A square meal

At the Brisbane Writers Festival on Saturday, Melissa Lucashenko, an Indigenous writer, said something that has been bobbing around in my mind ever since, buoyant like a rubber duck on a choppy sea. Melissa was a guest on a panel about the future of the publishing industry in Australia, and the session had been on the bleak side. Another panellist had just told us that, on average, Australian writers earned $13,000 per year, but that was actually inaccurate. That figure factored in the incomes of the handful of writers like Tom Keneally who are clustered at the top end of the scale, and who make a great deal more than that. Taking that upward inflection into consideration, the true average would be a lot lower. Possibly even fifty percent lower. 

This probably wasn't a surprise to anyone there. Their presence at the event indicated that the audience were all patrons of the arts, if not workers in arts industries themselves. They knew how to nurse one drink for a good hour-long session. 

Then, someone on the panel raised a point that they'd had to make a conscious effort to put their phone down and resist the temptation to only consume written words as they're served on social media - snappy little 'news bites', listicles and the like. I agree, but I'm actually quite fond of listicles. Melissa Lucashenko was asked if she lamented the possible decline in people reading more long-form writing, like novels.  

'No,' Melissa said, 'because novels are the meat and potatoes of writing. Stories on Facebook are just a sugar hit.' I really liked that. Novels have substance and heft. When they're done well (cooked properly?) they can be so satisfying and fulfilling. Sustaining, even - a square meal rather than a brief reprieve from hunger.

Novelists can feed people, if we do our jobs well. Now we just need to make enough money to feed our own writing habits, then we will all be full and fat, and happy.

 

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Un petite dramatique

Bloody hell, this parenting thing is a rough gig, sometimes. The toddler years are so strange. I assume other stages will be equally strange - I haven’t lived through them yet, but there are some particular conflicts in this state of being that I can’t imagine are replicated later.

For instance, toddlers look adorable but they are capable of inflicting great punishment. Toddlers do not know how to read or write but can pinpoint the most fragile areas in your temperament, the weakest and most threadbare patches of your heart and those lulls in the day when your fatigue is at its worst, and target you at the exact moment when these things converge, with the skill and accuracy of a sniper.

Toddlers have the timing and dramatic flair of the greatest actors of screen and stage, along with their comprehensive backstage riders and penchant for making unreasonable demands of their staff (parents). They have impressive range, too, and can go from the depths of despair to the heights of hilarity within seconds. But, toddlers do not understand they are acting, or they are method acting, or they simply live their art, I’m not sure.

Toddlers can be terrifically unpleasant and joyous company in the same hour. They can make you want to ‘forget’ them at the supermarket and make you love them with the force of a typhoon, right down to the marrow of their bones, so much that it shocks you. Again, within a single hour.

It is exhausting, for us and them. Four is around the corner, and I’ve heard it’s a bit calmer. If that’s incorrect, don’t tell me! I know we will weather these days and look back on them with fondness. But, in the depths of them, I feel S T R E T C H E D.

 

 

 

The guilt list

Things I currently feel guilty about:

-          Commenting on another woman’s body

-          Letting my son watch heaps of TV the other day

-          Not using my Keep Cup enough

-          Getting impatient with people who speak slowly

-          Not phoning people

-          Forgetting to make a Book Week costume

-          Feeling guilty about all of the above

Guilt must be one of the most invasive feelings there is. When I’m feeling guilty about a multitude of things, it’s like someone has wrapped a woollen blanket around me in the height of summer. The really scratchy sort. It’s spectacularly uncomfortable.

Something I think about a lot is a particular scene in Harry Potter when Dumbledore shows him a Pensieve, which is like a shallow basin filled with a sort of vapour. It’s used as a vessel for emptying your thoughts into, for the purpose of…thinking about them. As Dumbledore says, ‘One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.’

I really wish I had one.

There are a whole bunch of disclaimers I could make about that guilt list. When I commented on another woman’s body, it was positively. I was being nice. But, I broke my own rule - bodies are not for public judgement, even when it’s favourable. I let my son watch heaps of TV because he was sick, and I wanted him to rest. I own a Keep Cup – don’t I get points for that? (No). Etcetera. But, then I go into a guiltception spiral of feeling guilty about guilt itself. LOLZ.

