Second Half First by Drusilla Modjeska

Second Half FirstDrusilla Modjeska’s memoir Second Half First (Random House Australia) reads as excellent literary fiction. I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading fact rather than absorbing fiction. The author moves in exalted literary circles; making friends at university who have gone on to become lecturers, and socialising and travelling with literary friends of the ilk of Helen Garner, Robyn Davidson, Hazel Rowley, Gail Jones, Lynne Segal and author/illustrator and former Children’s Laureate, Alison Lester.

Man who loved chn

 

Modjeska tells us how she interviewed the seminal author, Christina Stead but, after an interview at the 2009 SWF with her friend Robert Dessaix she doesn’t believe went well, she hasn’t conducted another public interview. 2009 wasn’t a good year for her, though.

Modjeska structures her story by writing about the second half first, beginning with the breakup with her husband on the night before she turned forty. She writes using images of veils and mirrors from visual art, a field she knows well. She was inspired by artist Janet Laurence’s thoughts about, “A way of looking within the world rather than at it… What do we see when a veil falls?” to write, “What do we see if the layers open and we step between the veils into the hidden, or partly hidden places … veils …  occlusions and opacities”. Her traumatic breakup precipitated a new life and vision.

MountainBecause Modjeska is writing about real life, she ponders what is fair to reveal about people she knows and what the repercussions might be. Some of her settings are also indelible. The Sydney Enmore house that she shared with friends, including Helen Garner, and which was the setting for generous, informal gatherings and inspired writing; and the times and travel in Papua New Guinea, which readers of her remarkable novel The Mountain, would have already shared, are seared into my memory. The collection of cloth from a remote mountain village in PNG also raised questions about integrity. Should the cloth be taken and sold overseas to provide money for the Omie people or could the exposure this caused create more problems? Modjeska also comments on Manus Island and the co-existence of Christianity and traditional practices.

Issues such as how different cultures raise boys into men; feminism, spilling into how males and females may be treated differently – including the reception to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “hundreds of pages on the frustrations of not getting to the books he would be writing if he weren’t in the supermarket aisle with a stroller” and the skewed response by a journalist writing about “childlessness by choice” who only interviewed females and ignored suggestions of males such as David Malouf and David Marr.

OrchardDrusilla Modjeska’s other books include Poppy, The Orchard and Stravinsky’s Lunch, which I have long wanted to read.

Poetry here and on the way

Subject of feelingAustralian readers overlook poetry to our loss. Fortunately there are a number of excellent publishers who publish poetry either exclusively or as part of their list.

Many of our literary awards have poetry sections and these remind us that poetry deserves attention. The Queensland Literary Awards shortlist, for example, will be announced this Friday, 11th September.

Australian publisher Puncher & Wattman has a fantastic crop of poetry appearing between August and the end of the year. Highlights are John Tranter’s twenty-fourth collection, Heart Starter (August). This showcases old and new poems, some of which speak harshly about the nature of ‘poetic insight’. Philip Hammial, who has twice been shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize, had Asylum Nerves published in August. Anna Kerdijk-Nicholson’s very topical Everyday Epic about asylum seekers and reconciliation will be launched in Sydney in September. CLOUDLESS_Front_grande

UWA published The Subject of Feeling by Peter Rose (ABR Editor who appeared at last week’s Brisbane Writers Festival), and Happiness by Martin Harrison in August and will publish Cloudless, a verse novel by Christine Evans in September.

UWA Publishing and creative writing journal Trove are also co-hosting quarterly Sturmfrei poetry nights. “Sturmfrei” is a German word for “being without your supervisors or guardians and therefore being able to do as you wish.” The idea is that UWAP and Trove have fled the UWA campus for the wider Perth community for nights of poetry, conversation and ideas.

On BunyahOn Bunyah, follows Les Murray’s recent Waiting for the Past (both Black Inc) in October. Les has lived in Bunyah all his life. We were fortunate to host Les Murray in our home when he spoke at our inaugural ‘Be Inspired’ series, which aims, as the name implies, to inspire our friends and family. Our other presenters have generally been from the arts, including singer Kate Miller-Heidke; theatre company, Crossbow Productions; and authors Nick Earls and Shaun Tan. Our other poet/author inspirer was the esteemed David Malouf.

