Author Interview

Author Interview - Frank Woodley, comedian and author of the new Kizmet series

PP:  Can you tell us about your new series of kids' books?

FW:  They're based around the adventures of a girl called Kizmet who's a courageous super-sleuth.  She's so smart when she sees a set a footprints information pours out of them like a wikipedia page.  She can tell how old the person was - whether they were walking or running.  I wouldn't be surprised if she could tell if they had freckles or not.  Her dad is a bumbling detective who would love to be here but just accidentally handcuffed himself to a departing helicopter.  The stories are narrated by Gretchen who is Kizmet's best friend.  Oh, and she's a currawong.
"the stories are narrated by Gretchen...... Oh, and she's a currawong."

PP:  Most Mums and Dads would know you from your comedy skits and appearances on TV.  How did it come about that you started writing children's books?

FW:  I just follow my nose.  It's one of the reasons I would never consider rhinoplasty.  My ample nose makes it easier to follow.  I've done lots and lots of narrative comedy, so it doesn't feel very different.  I hadn't written mystery stories before but I think they're quite similar to comedy.  Comedy and Mystery are both about creating tension and then offering a surprise resolution.

PP:  The illustrations in the books are fantastic.  And they are done by none other than... well... you!  Did you enjoy illustrating the series?

FW:  It was really enjoyable.  Drawing is a very introverted activity, and I spend a fair bit of my time showing off so it was a really nice change.
"Comedy and Mystery are both about creating tension and then offering a surprise resolution."

PP:  Gretchen is a bird, but is also the narrator of the Kizmet series.  Why did you choose for Gretchen to be a Currawong, and not a Rainbow Lorrikeet (so pretty) or owl (so wise) for instance?

FW:  A friend of mine, James, lives in the country and a currawong was once taunting his little Jack Russell by dropping leaves on it from the safety of a high branch.  James threw a ball to scare it away and accidentally hit it.  The next day he found an enormous birdpoo in the middle of his windscreen and he's convinced it was the currawong.  Ever since I heard that story I've had this sense that currawongs are very intelligent and cheeky.

PP:  Kizmet's Dad, Spencer Papanicillo is not a very good detective, but he provides plenty of laughs with his bumbling behaviour.  Where (or from whom) did you take your inspiration from when you created him?

FW:  He's pretty much cut from the cloth of Inspector Clouseau and Maxwell Smart, but I must say there's a fair bit of me in him too.  Just last weekend I was trying to run an extension cord across the roof of my garage and I cable tied my thumb to a pipe and was stuck there for an hour and a half 'til my wife got home and could pass me some scissors.
"I must say there's a fair bit of me in him too."

PP:  Kismet is super smart, incredibly agile and is a terrific detective, but she must miss a lot of school going away on all these crazy adventures.  How does she manage to keep on top of everything?

FW:  I'll have to ask her about that.  I think she may be home schooled.  Which in her case almost certainly means that she reads all sorts of books, and watches all sorts of videos and online stuff, and talks to everyone she meets and listens with fascination to what they have to say.... and Spencer watches it all happen in bewildered amazement.

PP:  We've followed the team across the globe chasing down kooky (and hairy) scientists and nefarious musicians so far - can you tell us what you have in store for Kizmet, Gretchen and Detective Spencer next?  Just a hint or little detail.....

FW:  I'm not sure.  Maybe the strange appearance of a person claiming to be from the middle ages.  Or a circus that has it's big top stolen in the middle of a show.  Or a mugger who gets people to give him their wallets by just asking really nicely.  Or a patient who gets an experimental stem-cell treatment for a head injury and becomes a super intelligent criminal.  Or a virus that is taking away the voices of all newsreaders.  Or a boy who every few weeks finds an envelope with a thousand dollars in it and a note requesting him not to play soccer with his local under eleven's soccer team that week.  Or... I 'm just rambling really, I haven't even started yet.

PP:  What was your favourite book as a child?

FW:  It would have to be the Asterix comics.  The gall of that little Gaul.

PP:  And lastly, what sort of books do you think Kizmet likes to read?  And for that matter, Detective Spencer and, dare I ask Gretchen?

FW:  Kizmet loves mainly non-fiction.  All sorts of stuff that gives you new ways of looking at things.  She loved Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks and Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson.  Spencer reads Jackie Collins romances but puts them in a Wilbur Smith dustjacket.  And Gretchen never learned to read, but she enjoys watching Total Wipeout and having her suspicions that currawongs are more intelligent than humans confirmed.

Kizmet and the Case of the Smashed Violin $10
Kizmet and the Case of the Tassie Tiger $10
are both out now.

Author Interview - Antonia Hayes talks about "Relativity"

Australian author Antonia Hayes worked in bookshops and publishing, juggled motherhood and was a co-director of the National Young Writers Festival whilst writing her debut novel Relativity.
Relativity appeared on a number of "most anticipated" lists earlier in the year and now that it is out you can find out what all the fuss is about!
First take a look at what Antonia had to say to us about Relativity, publishing and her love of science.

"Fiction and physics aren't too different.... they even use the same vocabulary"

PP:  Tell us about your debut novel Relativity.
AH:  Relativity is about science, love, unbreakable bonds and irreversible acts.

