Forest for the Trees & Poetic Threads SWF18

I attended two standout sessions at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. Forest for the Trees is run by Writing NSW (until recently NSW Writers’ Centre) and Poetic Threads by Red Room Poetry (in conjunction with the Art Gallery of NSW).

‘Forest for the Trees’ is an annual seminar run primarily for writers but valuable for others in the industry. It’s a one-day forum held at the State Library.

Julie Koh

Julie Koh gave an enlightening keynote titled ‘My Path Through the Forest’. Some of her short stories sound like my favourite books – experimental literary fiction with magic realism and speculative elements. She recommends that emerging and other writers attend festivals, courses and literary social events, use social media and subscribe to professional organisations such as Australian Society of Authors. “The longer I’m in the literary world, the more I realise it’s about connections”. She acknowledged that authors are often introverts (who generate energy from being alone) and should balance their time with others and their book publicity with time alone writing and re-energising.

Julie quoted The Sound of Music: “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window” as a reminder to “scatter seeds everywhere” to find opportunities to promote work, only ask once and keep trying something new re publicity. Her published books are Portable Curiosities and Capital Misfits. She’s currently writing the libretto for an opera and, with Ryan O’Neill, Jane Rawson and others, is part of the exciting, audacious writing collective Kanganoulipo.

In ‘Staying on the Path’, Charlotte Wood (whose The Natural Way of Things I have written about a number of times on the blog) explained that she must “follow the energy” – have curiosity and interest in the work she’s writing itself; and, to maintain longevity in the industry, have tenacity and perseverance and behave professionally by treating everyone with respect and with humility.

In the session ‘Going Further Afield’, Kirsty Melville from US-based Andrews McMeel Publishing (who publish Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey and other books of poetry) told us that poetry is generated by the political environment and “people are looking to the arts to express their creative selves.” She has recently signed three emerging Australian poets, Gemma Troy, Courtney Peppernell and Beau Taplin.

Candy Royalle, Scotty Wings & Mirrah

The highlight of the festival was ‘Poetic Threads’, three poetic performances inspired by ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ medieval tapestries. It was curated

Mirrah after performing at Poetic Threads

by Red Room Poetry and held at the Art Gallery of NSW. Electrifying, sublime performance by Mirrah, Scotty Wings as Monkey and Candy Royalle took us to a heightened, magical place. Seek out their work.

 

Indie Book Awards 2016

Charlotte woodThe 2016 Indie Awards presentation, hosted by Allen & Unwin in North Sydney, was filled with warm goodwill, packed with authors, booksellers, publishers and industry professionals.

Independent booksellers do an incredible job in reading and hand-selling Australian literature. They ensure that excellent books that could otherwise be overlooked, reach readers – and these books often go on to become best sellers and recipients of literary awards. Indie bookstores are regarded with great affection by authors and publishers, as are the staff of Leading Edge Books, led by Galina Marinov, who organise the awards.

Some former Book of the Year winners are The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, All That I Am by Anna Funder, The Bush by Don Watson and Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.

The Indies are the annual vanguard awards and give a strong indication of which books are valued by both the experts and readers. The awards began in 2008 and are growing in stature. In a mark of esteem by the industry, booksellers announce the winners in each category.

The 2016 Fiction winner is Charlotte Wood for The Natural Way of Things (A&U), which I reviewed here. This portrayal of women who have been involved in sexual scandals and are mysteriously incarcerated in the Australian desert is generating vigorous discussion with readers. It is a unique and important novel and it also won overall Book of the Year. Elegant Charlotte Wood was clearly moved in her acceptance speech, recognising the encouragement of booksellers during her career and regarding the award as a high honour.

Magda Szubanski’s memoir Reckoning (Text Publishing) won the Non-Fiction category. There is much to ponder in this well-written book, including the impact of what happens in childhood on the years that follow: particularly in Magda’s case, the secret of her sexuality. Having a father as an assassin is also a fascinating angle.

