Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Was it good for you?

The year's most excruciating literary award is announced tonight (give or take the international dateline) in London: the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex Award.
This year promises to be fabulous, with some of the most grandiose names in the literary world among the dozen nominees: John Updike, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paul Theroux. Even Marlon "I coulda been a contender" Brando is a contender, for the "incomprehensible sex scene from his posthumously-released novel Fan Tan", according to the Guardian.
The prize was founded by Auberon Waugh and aims "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it."
Most winners have managed to retain a sense of humour, although Tom Wolfe refused to accept his prize last year - I can't wait to see what happens if Theroux wins this year.
I can't quote any of the nominated extracts because I don't have the stomach for it, but you can read them in all their context-free glory here.

Who? Me?

A great many people now reading and writing would be better employed keeping rabbits.
- Edith Sitwell

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Word of mouth

All these "Best Books of the Year" lists make for nice weekend reading, great Christmas shopping lists, and the occasional snort of incredulity, but they have one insidious message: YOU MUST READ THESE BOOKS.
It's not like reading reviews, which I could do (and do) all day. It feels more like getting your high school text book list for the coming term.
I hate that. If anyone tells me there's a novel I simply must read, I don't. Won't. Haven't read Tim Winton for years because I'm sick of the sound of his name. The poor man hasn't done a thing to deserve it, but I hate it when people drool. If everybody raves about a movie and insists I simply must see it, I refuse (silently, but implacably). It's especially true of people who wouldn't know me if I stood up in their porridge, who have met me six minutes previously at a party, and say, "Oh you must read this - I just know you'll adore it".
Word of mouth is very good for everyone else, and for book sales, but on me it has the opposite effect.
This doesn't seem to happen with non-fiction, partly because nobody I know ever says things like, "Oh you simply must read Stalingrad, it's divine". Instead, wise friends slip me a copy and understand that they won't hear from me for a few hours. But for some reason, novels and independent films make people blurt out these desperate pleas to share their passion (I'm sure I've done it myself, but that was in another country and besides the wench probably stole my copy).
There may come a day when I'm stuck on a plane for thirty hours and there'll be nothing to read but Tim Winton and no movies showing but Jesus of Montreal and I'll hang on every word of Dirt Music and watch Jesus of Montreal twice and wonder what I've been missing all these years.
On the other hand (sorry Tim) I had to read The Da Vinci Code between Dubai and Singapore a few months ago and if I could've opened the plane window either one of us would have been out of there. And four million people rave about that.

Year in review(s)

It must be late November. Newspapers everywhere have started publishing their annual lists of Best Books.
The New York Times hedges its bets with its list of 100 Notable Books of 2005. You understand these are notable, rather than necessarily brilliant, books, and the list seems to be a miscellany gleaned from previous reviews. That means Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince appears in the same category as the latest by Elmore Leonard, E. L. Doctorow, and Zadie Smith. And why not? (I haven't read, for the sake of my health, Camille Paglia's new essays, but the NY Times describes them as "written without ego", which is the best evidence I've ever heard for alien abduction theories.)
In London, the Sunday Times doesn't go in for any such mealy-mouthed nonsense. Its Best Fiction of 2005 has a go at the Man Booker judges ("John Banville's numbingly pretentious The Sea has brought the prize's reputation to a low ebb") and selects Ian McEwan's Saturday and Julian Barnes's Arthur & George to top a sensibly argued list of favourites.
The good old Observer sought advice from "leading figures" including Jan Morris, who selected Charles Nicholl's Leonardo as best biography and Tom Holland's Persian Fire as "most exciting historical narrative". Sarah Waters chose Rory Stewart's Afghanistan odyssey, The Places in Between, while Deborah Moggach raves about Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake.
The book reviewers over at the New Statesman are a terrifying lot - the list includes names like Byatt, Toibin and Dalrymple, usually on these lists as contenders. Hilary Mantel, an expert on public executions (note to self: add A Place of Greater Safety to favourites list), liked The Tyrannicide Brief by lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, while J G Ballard can't decide between Tony Judt's Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945 and the anonymous diary, A Woman in Berlin.
You'll know it's December when they start on the Books to Watch in 2006 lists.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Litcrit voyage

No one is fit to judge a book until he has rounded Cape Horn in a sailing vessel, until he has bumped into two or three icebergs, until he has been lost in the sands of the desert, until he has spent a few years in the House of the Dead.
- Van Wyck Brooks, From a Writer’s Notebook

Saturday, November 26, 2005


This morning I woke up bleary after a sleepless night and thought: I'm in italics.
Don't ask me. It's a half-asleep editor thing.
I remained in italics for half an hour, until my girlfriend woke up. She decided that since I was in italics I couldn't be trusted to make a pot of tea. She's an editor, too. She understood.
By the time my cup of tea arrived I was back to Times Roman Normal.