Best Aust Poems

Black Inc’s Best of Australian Poems 2015, edited by Geoff Page is also eagerly anticipated in October, as is Falling and Flying: Poems of Aging, edited by Judith Beveridge and Susan Ogle and Idle Talk – Gwen Harwood Letters 1960-1964. (both Brandl & Schlesinger).

My husband received Judith Beveridge’s Devadatta’s Poems (Giramondo) for Fathers’ Day, as well as former PM Poetry award-winner John Kinsella’s Sack (Fremantle Press).Devadatta's poems

Giramondo will publish The Fox Petition by award-winning Jennifer Maiden in November. “The fox” emblemises xenophobia and Maiden’s signature dialogues between notable people reappear. She also used this powerful structure in Drones and Phantoms and Liquid Nitrogen.

In case you missed them, UQP recently published Eating My Grandmother by Krissy Kneen and The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt. These writers also appeared at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival and both have won awards.

Robert Adamson was another popular figure at the BWF. He discovered poetry in gaol as a young man and his most recent publication is Net Needle (Black Inc). Just goes to show the power of poetry.Net Needle

SWF After Party

HMay was packed full of exciting book events, a number linked to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. My SWF week began with the evening announcement of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards at the Mitchell Library. It was a great opportunity to catch up with people and meet new authors.

The other awards evening I attended was the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA). This was a glittering event, particularly this year when we were asked to wear a splash of ruby red to celebrate the 15th awards dinner.

We were spoiled by having Casey Bennetto (creator of Keating the Musical) again as MC. He does an amazing job writing songs about those who present the awards and delivers these as mini-performances. Award presenters included international guests David Mitchell (The Bone Clocks), Michael Connolly (American writer of crime fiction and detective novels, best know for those featuring LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch), Anthony Horowitz (Sherlock Holmes and James Bond original novels, the Alex Rider teen series, Foyle’s War and Midsummer Murders) and Helen Macdonald (H is for Hawk), who also gave the closing address of the SWF.

 

2014 Miles Franklin winner, Evie Wyld (All the Birds, Singing) also had her own song and Casey Bennetto wished that he had written one for Marcus Zusak (The Book Thief). He ad-libbed something on the spot, incorporating ‘John Cusack’ to rhyme with ‘Zusak’. Zusak presented his former editor, Celia Jellett from Omnibus Books, Scholastic, with the Pixie O’Harris Award for service to Australian children’s books.

Foreign SoilIt was lovely to meet Josephine Moon (The Tea Chest) and Maxine Beneba Clark, who won the Literary Fiction Book of the Year for Foreign Soil, and I spied legends, Sonya Hartnett (Golden Boys) and Morris Gleitzman (Loyal Creatures) at the next table.

Some other award winners were Judith Rossell, who is snapping up awards, including the Indies, for Withering-by-Sea; Tim Low for Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World (Tim was so surprised, he was dumb-struck); and Jane Jolly and Robert Ingpen for Tea and Sugar Christmas. Boomerang Books was shortlisted for Online Retailer of the Year.

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Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton won ‘Book of the Year: Younger Children’ for The 52-Storey Treehouse and this also won overall ‘Book of the Year’, selected from the winners of each category. Another well-deserved scoop for children’s books.

Andy Griffiths was also a star at the SWF, signing books at the head of an enormous queue for, essentially, a whole day.

Because we are big fans of the Canadian TV series Orphan Black, we went to a screenwriters’ panel at the SWF, where Orphan Black writer, Lynne Coady, was speaking. She looks quite like the multi-role playing star of the show, Tatiana Maslany. Lynne got the conversation to a deeper level by confiding her fear of working as part of a screen-writing team. As an introvert who had been writing literary fiction alone in her basement she was worried how her voice would be heard in a group of, presumably, loud voices. Her vulnerability lit a spark in the panel’s discussion.

Waiting for the PastAnother highlight was hearing three eminent poets, David Malouf, Les Murray (Waiting for the Past) and Ben Okri read and speak about poetry. Moderator, poet/singer-songwriter Kate Fagan enhanced the session.

Another enthusiastic moderator was Davina Bell (The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade see my interview here) who chaired four YA authors in ‘Keeping it Real: Realistic Issues in Teen Fiction’. Authors included international Laurie Halse Anderson (The Impossible Knife of Memory), who intrigued the audience by knitting throughout the session, and Australian Melina Marchetta (Looking for Alibrandi, On the Jellicoe Road), to whom homage was deservedly paid.