Salt creekDebut Fiction was won by a very appreciative Lucy Treloar with Salt Creek (Pan Macmillan) from a strong field which included Rush Oh! and Relativity and the Children’s award was won by the prolific Aaron Blabey with The Bad Guys Episode 1  (Scholastic), a change from his extremely popular picture books such as Pig the Pug (which was shortlisted last year).

A new category this year is the Young Adult award. It is certainly worth separating this category from Children’s. The inaugural winner is the very deserving Fiona Wood for Cloudwish  (Pan Macmillan). See my review about Cloudwish in the Weekend Australian: Cloudwish

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/ya-fiction-fiona-wood-rosanne-hawke-julie-murphy-rebecca-stead/news-story/adcead8f4a48206533f04d6789984d1f 

Both the Australian and the SMH reported on this year’s Indies Award.

And more can be found about the Indies Awards here.

Thanks to all the organisers and those involved.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Blistering Australian Literary Fiction

Some Australian female authors are writing blistering literary fiction. Two recent standouts are The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (A&U) and Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett (Picador).

Natural Way of ThingsI was fortunate to hear Charlotte Wood in conversation with Ailsa Piper just after I finished reading The Natural Way of Things. This is a searing story about a small group of women who have been incarcerated in the Australian desert. All these women have suffered sexual assault.

Charlotte Wood explained that she had to air the outrage from situations where women have experienced this abuse and spoken out. In many cases they have been left to languish while the male perpetrators have not been penalised or only received the equivalent of a rap over the knuckles. This reminds me of a well-known footballer who admitted to witnessing the group molestation of a young woman and did nothing about it and was later reinstated as a darling of the rugby league fraternity and media. It is beyond belief. Wood has spoken widely about cases she particularly draws on, such as the girls from Parramatta Girls Home who were sent to the Hay Institute in country NSW.

The Natural Way of Things is an extraordinary novel. I have never read anything like it and will remember it always. If you are avoiding it because of the dark content, you may be surprised that it may not be as black as expected. Beauty is threaded throughout the writing. Although harrowing, the book is ultimately empowering of women.

Rush OhKnowing that Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! is about whaling in Twofold Bay, out of Eden in NSW, didn’t endear me to reading this novel but a trusted bookseller was so enthusiastic about the book that I plunged in. The novel is absolutely fascinating. It is told from Mary’s point of view. She is the eldest daughter of head whaler, George Davidson (based on a real man) and seems to be falling for new rower and former preacher, the mysterious John Beck.

Much of the story is based on fact, including the pod of Killer whales, led by Tom, who round up humpbank whales to help the men hunt them. The Killers are regarded with respect and affection and are believed to be the reincarnated spirits of Aboriginal whale men.

There’s lots of tension, superb storytelling and an engaging voice.

Either of these novels would make a thought-provoking Christmas gift for discerning readers.

Book in for the 2013 Women Writers Challenge!

Australian Women Writers ChallengeWhich of the many books on your to-read list will you pick up (or click on) next? If you’re as indecisive as me, it’s a struggle each time.

In 2013, I will have a mission to guide me. I’m signing up for the second annual Australian Women Writers Challenge, with a plan to read 27 books by Australian women writers, many of which have been gathering dust on my real and virtual bookshelves for years (the full list to come in a future post).

I found out about the event too late in 2012, but tracked the progress of other bloggers who joined in via Twitter and GoodReads with interest. So what exactly is this giant digital book club, how did it come to be, and how can you get involved? Founder ELIZABETH LHUEDE explains all …

1. What is the Australian Women Writers Challenge all about, and what inspired you to launch the campaign?



The Australian Women Writers Challenge is a reading and reviewing challenge organised by book bloggers. It asks people to sign up and read, or read and review, a number of books by Australian women throughout the year, and to discuss them on book blogs and social media. Through the challenge, we hope to draw attention to and overcome the problem of gender bias in the reviewing of books in Australia’s literary journals, and to support and promote books by Australian women.

Indirectly, the challenge was inspired by the VIDA count, an analysis of major book reviewing publications in North America and Europe. This count revealed that male authors were far more likely to have their books reviewed in influential international newspapers, magazines and literary journals than female authors.