Anyway, the bit I’m more interested in is not the rationality of the guilt, but the purpose it serves. Why do we feel guilty, at all? In what way and for what purpose do we need guilt? What makes us invite it in and give it a seat at our table?

My husband and I are often late. I pointed this out to him a few months ago, and how it seems like we need that lateness to propel us into action. Why else would we sabotage ourselves? Staying up late so we don’t want to get up early, then running late and being stressed all morning – yet, we do it again and again. Does it reflect some version of ourselves that we enjoy? The relaxed, creative couple, so creative, in fact, that they can be free and loose with time itself? Or is it that we enjoy the urgency of the hustle, a frantic dash rather than a sedate and plodding amble into the morning? I dunno.

There’s an expression that ‘shame is the handmaiden of guilt,’ which is a lovely way of saying that we usually feel guilty about an action, and shame about how an action reflects on us as people. How shame spurs on paths of behaviour is even more interesting, especially when I think about Alice in DTTS. Was it shame that prompted her to take the action she did? Was her shame so powerful that she wanted to re-write history, just to find a version of herself she could live with more comfortably? Was she even ashamed at all? Does anyone live totally free from guilt, and if so, is that a good thing?

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Only the lonely

Writing and talking about Deeper than the Sea has led to a lot of interesting conversations about parenting and families and how they’re composed. I’ve had these conversations with strangers, friends, and within my own family, ad infinitum. This suits me fine, because I find the subject fascinating. But, even though I had some pretty firm convictions about what makes a family in DTTS, I’ve still got some lingering, persistent doubts when it comes to the makeup of my own.

This week, I read an article that brought all these doubts pushing their way to the front of my brain-space again. It was about whether or not it was okay to have only one child, and I think that I might only have the one child.

At this stage, it seems pretty likely that my little family is complete and rounded off at just the three of us. This causes me no end of heartache, and it’s not even set in stone – my husband and I were fortunate enough not to experience any difficulty conceiving, and physically, there’s no reason that I know of why we couldn’t have another baby, if we wanted to.

I just don’t know if I, or we, want to.

I love the shit out of our little boy. I love parenting him, even when he’s being a devil. I love the unit that the three of us make. I understand that we are so lucky to have him. I have dear friends who haven’t ever been able to take their babies home. Babies who were born still and quiet, and babies who were never born - I’ve seen how easily they slip out of this world, and how all the love and anticipation waiting for them on this side can’t bring them back.

I’m lucky enough to have a happy, thriving little fellow who eats all he can of life in great, big gulps. He’s a noisy and energetic lightning bolt of a boy; a current of electricity; happy, strong and full of wonder. It’s enough for me. He is enough for me. But, I worry that he’ll be lonely, without siblings. I worry that he won’t have a mirror to reflect him back to himself, I worry that he won’t know the frustration and intimacy of a shared childhood that nobody else could ever understand. I worry that when we’re old, he’ll feel even more alone.

But, then I think of the undivided attention we can give him. The investment of time and energy that we can give him, and the other experiences that we might not be able to afford or arrange or stomach with more than one. The continuation of these golden days we’re in now.

And I end up where I started, with no bloody idea.

Lonely only kids, talk to me. Do you resent it? Do you love it? Do you feel deprived or grateful for the childhood you had?

Kids who are one of many, same questions. Has it changed what you want your family to look like?

Read the article that made me revisit this particular quandary this week here.

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Red heads, full hearts

I remember seeing the man who is now my husband on our first day of high school. We were twelve. 

He walked with a sort of jaunty lightness, and was looking around as though he was completely prepared to find everything he saw pleasing. I think the reason I remember him is because of his hair, a shock of dark red. As it happens, he was probably just walking gingerly to accommodate his bung knee and he didn’t actually find much to please him about high school, except his friends. 

In October, we will have been married for six years. 

Throughout history, redheads have been persecuted for their shamefully vibrant tresses. Ancient Greeks believed redheaded people became vampires when they died. In Ancient Egypt, redheads were burnt at the stake in worship of the god Osiris. In the Middle Ages, they were identified as witches, their red hair a red flag that signalled the presence of the devil within. They were killed, too. What a lark. Thankfully, over the last century or so, we’ve come to realise that red hair is really only symptomatic of one thing - the MC1R gene. Redheads have increased pheomelanin, a pigment in the skin. Red hair appears when people have two copies of a mutation in the MC1R, the melanocyte-stimulating hormone receptor, so their skin cells produce more pigment. SCIENCE.