PP:  You have had quite a varied career in the book industry already.  You've worked as a book publicist, bookseller and also as a Co-Director of the National Young Writers Festival.  What do these experiences mean to you now as an author?
AH:  I suppose all my various jobs sprang from my love of books and reading, and then trying to figure out how to turn that love into a career.  As a new author, those experiences have made me really appreciate the entire ecosystem of publishing and bookselling and all the amazing, enthusiastic people who work in the industry.  Editors, sales reps, publicists, booksellers, festival staff, bloggers, media (and many more!) all play a vital role in getting new books to readers.  Writing the book is just one step.  It takes a village and I'm extra grateful for this village because I've seen how hard everyone behind the scenes works.

"now it's sold in six territories, which is completely insane...!"

PP:  Can you tell a little about the main characters in Relativity - Claire, Ethan and Mark?
AH:  Ethan is a 12 year old boy who loves physics.  He's extremely curious and constantly thinking about how the universe works.  Claire is Ethan's mother and even though she loves her son intensely and is a bit overprotective, she does often find Ethan's obsession with physics mystifying.  She's also a former ballerina but now works behind the scenes.  And Mark is Ethan's estranged father who lives on the other side of the country.  Relativity begins when Mark suddenly comes back into Claire and Ethan's lives.

"Ethan is much more like 12 year old me."

PP:  As a mother writing about motherhood, and with a son who is around the same age as Ethan, how did you approach writing Relativity?  In fact, the dedication in the book is for your son, Julian - are you going to get in trouble with him for stealing elements of his growing up to create the character Ethan?
AH:  When I started writing the book - and when I created Ethan - my son was only four years old.  So even though Julian caught up and has outgrown Ethan now, the inspiration for that character didn't come directly from my son.  If anything, Ehtan is much more like twelve year old me.  Although there are a couple of moments that I shamelessly stole from Julian (he doesn't mind I put them in the novel, I asked first): he did actually compare my reproductive system to The Hunger Games, and he does often ask for pizza at inappropriate moments.

PP:  Mark and Ethan share a scene where they talk about understanding paradoxes and extreme duality (p 337).  They are talking about scientific principles, but I would suggest that your treatment of the issues in the book - including child abuse, bullying, love and family - also require this same understanding, as nothing is black and white in Relativity.  Would you agree?
AH:  Absolutely.  One reason I was drawn to writing about science when dealing with those particular issues was because they can be just as counterintuitive as understanding theoretical physics.  Light can be a particle and a wave at the same time, just like how good people can do bad things.  I think particularly inside families and with people we love, we see them at both their best and their worst - and everything in between.  All these issues require empathy to understand them too, and that means zooming out and not seeing them in a binary way.

"learning not only forgiveness, but also what it takes to be forgiven."
PP:  "Closure was fiction, it didn't exist" (p 348)
Your characters don't necessarily find their happy endings in the pages of your novel, however do you think Relativity is a story of redemption?
AH:  I suppose it is, in a way.  I think the idea of recovery and bouncing back - like living with failed ambition and being able to redefine yourself, or recuperating from damage or hurt - inadvertently became one of the themes of the novel.  And perhaps learning not only forgiveness, but also what it takes to be forgiven.

PP:  There is much to be learnt in the pages of Relativity about science.  Many of your metaphors are beautifully played out in scientific theory or conjecture.  Does it please you that some of your readers will inadvertently walk away with a better scientific knowledge of the work than before they opened the pages of your novel?  Where does your own interest in science come from, and how did that become combined with fiction?
AH:  Physics is a bit of a weird preoccupation of mine, which started when I was very little and my dad would point out constellations in the night sky.  Later, when I was in primary school, my teachers discovered I was pretty good at maths.  Numbers and patterns just made sense to me (although I really preferred reading Babysitters Club books), so I studied math and physics until I finished high school.  I never intended for Relativity to be a crash course in physics, I guess connecting science and the story/characters is just how my brain is wired.  Fiction and physics aren't too different anyway, they even use the same vocabulary; tension, friction, momentum, resonance, trajectory, etc all apply to storytelling as well.

PP:  You were formerly a co-director of the National Young Writers Festival which champions young and innovative writers working in both new and traditional forms.  How important do you believe such festivals are in promoting and supporting new Australian voices such as your own?
AH:  Festivals like NYWF and Emerging Writers Festival are really important, not just for discovering and promoting young and new Australian writers, but also because of the community and friendships they create.  I've met many great friends through these festivals, who not only support each other's careers and creative practice, but who also share a sense of solidarity about work that can often feel very isolating.

"Because my illness is unpredictable, I don't have time to procrasinate."

PP:  You wrote an incredible article for Meanjin last year about your Lupus diagnosis which was incredibly powerful and inspiring.  How has this illness affected the writing of Relativity and your creative output in general?
AH:  Thank you:  that essay was difficult to write!  Living with a chronic illness like lupus sometimes slows down my writing output.  There are days when I'm quite unwell and have trouble finding the mental and physical energy to write.  At the same time, I think my lupus diagnosis really spurs me on.  Because my illness is unpredictable,  I don't have time to procrastinate.

PP:  Can you tell us your publishing story?
AH:  When I did the Faber Academy novel writing course in London in 2009, all the students had extracts from our novels-in-progress published in an anthology.  Karolina Sutton, a UK literary agent, contacted me after reading my extract and asked to see the manuscript.  Six months later, I sent Karolina the first draft of Relativity, and she sent back a huge list of problems I needed to fix.  But it took me four years to fix them!  Last year when I moved to San Francisco, I wasn't able to get a job here for the first 90 days because I needed to wait for my work permit to be approved.  So I used those three months to finish rewriting Relativity again, then sent it to Karolina, and after fixing a few more things, she submitted it to publishers.  That was about a year ago.  Now it's sold in six territories, which is completely insane to me!

