Saturday, April 30, 2011

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning...

We will remember them.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

For the Fallen (Laurence Binyon, 1914)

The Monday just past was both Easter Monday, and in Australia also ANZAC Day, which commemorates the landing of Australian troops on Turkish beaches on April 25th, 1915- a day that forever changed this nation, and saw the death of the first of over 60,000 men (from a population of just 4 million) who would lose their lives in the First World War.

In all, some 9,721,937 soldiers from a range of nations died on the same battlefields.

Floral tributes at Kings Park War Memorial on ANZAC Day 2011

In the lead-up to the Dawn Service on ANZAC Day, at which crowds gather at the war memorials to remember those who have gone before, I decided I was going to go on a bit of a mission. I've spent a lot of time in the last few years writing about the war experiences of my characters, and in doing so remembering Thomas Lockyer and other family members, but I know there are many of young men who died in the First World War who have been forgotten by time.

Kings Park War Memorial- names of the fallen

Beautiful Kings Park, where our war memorials are located, has Avenues of Honour along which trees were planted throughout the 1920s in memory of men who died at war. Beneath each tree is a plaque with a name.

Kings Park Avenue of Honour

I decided I was going to pick a random tree, a random name, and research that person's story to share it with you as a way of commemorating all those lost to war in the last century.

Dawn Service ANZAC Day 2011, looking out over the Swan River

My two best friends and I attended the Dawn Service and watched the sun rise, then went hunting for someone to remember.

Before I get started on what I found, I've got to let you know a few things. First, just because I chose the people I did doesn't mean I expect they are *not* well remembered by their families. I hope they are, but the purpose of this exercise was to bring them into an even wider light of remembrance, in appreciation of the sacrifice they made for this country.

Second, I don't pretend to have all the facts. Lots and lots of them, for sure, but this post is by a fiction writer rather than an historian, so don't crack my knuckles too hard if there's anything I get wrong. I've refrained from *too* much speculation.

And lastly, speaking of lots and lots of facts- this turned into an odyssey I couldn't have imagined when I got started. It's lo-o-ong.


Finding a single someone to remember was not quite as easy a task as I imagined. Every name on every plaque sang out with a story- one plaque dedicated by a soldier's employer rather than his family; another with two men from the same battalion, one young and one older; some with soldiers killed in the first days of war and some in the last.

But the two that caught our attention and held it above all others were these ones:

These two plaques beneath adjacent towering gum trees commemorate two brothers, William and Harold Bleakley, who were in the same battalion, and were killed on the same day, at the same place, in the same battle.

We saw one plaque first, then the next, and couldn't believe it at first. I immediately wanted to know the story behind these two soldiers and what happened to them, and so for this year- the first of many, I expect- I choose to remember not only William and Harold Bleakley, but their mother, father, two sisters, three brothers, and many others who came in and out of their lives over the years.

It's a reminder that when a man dies at war, there's a much bigger story that has unfolded during his life, and continues to do so long after his death.


The Bleakley family

A quick search of the online war records at Australia's National Archives revealed that not two, but three Bleakley brothers signed up to fight in the Great War. Looking at their enrollment forms and their files as well as a range of online sources gives the story of their whole family.

William and Elizabeth Bleakley were married in Wigan, England in 1888. Their first son, named William after his father, was born the next year. Over the next twenty-one years, the Bleakleys welcomed six more children- two daughters, Edith and Nell, and four more sons, James, Harold, Leonard and Ronald. The records show a hard-working family determined to provide the best for their kids. William Senior was a factory worker, but according to their war records, his older sons at least were high-school educated. Most of the Bleakleys are last listed as living in the United Kingdom in the 1911 Census.

William Norman Bleakley

Eldest son William was the first to arrive in Western Australia in 1910, aged 21, where he was to become a bicycle agent or importer. By 1913, he had married Australian girl Annie Firth and settled down in the Perth suburb of Maylands, and around the same time, the rest of the family moved out from England to join him. All lived in the same area, and the variety of shared addresses seen for the boys themselves and their next of kin on the military records show that the family remained close.

The Maylands home in which the family lived in 1916
(Google Streetview)


James Kilshaw Bleakley

James Bleakley was about 18 years of age when he came to Western Australia with his parents and five siblings, and he was soon working as a mechanic.

When war arrived in 1914, second son and third eldest child James was the first Bleakley to sign up. He enlisted at Helena Vale just a month after war was declared on August 4th, and shipped out from Melbourne four months later as part of the 16th Battalion on HMAT Ceramic.

James landed at Gallipoli, Turkey, on the afternoon of ANZAC Day, April 25th, and was straight into the thick of the fighting. Within a fortnight, he had succumbed to an illness that was tearing through the Australian troops- dysentery- and was taken out of the battle for a brief three days to recover. A fortnight after that in May 1915, James received a much more serious wound- a gunshot to the chest- and was evacuated first to the island of Lemnos, and then back to the Australian base at Egypt for what would be the beginning of a long period away from the frontlines.

He was transferred to the Transport Division, and remained in Egypt until the beginning of 1916 before heading over to England. He stayed in England until August of the same year, when he was sent across to France to join a unit there as a driver.

Harold Bleakley

Harold was the youngest of the three brothers who signed up for war. Aged only 16 when the war began, it wasn't until the beginning of 1916 that he was old enough to follow older brother James into battle.

Before that, though, as was legally required of all young men aged between 14 and 18 after 1911, he joined Perth's 89C Infantry Brigade- the equivalent of today's Army Reserve- for Universal Military Training. Harold was a Senior Cadet by the time he turned 18 and was old enough to enlist properly.

All Bleakleys at war

Harold and William went into the city together on Friday 4th February 1916 and signed their enlistment papers one after the other. They were even given consecutive service numbers, showing that they signed up at exactly the same time.

By the time of his enlistment, William was a successful businessman who owned a bicycle shop in the centre of town, and he had a six-month-old son named Robert with wife Annie. Harold's occupation was listed as Shop Assistant, so it's very possible that he worked for his brother. And their sibling James was working with the Transport Unit in Egypt, still months away from his transfer to England, recovered from his injury but safely a long way from battle.

Wellington Street, Perth, in about 1915. William's shop is just after Boan's on the right.

The 1916 Perth trade directory lists Bleakley's bicycle shop amongst the many other bicycle enterprises in the state, and by the following year, after William's departure, the shop had closed, and had been replaced by a spectacle-maker. With a young family and a business that couldn't function without him, William must have known that going to war would cost him a great deal. He'd been eligible to enrol from the very beginning, including at the time his younger brother James signed up, and he hadn't.

So why did he wait until Harold enlisted, and even then, why did he do it at all?

William Bleakley's cycle shop listed in the 1916 Perth Directory

I have absolutely nothing in the publically available records to tell me, but I think it's interesting that the youngest of the three brothers, Harold, having been in the militia for a while, had only just turned the right age to sign up. At the earliest possible point that he could join the war, he did- and when he did, his eldest brother was right there by his side. I'm inclined to think that Harold signing up must have been a major, if not *the* major reason, for William to go to war- to look after his younger brother.