State of the reading nation

The redoubtable Agnes Nieuwenhuizen has retired from her position as manager of the Australian Centre for Youth Literature (based at the State Library of Victoria). In a recent interview, The Age describes her as a "writer, editor, cultural warrior and champion of reading for teenagers and older children."
The interview echoes the concerns of writers and experts in many countries:
In Australia, she says, we have writers who produce "fantastic fiction", and courageous publishers who put it into the marketplace. But a lot of the time, the young people who would enjoy reading these books don't know about them.
"There isn't a reading culture," she says. "We don't have any kind of concerted national program. Our promotion of books is very poor. Reading is not valued in schools. We are losing librarians. And with very notable exceptions, I think things are slipping."

You can get the full story here.

Harold Underwood has noted a similar trend in the US. At the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) conference earlier this year, he presented his "weather report" on trends in children's publishing:
One strong influence on the climate today and for many years past is the reality that many children's books are bought by schools and libraries, and so political decisions and trends affect the children's market somewhat more than they do the adult market. What's the global warming of children's books in the US? I think it's the anti-tax movement, which going back to the '70s has increasingly affected state and federal budgets. All across the country, there has been less money for schools and libraries, and less of what is called institutional spending.
And publishers have responded... Publishers have closed or cut back their library imprints - both the ones that publish nonfiction series and the ones that publish "review-driven" books - and have put their money more into the consumer market. That's great if you can "write to spec" for book series based on TV shows, but not so great if you are writing literary novels or serious nonfiction.

Read his notes from the presentation on Purple Crayon.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Island mornings

This morning the sea gleamed like rubbed glass. I walked on the beach, and the air was so clear after yesterday's rain that I could see the gullies and the treeline on Great Barrier Island, miles away. There was a lovely old timber ketch moored in the bay, its crew taking tea and toast on deck in the sun. I'm not sure what made me most jealous - the cup of tea or the ketch.
I didn't walk yesterday. I vanished into a writing vortex and didn't realise until 5.30pm that I hadn't yet cleaned my teeth or had a shower. I seem to have eaten lunch, as there was evidence, but I have no recollection of it at all. I must have listened to Missy Higgins over and over on the headphones, because it's the only CD on my desk, or maybe she finished and I didn't notice and sat with my headphones on for no reason all day. Some days it's like that.
Other days I'm easily distracted by blogs or books or the History Channel or doing a load of washing, or I start researching something specific and end up somewhere completely different (not always a bad thing). If I force myself to write on distracted days the work is less good than the vortex days. But I still have to do it. It just takes more revision later.
Some people sit down at a certain time and write a certain number of words, or have to use a certain colour notepaper and grade of pencil, or write for fixed hours. I have to have the dishes washed and the house straightened before I start (even if I am dishevelled myself). I have to make myself work for at least the same number of hours as I do when I do my paid job, or I know I'll fall apart and act like I'm on holidays.
But now there's a tui in the flax outside my window, and the rooster's practising his crow (he's not very good at it) in the back yard.
So it's hard to believe it's work, sometimes, when the sun's out and I can walk on the beach at low tide, wear my pyjamas all day, and just write.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Sea and stars

I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by.

