinner and as a late-night snack) has come through and people are clearly suffering from sugar hangovers and feeling remorse for gym visits not taken.

In the canteen, a colleague pokes at their stomach and pulls morosely at the bulge they find there. “I look like an Easter egg.”

“Ugh. Don’t even mention them.”

The days after Easter feel a bit dark in more ways than one. Unlike the Northern Hemisphere – where Easter usually means spring has sprung and the long balmy nights of summer are on the way – here in Australia we have a hour of evening light cruelly stolen from us. No wonder that it’s tempting to curl up with the leftover chocolate and refuse to come out until October.

But instead of curling up with comfort food this year, I’m curling up with a comfort book. When the nights start to draw in, I love to curl up with my comfort books – it’s catching up with an old friend. I first read Gerald Durrell’s sun-drenched and chaotic account of his childhood in Corfu, My Family and Other Animals, when I was in my teens and I alternate between blaming it and thanking it for sparking my life-long interest in travel and zoology.

Likewise, Peter Moore’s travelogue  The Full Montezuma is at least partly to blame for the fact that I will be spending two months later this year in Central America with my backpack and well-thumbed copy of the book.  Bill Bryson’s travel books have all been read so much their spines are split and anything by the humourous fantasy writer (or should that be fantastic satirist?) Terry Pratchett is lucky to still have a cover. This is the time of year when I dig out a few old favourites and, once again, enjoy and get inspired by them.

Some of my friends agree with me. One reaches for the Austen when she is feeling down, and another simply can’t get enough of Lord of the Rings. Others think I’m mad to waste time re-reading when there are simply so many other shiny new titles out there. But now that the nights are getting longer, I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with some old friends.

So, this Autumn will you be joining me in your comfy chair with a comfort book, and if so, which one?

A Booklover Moves House

The house movers are not impressed.

When we booked, we told them the move was for essential items and it wouldn’t take long. But, two hours in, it appears the problem is my definition of essential items. Namely, the boxes of books.

They were thinking essentials meant bed, sofa, washer, dryer; I was thinking Rough Guides, Bryson’s, Carey and Miller. I mean, what use is a sofa if you have nothing to read while sitting on it?

The movers are giving me The Look. It’s a hot humid day here in Sydney, and they’d rather be having a cold beer somewhere. They assumed they were done when they shunted over the last of our furniture.  After all, it’s clear we’re not moving our clothes or crockery today, none of those items are boxed. But the books are.

Surely, I can see them think, cooking and clothing yourself is more important than sending on books. What sort of madwoman would insist on sending a cook book (my deliciously new copy of the Australian Women’s Weekly Slow Cooking Cookbook for those of you wondering) before the cooking pots?

Um. This sort of madwoman, I guess. You know you have a book problem when you set up the bookcase before the bed linen. I know I’m not the only one out there this attached to my books. But looking into the aghast faces of the movers, I feel like I have committed a moving faux pas, akin to trying to high five the Queen or asking why there is beetroot in my burger.

Perhaps, as is my usual habit when I need to do something, I should have read up on it. There are plenty of books out there on moving home, but the closest I came to reading them was giggling at a Michael Bond’s Olga Moves House. This was a great read, but as it is a children’s book it wasn’t hugely helpful. Olga is a feisty guinea pig who, despite her immaculate taste, is more likely to shred a book to sleep in rather than read it. What would Olga do when confronted by reluctant and confused movers? Something involving high pitched squeaking, no doubt.

I decide to pass on that, and offer the movers a cool drink and some extra money. That seems to do the trick.

When the movers finally finish, the place is a mess. There are empty boxes and upturned furniture everywhere, bags and boxes strewn all over every surface. But the bookcase is been set up, all full of my favourite books. It’s going to take days to get the place set up and tidied, but one tiny corner of the flat looks like home.

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