From that point in time, the two were barely ever separated again.

By April of 1916, both had set sail with the 28th Battalion 12th Reinforcements on the HMAT Aeneas, heading for England, and from there, to the Western Front.

The 28th Battalion had just fought through the bloodbath at Pozieres, and reinforcements were sorely needed. By the time William and Harold arrived in late September 1916, the battalion was having a month of rest and relative relaxation at Steenvoorde, in Belgium's Ypres Sector. The Bleakleys arrived just in time for the division and brigade sprint competition, in which the 28th Battalion proudly came second in points, and for some of the time war must have felt a long way away.

But the rest didn't last long, and by the 5th of October, the battalion was boarding a train on the way to the infamous Ypres salient.

William and Harold saw their first real action on the 12th of October 1916, just eight months after they enrolled back home in Perth. On that night, at Zillebeke, a raiding party from the 28th Battalion staged a daring attack on the enemy trenches that was a great success. Not only did the party capture two prisoners-of-war from the opposition, but they got away with only two injuries in their own ranks.

One of those, unfortunately, was Harold Bleakley, who was taken to the nearest Casualty Clearing Station that night with gunshot wounds to his head and back.

William remained in the front line while Harold was in hospital. It was the first time the two brothers had been separated since they signed up, and no doubt each was worried for the other.

Besides that one raid, though, William and the 28th did not see any major action for the next few weeks. They moved on to billets at Dernacourt, France, and then arrived in camp at Montauban, on the Somme, on the 2nd of November- the same day Harold returned to the front after 16 days recovering from his injuries.

Lovely Montauban in 1913, before the war

Montauban as the Bleakleys saw it in 1916

The 28th Battalion moved immediately into the frontline of the Somme, relieving another battalion. The lieutenant-colonel in charge described the trenches they occupied as being "in a very bad way," muddy and disorderly after months of fierce fighting. The troops spent the next two days doing general work to improve the situation, preparing for their own impending big attack on the German lines.

As an outsider, it's hard to know what Harold and William Bleakley did on the night of the 4th of November 1916. From the possessions returned to their loved ones in 1917, Harold had with him a cork screw, some cards, a Bible and a candlestick, amongst other bits and pieces. William had with him a pair of glasses, five military books, and one small shoe, presumably belonging to his infant son, Robert.

So, perhaps they spent the evening playing cards by candlelight and talking of family at home, or perhaps not.

We'll never know, because the next day, November 5th, on only their second day of real fighting, William and Harold Bleakley were both killed in the charge on the German line known as Gird Trench.

The lieutenant-colonel's battalion diary records in business-like terms what went wrong:

5th November 1916- Owing to the inaccuracy of our artillery fire, through lack of observation, the enemy were not kept down in their trenches by our barrage, and the advancing troops were subject to very heavy rifle and machine gun fire, which prevented them reaching our objective.

The total losses were five officers killed and three wounded; of other ranks, 58 killed, 166 wounded, and 50 missing- including both Bleakleys, whose remains were never found.

At home, in a terrible double blow, the brothers' next of kin were informed that they were both missing in action in France. William's wife Annie, now caring for a toddler, and Harold's next of kin, their parents William and Elizabeth, were left unsure of their fate until March 1917, when an inquest determined that William had been killed at the time he was declared missing. In July 1917, a different inquest determined that Harold, too, had been dead for eight months.

The Red Cross continued to collect witness accounts after the inquests, which make for stark reading.

Two witnesses recalled seeing William Bleakley, who was well known as the keeper of a bicycle shop in Perth, shot through the head by a sniper during the charge. The witnesses had trouble distinguishing between the brothers, who despite eight years difference in age were physically similar- each short, at under 5'6", and with brown hair, blue eyes and fair complexions. Most witnesses reported seeing only one brother killed, but could not say with certainty which.

But one account is very specific about the fate of the Bleakleys. Witness Vincent W., of the 28th Battalion, stated on September 7th 1917 that:

These two brothers were killed during a charge we made in front of Fleurs, on Nov. 5th, '16. They went over together, and were in No Man's land, just near the German lines, when a shrapnel shell burst, killing them both instantly. I made sure they were dead, and went on, being wounded myself shortly afterwards. As I was taken away, I cannot say whether they were buried or not. At the time I was 2nd in command of the platoon, and knew the Bleakleys quite well by sight. They have a brother in the 1st Div. Army Service Corp.

Enlisted together, together through all their travels, together at the end.


After the news of William's and subsequently Harold's deaths arrived in 1917, their devastated father returned to England, seeking to return home with the rest of the family.

It was there, on 2nd of September 1917, just a couple of weeks after receiving final confirmation of Harold's death, that William Senior died suddenly at just 52 years of age, leaving Elizabeth and three children aged between 7 and 16 to fend for themselves back in Australia.

James, still a driver in France, applied immediately to be discharged from the army for family reasons, citing the fact that he was now the sole means of support for his mother and younger siblings, his father and two brothers now being deceased.

His request was immediately granted.

He was formally discharged from the Army on October 16th, and on October 31st boarded a ship to travel back to Perth.

James's letter requested discharge from the army in 1917
(Click images to enlarge)

James Bleakley

James returned home to take care of his mother and siblings, and in 1920 he married and began a family of his own. Three years later, he and wife Beatrice welcomed a son, who was named Harold William after James's two fallen brothers. Harold eventually went away to war himself in 1942, enlisting in the 16th Battalion, just like his father, and likewise surviving the conflict to make it home in 1946.

James eventually moved away from Western Australia, and died in Victoria in 1964, aged 69.

Elizabeth, Annie and Robert

William's mother Elizabeth Bleakley and her daughter-in-law Annie, William's wife, both lived out the rest of their lives in Perth as widows, and remained close until Elizabeth's death at the age of 81 in 1947. In her obituaries, Elizabeth was described by friends as a "dear old lady".

When the Avenue of Honour was developed in Kings Park in the 1920s, it was Elizabeth who dedicated the tree to Harold, and Annie who dedicated the tree to William.

Annie travelled to England in 1923, and at the time wrote to the army asking for more information about her husband's resting place so that she could visit his grave. She stated her intent to visit the battlefields, and was no doubt disappointed by the reply, which explained that it was not possible to pinpoint the exact location, and that his remains may never have in fact been found. Annie received William's identity disc in 1918, so this must have been difficult to hear.

Annie Bleakley's firm letter to the Army in 1923, requesting details of her husband's grave

Annie passed away at exactly the same age as Elizabeth in 1974, having watched son Robert grow up to become a photographer, get married, and have two sons of his own. Robert enlisted in the army at the outbreak of World War II and saw service overseas, but like his uncle James and his cousin Harold, returned home safely.

