Dangerous Play

I went back to my roots yesterday, when I was interviewed by the lovely Amy Macdonald for ABC Radio Gold Coast to talk about murdering people in my imagination, or as some people call it, writing crime fiction.

It was surprisingly cathartic to revisit my formative influences, like the wild beauty and dangerous play I enjoyed as a child on Kurrigee (South Stradbroke Island), which forms the setting for one of my stories, Feral. Growing up as an outsider, a bookish nerd with thick thighs and brown hair in a town that prized blondness and leanness above all, I always took great comfort in stories.

18839230_10154410872125047_5904027897192955477_n
I wore my hand-knitted Jughead beanie during the interview for good luck.

If you are interested in hearing more about the early influences that bred in me a sharp sense of justice and an appetite for understanding human motives, here is the 15-minute interview…and a huge thank you to all my friends, family, and readers who listened and sent supportive messages!

 

Sensitivity and straw hats

After donning a controversial sombrero at Brisbane Writers Festival, Lionel Shriver is at it again, misrepresenting literary sensitivity consultants as the free speech police. Shriver seems to be responding to this recent, well-researched article about the issue.

screenshot-2017-02-20-17-52-59

If your creative writing draws on elements from cultures or subcultures with which you do not identify, then you are writing across identity. This can produce dynamic, perceptive, and powerful stories. It can also be a sad and cynical trade in old, tired stereotypes.

But these stereotypes are not so worn-out as to be harmless. Tired tropes still pack a punch for those who don’t have ready access to the life-affirming privilege and eye-opening wonder of seeing themselves represented in books and stories. Worn-out cliches and ignorant inaccuracies still ‘kick down’ if told by a relatively empowered author to and/or about a relatively disempowered reader.

That’s why projects like Justina Ireland’s Writing in the Margins are so important. A unique offering in the literary space, Writing in the Margins offers visibility, accountability, and accessibility for writers wanting and needing cultural expertise to flesh out their narratives. It hosts a directory of suitably qualified sensitivity readers along with guidelines for best practice. Importantly, it also offers editorial mentorships to support writers from marginalised or historically oppressed groups to shape and own narratives.

Shriver’s argument includes reference to a well-known feature of sensitivity consultations – that one reader cannot speak for a whole community of identity. Shriver argues, on the one hand, that sensitivity readers are bogus, since they are all just individuals offering personal advice. Yet she also fears, on the other, that they form a monolithic police presence against her licence to write whatever she wants about whomever she pleases. Then she brings both those hands together to co-opt empowerment language and applaud her own artistic freedom: “As a woman, I’d be uneasy about being given the power to determine what is insulting to women in general.”

But this strawman argument cannot support its own weight.

Sensitivity readers provide an informed, expert viewpoint on matters of fact (e.g. cultural history and language), and/or insights based on individual lived experience. It is a complex area, to be sure, where simplistic and bombastic arguments function only to hijack the debate.

And there are meaningful, important issues to be debated.

For writers who have fought against systemic and structural discrimination to find their voice and tell their story, sensitivity consultation may be an anathema, and fair enough, too – why invite someone’s meddling opinion into the mix of such hard-won truths?

But for writers who occupy positions of relative privilege, and who wish to write stories that reflect their diverse and multicultural communities, sensitivity readership can be a vital tool in avoiding harmful stereotypes and embarrassing mistakes.

Despite the complexity, I am a big believer in literary sensitivity consultations. That’s why I am volunteering my time, working with a colleague, to put together a Sensitivity Reader directory and related suite of mentorships for Australia.

In today’s tumultuous social and political climate, diverse and sensitive stories have never been more important. Readers want and need stories that capture and explore the complexity of contemporary life. Through inclusive and sensitive storytelling, we can better understand and appreciate ourselves and each other.

For further reading, see the articles/posts by Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Yen-Rong Wong in response to Shriver’s BWF keynote.

A feisty festive season

The holiday season is nearly upon us and it has awakened a hunger in me: a hunger for books. I am slavering over book catalogues like a vampire at the blood bank.