My husband doesn’t remember being teased about his hair when he was a kid, and it’s now faded into a sandy sort of echo of the colour it was. In fact, it was really only when we lived in London that he became aware of red hair being a mock-able feature, from his colleagues and the sort of newspapers that were free on the Tube. All in all, he has not suffered from it, as an Australian child of the nineteen-eighties and nineties. 

On that day when I first saw him, when we were twelve, I thought he was a beautiful human. There was just something immediately appealing about him. I find him beautiful now, too, though he’s a mite more haggard from parenting a toddler. The beauty I’m talking about is both aesthetic and intrinsic, and the way in which I see it rounds out and grows fuller with time. He finds me beautiful too, which is fortunate. And so, six years ago, we did what people who find each other beautiful in many ways often want to do – we got married. There was nothing stopping us, though there may have been, had we found each other in a different time. 

My point is this: history will not treat us kindly when it looks back to this period of humanity in Australia. There are too many things happening that are so utterly lacking in humanity for that to be possible. Right now, for instance, there are people who find each other obscenely beautiful in a variety of ways who have been told that their government doesn’t have the decency to allow them to marry without wasting $122 million dollars and subjecting them and us and all of our kids to a cruel public wrangle over it. Maybe one day, future humans will feel ashamed about the ways in which we persecuted LGBTI people today.

For fuck’s sake. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the heart of the beheld.
Love is love. 
Check your enrolment here.

Let's face the music

We finally got a turntable that works beautifully! The record that we've been listening to the most is a double Frank Sinatra album called Portrait of Sinatra - Forty Songs from the Life of a Man. I really enjoy the capitalisation in that title, too - there's something grandiose and wonderfully pompous about it. This album taking the number one spot on rotation came out of left field a bit, although we have fairly widespread tastes, as a household. We just bloody love it, though.

The album belongs to my stepmother, and we're going to have to return it and buy our own copy eventually. Interestingly, when I've mentioned it to people, they all have different reactions, and a few of them have really surprised me. 'He was a womanising scoundrel,' my mum said, and 'a bit of an old dog,' an older, male colleague at work said. But that voice, is the unspoken bit at the end of whatever they say. This is something I've been thinking about a lot, lately.

The language that we use to speak about men, women and infidelity and the allowances we make for people who are artists of some description are fascinating. If you Google Frank Sinatra, it's a rabbit hole of conflicted wrangling over whether or not we can reasonably love someone who, arguably, treated quite a few women abominably. Here's what it has made me wonder:

If Frank was Francine, with the same transgressions, how kind would history be to her?

If Alice in DTTS was a man, would we judge her as harshly for pursuing her art over her parenting responsibilities? Does this change depending on how good the art is? Or how famous the maker?

And, if someone made an album of forty songs at the end of Your Life, what would the songs be?

Handmaids and wing-men

We've been watching The Handmaid's Tale and it's a little disconcerting. Actually, it's a lot disconcerting. Last night, it filtered into my dreams and I woke up feeling on edge, like I was being watched, or something was about to go terribly wrong. It didn't last long, but it's no way to be - watching someone hold a glass above a concrete floor, waiting for them to drop it.

I've also been having some complicated conversations about women and safety and responsibility and I didn't quite make it to a place I feel comfortable standing in with any of those conversations. But - what a luxury - to be able  to have wide open conversations about those things and not have my eyes gouged out or my feet whipped for insolence.

Last week, I was sick, and my husband got me anything I needed and stroked my hair back off my face and kept the home fires burning (literally, he made a really excellent fire in the fireplace). I was grateful, but I did not see it as remarkable and neither did he. We operate alongside each other, in this way: partners in what feels like the truest sense for us. While he was at work, qualified and gentle people looked after our son, and I lay in bed. I had no qualms about doing so. I want to say I was convalescing, but that sounds really nice and it was not nice. 