Edith and Nellie

The two Bleakley sisters each married locals in Perth, with Edith naming her firstborn son William after her father and brother. Both also lived in Western Australia until the end of their lives. Edith's son William is one of the only Bleakleys of the next generation who is not listed on the WWII nominal roles, and he apparently did not follow the family tradition and join the army.

Leonard and Ronald

The two younger Bleakley brothers were aged seventeen and seven as war drew to a close in 1918. By the time war broke out again in 1939, they were both married fathers, and both enlisted in the volunteer defence corps, which did not see them serve overseas. Like their sisters and their mother, Ron lived in Western Australia to the end of his life. I'm yet to find a record of Len's death, so I hope he's still out there, living strong at 101 years of age.


So, the story of William and Harold turns out to be the story of a family of nine, who moved from the United Kingdom to Australia just before the Great War with hopes of a bright future. Two sons, tragically lost together in one awful year, on one awful day. A legacy, a memory, held between all of them, sons named after uncles, brothers enlisting in the Second World War, that has continued for many years.

When I set out on ANZAC Day this year to remember a soldier, I didn't anticipate hitting quite such a story. I probably shouldn't be surprised, because every soldier has a tale- I know, because it's one of the main reasons I'm writing my fiction novel.

It's taken five solid days of research to unravel the lives of the three Bleakley brothers and their family to understand who they were, where they came from, and what the impact of their death was. Several times my husband has suggested I might have become a bit obsessed with them.

I am, besides being an author of historical fiction, a professional historical researcher by day, so I know which buttons to push to open up Pandora's box, and getting this quantity of information hasn't been as hard as you'd think- it's all freely available through a range of online sources. [Side note: If you happen to be a Bleakley descendant, and you want the sources I've used, let me know and I'll gladly send them your way].

But I concede that he's partly right. I have been obsessed this week with hunting down everything there is to find about the Bleakleys, except that it's not so much about them.

It's about that bigger concept of the sacrifice of war. Multiply this amazing story out by the almost ten million people who died in the First World War, and you start to understand why the ripples of that conflict are still being felt today.

You understand why a crowd of 40,000 people still gets up well before dawn every year and stands in silence in the cold morning. To remember men their ancestors loved, and men they have no association with at all, except for being part of the same long line of human beings who've populated the world these past few million years or so.

On behalf of families everywhere who hope they never have to lose a son like this, let alone two, I say-

William Norman Bleakley
Harold Bleakley


As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Of Dust Bunnies and Darlings

The dust bunnies have been multiplying again. At this point, I’m not sure whether I should kill them all or become a rancher and raise them professionally.

My youngest thinks dust bunnies are real rabbits. He once went looking for them and was disappointed when he only found dust balls. But even so, he was convinced the dust bunnies came to life at night and hopped around the house while we slept.

They do. How else do they get from one room to another?

Anyway, I went about killing the little darlings, Hoovering them up without the slightest bit of guilt, or even a second thought.

Which really brings me to the topic of my blog post today: killing your darlings. Not the fuzzy, dust-ball sort. The darlings I’m talking about are those of your own making, those favorite bits of writing that might have had a place in your story at one time, but no longer belong there.

The term, “murder your darlings” was made famous by Stephen King in his book , On Writing, but he wasn’t the first to use it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said it first. You may love something you’ve written, but if it doesn’t work, toss it. Murder it. To leave it is self-indulgent.

Which brings me back to my blood-thirsty vacuuming. The drone of the vacuum was perfect for my introspective thinking that day. No one interrupts me when I’m vacuuming and with the noise it makes I can’t hear a darn thing other than my own thoughts. Perfect!

What I was thinking was that I needed to murder a scene I was really attached to. I wanted that scene. I didn’t want to let it go. It was a scene that had flowed from me effortlessly. It was just there when I needed it.

Only I don’t need it. Not any more. So I vacuumed up dust bunnies and mourned my darling. It took me more than just one murderous rampage against dust bunnies to realize my scene had to go. The thought had lurked in the deepest recesses of my mind for a long time. The struggle was mighty. I wanted to make the scene work, but in the end, I knew there just wasn’t a way to keep it.

Stephen King encourages writers to use anything that improves the quality of their writing, but doesn’t get in the way of the story. My scene was getting in the way of my story. My attachment to it lead me to change the timeline of the plot. (Gasp!) How nutty is that — keeping a scene and changing the novel around it?

The integrity of my story was nearly derailed by my own self-indulgent whims. I’m sorry to see the scene cut, but I’m so much more confident now as I go forward with the story. The timeline works, the plot sticks together, the whole thing is solid again.

This is a cautionary tale. I hope you never have to hunt down and kill one of your darlings. But if you do, hold a quick memorial service for it and let it go. You’ll find that like dust bunnies multiplying under the furniture, new scenes will quickly fill the void where your darling once dwelled and your story will be better for it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Does Murder and Mystery in Renaissance Italy Tickle Your Fancy?

You know that saying, "the best laid plans of mice and men ..."? Well, unfortunately, it applies today.

We had planned to bring you another fabulous author interview, but tight deadlines, wild weather and a sick doggy have conspired against us and it is not to be. But never fear, next week is looking much more friendly to all concerned, and (with the crossing of a few fingers and toes) it is then that we will bring you our interview with Elizabeth Loupas, debut author of the wonderful literary mystery/ historical novel, THE SECOND DUCHESS.

Set in Renaissance Italy, THE SECOND DUCHESS is the story of Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, and his new duchess, Barbara of Austria, who he takes as his bride after the mysterious death of his sensuous, and very young, first wife, Lucrezia de' Medici. Whispers and rumours about the duke and the dead Lucrezia abound, and when it seems Barbara's own life is at risk she sets out to discover the truth - whether her enigmatic husband did, indeed, murder his first wife.

If you love a beautifully written story, and one that keeps you on the edge of your seat, then pop back next week for our interview with Elizabeth, who will very kindly share her thoughts on writing, being a debut author, the joys of research, the Robert Browning poem that inspired her book, and so much more. We'll also be giving away one copy of THE SECOND DUCHESS to a randomly drawn commenter, from anywhere in the world.

So mark your diaries, and we'll see you back here next week!

Friday, April 22, 2011

If You Could Read My Mind

"If you could read my mind, love,
What a tale my thoughts could tell..."

Gordon Lightfoot

The inner life of a writer is fascinating. I know mine is and I've been assured by my writer friends that theirs is too. Writers, more than any other species besides secret agents, live double lives. We have the most ordinary one that friends and family and perfect strangers observe, and the extraordinary one we've created in our minds, the one we intend to put on paper.

By day, I'm a mild-mannered wife and mother. I home-school my kids, walk the beagle and look for bargains at the grocery store. By night (or whenever I sit down to write) I'm something else entirely. I'm the hero. I've killed men with my bare hands. I've jumped from airplanes. I've saved the heroine. Or I switch POVs and suddenly I'm the heroine, torn between the love of two good men.