An analysis of Australian literary pages by Bookseller + Publisher showed a similar bias (reprinted in Crikey in March 2012). 

From my own experience I know the problem isn’t just with male readers not reading books by women; it’s more entrenched than that: women, too, are guilty of gender bias in their reading. This is part of a much larger problem of devaluing work labelled as being by a woman. A 2012 study quoted recently by Tara Moss demonstrates that this bias exists independent of the actual quality and content of the work (see excerpt here).

To help solve this problem, the Australian Women Writers Challenge calls on readers to examine their reading habits and, if a bias against female authors exists, work to change it by reading – and reviewing – more books by Australian women. The quality of the work is there: it’s up to us to discover and celebrate it.


2. Is it just a coincidence that the challenge arrived on the scene around the same time as the Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing?



The challenge owes a lot to the people who created the Stella Prize. Kirsten Tranter, one of the Stella panelists, wrote about the VIDA statistics in early 2011, as did many others in the early part of that year. Without the Stella Prize, the challenge wouldn’t have been the success it is.

3. How highly would you rate the influence of Miles Franklin on all of this, and why do you think she has become such a symbol for women writers in this country?

The Stella panelists chose Miles Franklin as a symbol, I believe, because no women were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2009 and 2011, despite the prize having been established at the bequest of a woman – one who, incidentally, chose to publish under a male pseudonym.

I can see the strategic reasons for adopting Franklin as a symbol, but I also think it’s a symptom of the problem. There are far more talented Australian female authors. There are also other literary prizes that have been going for years that don’t get anywhere near the publicity of the Miles Franklin Award, such as the Barbara Jefferis Award and The Kibble and Dobbie prizes. To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of these awards before I started researching books to read for the challenge. Why is that, unless it has something to do with the fact that they, in varied ways, celebrate women?

4. A year on, do you feel the campaign has been a success?

The challenge has been a huge success. The Huffington Post Books blog published a wrap-up of recent releases of books by Australian women, Overland blog announced 2012 as The Year of Australian Women Writers, it has been mentioned on Radio National, and the Sydney Morning Herald’s Daily Life blog counted it among the 20 Greatest Moments for Women in 2012. I couldn’t have hoped for more.



5. How important has social media been to its reach?

Twitter especially has a major force in getting word out about the challenge, and has helped publicise the many reviews now linked to the blog (well over 1300). Recommendations via book bloggers and, to a lesser extent, Facebook have also been important. The real spikes in terms of hits on the blog, however, have come after mentions in traditional media.



6. You’ve done some survey research into AWW’s impact. Have you seen the results of that research yet?

A brief look at the results has revealed that the majority of respondents didn’t sign up for the challenge, but had heard about it; a majority of these also happened to read more books by Australian women this year. There are many other factors beside the challenge which have raised the profile of books by Australian women in 2012, so the challenge can’t take credit for this result, but it is a very encouraging trend.

Of the people who did sign up for the challenge, a majority read more books by Australian women than in previous years, and most reviewed more and read more broadly. A majority of respondents credited the challenge for their having a greater awareness of authors’ names, book titles and a sense of the breadth and diversity of genres being written by Australian women.

7. Do you have anything different planned for AWW in 2013?

In 2013, the challenge will remain basically the same, with the aim to read and review more books by Australian women. One change is that there will now be a ‘read only’ option for people who are reluctant (or too time poor) to review. This is a gamble – as it could easily diffuse the challenge’s goal. But it is my hope that people who sign up for this option will actively participate in the challenge.

How can they do that? By discussing books they’re reading on social media, using #aww2013 on Twitter, posting comments on the AWW Facebook page, discussing the books in the AWW GoodReads group, and – especially – by commenting on book bloggers’ reviews. Book bloggers have made a huge effort to read and review these books and I’m sure they appreciate people commenting.

8. Are the goals for the campaign the same, or have they grown with the movement?



The goal for the challenge remains to help overcome gender bias in reviewing, and also more generally to support and promote books by Australian women.