My point is, unlike the Handmaids from Margaret Atwood's sinister and achingly possible world, I never have to pretend I am anything other than a flag-waving feminist.

As such, it was an honour to be included in a round-up here.

Judgement day

I've been working on an article about some of the themes that are in DTTS, specifically - mothering. It's been playing on my mind a lot, lately, how and by what measures mothers are judged. In DTTS, there are two very different mothers, biological and non-biological, with different motivations. I tried very hard not to pass judgement on them, but I'm not sure if I quite struck that balance. Sometimes, my own baggage just crowds on in when I'm writing and won't budge, no matter how hard I shove it. 

I give myself a pretty hard time as a mum sometimes, especially in the times when I'm not enjoying being a mum. I tend to only do things that I'm good at, and avoid things that I have no aptitude for, but you don't get that choice with parenting. You just have to do it, and be shit sometimes and be excellent other times and be fun and nag and recoil at the sound of your own voice harping on and then marvel at your capacity to love and come back with more love, when they are nagging and harping on at you.

It's a strange gig, parenting. Today, I told my son that I wrote a story called Deeper than the Sea, and he asked if it had sharks in it. I told him it did, in a way. But no pictures. He was unimpressed. 

Thanks to everyone who has forgiven me for the lack of pictures in DTTS, and for any heavy-handedness with the mothers who are in it. If they were real women, they would have their own inner dialogues that were punishing enough without the opinions of anyone else added in. Tomorrow, I'm going to be kinder.

Side note, how excellent are librarians? Librarians are champs.

Treadmill revelation

I've had photos and tags and messages coming from readers and friends (mostly friends) thick and fast this week, and it is lovely. But, I still haven't been into a bookstore and seen DTTS on the shelf with my own two eyes. I'm going to do that, hopefully this week. It doesn't feel real until I have that moment. I've been busy, though. Life got louder than the siren song of my ego. That's a good thing. 

We've had visitors, the sort of old friends who are as much a part of your story as your family. They are family. The are woven in to your blanket. We've had jobs to go to, and groceries to buy and cars to drive from here to there and back again. We've had errands, to buy fancy cheese and specific light bulbs and the nice coffee and the not-so-nice painkillers for fingers trapped in car doors (mine). We've had long conversations and short winter days and we've changed nappies and wiped faces and read stories and built things out of Duplo and possibly Lego, when we're feeling ambitious and our fine motor skills are up to the task.

That is how it should be. I haven't had a launch for DTTS, and I haven't had time to look at it on a bookshelf, yet. This book hasn't arrived with a bang, she has trickled in under the door, and that's how I like it. Tonight, I was watching Anne with an E on Netflix while I was walking at a pitiful speed on the treadmill and I was reminded how sweet and romantic and irritating the character of Anne is. And, I remembered how much it meant to me to find a character that really resonated with me as a child, Anne and Katy from What Katy Did, and Jo from Little Women, and Claudia, the 'artistic one' who liked clothes in The Babysitter's Club.

The characters from those books are with me all the time. They are part of my consciousness, my frame of reference and how I see the world and the people in it. They're in my every day, along with the errands and the playing and the cups of tea that grow cold. What I would really like (and I didn't realise this until tonight on that horrid treadmill) is for Theo or Beth from DTTS to be like that for someone. For the characters that were born in my brain to be in the days of other people the way Anne and Katy and Jo were, and still are in mine. Just around, lurking, but in a friendly way, not a creepy one, so real that they can exist beyond the page. What a weird, excellent fucking privilege that would be. 

Here's hoping.

Empty Nest

I've figured it out, this strange, slightly sad and lost feeling I've had in the quiet shallows of the week that has passed since release day. It's empty nest syndrome! My book has left home. But, she's finding her way into the homes of other people, and the nervous euphoria I feel about that is definitely overpowering the empty nest stuff. I've had a very nice review, and heaps of very nice text messages, photos and emails from people who are reading it and liking it. I assume the ones who don't like it aren't telling me, which is also nice. You others, keep 'em coming. My appetite for niceness knows no bounds. This photo is my nephew doing a happy dance in Dymocks for me. I will give a free copy of DTTS to anyone who sends me a copycat shot! Also - this story is pertinent.