This double life became apparent to me one morning as I sat in the dentist's chair while the dental hygienist cleaned my teeth. Not much talking to be done just then, not with my mouth wide open. So I stared at the ceiling tiles and thought about my current scene-in-progress which happened to be a love scene. After 20 minutes of plotting this amorous affair, it suddenly occurred to me that if the dental hygienist could read my mind I'd be mortified. Thankfully, she probably thought I was thinking about my shopping list.

If you're like me, your thoughts often travel to your work-in-progress. Something may trigger a thought, an idea, or a solution to something you've been working on, and off you go, deep into the world you've created. No one around you knows it, but you've suddenly left the cubicle, left the church pew, left the line at the checkout. You're worlds away, leading your double life, again.

My double life once got me into trouble on the road. Whatever it was that I was thinking had me very inspired - so inspired I forgot to watch my speedometer until I saw the flashing red lights in my rear-view mirror. Thankfully the police officer who stepped up to my car window was very nice and only issued me a warning. As I drove off - slowly and well under the speed limit - I sternly told my protagonist to shut up and get in the back seat. We were done conversing that day.

Like Kristen, not many people in my every day life know that I write fiction. It's not something I talk about to non-writers, which is pretty much everyone in my real-life world. I don't think they'd understand it - especially the double life thing. I go about my very ordinary existence, content to keep my world within me.

Next time you see an ordinary woman out walking her beagle in the park, beware. She's really plotting how best to use interrogation techniques, how to use C-4 explosive on a downed Huey, or how to escape a bunker with armed guards.

Or worse... she could be rewriting that love scene.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Derivatives, trends, and you

It's oft-repeated that there are only seven true stories out there in the world, and that all fiction derives in some way from those core tales. Christopher Booker wrote about these seven stories in 2005, and he summarised the plots as:
  • Voyage and Return
  • Overcoming the Monster
  • From Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Tragedy
  • Comedy
  • Rebirth
(See here and here for a bit more detail on what those entail, if it's not obvious enough)

Voyage and Return/ Odysseus

I've always been fascinated by this idea, and I think it's largely true. There are theoretically exceptions to every rule, and stories that involve more than one of these plots, but by and large I'm yet to come across any tale that does not in some way fit one of these categories. If you have, I'd love to hear about it!

My story is a nice mellow blend of Voyage and Return (the brothers go away to war and come home changed), Overcoming the Monster (the monster being war and subsequent shellshock), and Rebirth (with characters overcoming their demons to survive, or at least redeem themselves). There's a little sprinkling or two of Tragedy in there, too.

Overcoming the Monster/ Dracula

At this level of broad, overarching storyline, no-one need worry if their work is derivative- the simple fact is, if you look at it like this, all work is derivative. It's the nature of human storytelling, and as an archaeologist I can tell you the patterns of telling these stories go back tens of thousands of years. They remain relevant and central because they tap into the centre of what it is to struggle and be human.

(If you want to read more on this idea, go check out Austin Kleon's fabulous and inspiring blog post about How to Steal Like an Artist. Go ahead, I'll wait.)

And yet these plots are just sentences, just a few words, if you look at them. What makes your "derivative" work original and different, even when it contains elements of those previously told stories, is your characters, your plots, and above all else, your unique and individual voice.

From Rags to Riches/ My Fair Lady

Angela Meyer at LiteraryMinded wrote an interesting blog post this week about trends in acclaimed Australian fiction over the last few years, in particular in relation to voice. The post was about the Miles Franklin Award shortlist for this year- which, we are pleased to note, contains our recent interviewee Chris Womersley in the final three (congratulations, Chris!). I was reading merrily along until I hit this observation:

But isn’t it striking that Australian life, according to the Miles Franklin judges, is still represented by the past and the outback, and is written in a male voice. Sheep stations, war, colonisation. Like I said, I’m sure the books are good, but I feel the award continues to narrowly define ‘Australian life’

And then, I admit, I broke out into a small amount of cold sweat. Because it so happens that I am, as a budding Australian novelist, also writing about the past, the outback, sheep stations, war, and doing it all using a male point of view.


Have I tripped into dangerous territory without even noticing?

Tragedy/ Othello

I realised last month that there were not one but two current release Australian novels (Bereft, and Traitor, which is next on my TBR pile) on the market right now that deal with World War One, and felt the same twinge of discomfort then. Coming up to ANZAC Day this Monday, I'm reminded again, constantly, of the ever-growing interest in remembering the fallen from the war, and it feels like this is a hot topic at the moment.

I'm not sure what feels worse- the idea that I've missed the boat by not having my story ready for a current trend, or that publishing a First World War novel two or three years from now may be seen as derivative, when I've actually been working on it for more than a decade.

Now, this is where I come back to the seven stories idea. The reality is, each of those First World War novels couldn't be more different in terms of character, plot, setting, genre, and especially voice. Just because they happen to share some things in common- a time, an event, male voice- doesn't make them alike.

The Quest/ The Count of Monte Cristo

Looking at it from the perspective of an individual author, all the advice when it comes to both originality and trends is the same: write the best book you can write. Don't pay attention to trends; they come and go so fast that what you write now to match a trend might be the least popular thing around by the time you get published. Don't worry about what everyone else is doing- only make sure your writing is as good as it can be, and your voice as unique as possible. Work hard, craft a great story, and it's not going to matter what else is happening in the market.

That being said, don't avoid those authors who are writing the same kinds of books you are. They're not your competitors- they're your inspiration, they're your compatriots, and with any luck, your book is going to be snuggling up next to theirs on a shelf one day. So, read them, and appreciate their skill. Let bits and pieces of their writing sink into your mind and inspire you to write at the same level of excellence.

[There was another great blog post recently about why the Australian market is a tough one, but also a uniquely supportive one for authors- worth a read if you're an Aussie.]

Comedy/ Aristophanes- The Frogs

None of this, of course, addresses Angela's concern- just why is it that we're not seeing other fictional aspects of the Australian identity recognised to the same extent? I won't attempt to answer that here, though I have some thoughts I might save for another day.

Rebirth/ It's a Wonderful Life

So, tell me- does your story fit one of those seven plots? Do you worry about being derivative, especially if you're watching market trends in a niche genre? And do you read other authors who are writing similar stories, or avoid them?

And lastly, any Aussies out there writing in that rarest of commodities- female point of view- who'd like to talk exceptions to the rule?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Writer's Code

Many, many, far too many, years ago, I had to take an oath.

I’d just finished my law degree and in order to practice I, and whole bunch of fresh-faced law students, had to take part in an Admissions Ceremony held in the Supreme Court of South Australia. It was a very serious affair – think barristers and judges in billowing black robes, lace stocks at their throats, white wigs upon their heads. Nervous, young, lawyers-to-be, milling about quietly, lambs before the slaughter.

Standing before the judges of the Supreme Court, our sponsoring barristers beside us, we each had to take an oath that went something like this:-

“I do promise and swear that I will diligently and honestly perform the duties of a practitioner of this Court and will faithfully serve and uphold the administration of justice under the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia and the laws of this State and of the other States and Territories of Australia. So help me God.”