— John Masefield

Ship ahoy

I love ships, love boats, especially old ones. Love wharves and shipping yards, even today when they are little more than towers of containers and acres of imported cars. Love living on an island so every time I go to town I have to take the ferry. There are dolphins sometimes, and Orca, and on Friday evenings the yacht fleets are out for the twilight races, scattered across the harbour.
I don't come from one of those hearty boating families, all Swallows and Amazons and high tea on the high seas. I didn't learn to sail until I was 40, but I learned in Sydney Harbour, which made up for the wait.
But I was born in a dockside working town (Port Melbourne), and my grandfather was a wharfie, so I guess it's in the blood. If there was a big cruise liner shipping on the weekends, we'd go down to Station Pier and wave them off. If the Navy was in port, we'd get sneaked on board and shown around. You might wonder about security - it was strict, even in those days, but it didn't apply to my grandfather. After he'd retired, the guards still waved him through those gorgeous old wooden gates: "Good onya, Bill. You kids behave yerselves, mind."
Once there was a tall ship, a gleaming white naval training ship (I think it was Portuguese) and I fell in love.
So now, wherever I travel in the world (well, besides the desert) if there's a ship or a boat, I'm on it.
I think that demands a post of its own.
In the meantime, here's my dreamboat: the Star Flyer, on which I sailed from Istanbul to Athens, shot from the ramparts of the Crusader castle in Bodrum. Or did I dream that?
And you wonder why I write books about pirates...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Incurable condition

Writing is not an activity, but a condition. That is why one simply can’t resume the work when one has a job and a free half-day. Reading is the conveyance of this condition.

- Robert Musil (1880–1942)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Am I brainy yet?

Perhaps this is another twist on Does my brain look big in this?
Bill Scott-Kerr, publisher of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, has told The Times that the book has an "aspirational" appeal:
There’s an element of reading Da Vinci and being made to feel like a more interesting person.

I guess if you were actually reading the Codex that might be true. I stood and stared at it for hours once (in a museum, of course), and felt infinitely more interesting as a result. I seem to recall it was written back-to-front and in Latin, which might be a splendid idea for Dan Brown's next blockbuster (a searing and thrilling expose of the secret and previously unknown world of lawn bowls).
But Scott-Kerr also admits he had no idea of the monster he was about to unleash on an unsuspecting world, when a proposal first landed on his desk.
If anyone had said that this was going to be the biggest selling adult book ever, I’d have called for the straitjacket. It’s insane.

Well, it beats me, too. I thought the book was hilarious. Tom Hanks is going to be in the movie, hopefully in his fine A League of Their Own fettle.

Forceps delivery

Much of writing might be described as mental pregnancy with successive difficult deliveries.

- J. B. Priestley

Mission accomplished

Sitting on the back seat of my car is the final manuscript of the final book in the Swashbuckler! trilogy, all packaged up (with the galleys of the first book) ready to be sent off to HarperCollins.
I sat and stared at the package last night, feeling relieved and anxious, and with a touch of trepidation.
Now I have to focus on something utterly different, write about new people in unfamiliar circumstances, research the intricate details of other places and times.
I'd best go do that then.
Pirates can sail off into the blue beyond.
I wonder if they'll ever come back?
I read that Lian Hearn is writing two more Tales of the Otori. I can understand the appeal of it. She's been so completely immersed in Japanese history and culture it would be difficult to wrest one's mind free of such a compelling imaginative world (although in her other life she's written about many other worlds). But, at any rate, as one of her many readers I'm very happy that there'll be more Tales: it didn't feel quite complete to me.
But perhaps that's only because I wished it wasn't over.

The booklist, part one

A few days ago, I wrote about the idea of a list of favourite books: how can you possibly decide?
A favourite is something you can't do without, a book to which you return again and again. Mine is War & Peace, as I said. That's easy. The Heart of Darkness and The Sun Also Rises had the greatest impact on my impressionable young mind. Pride and Prejudice is a perfect gem of a book, and I read it often, but it doesn't stir the heart in quite the same way. But after that, I have to break it down much more precisely.
Let's start with historical fiction (although I have to admit my tastes are quite specific).
Most likely to leave you wondering: Alias Grace
Most likely to make you gasp out loud: Fingersmith
Most romantically bookish: Possession
Most intriguing lead character: Restoration
Most strangely compelling: Perfume
Best Napoleonic fiction: The Passion
Greatest nautical adventure: Ooh, that's a big call, I think it's a dead heat between Hornblower and Aubrey.
Most melodramatic swashbuckler: The Sea Hawk
Most gripping World War One novel: Regeneration trilogy
Most fascinating discussion of ethics: The Dream of Scipio
Best ragtime book: Ragtime

Children's books? (The books that I read when I was young, not those I read now for professional purposes.)
Most heart-thumping pirate adventure: Treasure Island
Scariest shark attack: The Coral Island
Most brilliant swordfighting: Ronald Welch's Carey series
Most likely to turn a child into a writer: Emily of New Moon (Anne of Green Gables' far more interesting cousin)
Most likely to turn a child into a recluse: My Side of the Mountain
Most likely to turn a child into an archaeologist: The Eagle of the Ninth