Jellicoe Road

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Winners

Earth HourThe NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, held at the Mitchell Library last night, was an opportunity to recognise some of our literary greats, as well as newcomers to the winners’ stage.

Eminent author/poet, David Malouf, won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry for Earth Hour (UQP), another award to honour the exquisite writing of this distinguished, generous man.

Jaclyn Moriarty deservedly added to her cache of awards for the second in her ‘Colours of Madeleine’ trilogy, The Cracks in the Kingdom (PanMacmillan) This stunning original fantasy has already won the Queensland Literary YA Award and the Aurealis YA Award, and last night won the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature. My review in The Weekend Australian is here. Jaclyn was one of the most engaging speakers on the night; sharing poignant and funny words from her readers that highlighted the importance of books in the lives of young people.Cracks in the Kingdom

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature was shared by Tamsin Janu’s debut novel, Figgy in the World and Catherine Norton’s, Crossing. Figgy in the World is set in Ghana and relays the tale of eight-year-old Figgy who tries to get to the ‘United Stilts of America’ to buy medicine for her grandmother. Ghana and its people are brought to life in this novel. It is my favourite of the CBCA Book of the Year shortlist for Younger Readers.

Figgy in the World

Both these books are published by the recently defunct Omnibus Books imprint from Scholastic Australia. Omnibus has published books that have become contemporary children’s classics over the years, so their closure is extremely disappointing.

Some other shortlisted children’s authors/illustrators were in attendance, including the sublimely gifted Stephen Michael King for The Duck and the Darklings (Allen & Unwin), written by Glenda Millard. This is my favourite of this year’s CBCA shortlisted picture books. Trace Balla’s debut picture book, Rivertime (Allen & Unwin) has created an awards buzz, shortlisted here, as well as for the CBCA and Crighton awards. It was interesting to hear some of the inside story of this book. Trace and her partner actually made the ten-day canoe trip that was the catalyst for the book and it seems as though Trace had as much trouble climbing onto jetties as did her child protagonist, Clancy, in the book.Duck and Darklings

Other highlights of the evening were awards for translation, the Multicultural NSW Award to Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (NewSouth Books), the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting to Black Diggers by Tom Wright (Playlab/QTC), Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting to The Babadook by Jennifer Kent (Causeway Films) and the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing to Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man (Giramondo). Mark Henshaw won the Christina Stead Prize for fiction with his stunning The Snow Kimono (Text) – read my review here – and Don Watson’s The Bush (Hamish Hamilton) emulated his Indies Awards honours by winning both the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction and overall Best Book of the Year. He was so flabbergasted by the second award that he confessed to finally being humbled.

Bush

David Williamson was deservedly presented with a special award for his distinguished body of work. He generously donated his prize money to an upcoming winning playwright of a competition run by the Ensemble Theatre.

Holidays – the chance to read: short fiction, poetry, YA …

Only the AnimalsThe Christmas holidays are most likely your best chance in the year to read. If your family or close friends aren’t as keen as you, send them off on other pursuits – the Sydney Festival if you’re in NSW (or even if not); bush walks, tennis or whitewater rafting; the beach; the movies, especially moonlit ones … Or better still, join them doing those fun things but make sure they also have a book to read when you just can’t keep yourself out of one for a minute longer.

I am about to read some more short fiction – there are so many great collections around at the moment – starting with Springtime by Michelle de Kretser and then The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel and The Strange Library by Huraki Murakami. I was fortunate to go to a launch of Only the Animals by South-African born, Australian author, Ceridwen Dovey (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books) earlier in the year and so have already read this original work which is exceptional across short and long fiction. The conceit of telling each short story from the viewpoint of animal souls and their engagement with important times in history as well as with significant writers, such as Franz Kafka, J.M Coetzee, Virginia Woolf and Julian Barnes, is inspired. And the writing is brilliant. Ceridwen is a star and her book cover is the best of the year.A Rightful Place

In non-fiction, Noel Pearson’s Quarterly Essay, A Rightful Place (Black Inc) is my standout. In fact, it’s essential reading to glean some understanding of our original peoples, written by one of their representatives who understands the problems as well as possible ways forward. Pearson is also revered by a broad cross-section of Australians, particularly after his speech at Gough Whitlam’s funeral. Although divisive, many would regard him as a statesman.