9. How can readers, authors, publishers, booksellers, the media and bloggers get involved?



The best way to get involved is to sign up to the challenge, to pledge to read and review books by Australian women in 2013, and to encourage others – friends, co-workers, family members, book group members, local librarians, school teachers and bookshop owners – to join as well. You can sign up here.

10. Can men participate (of course I know they can, but you never know, some might be too shy unless you extend them a really warm invitation!)?

Men are very welcome to participate – as they were in 2012. One male participant in the 2012 challenge was David Golding who recently wrote a wrap-up post on his participation which included a call for more men to sign up.

Another participant from 2012 is Sean Wright from Adventures of a Bookonaut blog. Sean has joined the AWW team and will be looking for ways to help get more male readers engaged in the challenge. (If you have any ideas, let him know!)



11. Who is/are your favourite Australian woman writer/s?


This is a tough question. I can honestly say my knowledge of books by Australian women is still too limited for me to have a favourite or favourites. This year I have discovered a wealth of genuine talent  – world-class authors I didn’t know existed this time last year – and I’m convinced there are many more to discover. My favourite genre is crime, particularly psychological suspense, and in those genres I’ve enjoyed the work of Wendy James, Rebecca James, Sylvia Johnson, Sara Foster, Caroline Overington, Angela Savage, Sulari Gentill, Nicole Watson, PM Newton and my friend Jaye Ford. But one of my goals this year was to read widely, which means I’ve read a lot of single books (46 so far) by different authors. The only authors I’ve repeated have been Gail Jones, Charlotte Wood and Margo Lanagan (two each). It’s not enough to go on to develop a favourite.

12. What were your top three reads by Australian women writers this year?



Only three? Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts tie for first, and a shared tie second includes Emily Maguire’s Fishing for Tigers and PM Newton’s The Old School, while Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper comes in third. These are all very different books but, in my view, compelling reading. (Sorry, that’s five, isn’t it?)

13. What are you planning to read next?

I’ve just finished Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, an emotionally devastating and imaginative speculative fiction novel, and before that was Annabel Smith’s Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, a very readable literary book about sibling rivalry. I have a huge stack books by Australian women to read, both recent releases and older titles, but I’m also keen to get back to my own writing which I’ve neglected this year while working on the challenge. Creating the new websites has required fulltime work for the past few months, and I need to get back to my own writing.

13. Could you tell us a little about your own writing? Has your work on the challenge pushed your own literary career along?

I started writing novels after I finished my PhD (in 1995) and I’ve had success in competitions with several romantic suspense novels and a fantasy title, but so far no acceptances from publishers. My latest story is a page-turning psychological suspense novel which draws on some hair-raising encounters I had working as an intern counsellor at a private hospital, as well my experience growing up with a schizophrenic father.

Earlier this year I attracted the attention of literary agent, author and former editor, Virginia Lloyd, who loved the story and agreed to represent me. With a great team now supporting the AWW challenge, I hope to get on with writing my second psychological suspense novel in 2013.

Have I been inspired by what I’ve read? Without a doubt. It has also been intimidating to see the depth, breadth and quality of the work that is out there – work that clearly doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s scary, in a way, to go back to my own writing now with this new ‘anxiety of influence’. I would love to write with the richly textured imaginative flair of Margo Lanagan, or the terrible emotion of Eva Hornung, or the compassionate humanity of Charlotte Wood. I would love to write crime with the sense of history and stylistic precision of PM Newton, or have the exquisite appreciation of nature and human heartbreak of Favel Parrett, or the contemporary feel and nuanced characters of Emily Maguire. I’d love to write suspense, mystery and history with the scope and readability of Kate Morton – and to have my books be half as popular with readers. I doubt I can do any of those things and I feel grief about that. I know the next step in such thinking would be “Why even try?” But what I can do is what I’ve always – sometimes hesitantly – tried to do: to write as skilfully and honestly as I’m able, informed by who I am and my unique experience of the world. If one day I get published and find readers who enjoy reading the stories I’ve created, great: that will be a dream come true. If not, at least I can be an active and appreciative reader of those writers who have a great deal more talent than me.