PP:  You are currently living in San Francisco and Relativity is to be published in the US in 2016.  You have received praise from the likes of S. J. Watson (who described the book as "wonderful, beautifully written and heartbreaking") and have appeared on countless "Most Anticipated Books of 2015" lists since the book was announced.  How does it feel to be the subject of so much anticipation?  And is it bittersweet being that you are so far from home (do you still call Australia home?)?
AH:  Australia will always be home!  To be honest, I was sad not to be home on Relativity's release day (which was also my birthday!) two weeks ago.  I can't walk into a bookshop and see it on the shelves, so if feels extra surreal and abstract to now be a published author.  I've been completely blown away by all the support Relativity has received so far, but I'm much more excited now that people are reading it and sharing their thoughts with me.  Hearing directly from readers is the most wonderful part of publishing a book.

"Writing the book is just one step.  It really takes a village."

PP: Do you have a favourite book?
AH:  I have about a million!  But my favourite author is Ian McEwan.

Make sure you check out our event with Antonia on Tuesday 25 August.  She will be in conversation with Benjamin Law about Relativity as part of the Authors Up The Cross event series.

Q & A with Alice Robinson, author of "Anchor Point"

Anchor Point is an emotional tour de force. 
It starts with a flood and ends with a fire - such strong metaphors - the deluge that keeps on getting higher and harder to hide from and then at the end the blazing inescapability of bare truths. This was a book that had me riveted to the page and reaching for the tissue box.
Debut author Alice Robinson agreed to answer some questions about Anchor Point for our blog. This is what she had to say.

PP: Tell us about your debut novel Anchor Point.
AR: When I sat down to write Anchor Point I was concerned about climate change. But very quickly, I came to understand that an ‘issue’ isn’t really what carries a work of fiction for readers – characters do. I didn’t have any characters at the ready, so I spent years just writing and writing in order to unearth the people who would grapple with the ideas and consequences I was so anxious about. It surprises me now to find that the novel I ended up with is very much a family story, a narrative that at first glance seems small, domestic, compared to the large, global issue I set out with.
Anchor Point is the story of Laura, who is ten when the novel opens, and her little sister Vik. They live on a large rural property with their parents Bruce and Kath, who have a tumultuous relationship – Bruce is practical, a farmer, while Kath fancies herself an artist; their ideas about what constitutes “real work” differ widely, and there is a lot of conflict in the house as a result. As many children do in such circumstances, Laura attempts to keep peace between her parents, an impossible task. When Kath disappears during a flash flood, Laura essentially steps into her mother’s role in the family. The responsibility she shoulders shapes the course of her life, as does the secret she alone carries about Kath’s fate.
"An issue isn't really what carries a work of fiction for readers - characters do."
PP: The relationships between the land and the characters in Anchor Point are incredibly complex. How much of your own rural background and experiences came into forming these characters and their emotional ties or lack thereof to the land? 

AR: The characters and story are fictional, but certainly my understandings about what it is to live on and look after land, and my experiences of belonging (or failing to belong) are drawn from encounters with all kinds of home places from my life – rural properties, urban houses, cities, nations – and I was actively thinking about these experiences as I wrote the book. One of the complexities in the novel is the fact that, although Laura feels very responsible for and connected to her father’s property, she is aware of (but also ambivalent about) an Indigenous presence in the community. The idea that the land she so loves and feels connected to might actually belong to another group of people is deeply troubling to her. I think this tension is probably something many Australian readers can relate to.
"The idea that the land she so loves and feels connected to might actually belong to another group of people is deeply troubling to her."
A number of readers have commented that they enjoyed the authentic-sounding descriptions of rural life and work in the novel, but despite growing up in the country (on a hobby farm and really only on weekends, it must be admitted) I am really a bookish, indoor, city kind of person. I’m not particularly handy or practical where outdoor work is concerned and I’ve never done that kind of physical, farming labour myself. So I’m not very much like Laura at all. But my father – an excellent storyteller – did grow up on a sheep farm. He spent a lot of my childhood talking about the experiences he had as a boy, and those stories became family folklore: part of my identity. If I was able to invest the novel with any rural authenticity at all then the power of story to pass down experience is not to be underestimated. It is a profound inheritance.
PP: Whilst the plot of Anchor Point starts with an absent mother, the relationship that is portrayed between Laura and her father is incredibly austere and moving. Can you tell us more about Bruce and where his character came from?
AR: In a very real way that is difficult to articulate or explain, I don’t know where Bruce came from. I think questions such as this really relate to other more fundamental questions about how fiction writing works such as, ‘How fictional are fictional characters?’ And, ‘How does writing fiction happen?’ It is such a magical business, creating people and worlds from nothing, one that I think writers themselves find troubling and mystifying, difficult to pinpoint or fully understand. Anchor Point took 7 years to write, many hundreds of thousands of words written (and mostly discarded) in that time. At first Bruce was shadowy, but over the years as I wrote and edited the text, his voice and character strengthened until I came to understand the kind of man he was: a little rough around the edges, but also loyal, hardworking. He is vey much shaped by his own inheritance: the sheep farm his parents lost long ago and which he wants to recreate, at great cost to himself and his own children. I am so interested in the gifts and burdens we inherit from our parents (and their parents) and then pass on to our own children, sometimes unwittingly: ideas, desires, moral compasses. I feel very tenderly toward Bruce, as I think Laura does, though he is certainly the product of his limitations and experiences, as are we all.
"Writing fiction..... is such a magical business... one that I think writers themselves find troubling and mystifying, difficult to pinpoint or fully understand."
PP: One theme of the book is belonging - to the land, family, community and about finding one’s place. Can you talk a little about this in regards to how the characters develop in Anchor Point? 

