Protectors of Secret Natural Places: Tony Birch and Inga Simpson

TreesI was very fortunate to chair a session with Inga Simpson and Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers Festival.

They both have had books long or short listed for the prestigious Miles Franklin award. Tony’s Ghost River is currently longlisted.

It was also shortlisted for two categories in this year’s NSW Premier’s Awards: the Christina Stead prize for fiction and the newly created Indigenous Prize.

Tony and Inga both know their way around universities, as well as being accomplished fiction writers who take us on secret, sensory journeys with their young characters, particularly into natural ‘inbetween’ places, around rivers and trees.

I was first aware of Inga’s writing when her debut novel, Mr Wigg was shortlisted for the Indies awards. I remember the ripples that her lyrical writing about an elderly man in his orchard caused in the literary community.

The writing in her second novel Nest is also the equivalent of fine slow-cooking with its depiction of Jen’s life in a sub-tropical forest but it is utterly captivating and suspenseful at the same time. Nest

Her new novel Where the Trees Were also has evocative descriptions of place – the river and trees.

A group of boys and one girl, Jay, spend their summer holidays before starting high school in the bush, mainly around the river. They find a circle of trees that seem to be out of time and world. Designs are carved into their trunks. Are they a story or code?

The parts of the story about Jay as a girl are told in first person. We also meet her as an adult in Canberra, told in third person.

The indolence of quite an idyllic childhood, although charged with the urgency of adolescence, changes to a harder-edged anticipation and anxiety when a conservationist, (we’re not immediately told her name is Jayne) is involved in stealing a carved Indigenous artifact, an arborglyph, a Wiradjuri burial tree.

Tony Birch’s writing is assured, direct and unpretentious.

I was very moved by his novel Blood, particularly the strength of character and loving heart of his young part- Aboriginal protagonist, Jesse.

His most recent novel is Ghost River, set in the 1960s where the intersected lives of two adolescent boys and the dispossessed river men play out alongside the Yarra River. Ghost River

Storytelling and the changes and roils of life are intrinsic to this novel, reflected in Tony’s own virtuosic story-telling style which moves from energy and adventure to trouble, pathos and weariness and back again like the river itself.

I wonder how much of his own boyhood Tony has drawn upon to create his lively characters Ren, and particularly Sonny.

Mr Wigg

Interview with Kelly Doust, author of Precious Things

Precious Things by Australian author Kelly Doust follows a handmade beaded collar through history to the present, touching on the women who owned it and wore it in the past. Kelly Doust joins us on the blog today.Kelly Doust

Thanks for joining us Kelly. How did you become interested in vintage clothing?
I fell in love with all fashion when I was really young. I was that kid into dress-ups who always wore weird stuff to mufti day with makeup applied on the bus, inevitably having to wipe it off when a teacher noticed. My local charity store and flea market first exposed me to vintage clothing, but I also adored my mum’s seventies denim flares, cork wedges and plunging velour evening gowns, which seemed so risqué and fun and spoke of grown-up adventures I was dying to become old enough for.

Do you believe that a garment or handmade item can carry part of the essence of the previous owner? (Do you believe an item can carry good vibes or bad juju?)
Not really, but I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong. I wore a refashioned eighties wedding dress for my own wedding and didn’t give it much thought at the time, although the true story behind why it ended up in a vintage clothing store probably isn’t the rosiest.

In most cases there’s no way of learning the history of a vintage garment. Does this make you sad or do you prefer the wonder and intrigue?
It’s a kind of sweet sadness, the idea of stories being lost but it’s also the natural way of things. I’m always visiting fashion exhibitions because they share photographs and plaques with all sorts of fascinating contextual information. The May 2016 issue of UK Vogue has this brilliant fashion story featuring costumes worn by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards during their years of touring with The Rolling Stones, but Kate Moss is modelling them with a thoroughly modern twist. That’s so inspiring to me.

The Crafty Minx Kelly DoustThis is your debut novel, but you’re certainly no stranger to writing. You’ve worked in the publishing industry and published a number of books (including: Crafty Minx, A Life in Frocks, Minxy Vintage and The Crafty Minx at Home) and I was wondering where you do most of your writing?
Usually at home, but last year we were renovating and I ended up writing in my local cafe most days. It was actually quite useful, because I tried to write as much as I could before ordering another coffee, which made me quite productive. I try to have only two cups a day, so it really focused my mind on writing quickly!

What are you reading at the moment?
Inga Simpson’s Where the Trees Were and Katherine Brabon’s The Memory Artist, which recently won the 2016 Vogel Award. Both are so beautifully written. Inga Simpson’s passion for Australian natural history just shines through in Where the Trees Were, and I love the premise of the novel, which slips from present to past to uncover the story of the trees her protagonist, Jayne, is trying to protect. The Memory Artist is also quite staggeringly accomplished, especially for a first novel, and its Russian setting is very evocative. I find myself reading it in awe.Precious Things Kelly Doust book cover

What’s next? Apart from promoting Precious Things, what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a second novel. Not a sequel to Precious Things but another novel set in England with many similar themes. I also have a new day job, which involves choosing books to turn into audiobooks. It’s really thrilling – I’m reading so widely and love the idea of bringing authors to new readers or listeners.

Thanks for your time Kelly and good luck on your next novel!
Thanks so much for interviewing me for Boomerang Books, Tracey – I so appreciate it! ☺

* Photo credit: Amanda Prior & Ruby Star Traders

Player Profile: Inga Simpson, author of Mr Wigg

inga simpson_18Inga Simpson, author of Mr Wigg

Tell us about your latest creation:

Mr Wigg is the story of the final year of one man’s life. His wife has died and it looks like what’s left of the family property will have to be sold off. He loses himself in his somewhat magical orchard, and spends time cooking with his grandchildren – telling them stories of the Orchard Queen. Despite his age, and Parkinson’s, he begins an ambitious project: to forge a wrought-iron tree.

9780733630194Where are you from / where do you call home?:

I grew up on a property in Central West New South Wales, and now live in Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland. I tend to call both “home” though with different meanings.

When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?:

An author, closely followed by spy or detective.

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?:

The next novel, the one yet unwritten. At the moment it is all possibility; without flaws.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?:

I write in a studio looking out into bushland though odd-shaped windows – including a circle, which has me feeling a little like a hobbit some days. The interior is reasonably ordered, or starts out that way … But I do accumulate piles of papers and books to be dealt with ‘later’.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?:

I try to read as widely as possible but tend to read a lot of contemporary Australian fiction, as well as nature writing.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?:

Blinky Bill, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?:

Sam Gribley, from My Side of the Mountain. He runs away and lives in a hollowed-out tree in the Catskill Mountains, befriending a peregrine falcon and becoming entirely self-sufficient, which appeals to me some days.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?:

Surf, though not as often as I would like lately. Or Trivial Pursuit by the open fire on winter evenings.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?:

Moroccan lamb and a decent glass of red wine.

Who is your hero? Why?:

Judith Wright. Not only an amazing poet but an uncompromising activist on environmental and Indigenous issues.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?:

Reminding decision makers and educators of the value the arts, including a national literature, in tough economic times.

Website URL: http://www.ingasimpson.com.au/
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