But I have to admit I don't read a vast amount of fiction nowadays, because it is so often disappointing. So I won't even start on non-fiction today, except for a few ideas about travel writing:
Book that most makes you want to ride into the mountains on a donkey: The Road to Oxiana or more recently An Unexpected Light
Book that most makes you want to live in Venice and never come home: Jan Morris's Venice
Greatest letters by a camel-riding Edwardian Englishwoman: Gertrude Bell
Book that most makes you want to climb mountains: Feeding the Rat
Book that makes you want to never climb mountains: Touching the Void

We could start on most over-rated travel writer or most boring camel journey that nobody ever wanted to read about, but let's save that for another day.
Feel free to leave your own categories and winners in the comments.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Does my brain look big in this?

More than one in three consumers in London and south-east England admit having bought a book "solely to look intelligent", a recent survey has found.
I wonder if it works? If only these surveys came with before and after photos, so we could judge the effects for ourselves.
The study also reported that one in every eight young people chose a book "simply to be seen with the latest shortlisted title".
So getting on an award shortlist really is a great sales boost - but perhaps not always for developing an ongoing readership. Most of the respondents admitted they'd never finished reading the books.
Happily, the Guardian reports:
The biggest group, more than two in every five people, follows the traditional method of choosing their reading; relying on recommendations from close family and friends.

...or blogs.

Scandal! Aging writers in dope probe!

And you thought that only cyclists and swimmers (not Australians, of course) went in for performance enhancing substances? Think again:
The International Herald Tribune's Peter Mehlman has outed Philip Roth as a dope fiend whose output must be helped along by something stronger than caffeine:
One writer, who requested anonymity to avoid seeming cranky, whispered, "Since I came out with 'Bonfire of the Vanities,' I've written two novels. Roth has churned out, what, 12? Do the math."
Roth's bulked-up output is not the only factor raising eyebrows. Most notably, his sentence structure has shown no signs of the usual age-related deterioration cited in medical literature.
At 64, some eight to 10 years after most writers betray noticeable passive voice, Roth completed his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "American Pastoral" (1997). One of the book's astonishing sentences began with the words, "Only after strudel and coffee," and ended nearly a full page later without even one dangling modifier.
No less a talent than James Joyce (in one of his more piquant observations) said: "By the age of 45, I knew I could no longer start a sentence with a mention of strudel. My fingers would want to do it but my mind just wouldn't react."

You can read the whole silly thing here.

Hanoi Jane

There's a fascinating (and really quite unsettling) review by Rick Perlstein, in the latest LRB, of Jane Fonda's War: A Political Biography of an Anti-war Icon by Mary Hershberger.
While critical of Hershberger's sunny Oprah-style conclusions, he's impressed by her research and that of other historians, delving into the corruption and cynicism of the Pentagon and the Nixon White House during the Vietnam War.
Perlstein outlines the ways in which Fonda's reputation as some kind of anti-American harpy was consciously created by the White House in order to camouflage its own unraveling war planning, and to counteract the growing disillusion over the war.
Opposing the war, at this particular time, was not a radical thing to do, writes Perlstein. Vietnam was widely recognised across the political spectrum as a disaster... Most Americans opposed the war by the time Nixon started running for re-election; every candidate in 1972, including the dozen or so contenders for the wide-open Democratic nomination was promising to end it. Most citizens, even if they didn't fully admit it to themselves, knew that America was losing.
This view was held by many GIs, including those POWs Fonda famously visited in prison in Hanoi. So Nixon struck back. It's since been proven that some claims that POWs were tortured because of Fonda's visit were blatant lies. Yet she faced death threats, abuse - veterans still spit at her - and it's no wonder she turned to aerobics.
Fonda arrived in Hanoi, says Perlstein:
as US bombers appeared to be making preliminary strikes against North Vietnam's system of dikes, which if breached would destroy farmland and starve the population. The Pentagon denied the raids. At a press conference in Paris Fonda presented film proving that they had taken place. That same day, the State Department cancelled its scheduled rebuttal.
One of the diplomats laid low by the humiliation was America's UN envoy, George H.W. Bush. "I think that the best thing I can do on the subject is to shut up," he told the press, after promising them evidence of American innocence.

You can read the full review at London Review of Books.