Australian poetry is flourishing. I can only begin to list the 2014 crop but a few include Earth Hour by David Malouf (UQP), Sack by John Kinsella (Fremantle Press) and Poems 1957-2013 by Geoffrey Lehmann (UWAP) – reviewed here.

Cracks in the KingdomMy favourite young adult novels of the year include The Protected by Claire Zorn (UQP), Laurinda by Alice Pung (Black Inc), The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil (Hardie Grant Egmont) and Nona and Me by Clare Atkins (Black Inc). Jackie French in To Love a Sunburnt Country (HarperCollins) has opened my eyes again to an unknown part of Australia’s history. Incidentally, her novel for middle school (upper primary – junior secondary), Refuge recently co-won the children’s category of the Qld Literary Awards with Shaun Tan’s illustrated Rules of Summer.

And The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty, which is the second in the ‘Colours of Madeleine’ trilogy and won the YA category of the Qld Literary Awards, is another of my 2014 Australian favourites.

Springtime

Christmas wish list

Christmas holidays are all about catching up with friends and family, and catching up on all the books that I haven’t had a chance to read during the year. I’m not a fan of reading on the beach – too sunny, too many kids to watch, too many friends to chat with. But once I settle into a shady spot with a good book, I can get lost for hours. Maybe a little too lost.

EyrieLast summer, on the hottest day of the year, I was immersed in Tim Winton’s Eyrie, under a shady ghost gum, when I noticed something moving out of the corner of my eye. A snake had made its way onto the arm of my sun lounger and was staring at me, flicking its tongue, inquisitively. I was so absorbed in Eyrie that I hadn’t even noticed, until the snake was centimetres from my face. I hurled myself off the chair and the snake took off in the other direction. A nasty interruption to my relaxing afternoon.

Once again this year my Christmas wish list will be filled with books, but I might just glance around now and then, when I’m reading, no matter how engaging the story is.

Here’s what’s on my wish list:

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

9781741666700I can’t wait to get into this Man Booker Prize winning novel, which my fellow blogger, Jon Page, recently reviewed.

“Richard Flanagan has written a tragic love story, a deconstruction of heroism and mateship, and captured a side of humanity I’ve never read before. Wars, according to our history books, have beginnings and ends but for those who take part in wars, who are swept up in its maelstrom, there is no beginning or end. There is only life. And the damage war causes must be endured by those lucky or unlucky enough to survive it.”

The Writing Life by David Malouf

The Writing LifeDavid Malouf examines the work of writers who have challenged, inspired and entertained us for generations – from Christina Stead, Les Murray and Patrick White to Proust, Shakespeare and Charlotte Bronte. He also looks at his own work and the life of the writer, where the danger is spending too much time talking about writing and not enough doing it.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

I am a huge fan of Hilary Mantel – the double Man Booker Prize-winning author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The Assassination of Margaret ThatcherHer portraits of Thomas Cromwell’s England are epic historical tales, so I’m intrigued to delve into this collection of short stories, which promise to summon the horrors so often concealed behind everyday facades. 

The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb

The Wife DroughtUbiquitous journalist, Annabel Crabb takes a new angle on the work-family balance debate, by bringing working men into the picture. She asks why we have become fixated on the barriers that women face progressing in the workplace, and forgotten about the barriers that still block the exits for men? The Wife Drought is peppered with candid anecdotes from Crabb’s own work-family juggling act, is a thoughtful addition to the equality discussion and a call for a ceasefire in the gender wars.

I’d love to hear what’s on your wish list. Happy reading.

Julie

Julie Fison writes for children and young adults. Her books include the Hazard River series for young readers, the Choose Your Own Ever After series that lets the reader decide how the story goes, and Counterfeit Love for young adults.

Brisbane Writers Festival Dazzles

Analogue MenThe  2014 Brisbane Writers Festival had an inspiring launch on Thursday night when author/publisher Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What is the What – about the lost boys of Sudan) told a full tent  about the genesis of McSweeney’s publishing company and its 826 Valencia Writing Centres. The tutoring behind these pirate, superhero and other themed storefronts has helped countless children with their writing. Groups doing similar work in Australia are Sydney’s Story Factory with its Martian Embassy, Melbourne’s 100 Story Building, and Book Links in Queensland is working towards its own centre.

My next session was ‘Dangerous Allies’ where Robert Manne interviewed Malcolm Fraser in front of a capacity crowd. The insights about Australia’s alliance with the US were provocative and chilling.