Here are some books I have recently read, or plan to read over the holidays – true crime and crime fiction books; some light and mysterious, some heart-breaking and powerful:

  • Le Chateau by Sarah Ridout – I am fortunate to have met Sarah while she was working on this wonderful gothic suspense novel, and now I can’t wait to lose myself in such lush mystery!
  • The Good People by Hannah Kent – Inexorable, pagan, and all too real, this historical crime fiction is as women-centred and steeped in mud and magic as Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites. The quality of writing is as brilliant, too.
  • The Girls by Emma Cline – Girls are beautiful and vulnerable, terrible and powerful. Based on the Manson cult followers, Cline’s book is an intelligent and gripping fictionalisation and exploration of the way lust, love, and the desire to belong shaped the murderous choices of these young women.
  • Invisible Women by Ruth Wykes and Kylie Fox – I sat on the board of a sex worker’s health organisation for many years, so I am both saddened and heartened to see this exquisitely researched book recognising sex workers’ lives lost to murder.
  • A Mother’s Story by Rosie Batty – Australian of the Year Rosie Batty has such clarity in detailing her suffering, and such strength in her message of hope and change – I am always moved by her media statements and speeches, so look forward to the power of her book.
  • The Prodigal Son by Sulari Gentill – This free novella is now available for those wanting a taste of the popular historical crime fiction series. I am looking forward to catching up with the stylish and savvy Rowland Sinclair.

collage of covers of the 6 books mentioned below

I am also on the hunt for books by women about women investigators on the trail of women killers (especially serial killers). If you know of any, please leave the details in a  comment. They are so hard to find! Perhaps I should write one…

On that note, some of you may also be interested in reading my most recent work, a novella Crawlspace – available for $2.99 here (along with a short story by none other than the Godfather of Australian crime writing, Peter Corris!). Not about serial killers, but still, as shadowed and twisty as the cobwebbed labyrinth of my subconscious could make it.

I’ll be sending out my first author newsletter this month. If you are interested in my thoughts on women, criminality, and justice – or in seeing a pic of me rocking my SuperGirl outfit! – then please sign up here.

Wishing you all a feisty festive season.

 

 

5 thrilling holiday reads

I am so amped about my holiday reading! I started early, already having inhaled half a dozen books this month, but I still have a pile to get through.

Looking for recommendations to round out your holiday reading? Here’s 5 Books by Queensland authors for your reading pleasure…

  • A Time to Run by JM Peace

A women-driven, action-packed crime thriller. Unputdownable!

  • The Promise Seed by Cass Moriarty

A quiet literary tale of family violence and redemption, with unmistakeably Queensland characters exploring universal themes.

  • Skin Deep by Gary Kemble

Haunting tattoos, war heroes, murder, and politics – a thrilling genre-bender.

  • Clancy of the Undertow by Chris Currie

Another quiet literary novel, this one a funny and quirky Young Adult. Small town, big drama, and a young woman seeking a place she can truly feel at home.

  • One Hundred Years of Women Police in Australia by Tim Prenzler

An academic text filled with tales of real life sheroes.

img_7613
Support Aussie authors, and enjoy your holiday reading!

‘Bitches be tricky’ and other thriller tropes

It’s time to talk about the dark and twisty ladies of literature I adore. Welcome to the first book review at mamaguilt.

I loved Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl! But I also hated it, in a totally respectful kind of way.

SPOILER ALERT – I won’t actually give away the ending, but this review discusses the shape and impact of the entire novel. If you haven’t read Gone Girl yet, then:

(a) omg where have you been, living on a deserted island or something?!, and

(b) look out, this review will give you strong hints of the book’s climax.

Gone Girl book cover

Flynn’s previous books, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, both explore lesser heard voices so exquisitely. In both, Flynn’s women and girl characters are crafted with hidden motives based on lived experiences that so many of share, yet so few of which are represented in popular fiction: body image, control, safety, violation.

And Flynn does it with a powerful female gaze. Her Domestic Noir novels are grounded in twisty ladies as protagonists and point of view characters, with narratives driven by domestic terror – an issue that is, of necessity, an overwhelmingly female concern.