AR: Each character has a particular relationship to the places they find themselves inhabiting – their homes and farms and towns or cities. When you look after something, including a piece of land, you become deeply invested. Laura loves and feels responsible for the land she grows up on, but I was interested in exploring the idea of an anchor as something that both protects one from drifting into unchartered waters, as well as something that can drag one down. On one level, Laura longs to get away from the farm and strike out on her own, and on another, she feels at sea when she is away from her place. That struggle: to be free, but at a cost to her sense of self, is one Laura has to grapple with. Her little sister, Vik, has quite a different relationship to the farm, partly because Laura’s dogged labour protects her from having to do much work, and so I think Vik never really develops the same kind of connection. Kath has a different relationship to the place again, in that, unlike her daughters, she is a migrant. She finds herself transplanted to this remote property, but in her own way she respects the landscape – and uses it for her own purposes – in that she creates her clay objects from the very soil of the farm. There are suggestions that Laura’s local Indigenous friend Joseph has quite a different relationship again. He knows and understands the lands in a way that Laura finds intriguing, but also unsettling. Without giving too much away, for me one of the greatest sorrows in the book is the fate of Laura’s land: for Laura and Vik, but perhaps especially (or equally) for Joseph.
PP: The environment and it’s mishandling is another strong theme - you touch on activism, land clearing, indigenous rights and climate change. What did you want the reader to take away from their reading of Anchor Point in regards to modern rural life and it’s future?
AR: Although it saddens me to admit it, I feel largely pessimistic about the future. This is an uncomfortable position to be in, because I am also the mother of two very small children – babies, really. What kind of world are they facing? When I began writing Anchor Point I wanted to believe that my attempts to explore all the issues you’ve pinpointed might have some kind of impact on the trajectory of events; I wanted to believe that fiction writing could help make change in the world. Now I’m not so sure that it can. In the time it has taken me to write the book (from the reign of Kevin Rudd to Tony Abbott) things seem, if anything, to be getting worse in Australia, environmentally speaking.
"I wanted to believe that fiction writing could help make change in the world. Now I'm not so sure that it can."
A number of readers have found the novel melancholic, which I think it probably is. I feel so much sadness about the prospect of many of the remarkable ecosystems and animals and places I love and enjoy being damaged or destroyed in decades to come as a result of our inaction. Whether readers take any of this away from the book I’m not sure, and no doubt it will impact each reader uniquely. Regardless, I think literature and ideas are powerful and important. I’m so grateful to be contributing to the conversation around Australian environmental issues in some small way.
PP: The ending of Anchor Point is set in the year 2018. Why set the ending in the future and not the here and now?
AR: The novel is set largely in the recent past and near future. The year 2018 seemed just far enough into the future to allow some creative license over events, but also close enough, I hope, to be relatable and believable. I was writing the book when Black Saturday occurred, and after that event the final scene in the book began to feel eerily possible. As I see it, the action of the novel takes place in the last gasp before any definitive, destructive or world-ending event, which means that there remains a sliver of hope for the characters beyond the pages. A novel set a long way off in the future would focus on the lives of characters surviving in a world that is already significantly altered, probably for the worse. But most of those changes haven’t happened yet in Anchor Point. To some extent, the characters can see destruction approaching, but from a distance. There is something terrifying about that, to me.
PP: This is your debut novel. Can you tell us about getting your book published?
AR: I finished the book in the months just before my first child was born. I entered it into a couple of prizes for unpublished manuscripts, but nothing came of them. I was so tired and so pregnant and a bit burned out by the whole protracted experience of writing the novel. I was really ready to put the manuscript away. “I’ll just be a mum now,” I thought. “That’s an okay thing to be.” But I happened to speak to a friend on the phone who had read the book and enjoyed it. She urged me to keep sending it out to publishers. I grumbled, but she made me feel sufficiently lazy, so I decided to send it out one more time – to Affirm Press. The first three chapters landed in their slush pile. They may have stayed there indefinitely, had their publisher Martin Hughes not taken a couple of manuscripts away with him on holidays, as a favour to his colleagues. He read my chapters and requested the rest. When he phoned to say that he wanted to publish the book, I understood what it must be like to win Tatts lotto. A sense of incredible good fortune and gratitude has never left me. After Martin phoned I also realised that, although I will always be the mother of a gorgeous little girl (and now a lovely boy too), I can have another kind of life at the same time: a writing life.
"When he phoned to say that he wanted to publish the book, I understood what it must be like to win Tatts lotto."
PP: You also lecture in creative writing at Melbourne Polytechnic. Can you tell us one invaluable piece of writing advice that you give to your students?
AR: The thing I really stress to my students is that writing well is a kind of intellectual fitness: the more you do it, the easier it gets. This goes for both quality and quantity, I think. When I am writing in a serious way every day, I notice a big improvement in the ease with which the words come to me, the satisfaction I feel with what I produce, and the pleasure I derive from the experience of writing. But when I am unable to write regularly, my skill grows flabby quickly and it all feels like impossibly hard labour.