And after that we signed our names in a big old ledger book, The Roll of Practitioners. I hope there’s never any cause to verify my signature, because my hand was shaking so hard by this point I’m sure all that came out was little more than kindergarten scribble ...

So, all rather sobering stuff. But necessary. Up until that point, studying for exams and planning which hotels to swim through on our law school pub crawls was about as serious as we got. This was the big time. This was for real. This really meant something. And taking that oath really made us focus on what being a lawyer was ultimately all about.

Should we writers also take an oath? Well, perhaps not an oath – that’s a little to dull and legal – but maybe, each have our own writer’s code? A set of maxims to help us focus on what it is about writing that is important, to each of us? It strikes me that maybe we should. Especially when we get to the point where we want to take our writing from being an enjoyable hobby to being published and maybe, just maybe, the means to make a living. A writer's code would help keep your aim straight; and at the very least, a code would remind you why you ever started to write on the days when it all seems too hard.

Here's what I reckon I would include in my very own writer's code. In no particular order:-

  • Write every day. Even when I really, really, really, don’t want to, and even if it's only ten words.
  • Try at all times to write the best I can. Don’t be content with sloppy work.
  • But remember that sloppy work can always be fixed.
  • Listen to criticism. Really listen.
  • Read novels for enjoyment, but read to learn, too.
  • Critique the work of others honestly, but with kindness and encouragement.
  • Remember to fill my creative well by enjoying things that are not writing-related.
  • Never, ever, think I know everything.
  • Remember that bad writing days are a fact of the writing life.
  • Do not compare myself to others. Ever.
  • Write for the "reader".
  • Write for myself.
  • Write for the love of it.
  • Have patience.
  • Have patience.
  • Have patience.

What do you think you would include in your own Writer’s Code?

Monday, April 18, 2011

My Thing

This weekend, I told my next-door neighbor that I had written a book and was in the midst of revising it for my editor. And, yes, five years in my house and, until now, only one neighbor knew that I wrote fiction. Hubby thinks I’m taking reticence too far. To digress, my neighbor got over her surprise and declared that it must take a lot of discipline to write a book, that _I_ must be very disciplined. Me? Disciplined?

Anyone who really knows me would readily say that Kristen and discipline do not usually go hand in hand. My house is tidy, in the sense that things are put in their place –or near their place. But look under my couch and you will see dust bunnies. My sink is often full, and empty glasses occupy many a side table around the house. And for the love of God, do NOT open one of my closets, or risk being swept away by a tsunami of laundry. So a disciplined person? Not so much. A disciplined writer? Well, yeah, a bit.

My neighbor was correct: it does take discipline and commitment to write an entire novel, edit it, sell it to an agent, revise it for an editor, then start all over again. We’re talking about potentially years of work and thousands of hours with your butt in the chair. If you don’t love doing it, you’ll probably sputter out and stall. And that’s okay. It isn’t for everyone.

But why am I disciplined in this where I am not in any other avenue of my life? Simple answer: because it’s my thing.

When I was sixteen, I took flying lessons. Every Saturday, I’d get in my car, my driver’s license so new it still smelled of laminate, and drive an hour to a country airfield with a tiny strip of runway (for the record, my parents were way braver than me, because the thought of my child doing the same gives me the willies). For one hour, I’d take a little Cessna 152 up in the sky and fly. I loved flying. Soaring into the sky sent a thrill through me every time. But when my dad no longer paid for lessons, I stopped, thinking, eh, I’ll find a way to get back to it eventually. That day never came.

I love interior decorating. At one point, I must have had 200 decorating magazines crammed into my bookshelf. Sitting down to peruse them, decorating my own house, heck, designing my own furniture, is satisfying and a joy. It never occurred to me to enroll in design school.

There are many things that give me joy, little hobbies that I like to do, but they aren’t my true passion. That is reserved for writing. Because not once, since I first sat down and hit the keys, did it occur to me to give up. Not once.

When I write, I fit within my skin. Everything clicks into place and I feel right.

Often, the question arises, why do you write? Some will answer, because it is what I am. Others will counter with: writing is something I do, not who I am.

I’ll admit here that when I read that latter statement, I think, “Ah, I see, then writing isn’t your true thing.”

Now, I play many roles wife, mother, sister, daughter, and friend. On Sunday mornings, my kids pile into my bed to cuddle with my husband and me and laugh at inane jokes. This is the good stuff. Life works like that, good times and bad. And while my loved ones fill my soul with joy, they do not feed my soul. In writing, I find my true self. It is what makes my soul sing, satisfies my need to create, and fulfills my sense of accomplishment. I am a writer. It isn’t my job. It is my expression. Without it, I become less of me.

Surely, my view point will seem obsessive to many of you. For some, writing is something to do that brings them joy, but at the end of the day, they may well move on to another thing and not feel it’s loss. This is totally okay. However, there is a caveat to that. If your aim is to get published, you have to understand the commitment involved. If writing isn’t in your blood, isn’t something you will never give up on, and you somehow find yourself under contract, it is going to be a slog. Because you will be expected to commit, put in the blood, sweat, and tears.

Often times we keep our eyes on the prize and ignore the process. Writing is about the process, not the prize. Any art done on a professional level is about the process. It will be what you do, not what you dream about. And, really, isn’t that the point?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Weekend Giggle

Now that's a wedding I want to attend. :)

Best Australian Blogs- We Need You!

Friends, countrymen and allies, we need your help!

All the World's Our Page is a nominee in the 2011 Best Australian Blogs Awards, which excites us to no end. The judges will be visiting over the coming week to check out our Australian posts (those by Rachel and myself), but in the meantime we're also fighting it out for the People's Choice Awards.

For that, we need you to click on the image below, and go vote for us. We're on the very first page under All the World's Our Page, so all you've gotta do is tick our box, then click through and leave basic details. Voila!

People's Choice Award

Very little effort required in exchange for us loving you forever. I'm also offering free koalas to those who vote on our behalf*.

Thanks to all, and best of luck to all of our lovely competitors!

*Please note- free koalas may be imaginary only.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Writing Rituals

Imagine that you need a jump-start to your writing sessions. It's probably not that difficult to do because most of us DO need a kick in the pants on a regular basis. Unless you've just begun a new work-in-progress and are completely enamored of your exciting new plot, compelling characters and sparkling prose, you're like the rest of us - past the honeymoon stage and thinking of a quickie divorce.

What we need are some ways to jump-start our writing. After doing a bit of research on the Zen of reaching for the here and now so that our spirits have access to our best creative energies, I've put together several techniques to help you escape the nonexistent past and future. I want you to feel relaxed and open toward your work and to allow the muse to meet you at the keyboard and flow through your fingers. The following practices of breathing, stretching and finding your voice are practical and inspiring. I hope the results are revelatory. (One caveat: not all the following techniques will apply to you. Pick and choose the ones that fit your personality. But DO try all of them.)