The use of skin as text. The lifelong impact of pre-verbal horrors. The menace of intimacy. All of these are rich source material for Flynn’s work.

In Gone Girl, Flynn turns the female gaze to power and control in intimate relationships. Flynn slowly reveals that all the things making Nick Dunne a ‘great guy’ also make him a prime suspect in Amy Dunne’s disappearance .

Flynn puts the intellectual thrill in thriller in the establishing scenes, with her critical eye on popular media’s influence on justice, her menacing clarity about power and betrayal in domestic relationships, and her complex portrayal of the labyrinthine depths of the female psyche.

A complicated and gripping clue-puzzle plotline drive both Nick and the reader on a pacy chase through the entire middle of the book. What a great, sustaining literary device! It captures and holds narrative interest throughout a middle that, while rich with revelations of both Amy and Nick’s despicable secret selves, suffers from a lack of dramatic tension.

I was swept up in the way this narrative device accelerated my heartbeat, but ultimately it made for a let down, delivering a dissatisfying end game. The climax of Gone Girl plays as a parody, undercutting the intelligence of the first half of the book.

Popular fiction didn’t need another bunny boiler. Flynn has demonstrated a far more subtle and powerful hand in her other works, especially in Dark Places. (Oh Libby, how I adore you!). Gone Girl could have gone to much more interesting places, while still maintaining the thrilling twists, forbidding menace, and ultimate power reversal.

Super smart and with an impeccable education in dramatic structure based on many years as a television critic, Flynn is to be worshiped for her craft skills, and revered for her choice of subject matter. One day I would love the opportunity to meet and learn from her. She is a master. (How I wish there was a gynocentric term to replace ‘master’ – ‘mistress’ just doesn’t cut it).

Obviously, the dramatic shape of Gone Girl has been carefully crafted and the ending deliberately chosen for maximum effect – and, given the commercial success of the book and the movie, it was a choice well-made and well-played.

But, for me, while it stays true to the woman driving the narrative, the Gone Girl climax comes at the cost of the female gaze. The end scenes left me disoriented and disappointed as the author surreptitiously slides the ol’ man-goggles on, and I am tipped out of a deep-seated identification with Amy to gaze at her, aghast, from the outside.

That said, Flynn’s novels are exemplar in capturing the way, as girls and women, we misshape ourselves for success and fulfilment in response to being battered by conflicting threats and demands from every side. I am keenly interested in her next projects, both the adult thriller and the Young Adult novel.

But when it comes to crafting twisty ladies in literature, I far prefer it as done in Sharp Objects and Dark Places – with a full palette of character nuance, resisting the urge to swamp end scenes in psychobitch scarlet.

Experimental novel seeks your memories

You can be involved in this interesting ongoing project by author Levin Diatschenko, supported by if:book Australia:

From if:book’s Memory Makes Us: Family Tree

On 30 May 2014, Levin Diatschenko created a new work of narrative fiction for Memory Makes Us using your memories as his inspiration. Levin sought from the public memories on the theme of ‘family tree’.

At the conclusion of the extraordinary work produced, he decided he’d like to expand the story a little further. Maybe a lot further.

So Levin is extending the story into a novel and he would love to continue receiving your ‘family tree’ memories.

levinMemories submitted to this page will be delivered to Levin and to if:book. Selected memories may also appear in our complete repository.

You can also follow Levin’s progress here.

 

Memory Makes Us

Fuelled by Memories

20140531-220734-79654310.jpg

Yesterday, I had the extraordinary privilege of helping to deliver Memory Makes Us, an experimental live writing event at Wordstorm festival in Darwin, the regional capital of Australia’s remote Top End. Three authors wrote live to the web, fuelled by contributions from the public submitted via typewriter or post-it note at Wordstorm, or via Twitter or the website memorymakesus.org.au

It’s a project conceived for if:book Australia by literary technologist extraordinaire, Simon Groth, in collaboration with the brilliant literary and digital author, Kate Pullinger. As CEO of QWC, I support and manage if:book, an R&D digital publishing unit founded by the visionary Kate Eltham. Yeah, I freaking love my day job.