My students normally write for an hour during each of my classes, and I can see that at the beginning of semester it is hard for them to sit at their desks for more than about five or ten minutes without getting fidgety; they can’t sustain the concentration. Writing a novel, something that many of them long to do, requires many, many hundreds of hours of intense focus, so I work with them over the course of our time together to build their writing fitness incrementally. It is amazing how much they can produce in sixty minutes by the end of semester – their surprise and gratification is a source of joy for me.
Anchor Point is published by Affirm Press and is in stock now. Rrp $25

Author Interview with Michelle De Kretser, author of "Springtime: A Ghost Story"

Springtime by award winning author Michelle de Kretser is a rare, beguiling and brilliant ghost story set in Sydney.  At 85 pages, it is the perfect antidote for any post Christmas reading slump you may be feeling and a brilliant way to bring in your 2015 Year of Reading.
Michelle de Kretser very kindly agreed to answer some questions we had for her about Springtime and here is what she had to say.

PPB: When I think of a ghost story, I usually imagine gothic architecture and cooler climates.  Your novella Springtime is set in sunny Sydney, but your towering oaks, creeping tropical plants and inner-city suburban streets provide a setting almost as dark and brooding.  Can you tell us a little about writing a modern ghost story in a modern setting?

MDK:  As you point out, in setting Springtime in sunny Sydney I was going against the gothic conventions of the traditional ghost story.  I've long been interested in playing with generic conventions; my novel The Hamilton Case simultaneously draws on and undoes the "rules" of the whodunnit.  Unsettling formal expectations is a way of creating tension, surprise and - with luck! - pleasure for the reader.
There is no resolution at the end of Springtime - the presence of the ghost is not explained, nor is it exorcised - because I wanted to write a story that would linger in the mind of the reader.  When it comes to the purely gothic, film does scary far more effectively than fiction.  I hope that what a modern ghost story can do, however, is haunt the reader by not providing closure; a lingering eeriness is the effect I was after.

"Discovering Sydney was a way of exchanging information about each other" p22

PPB:  You are well known for your masterful descriptions of place and there is a wonderful line in your novella - "Discovering Sydney was a way of exchanging information about each other." (p22) - that I think speaks to your larger body of work.  Why do you place such importance on place in your writing?

MDK:  Possibly because place matters to me.  that might be a consequence of migration.  An outsider can never take place and all that it implies - a sociology, a history - for granted in the way a local can.  I'm conscious of being alert to the way behaviour and psychology - character, if you like - is marked by place.

"It's a story about being haunted: by the past, by one's actions, by the unknowability of other people and of the future."

PPB:  Like yourself, the main character Frances, has recently moved to Sydney from Melbourne.  She finds the city compelling yet never seems at home there.  Do you feel like a Sydneysider these days?  And do you believe like Frances does that certain places seem to attract certain types of people?

MDK:  I do feel at home here, and have done so from the start, unlike Frances.  Place, in the sense of climate, is very much bound up with that.  Sydney in Summer reminds me forcefully of Sri Lanka, where I grew up:  the vegetation, the humidity, the raucous birds, the downpours.  The light here is golden as it is in Sri Lanka, whereas the light in Melbourne, where I loved for over thirty years is blue; the nature of the light makes a tremendous difference to one's unconscious sense of wellbeing in a place.
When I moved from Melbourne to Sydney, I noticed the difference in the people here: in Melbourne it's predominantly dark, tailored clothes, in Sydney it's bright colours and floaty fabrics, and there's much more flesh on display.  The difference in climate explains all of this, of course, but a dyed-in-the-wool Melbournian will draw the conclusion that Sydneysiders are flashy and superficial.  Frances inclines to that view at times while remained charmed by the gorgeousness of Sydney.

PPB:  I love describing this book by saying it is about unexplainable things - yes, it is a ghost story, but it is also about human behaviour and interaction, which can be just as inexplicable.  There are also many references to invisible threats in the story.  Can you tell us a little about the darker threads of Springtime?

MDK:  Oh, "unexplainable things" is wonderful - I'm going to borrow that phrase!   The answer to this question is related to my first answer.  If film does scary better than fiction, what fiction does better than film is interiority.  So this is really a story about Frances.  I think the question "Who sees ghosts" is an interesting one that Springtime attempts to answer.  It's a story about being haunted: by the past, by one's actions, by the unknowability of other people and of the future.

"I'd never spend the night alone in a haunted house!"

PPB:  Do you believe in ghosts?

MDK:  I'm going to have a bet each way:  no, I don't, but I'd never spend the night alone in a haunted house!

PPB:  Your last book was the Miles Franklin winner Questions of Travel, which was over 500 pages long.  This gorgeous novella is under 100 pages.  How much does your process change when writing a short story rather than a novel?

MDK:  Well, the process is obviously on a reduced scale when writing a story:  there are fewer characters, the story unfolds over a shorter period of time, there is much less research involved and so on.  But the daily practice of sitting in front of a work-processor and trying to write accurate and interesting sentences doesn't change - it just doesn't go on for as long.

PPB:  Are you working on anything new that you can tell us about?

MDK:  I can tell you that it won't be a very long novel like Questions of Travel or a very short book like Springtime - something in between!

Springtime is published by Allen & Unwin and is in store now!  rrp $15

Interview with Ceridwen Dovey, author of "Only The Animals"

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey is a staff favourite at the moment and so we were incredibly excited when Ceridwen agreed to answer some questions about her book for our blog.

"Enthralling and sorrowful, Only the Animals is wholly extraordinary." Michelle de Kretser

PP:  Can you tell us a little about your new book Only the Animals?