Book bliss

There is no mistaking a real book when one meets it. It is like falling in love, and like that colossal adventure it is an experience of great social import. Even as the tranced swain, the booklover yearns to tell others of his bliss. He writes letters about it, adds it to the postscript of all manner of communications, intrudes it into telephone messages, and insists on his friends writing down the title of the find. Like the simple-hearted betrothed, once certain of his conquest, "I want you to love her, too!"
It is a jealous passion also. He feels a little indignant if he finds that any one else has discovered the book, too.

- Christopher Morley (1890–1957)


When I was seventeen (thank you, Janis Ian) I went to college to study writing. It wasn't a very normal thing to do in those days (1979), before teaching creative writing became an industry. Writing was something studied only by bearded long-haired draft dodgers and women who wore floaty scarves. People suggested that teaching might be a more sensible career option (they were probably right - if I'd taken their advice, I'd be on my long service leave by now, unless the government's abolished it).
But at that time the now long-gone Prahran College offered one of the only professional writing courses, and I arrived to find myself one of very few people straight out of school. Almost everyone else was old (like 30, and some were even older!) and a surprising number had beards and long hair or wore floaty scarves.
I learned a lot there. I learned about reading, about Middle English for some reason I can't now recall, about grammar and symbolism; and I learned about drinking. All the people with long hair and beards got drunk at least once a week. After a few months I joined them. There was a pub on the corner called the Duke of Windsor, and we used to sit in the dark and drink tequila and place bets on which of us would win the Nobel Prize first. We all planned to be the next Hemingway (the drinking was part of perfecting the role). I was going to write my first novel probably the week after next.
Then I forgot. I think all the others did too, because I've never seen any of their novels, and none of them has won the Nobel Prize. Yet.
I never got around to starting a novel because I couldn't think of anything to write one about. I dropped out, did other stuff. Years passed. Decades. I kept writing other things, turned myself into a journalist, went back and finished the degree (except now I was the old one and everyone else was seventeen and scary). Stupidly decided to do my Masters as well. Still hadn't written a novel. Had no idea where to start. Read so many bad first novels that I thought really I'd rather not risk it. Snorted coffee out my nose when everyone around me suddenly started writing first novels, even those who'd never shown any inclination to write more than a shopping list.
But any writing teacher or those writing manuals will tell you just to start anywhere - don't worry if you don't have the whole plot in your head. I never thought that rule applied to me (like acting my age or behaving in a lady-like manner). When I write poems or essays or articles, I need to have the whole thing complete in my head, or I can't start.
But then one day, unemployed and traumatised, I sat down and wrote a scene about an ambulance driver in World War One. Then I kept going. Then somehow a few months later, I'd written a novel (it was pretty bad, but I'm rewriting it). Then I realised I could actually do it, and then there were pirates, and suddenly (three years later) there are three books, and more on the way, and there are more ideas than anybody could ever write.
So I'd better stop procrastinating and get on with it.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Where the wild things are

You cannot write for children ... They’re much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.

- Maurice Sendak

Steel springs

I've been having my own private (belated) Armistice Day film festival this weekend, with a stack of documentaries from the 90th anniversary Anzac Day earlier this year. Just returned from seeing the new Gallipoli documentary by Tolga Ornek. It's beautifully made, and narrated by Jeremy Irons, who could make the phone book sound poignant. I'm not sure it has anything very new to say, and it's necessarily brief, but it's refreshing to see many images of the Turkish defenders, and to hear their words (often narrated by Sam Neill, in a nice twist).
In June last year I stood on the beach at Anzac Cove and looked up at the cliffs and muttered, echoing everyone else (besides that ninny General Hamilton) who has ever stood there: "What on earth were they thinking?" I sailed down the Dardanelles a few days later and from that side the peninsula looks equally rugged. It's no use telling me (as they do endlessly on these documentaries, as if it somehow explains or forgives the debacle) the landing boats drifted off course - the country inland of the original Anzac landing place is just as steep.
When you drive in along the peninsula from Istanbul, Suvla Bay stretches out, sandy and flat and convenient, to your right. You can't help asking: why didn't they just land there first?
I was humbled to be guided around the battlefields by the legendary Kenan Celik. We stood in the trench at The Nek, with all the Australians in the group whispering to themselves, "What are your legs? Steel springs", and looked across at the graveyard that marks the Turkish lines. Kenan left us alone for a moment. (If you're not Australian, or you haven't seen the Peter Weir Gallipoli film, just translate it into something like Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman marching up the beach towards Fort Wagner in Glory.)
It doesn't matter how many times you've heard that the trenches at The Nek are only as far apart as the width of Swanston Street, or that Lone Pine is the size of a tennis court - you stand there amongst the graves under the pine tree and think: "12000 men died here, and it's only the size of a tennis court". It's hot and dusty, there are red poppies on the hills and bits of barbed wire, and buried down on the beach is a cousin you never knew you had.
Then it doesn't matter how many books you've read or how many documentaries you've seen, you cry.