But I’m also a writer, and I was deeply impressed by the courage and agility of the three authors writing and publishing live to the web, crafting narrative from crowdsourced memories, serene and focused in the sweltering humidity of Darwin. Maria Munkaro, Levin Diatschenko, and Kamarra Bell-Wykes were champions, and the original works they produced are each unique and powerful. Read them here.

Contemporary evolution of the read/write relationship from symbiosis to synthesis both anchors and heightens narrative interest. Contributing my own memories to the project added a striking layer of frisson.

I had skin in the game.

Tiles in the Mosaic
Family Tree
Levin created a sophisticated, magical realist, episodic narrative – a cosy, feisty conversation the likes of which you could envision in the back room of a pub in LOTR. Levin used contributions to inspire his characters.

See Levin discuss the project here http://youtu.be/a3FdP6RBTvQ

My contributed memory to Levin’s theme of Family Tree:

Dad’s moustache: A toothbrush moustache that started out glossy black, fading over the decades to silver, with ochre hints of tobacco.

This memory fuelled the final line in Levin’s piece:

With that, he shuffled out of the bar and slammed the door behind him. I do not know if his mustache went grey.

Recurring Dreams
Maria wove a delicate, deep poem around her theme of Recurring Dreams. Ranging from crowdsourced experiences of both joy and nightmare, to resonances of a psyche formed in Australia’s Stolen Generation, Maria approached her piece with the optimism, grace, and intellect she brings to all her work.

See Maria discuss the project here http://youtu.be/FpicDRHf7EE

My contributions to Maria’s theme both appear, seamless and intact, in her piece:

A speed boat passes me by
I am on an island
with only crabs and thirst for company
the speed boat passes by again
My parents wave
but they do not stop

A labrador pup
malnourished and swimming upstream
Is it me?

The Power of Smell
Kamarra’s experience as a playwright are evident in the striking call-and-response structure of her piece. Riffing off contributed memories and entwining her own, Kamarra’s clear authorial voice creates a compelling throughline across a kaleidoscope of scenes and characters.

See Kamarra discuss the project here http://youtu.be/rJVn3DJrWh4

My submitted memory to Kamarra’s theme of Smell:

Rotten mangoes fallen on my running path
makes me think of zombies and hospitals.

Kamarra fed this post-it note glimpse of memory into the wild machine of her imagination to create a detailed and touching scene between a boy, his brother and their mother.

Provenance
The rights and licensing of work for Memory Makes Us were complex to get right, but are simple in effect. The authors and contributors own their work outright and are free to publish and remix it as they wish. If:book Australia has a non-exclusive licence to publish and remix it, too.

Last night I realised, along with the flush of pride and the thrill of narrative interest, that the inclusion of my memories in these authors’ beautiful works may make it tricky should I ever wish to re-use my own words – it may look like plagiarism. So it is both as an act of honour to these authors’ incredible creativity, and by way of documenting the provenance of my own contributions, that I reproduce them here.

Come Play with Us
It’s my belief that authors have always been fuelled by the contributions of those around us. Web-enabled writing allows us to capture and investigate this creative process in ways that have great potential for audience development for literary works.

Memory Makes Us will appear in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth later this year. I warmly invite you to participate in this experiment, readers and writers both. Keep an eye on the website memorymakesus.org.au or the twitter hashtag #memorymakesus for more info.

[this post composed and submitted by app – please excuse any format scrambles]

Why I love beginners

For my day job, I teach a wide range of writing courses. At the moment, I’m teaching Writing 101, and I love it with a passion. There’s something about working with a group of beginner writers that fills me with joy: passing on to them the tools, insights and validation that were so generously taught to me – the ones that unlocked my writing voice and built my creative confidence.

I always hang around after class for ten minutes so people have a chance to come and ask  questions or get to know me a little – something I always appreciated in my teachers.

And after nearly every class, a shy participant will hang back, then approach me once everyone else has left. They will share a precious slice of the life journey that has brought them there today, and usually end by saying something like…

I have always wanted to write, and this class is the first time I have been able to actually get my words on the page.