CD:  Only the Animals is told from the perspectives of ten animal souls, all of whom have died in human conflicts in the past century or so - a cat in the trenches in WW1, or a dog on the Eastern Front in WW2, or the last surviving animal in the Sarajevo Zoo, a black bear, slowly starving to death during the siege of Sarajevo.  Each animal also pays tribute to an author who has used animals imaginatively in his or her fiction during that same time period - either by mimicking that author's style, or addressing the author directly, or describing an interaction with the author while they were both alive.

PP:  Each of the animals has a connection to a writer.  What was the reason for creating such relationships?

CD:  The year I wrote the first story (the parrot story, in a different form), I was reading Coetzee's The Lives of Animals, and while doing research for the story I went back to Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot and the original Flaubert story about a woman's relationship with a parrot,  A Simple Heart - and I was searching for a way for the stories not to be relentlessly depressing; here's another animal that was killed, and here's how they died; and here's another and another..... so I decided that each animal's soul should also pay tribute to other authors who had worked in this symbolic space before - and in this way put a bit of hope and humour in the stories, to signal that along the way of human history, some of our best writers have tried to find a way to say something meaningful about animals, or conflict, or both.
There's something hopeful in this, an antidote to all the terror and pain.

" this way put a bit of hope and humour in the stories, to signal that along the way of human history, some of our best writers have tried to find a way to say something meaningful about animals..."

PP:  How did the idea of writing from the perspective of the souls of dead animals come about?

CD:  I was inspired by the final sections of J. M. Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello, where he imagines her arriving at the gates of some kind of Paradise - though one that Kafka himself might have imagined.  She is dead, but in limbo, in purgatory, and I loved the tone he takes in that part - half wry, half anguished.  I wanted to tell the death narratives of each animal rather than the life narratives, so that together they would add up to a powerful menagerie - or Book of the Dead - with a sort of ritual power due to what they have witnessed and related from the afterlife.

PP:  Was finding the voices of each animal difficult?

CD:  The process of finding each animal's voice was the most fun part of writing the book!  Sometimes the animal's voice came first, sometimes the author's did, and sometimes it was only in researching an animal that I came upon an author who had written about animals in some form in his/her fiction that seemed relevant to what I was trying to say.  For example, I knew Colette had owned a cat, but I'd never read her work before, and it was only in reading her essays and fiction that I discovered that she really did visit her new husband at the front during WW1, and had often written from the perspective of her cat, and from there the cat's voice emerged.
Similarly, I wrote the dolphin story soon after I had my son, so I was interested in the nurturing side of dolphins, and by chance I was reading a biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes's marriage, and through that discovered Hughes' animal poems for children - and it suddenly seemed natural for the dolphin to be writing directly to Sylvia Plath, and to be a little bit mad at Ted Hughes.

" suddenly seemed natural for the dolphin to be writing directly to Sylvia Plath, and to be a little mad at Ted Hughes."

PP:  What do you think are the major themes of this collection of stories?

CD:  The task I set myself for this book was to see if I could take these over-determined, already obsessively gone over experiences of horror, pain and suffering - these human conflicts from late colonial times at the turn of the last century all the way through to the aftershocks of 9/11 and the war on terror at its end - and, by gazing at the same conflict through the eyes of an individual creature, a non-human animal, shock myself (and anybody who might read the book) into feeling something authentic.
I wanted to short-circuit the rational retelling of these conflicts in history and avoid the usual dry focus on technology and leaders and outcomes and politics through the absurdity of a talking animal soul speaking from beyond the grave about the way he/she died in a particular conflict.  And perhaps - because you're not morally obliged to feel anything, as you would for a human - you can let yourself see that conflict from the oblique angle, this skewed perspective, this tiny window on such a massive painful mess; and maybe that helps you to understand what it might have been like, a quick insight into the lived experience of it, a jolt of experience.  It's that alienating effect of gazing through an animal's eyes that I think can be most powerful.

PP:  Do you have a favourite story or character in this collection?

CD:  The elephant story.  I think it's the most moving, in part because I was channelling my love for my sister in writing the story about sibling elephants caught up in the civil war in Mozambique in the 1980s.

PP:  You had had many careers outside that of being a writer.  Can you tell us a little about your background?

CD:  I grew up between South Africa and Australia - we moved back and forth a lot, and eventually I went to high school in Sydney, and then went overseas to study on scholarship at Harvard as an undergraduate, having never been to America before.
I studied Social Anthropology for many years as both an undergraduate and post-graduate student, and made ethnographic films in South Africa, before turning to fiction.
I moved back to Sydney from the States almost five years ago to be closer to my parents.

"I've also come to realise that every single project suggests its own form and seems to arrive in the imagination in a particular form for a reason."

PP:  You previously wrote a novel called Blood Kin.  Can you tell us why you chose to follow this up with a collection of stories and not another novel?

CD:  In some ways, Blood Kin is structured like a series of interlinked stories too, but it's defined as a novel because I circle back to the same characters and their alternating monologues.  The themes are similar in both books; in Blood Kin, I looked at power abuse from the perspectives of three men who had worked closely with a deposed dictator but in a non-political capacity (his chef, portraitist and barber) - an oblique approach to understanding power and it's workings.
In Only the Animals, writing from the perspective of animals is a similarly oblique take on human conflict and suffering; instead of approaching these themes head-on, my hope is that something else comes into view, something unexpected, when we look at well-known conflicts from another angle.
So there's not a huge difference between them even if one is technically called a novel and the other a collection of stories or a novel-in-stories or a themed story collection.
But now that I've been writing fiction for over 10 years, I've also come to realise that every single project suggests its own form and seems to arrive in the imagination in a particular form for a reason - just as it suggests the way you will work on it, the rhythm and pacing of how you write it.
So to answer the question, I didn't really think about form at all - it was simply a new idea, a new project, and I wrote it as it felt it had to be written.