This first technique is designed to loosen your body because an uptight one hinders your frame of mind. Ready? Okay, everyone stand up. Up, up! Come on. Now stick your hands in your armpits, flap your elbows up and down and simultaneously do deep-knee bends. When you can do this easily, without screeching or swearing, gradually begin to honk like a goose. "WTH?" you mutter. No! No muttering allowed, only honking. Don't you feel loose as a goose and completely uninhibited now? Even if you're not, your muse is laughing her arse off and is ready to begin work.

The second technique works with your breath. Proper breathing is necessary for high brain functioning. Think of all the times you sat and watched the cursor on the screen blinking impatiently, hopefully, anticipating the next keyboard strokes that would set it in motion, let it race across the computer screen with absolute abandon. It blinked and you cussed your writer's block. All you need is this breathing exercise which will light those brain cells on fire with pure, unadulterated oxygen. Ready? Stand up. Again. Come on, you can't do this sitting on your duff. Now reach as high as you can and take a deep breath. Feel your lungs expand and your head grow light. Exhale slowly and hum your favorite television commercial ditty. Do this five times or until you pass out from too much fresh air.

The next technique is designed to make you comfortable at your workspace and to be in harmony with it. You'll have to stand up again, sorry. Ready? Hold your hands about waist-height and begin to swivel your hips like a Hula girl in a grass skirt. After 13 clockwise rotations, switch and do 13 counter-clockwise rotations. Use caution when reversing your direction: you don't want to throw your back out. For those of you with a certain amount of limberness, you can add some graceful dance steps if you like. I recommend doing this one only when your significant other is out of the room. These moves tend to put Ideas in their heads.

Next we're going to channel our inner characters, become one with our heroes and heroines. Are you ready? Are you - yes, you know I'm going to say it - standing up? Good. Make sure to leave room around you for this one. Imagine your protagonist is locked in a box. He, or she, must find a way out of it. Close your eyes for a moment and envision the box and become your character. When you're one with your character, open your eyes and begin to "feel" around the box, looking for an exit. Careful you don't bump your nose against the wall! Don't stub your toes! What does your character do? Become angry and bang on the box? Give up and sit against its walls? Cry? Pull out his 1911 pistol and blow it away?

Finally you're ready to approach your work station. Stand next to your chair and sniff it. It should be pleasing to you. Now turn three circles and sit down. Congratulations! You've completed the first steps toward jump-starting your writing. Either that, or you're nearly ready to audition for Mime School...

Seriously, though, we all find countless little ways - little rituals - to do before we begin our writing. It might be as simple as finding the perfect mood music or having that cup of tea within reach. I like to put my noise-cancelling headphones on my ears, tuck my left foot up under me and give the beagle under my feet a good rub.

How about you? What starts your writing sessions?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Performance anxiety?

Hello from the writing desk! I'm excited to say that I'm back in the saddle this week, too, and I have 2500 new words. I have a new approach, a new perspective, and a whole new attitude, and I'm excited to be getting back into it after a three-month break.

Thanks to everyone who left a comment last week on our interview with Chris Womersley. Using a random number generator to choose, the winner of the copy of Bereft was:


Congratulations, Esme :) Send me an email or a Facebook message and let me know if you'd rather an e-book or a hard-copy version, and we'll get that sent out.

If you missed out this time, keep an eye out- we have another interview coming up soon, and a really big one scheduled for the end of May.

I'll keep the real post short today.

Getting back into the writing hasn't been easy this time around. Last time I finished a draft, I thought I was all done. Really, truly. So did everyone else. When I told a friend a couple of days ago that I was going back to the start again for the next draft, she was a bit stunned, and asked me if I was having some kind of performance anxiety, always thinking that what I had wasn't quite good enough.

I'm not, you'll be pleased to know. I'm still happy with what I've written, and with my characters. What I'm not happy with is the plot and the central theme of the story- the big guns, and the stuff that can't be renovated- it has to be rebuilt. I've spent the last three months ruminating on those, going back to my earliest notes on the story, reviewing all the inspirations for it, and there have been lightbulbs going on all over the place.

When I was writing the last draft, I was so in the thick of the forest that I didn't really stop to examine the trees. This time around, I'm treading more carefully. I'm not changing my process in any way- what I *am* doing is slowing it down.

From someone who wrote more than 20,000 words in four different months of last year, and more than 50,000 in two of those, you'll understand that this is a real change for me.

Normally, I'm a bit frantic to make hay while the sun shines and write as much as I can while I have the motivation, inspiration and space. I'll still always write that fast- but this time, I'm taking breaks between scenes and chapters. Letting them digest a little before moving on to the next course.

It's already working. It's not a matter of rethinking what I've just written so much as remembering what I wanted to include, but forgot. When I'm moving too fast, I don't have time to consider whether anything might have fallen off the roof of the proverbial car, and I certainly won't see it in my rear-view. Moving more slowly means I can stop, back up, and collect anything I did inadvertently lose. This both saves me effort when I'm revising, and most importantly, means that I'm not going to end up heading off in the wrong direction and be too far down the path before I realise (that's not part of the umpteenth metaphor, just a fact).

Wishing you all good writing and plenty of inner peace. Send those vibes back my way while you're at it!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A quick hello, a plug for a blog, and Seuss news ...

Well, it's been rather quiet around here of late, hasn’t it? Unfortunately, we’re all of us struggling with deadlines and “real life” busyness (or a nasty combination of both), but this situation is only temporary and normal programming will soon resume. ... and I have an inkling that Claire may be popping by very soon to announce the winner of our give-away book, BEREFT by Chris Womersley. You still have a chance to win – just go HERE and leave a comment to be eligible for the draw. Go, now!

In the meantime, I want to do a shout out for a blog that is rapidly becoming one of my favourites – Writer Unboxed. A whole slew of talented writerly people contribute to this blog, both writers and industry types alike, along with the occasional guest blogger, and it is always chock full of useful advice and stimulating blog topics for writers. Here’s a quick sample of posts from recent weeks:-

Don’t Try This At Home, about the perils of writing too far out of your reach; The Struggle For A Rising Plot Line, a discussion on how to maintain rising momentum and gather strength and interest in your plots; and Beautifully Written, uber agent Donald Maass' musings on how for him, beautiful writing is no longer a nice extra - it has become a critical component of high- impact fiction.

There's much, much more. Go forth and read - but don’t forget about us! :-)

Until next week, I leave you with this – the happy news that seven stories by Dr Seuss, previously only published in magazines in the 1950s, have been gathered into an anthology and will be published in book form this September. I don’t know about you, but that bit of news just made my day! :-) Indeed, glad, I am!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

20 Questions with Chris Womersley

On the day twelve-year-old Sarah Walker was murdered in 1909, a storm bullied its way across the western plains of New South Wales and unleashed itself on the fly-speck town of Flint. Sarah’s murder became the warm, still heart of several days of frantic activity in which almost every one of the town’s two hundred or so residents had a tale of chaos or loss.