I get goosebumps. I tear up. I know exactly how they feel.

I remember being a beginner writer. Especially since I’ve felt like a beginner writer, in some form or other, over and over again – many times a new situation, or a lapse of time, will throw me back into feeling newborn to the craft.

I have wanted to write before I could even read. As a pre-schooler, I would lie in bed after lights-out imagining my chubby fingers clacking typewriter keys. Throughout the years, I always kept a journal with me, and messed about with creative expression. I would try out new forms – poetry, songwriting, short stories – without having a clear sense of purpose or direction.

Unveiling my authentic passions, layer by layer, but never reaching the vital source.

It was decades before I found a teacher and a community that helped me hone my creative purpose. Finding this support network has not only helped me grow as a a writer, it enables me to grow as a whole person. There is something about doing what I feel put on this earth to do – it makes me want to be a better person in all aspects of my life. Kinder, wiser, clearer, more insightful, more humble.

And yet, now that I am so busy with a full-time job that I love so much, and a family that I love so much, I have little time to write (or blog, either!). Once a month or so I get to sit down at the page, and that feeling of newness, of being a beginner, overwhelms me again.

I am so fortunate to have built up a wonderful network of writer friends to keep me focussed and connected, just as I try to do for them. We offer each other practical advice, emotional support, creative vision, general encouragement. We keep each other writing through all the self-doubt, Porlocking, and busyness.

And so, I love teaching beginners. It is inspiring to be there as they begin to forge their unique creative paths and networks. And there’s nothing more fulfilling than, months or years later, hearing about their successes, and remembering those precious moments when they took their first steps.

The Spirit of Varuna

Yesterday evening saw me ensconsed on the couch of the Varuna loungeroom, quilt on my knee and fire in the grate. Peter (the) Bishop, Gabrielle Stroud and I spent one of the best hours of my writing life discussing our projects, the universe and everything.

Picture of Varuna - the Writer's House
Ensconsed at Varuna

Peter observed that when writing a project, we are  in conversation with an eclectic assortment of people. These people are a non-corporeal yet tangible presence who influence and inspire our writing. They are not our intended readers nor our inner critic; they are sometimes no longer living or based only in memory. Yet they are those who are invoked by and crucial for the developing story.

Those present to my work-in-progress Evangel include girls from my (heavily religious) high school, my long-gone and much-loved grandfather, and Margot, a friend who struggled with mental illness and met a tragic end. I am haunted, not by memories but by deeply embossed impressions of injustice, trauma, courage, and beauty.

As Gabi says (attributing it to Noni Hazelhurst), we need a touchpoint to evoke the emotion of a scene. My touchpoints for Evangel are tender. It’s hard  to  delve in, press, and explore. Yet, the fascination to converse with the unburied souls around this project keeps me showing up to the page each day.

Peter’s insight and encouragement gives me the audacity necessary to just. keep. writing. The extraordinary mentorship and companionship of Peter, Gabi Stroud, Gabi Wang, Meg Mundell, and Avril Carruthers has carried the spirit of Eleanor Dark to me over these past two incredible weeks. Thank you, all. I can’t wait to read your Varuna projects when they hit the shelves.

varuna3
Limitless Varuna sky

And I am once again astounded, humbled and filled with gratitude by where following this passion for writing takes me.

Top Five for Crime

The lovely Liss at Northern Rivers Writers Centre did a quick interview with me for the August edition of their Northerly Magazine. Here’s a snippet, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on adding to the list.

Oh, but first, a little taste of paradise…

picture of Byron Bay Writers Festival 2012
Byron Bay Writers Festival 2012

What are your top 5 tips for Crime writers?

1. Read widely and think deeply to understand the different sub-genres within crime and thriller literature.

2. Know where your story meets or subverts reader expectations.

3. Practice writing in short, medium, and long form.

4. Connect with crime and thriller communities, like Sisters in Crime, and with writing centres like NRWC.

5. Put your work out to carefully selected critiquing buddies and beta readers to develop confidence and strengthen your writing.