PP:  Is it too soon to ask if you are working on anything new right now?

CD:  When Penguin Books took on this book they also took on a draft of a novel of an old man who gets involved in the Dying With Dignity movement in Australia.  We'll wait and see what happens from here!

Author Interview - Emily Bitto, author of "The Strays"

The Strays by Emily Bitto is an exciting new book set in 1930s Australia that has just hit our shelves.  We are very excited that the author, Emily Bitto agreed to answer some questions for us.  Here is what she had to say.

PP:  Tell us a little about your novel The Strays.

EB:  The Strays is set in the avant-garde art world of Melbourne in the 1930s.  It tells the story of a group of artists who attempt to create a sort of utopian community as a way of escaping the conservatism of both the art world and Australian culture in general at the time.  But it's told through the eyes of an observer, a young girl, Lily, (now looking back as an older woman) who is befriended by one of the artists' children.  So it's also the story of her friendship with Eva, the daughter of one of the artists, and of Lily's desire to be part of this exotic world.

PP:  What inspired you to tell this story?

EB:  I've always been very interested in the idea of groups of people who try to separate themselves off, in various ways and for various reasons, from mainstream culture.  And I've also always been interested in art.  My aunt and uncle are artists, though obviously they didn't live through this era.  But I'm fascinated by the figure of the artist as someone almost inevitably on the fringes of society, and particularly by the era of Modernism in Australia, when there was this incredible mixture of genuine newness and innovation in art and at the same time real conservatism in our culture.  There were consequences for going against the grain, both personal and legal, that artists today (in Australia at least) just don't have to face.  On a narrative level, I wanted to write an "outsider" novel - one that viewed this world from the perspective of a narrator who is in turn on the periphery of this peripheral group.  And it's also, at heart, about female friendship, which I think is sadly neglected in literature in general.
"I decided quite early on that what happened in that circle was actually almost too dramatic for fiction - it would have read like melodrama."

PP:  How closely are the characters based on those artists who created and lived at Heide?

EB:  The characters themselves are not at all based on the specific artists who lived and worked at Heide.  If you read the book looking for the "Sidney Nolan" character or the "Sunday Reed" character, you won't find them.  But I was definitely inspired by the stories of the Heide circle, and there are some little details from their stories that have made it in to the novel.  I did read a lot about those artists, but I decided quite early on that what happened in that circle was actually almost too dramatic for fiction - it would have read like melodrama.  So I've created my own entirely fictional artist colony, but placed it within the context of Melbourne as it was at the time - although even then I have not written a strictly historically accurate novel.  It's fiction, ultimately.

PP:  I think your novel challenges the ideas of "family", "community" and "domesticity", particularly in regard to the conservatism of the times in which the novel is set (1930s).  Do you agree?

EB:  Yes, I'm happy you read it in that way, because I was definitely trying to explore those ideas and the way in which these kinds of artistic communities of the time implicitly challenged conservative mainstream ideas of family and community.  But at the same time, I suppose I wanted to highlight the fact that there is a really deep-seated gender inequality when it comes to ideas of artistic merit, genius etc.  So although I think that many of the dominant views about culture and censorship and freedom of expression were being challenged by the avante-garde artists of the time, in most cases it was only the men who got to occupy that position of the radical, anti-establishment, genius artist, while the women had to play the supporting role.  And I think there are still elements of that in the way the trope of the "genius artist" is represented today.  I wanted to situate the artist within the context of the family, which is often, like female friendship, a neglected topic.  Of course, I hope I have created an engaging novel in the process, not a polemic, which it might seem like from reading this.

"...some of what Lily feels is drawn from my own experience..."

PP:  Many of the relationships in the book, including Lily's relationship with the Trentham's daughters are bridled with envy which ultimately leads to quite damaging consequences.  It almost felt like envy was another character undoing everyone's good intentions and feeding on their insecurities.  Was that an intentional theme of the novel?  What other themes did you want to explore?

EB:  Yes, I'm really interested in the idea of envy.  One of the strands of the novel that was there from the start was the relationship between an only child and a child with siblings.  I essentially grew up an only child.  Although I have a half-brother and half-sister I'm very close to, I didn't grow up with them.  So some of what Lily feels is drawn from my own experience: the longing to be part of a big, rowdy family and to feel like you'll never ultimately be alone.  You're right - I think many of the choices that the characters make in the novel are based on envy of another character and desire to either have what they have or deprive them of whatever it is.  And I suppose there's also the related theme of the desire to be "remarkable" or "unconventional" that I see as being at the centre of the novel.

"Hopefully if what you're writing is good enough you will make it past the slush pile anyway, but I fear that's not always the case."

PP:  You were shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript for your manuscript of The Strays.  How important do you believe these types of awards are for unpublished authors?

EB:  I think they are really valuable, as a way of getting your name out there and getting your work read.  Because there are so many people writing that just getting an agent or a publisher to read your work is a difficult thing these days.  These awards give you a "way in" to approaching publishers and agents, and I suppose they probably frame the way those people then read your work.  Hopefully if what you're writing is good enough you will make it past the slush pile anyway, but I fear that's not always the case.  Of course, looking at it from another direction, these kinds of awards potentially have the power to influence the direction of what's published too - to draw attention to work that is maybe risky of goes against publishing trends.  So I think they're really important in that way too.