‘Zen and the Art of Tea’ was a light-hearted exploration of tea by Morris Gleitzman and Josephine Moon. Josephine’s tip about brewing lavender, garlic or basil to make teas sounds worth trying and Morris – a literary Geoffrey Rush – was hilarious. He personified coffee as a bully, and tea as a whispering lover.

David Hunt was in fine form discussing his Indies Book winner, Girt which is a retelling of Australian history with a comedic eye.

It was fun to cross paths with David Malouf (for the second time in two weeks), Jennifer Byrne, Will Kostakis, Pamela Rushby and Tristan Bancks. If only there was more time for more sessions … I would have loved to see YA writers such as A.J. Betts, Isobelle Carmody and Jackie French but they were either offsite or clashed with my events. Andy Griffiths was so popular he had his own signing area after the other children’s writers’ part of the program had finished. Chairing Andy and John Boyne (Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) a few years ago was one of the funniest times of my life.

Forgotten Rebels of EurekaThis year I was privileged to moderate sessions with Clare Wright on The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text) and Nick Earls on Analogue Men (Vintage). Clare must be the world’s most informed person in her field of women at Eureka. Her book deservedly won the Stella Prize this year. It is compulsive, engaging reading, notwithstanding its 500+ pages.

Nick was as funny as expected and revealed a secret about Analogue Men. We learned that his favourite Dr Who is Jon Pertwee and his favourite tech device Bluetooth. I explained how I laughed out loud repeatedly over one scene that I read on instant replay and Nick implied that my brain is like that of a goldfish. But no – it really was the skilful writing. It was wonderful to hear the laughing throughout this session and see the animated audiences in both these events.

Many thanks to the authors involved in the Festival, particularly Clare and Nick, and to the incredible BWF staff and volunteers led by Kate Eltham.

A Pantheon of Poets: Geoffrey Lehmann

Geoffrey LehmannA pantheon of eminent Australian poets descended onto a marquee slated on a grassy tennis court in leafy Sydney. The canapés, wine and congenial company were to celebrate the launch of esteemed poet, Geoffrey Lehmann’s new book, Poems 1957-2013 (UWA Publishing).

Geoffrey and his vivacious wife, Gail Pearson, hosted a large but attentive group of poets, family and colleagues under a rain-threatening sky. Poems was launched by John Edwards, who read the final poem in the book, ‘Why I Write Poetry’, a fitting résumé of Geoffrey’s poetic life, which he wrote for his old English master.

… Poetry is our love of metaphor.

We see one thing and think of something else.

A green wool-dress becomes the woman we love.

Poetry is non-local causality.

We are bathed in a mysterious glow.

That’s why I write poetry.

The collection includes previously published poems, some revised with original lines restored and removed. More than seventy pages of poems are new publications.

It’s always interesting to see how a poetry collection is structured. Here the sections are ‘Simple Sonnets’, ‘Earlier Poems’, ‘Nero’s Poems’, ‘Spring Forest’ and ‘Later Poems’. Ancient history is prominent, featuring poems about the Emperor Claudius, ‘Fall of a Greek City’ and ‘Colosseum’. There is also a poem for poet Les Murray, ‘The Trip to Bunyah: A Letter for Les Murray’. Aptly, Geoffrey’s first book of poetry, The Ilex Tree, was shared with Les and won the Grace Levin Prize.

Another of Geoffrey’s collaborations, and one for which he is recently known, is with Robert Gray. These two poets have edited some formidable anthologies of Australian poetry, the last published in 2011 by UNSW Press – Australian Poetry Since 1788.

Geoffrey read several poems, including the very funny, ‘Thirteen Reviews of the New Babylon Inn’, based on TripAdvisor reviews of a hotel in New York; ‘An Image’, a poem written when he was 17; ‘Water from My Face’ from ‘Spring Forest’ and ‘The World’ from the ‘Simple Sonnets’ sequence.

Frank MoorhouseA character in his own right, Geoffrey was part of the Sydney Push with Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes and Frank Moorhouse. The Push was predominately a left-wing intellectual subculture in the mid 1900s. Geoffrey broke the mould by working for global accountancy firm, PriceWaterhouseCoopers

Some poets at the launch were David Malouf, Robert Adamson, Martin Langford, Vivian Smith, Carol Jenkins, Jamie Grant, Judith Beveridge, Stephen Edgar, Rhyll McMaster, Robert Gray and Alan Wearne. Judith Beveridge