So begins Australian author Chris Womersley’s second novel Bereft, a tale of love, loss and revenge set just after the end of the First World War.

Chris received plenty of critical acclaim and several awards for his 2007 debut novel The Low Road, and his second novel has travelled an even more impressive path. Bereft is currently long-listed for one of Australia’s most prestigious literary prizes, the 2011 Miles Franklin Award. Bereft was also recently named novel of the year in the 2011 Indie Awards, judged by the Australian Independent Booksellers, and is in the running for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. A feature film option for the novel has recently been sold to Emerald Productions.

Bereft is described on the back cover of the book and on Chris Womersley’s website, which you can find here, like so:

It is 1919. The Great War has ended, but the Spanish flu epidemic is raging through Australia. Schools are closed, state borders are guarded by armed men, and train travel is severely restricted. There are rumours it is the end of the world.

In the NSW town of Flint, Quinn Walker returns to the home he fled ten years earlier when he was accused of an unspeakable crime. Aware that his father and uncle would surely hang him, Quinn hides in the hills surrounding Flint. There, he meets a mysterious young girl called Sadie Fox, who encourages him to seek justice — and seems to know more about the crime than she should.

A searing gothic novel of love, longing, and revenge, Bereft is about the suffering endured by those who go to war and those who are forever left behind.

The minute I read the back cover, I knew I wasn’t leaving the store without this book. And once I started reading it, I knew I wasn’t putting it down until I was done. There’s grief, love, loss, life, death, betrayal, revenge, family tension, really bad bad guys, history, and even a little bit of magic woven throughout Bereft, and it makes for an intense and fascinating read.

Chris kindly agreed to be interrogated by All the World’s Our Page, and share the secrets of his writing and reading life. So, Chris- welcome! We’re delighted to have you here, and looking forward to learning more about you and your work.

Let the twenty questions begin…

On writing, broadly

1. Let’s start from the start. What’s your earliest memory of writing? How did it all start for you?

I was always interested in the idea of being an artist of some sort. My first career choice was as a painter, when I was 9 or 10. It is true that wrote a Star Wars sequel when I was about 12 or so that ran to about 70 A4 handwritten pages. Can’t remember what it was called now, though…

2. You originally wrote short stories, and still do those in addition to your novels. What’s one favourite thing about writing in the short form, and one about writing in the long?

One of the best things about short fiction is that you can actually finish a short story in fewer than 3 years, so there is some satisfaction while tinkering with novels. Having said that, I have written some short stories that have taken several years from conception to completion (‘Things of Relativity’ comes to mind as one in that category). I enjoy the discipline of having to be very economical when writing short fiction but there is no doubt that one can examine complex things in a novel in much greater depth. As a reader I really enjoy the immersive experience of a novel and that is what I seek to provide for the reader in my own novels.

3. I’ve seen you discuss the Creative Writing and Editing course you took at RMIT University, and you’ve mentioned how useful it was. Creative writing degrees are the topic of much debate around the traps, and I know there are many varied opinions out there. Having been a writer for years before you enrolled in formal study, how did you get the most from your course, and do you have any tips for current or prospective students on how to do the same?

It is true that a writing course will not make you a writer, but there are still basic things about craft to be learnt; I find it odd that writing courses are viewed with such suspicion when people have been attending art or music colleges for centuries. I think I was at a advantage in that I had been writing for some years (although without much of a record of publication, if that means anything) so I had a fair idea of what I was trying to do and a body of work behind me, including a draft of what became The Low Road.

A tip for those attending writing courses is probably the same for any writer: read a lot, write a lot and be selective when it comes to seeking advice on your work.

4. You have a family and a day job to juggle in the midst of all this writing and winning awards- what’s your secret to balancing these things?

A lot of Bereft was written at 4AM, because it was the most reliable time for peace and quiet while my son was very little. I work my ‘day job’ about two or three days a week but there is no real secret to finding time – I don’t have much of a social life …

5. We’re always interested in the writing process here at ATWOP, so we like to ask everyone this question. Can you describe your process for us? What gets you in that chair and starts the words flowing?

Because my time is rather limited at the moment I simply have to take the time whenever I can. Something I do regularly is find a piece of music that approximates the mood of a novel (or just a scene in the novel) that I am aiming for and that can get me going. The best thing, however, is arse-glue, available at all good hardware stores.

 ATWOP: I think I need to make a trip to Bunnings. Seriously, though- I do the same thing with music. Funny how firing different creative synapses can take you where you want to go.

On craft and character in your novels

6. The Low Road was critically acclaimed, which must have been a wonderful feeling for your first novel. Did your experiences during and after publication have an effect on your writing, or did you approach Bereft in much the same way?

It is true The Low Road garnered some positive reviews, which was great, but it didn’t really change my approach when it came to tackling Bereft. It’s always rather haphazard for me, sadly. The Low Road wasn’t such a success that I felt daunted, but nor was it such a disaster that I lost all confidence.

7. I’ve read that you added a central character to The Low Road when you were already tens of thousands of words into the story, and that you changed Sadie Fox from a boy to a girl a little way into writing Bereft. How much of the story comes together for you in the initial first draft stage, and how much of it really shapes up during edits?

The question of drafts is always a rather tricky one for me. It’s not like I write out an entire draft and then go back and do another one; a lot of my writing is rewriting – going back over what I did yesterday and adding a few more words, then going over that the following day and adding a few more etc. It’s more like a process of accretion, more than anything. For me a lot of the hard work is in bedding down the first 20,000 words or so in trying to establish characters, motivation and setting etc. I’m not much of a planner although I do have a basic ‘shape’ I am aiming for.

8. Returned soldier and murder-accused Quinn Walker, with his heavy past, his war injuries and his deep love for his murdered sister, is a memorable character, but I think it’s ferocious, strange and brave Sadie Fox who will stick with me the longest of all from Bereft. Your story also contains a whole host of vivid secondary characters, from Quinn’s literature-loving mother to the tragic war widow Mrs. Higgins. Do you have a favourite character in Bereft, or do you love them all equally?

I do love Sadie Fox and am very pleased people have taken her to heart so much. She was a great deal of fun to write. I’m glad also that the secondary characters are vivid. I love the way that in Dickens, for example, everyone is really larger than life and memorable.

9. On the topic of characters, do yours tend to arrive in your imagination fully formed, or do you need to work to alternately build and unravel them?

For me the process of building a character is akin to meeting someone in real life. I initially have an idea of the basic characteristics (age, gender, marital status, race etc) I need them to possess to fit my ideas of what the narrative will be, but gradually I need to fill them out with more idiosyncratic habits, patterns of speech and so on. Flesh them out, as it were.