PP:  This is your first novel.  Can you tell us about the experience of having your book

EB:  It's been a long road, but an incredible one.  The novel initially started out as one half of a PhD project at the University of Melbourne.  It took me 3 and a half years to finish the PhD (the novel  had to be shelved for a while during that time so that I could finish the research component of the thesis, which I'd been neglecting), and then I was fortunate enough for the manuscript to be picked up by Affirm Press, and then I went into another round of revisions and editing.  I got to work with Aviva Tuffield as my editor, which was an absolute privilege, so the editing process was a great experience, but I did feel like I'd been working on the book for a long time already by that point.  As I answer these questions, it's still about a week until the book is in store, so I think that's when it will really hit me that it's published.  I'm pretty excited for that!

PP:  Is it too soon to ask if you are working on another project?

EB:  I've got lots of ideas, but I haven't started the next novel yet.  Because I was still working on The Strays until quite recently, I didn't let myself start anything else, even though I was really itching to get going on something new.  I felt like I needed to keep my head in this book, and in these characters, to do the best job I could of editing it.  But now I can start something, and it's just a matter of deciding which project to work on.  I can be very indecisive, and I need to settle definitively on one before I start, otherwise I'll just flit around between different ideas and won't get anything finished.  It's amazing how appealing that other idea can suddenly seem when you're stuck at a certain point in writing.  I don't want to give myself that out.  But I'm very excited to start the next book once I've made the decision.

Author Interview with David Hunt, author of "Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia".

David Hunt won the Non-Fiction category of the Indie Awards last week for Girt, which is a hilarious and unusual history of some of the lesser known facts about our colonial history.
We asked him some questions about Girt and here is what he had to say.

PP: Tell us a little about your award winning book Girt?

DH:  Girt is a book that stirs Australia's cultural melting pot with the wooden spoon of schadenfreude, adds a dash of rum, and then garnishes the resulting historical feast with the crushed stems of tall poppies.

It's volume one of a narrative of Australia, from Megafauna to Macquarie, and is dedicated to all those kids who hated Australian history at school and who are now adults who have better things to hate.

PP: Girt is quite an unusual history book.  Can you tell us a little about how you approached researching it?

DH:  I read lots of the usual history books, biographies, diaries, letters and other bits of papery goodness stashed away in Sydney's Mitchell Library.  I even spoke to some academics.  And of course I used Wikipedia.

The footnotes gave me an opportunity to wildly digress from the main narrative, enabling me to talk about coconuts, Star Trek, Jesus' circumcision, John Farnham, the dodo, American coffee (the worst drink in the universe), tobacco enemas, the French language, Alan Bond, Short Man Syndrome, a rhyming recipe for potato salad, deja vu, deja vu, mad racist skull collectors, Irish boy bands, Lindsay Lohan, cross-dressing, and what Justice Einfeld would have done before the invention of the motor car.

The book was about 75% research and 25% writing and editing.  I loved the research side of things.  I probably need to get out more.

PP:  It's well known that Australians have a bit of the larrikin about them, but we are also quite a nationalistic bund.  Do you think Australians will enjoy your "romp" through our colonial history?

DH:  Why do you have romp in inverted commas?  What are you implying?  Are you suggesting that it's not a romp?  Or that it's a pseudoromp?  I contend that it is 100% true blue Aussie romp, with no cheap foreign romp substitutes.

Any Australians that don't enjoy my book should be stripped down to their Bonds, smeared with a mix of lamington and Bundy Rum, and staked out on the nearest bull ant nest.

PP:  Was there an historical personage or incident that you just couldn't find anything to laugh about?

DH:  It's hard to laugh at Aboriginal history, but I put my black armband away in my closet and gave it a red-hot go.  Bennelong, Pemulwuy, Arabanoo and Andrew Snape Hammond Douglas White are all great Aboriginal characters.  I try to use humour to make serious points about the impact of British settlement/invasion on Aboriginal community and culture.

PP:  When you're not writing and researching award winning books, what do you read?  Is there something on your bedside table right now that you can't put down?

DH:  Science Fiction and Fantasy and are my guilty passion, but my favourite authors are John Irving, Kinky Friedman, Bill Bryson, Joseph Heller and Iain Banks ( read The Wasp Factory, if you haven't). I'm currently reading Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, David Gilbert's & Sons and Hanif Kureishi's The Last Word.  Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Hilary Mantel's Fludd are next on my list.

PP:  I've heard rumours that you are working on something else right now.  Can you tell us about it?

DH:  I'm just starting out on True Girt, volume two in the Girt series.  True Girt is the story of the wild southern frontier, where the men were men and so were some of the women.  Think Henry Reynold's Forgotten War meets Banjo Paterson's The Man From Ironbark, crossed with Ruth Park's The Muddle Headed Wombat, written on Keith Windschuttle's stolen laptop.

David Hunt accepting his Indie Award for Best Non-Fiction.

Interview with Robert Wainwright, author of "Sheila: The Australian Woman Who Bewitched British Society"

Robert Wainwright visited us in February to talk about his new book Sheila, which is an extraordinary story about a little known (not for long) Australian beauty who bewitched and influenced British society in the 20th century.

Her conquests included royalty, peerage, Hollywood stars and billionaires and she included heads of state amongst her friends.

What a woman!

Click here to listen to our interview with Robert Wainwright.