 

 

Release day

Today marks the official launch date of Deeper than the Sea. Wowsers. It’s been a long time coming, this one!

When I wrote The Vale Girl, I had a lot less in my days. I worked part-time, and I had two whole days a week dedicated specifically to writing. That seems like a ridiculous level of luxury, now. This time around, I had a child, a lot more work, and a busier, fuller existence. Writing this book had to fit in around all of that.

I wrote about this a little bit in my acknowledgements, and it’s not something I want to harp on endlessly about. It’s important to point out that I had a lot of help from my family, especially my mum and husband, and my son went to childcare and was looked after by professionals with infinitely more patience and a more assured wrangling style than I had. I was not alone. I got it done. It was hard.

And that brings us to today, when Deeper than the Sea hits the shelves of book stores all over the country.

I’m relieved it’s over, I understand that it is flawed, and I’m immensely proud of it.

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It arrived and it's beautiful

UPDATE: It arrived and it's beautiful. Book covers are so tricky, and we ask them to do and say so much. We quibbled over this one a bit and now it's here and I love it so. Evidently, if you are tired, a stack of these books also makes an excellent chin-rest, FYI. In other news, the best freaking bookstore in Melbourne kindly put me on their list of titles to look out for in the second half of 2017. I have some excellent company on this list, including my old writing group buddy and all-around excellent lady friend, Kate O'Donnell, who is launching her debut YA novel Untidy Towns in October. I remember sitting across from Kate in one of our first classes and hanging on her every word, and being pleased as PUNCH when she read something I had written, turned to her friend next to her and said, 'I like this.' Untidy Towns is sure to be a ripper read xx

You can check the list out here.

On making a Thing: Deeper than the Sea

Today, I got a notification on Instagram from someone at the Sun bookstore in Melbourne. They had an advance copy of my new book in their hands. They said nice things about it, which was lovely.

I’m a bit jealous, too, because I haven’t held the book in my hands, yet. I haven’t had the chance to turn it over and over and squish it and smell it and inspect every inch of it. Not for flaws, just because I made it, it came from my mind and then some magician transformed it into a bunch of beautifully bound pages. But, there was a big old party of more overwhelming feelings that came up when I saw that post. They were a bit more complicated, and took me a little while to untangle.

If people ask me how I feel about The Vale Girl now, I tell them that it’s sort of like seeing photos of yourself from a long time ago, and folding up into yourself a bit when you get some objectivity around that hairstyle/outfit/pose that you thought was so dang cool at the time. (I think if it’s a hat, we can say unequivocally that it didn’t look good. Hats don’t. People pretend to mourn them and say ‘Why does nobody wear hats anymore?’ but that is just milliners). I’m proud of that book, but there are also parts of it I wish I’d done differently.

It’s a strange feeling. Any art is strange, making it and then releasing it into the wild is strange. You would probably not put your newborn baby out into the middle of a barren field in winter to be picked at by hawks or other birds of prey, correct? But that is what we do when we make a thing, we fling it up into the sky like a wish and we drop it from the great height of our own tender heart and silly brain, and it doesn’t belong to us anymore but at the same time it always does. I can’t think of anything more exposing.

Books are never finished, that is the other tricky thing.

You could keep working and working on them, and maybe they would get better and maybe they wouldn’t, but at some point you have to stop. If you are at all inclined towards perfectionism, that is rather fucking hard.

It’s equal parts exciting and terrifying and it makes me feel vulnerable, and I want people to be gentle but reviewers aren’t, because then what would the point of a review be? They would not be called reviews, just compliments. I do understand that I’m lucky to have the opportunity to make a thing and have somewhere to fling it from, in any case. I’m not shouting into a void, I have a publisher and an agent and a family who will stalk the book stores of Brisbane and rearrange the shelves so my book is at eye level of every passer-by.

And if some of them take it down from that shelf, carry it over to the counter and slap their money down (or more likely PayPass it which doesn’t even feel like spending, more like playing with a toy robot that makes cute little beeping sounds) I hope they are pleased with their purchase. And if they’re not, I’m going to figure out a way to not care too much, because I can’t control that. Wish me luck.

Deeper than the Sea will be in book stores in July. If you’re in Brisbane, Avid Reader is a grouse one.