10. An all-important question when it comes to writing: In the great debate of method, do you write in linear order, or jump through the story writing chunks here and there? And do you fly by the seat of your pants, or outline the story before you begin?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not much of a planner. I have started a new novel this year and thought I would try and plan it out to avoid some editing trauma later on, but found myself bogged down and unable to decide on anything much, so have abandoned that idea. Usually I have an idea of several scenes that ‘need’ to happen and work on them (regardless of where I think they will fall in the overall narrative) and in so doing, hopefully tease out a few of the themes and characters of the book. In the case of Bereft I knew, obviously, that there would be a meeting between Quinn and Sadie, so I worked on that quite early on. I knew also that Quinn had attended a séance (a scene initially set in Melbourne) so that was a very early scene I wrote (and my favourite scene of the book, perhaps for that very reason).

I’ve found that I can jump around a fair bit in scenes that occur in the first half or two-thirds of the narrative, but that when it comes to working up to the climax I need to work in a more linear fashion. At least by then I actually know how things will end.

On research and inspiration

11. When researching Bereft, you’ve mentioned that Les Carlyon’s The Great War was a major source of inspiration (it’s one for me, too). You’ve also mentioned that you like to gain an impression of a time and place and let your imagination do the rest of the work, rather than researching too exhaustively. So, what other avenues or sources did you use to get a feel for that Australian post-war era?

I read old newspapers of the era (helpfully digitally archived now) as well as WWI war poetry, which is pretty much a sub-genre of its own. I also read some of the books that it seemed people might have read themselves – mainly those weird Edwardian kids books that seem to feature dead kids: Peter Pan, The Water Babies.

ATWOP: I am officially obsessed with those newspaper archives, too. They are the most amazing thing ever. And you can't beat the WWI poets for bringing the emotions to the surface.

12. You’ve said that you had the core story of Quinn and Sadie in mind before you chose the 1919 setting primarily for the Spanish flu epidemic. Do you have any family history of involvement in the First World War? Or was it a time you hadn’t considered too closely before?

I had never considered writing a work set in the past at all but it just suggested itself as a great period for some of the themes I was interested in (apocalypse, grief etc). My grandfather George Kenward fought in WWI (and makes a tiny appearance in Bereft) but I didn’t know a lot about the period and was actually a bit wary of it because of the jingoistic connotations around Gallipoli and so on.

ATWOP: Definitely a potential minefield, but one I think you manoeuvred well. Fascinating to know that George was a cameo appearance!

13. In a similar vein, I know you went out and spent a bit of time in areas similar to the fictional Flint, New South Wales, and it’s clear that the stark and beautiful Australian landscape itself is a strong character within your novels. In Meanjin last year you talked about the influence of growing up in Melbourne on your perspectives and your writing style. Since writing Bereft, which has such a different setting from that of The Low Road and much of your short fiction, has your inner compass shifted at all to be drawn to other places? Or will you always be influenced first and foremost by the gritty, occasionally dark Melbourne of your childhood?

Hah! Who knows? My next book seems to be set in Melbourne in the 1980s, but I think it’s important to take each story as it comes. It seems a mistake to have too many preconceived ideas about a story before getting into it. After all – that’s the fun of it.

14. The revival of spiritualism was a fascinating aspect of the Great War experience, and the maybe-real, maybe-not art of conversing with the dead features poignantly in Bereft. You wrote an excellent essay for The Age last year discussing the history of spiritualism and the way Australia embraced it (readers, go read! It’s fascinating stuff). To throw you an entirely curly question, what are your own thoughts on life after death?

Nah. Don’t believe in it. I think we come around just once and that’s it.

On publication, promotion and the not-actually-writing parts of writing

15. Tell us a bit about your experience of getting The Low Road published. Did you follow the traditional query agent/ submit to publisher route? Has life changed much since then? And how different was your experience with Bereft?

I shopped The Low Road around a little to agents and some larger publishers but initially had no takers (‘Make a good second novel’ was a familiar response, along with ‘Hmm, bit dark’). Then The Low Road was short-listed for the Victorian Premiers’ Award for an unpublished manuscript (that year won by Rohypnol by Andrew Hutchinson), which brought me to the attention of Aviva Tuffield at Scribe, who loved the book and signed me up. Scribe are far more adventurous as a publisher than most – a true independent, not in thrall to marketing types.

Bereft was a little different. Because I am such a terrible negotiator when it comes to, ahem, money, I got myself an agent – Lyn Tranter – to do that on my behalf and she negotiated the fine details for the publication of Bereft with Scribe again. I have no contract for my next novel.

ATWOP: I saw presenters from both Scribe and Text Publishing, as well as Lyn Tranter, speak at the recent Perth Writers Festival, at which Chris also spoke. I was struck by the ongoing rise of these adventurous smaller publishers, and what a great thing it is for Australian literature. I'm really excited to see it, personally.

16. You have a website and a Facebook presence, plus a whole host of other interviews, reviews, articles and short stories out there in cyberspace, but rather deliberately no blog. You’ve joked that people can send you an email if they really want to know what you had for breakfast. So, what are your thoughts on the much-vaunted need for writers to build an Internet platform these days? Is it all necessary, or can it get a bit overblown?

I think it’s necessary to have a web presence, just so people can get an idea of your work and basic facts (my Wikipedia page is slightly wrong) but it doesn’t hurt to remain slightly mysterious, surely. Good writing lasts (‘Literature is news that stays news’ as Ezra Pound would have it). My own perspective is that it’s hard enough to get real work done so I prefer not to waste my time on what I see as pretty disposable forms of writing.

A bit less serious

17. Tarot cards or tea-leaves, clairvoyants or palm-readers- what method would you choose to divine your own future?

My personal favourite is Omphalomancy.

ATWOP: Heh. We're fond of that one around here, too.

18. I think I’ve read every interview you’ve ever done over the last couple of days, and I keep coming back to one thing. Trained typing monkeys. I want some. Can I borrow yours?

Christ, you don’t want to read too much of that stuff – it’ll rot your brain. But the answer is: Back off, girl, the monkeys stay with me.

19. Who’s going to finish higher on the Australian Rules Football league ladder this year- your Hawks, or my Dockers?

Dockers? Phhht. Although I did tip them against Geelong tonight (score currently 61-62 in Cats’ favour, at 10.40PM…)

ATWOP: And on behalf of all Dockers supporters who probably, like me, also tipped the same way, I do apologise for that dent in your weekend's tipping results, the Dockers having eventually lost 78-89. I picked the Crows instead this week.

20. What *did* you have for breakfast? ;)



Thanks again for being a great sport and agreeing to our interview, Chris! We had a blast.
Bereft (2010) and The Low Road (2007) are published by Scribe Publishing, and you can buy them through Readings Books at those respective title links, or Chris points you in the right direction to buy them in various formats here.

One lucky reader will win a copy of Bereft courtesy of All the World’s Our Page. Just leave a comment on this post, and we’ll draw the random winner this day next week. You don’t have to be Australian to enter.

Chris is busy attending the Bellingen Writers Festival this week, so we make no guarantees he'll be able to respond to comments, but you never know.

You can check out our previous 20 questions interviews here with Deanna Raybourn, and Joanna Bourne.