The Sphinx: Anzac Cove 2004 Posted by Picasa

PS: If you have no idea what I'm talking about here's an overview.

Aspiring novelists

I met, not long ago, a young man who aspired to become a novelist. Knowing that I was in the profession, he asked me to tell him how he should set to work to realise his ambition. I did my best to explain. "The first thing," I said, "is to buy quite a lot of paper, a bottle of ink, and a pen. After that you merely have to write."
- Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

[Well, that sounds easy enough. It also explains my obsession with stationery.]

Feeling clucky

I live on an island.
There are grapevines on the hills behind the house, and next-door's chickens in the backyard. They're waiting for our figs to ripen. I can see them, standing below the trees, staring up sadly at the fruit. Once the figs are ready, of course, the chooks will realise they do have wings after all, and will soar fruitwards, making a huge fuss, as if they'd done something extraordinary.
There are two roosters. I've been cursing them all week because they seem to have suddenly decided to crow, in duet, from 3.30 am, and they don't stop until dusk. But this morning there are very small, very fluffy, very black chicks scurrying through the grass like beetles. All rooster misbehaviour is forgiven.
I should have been working but instead I've been standing at the kitchen sink, binoculars at the ready, watching and clucking.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

David Malouf on blinding light

David Malouf, speaking to Ramona Koval from Radio National (Australia), recalled:
When I was 12 I had just finished what used to be called the scholarship exam and we had to read an Australian book, which was this book called We of the Never Never, which was about Australia. I was a little boy growing up in the suburbs of Brisbane and it was set in the Northern Territory and it meant absolutely nothing to me, it told me nothing that I wanted to know about life or anything else.
And then we went away for the Christmas holidays, which in Australia is the summer, and we went down to the beach at Surfers Paradise, and sitting on the beach at Surfers Paradise I read three books that told me everything I wanted to know. I was 12. One was the
Hunchback of Notre Dame, one was Wuthering Heights and the other one was Jane Eyre. And I can remember, I mean, what’s the wonderful thing is that the mixture of that hot, hot sun burning you up and Jane Eyre going for her walk in the snow.
But that revealed to me absolutely everything about the power of imagination and books. But those books were also telling me things about how outrageous life was, about sex which nobody would tell me about, about whole sorts of other things that the whole adult world was conspiring to keep you from and which Mrs Aeneas Gunn did a fair job of keeping you from as well.
I mean, you can’t say what it is exactly that’s going to do it for a child or what it is in a book that a child reading is going to find. But those two things come together for me, the world of those books and that blazing sunlight on my head and my back.

You can read the rest of this wonderful discussion, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, about lost classics and the books that entranced David Malouf and Michael Ondaatje on ABC Radio's Books site.

What's with the pirate thing?

Here's the point: I've written three books (don't ask me why they always come in threes) for readers 9 to 12 years of age, called Swashbuckler!
The first is Ocean Without End, out early next year. I'm sending off the final manuscript for the third book next week. It's a bit like having triplets: they all need attention at once; but on the other hand, endless proofreading can get very tedious when you actually want to leave pirates behind and go off onto researching World War 2 or the Restoration or Hadrian's Wall.
But Swashbuckler! it is, for the present time. The story is simple enough: Lily, aged 12, gets kidnapped by pirates and turns into one herself. Maybe.
It's set in the Mediterranean in 1798, just as Napoleon Bonaparte's great army was setting off in 400 ships to conquer Egypt, with Admiral Nelson crossing their wake, in the lead-up to the Battle of the Nile. Slaves were still the common currency; the navies of Christian and Islamic states were battling each other as if Saladin were still alive; the grand era of Empire was about to begin, but the fabric of Europe was beginning to unravel.
They have been described as pirate adventure books for girls, but I hope it's not that simple. For a start, I know boys supposedly don't read books with a girl as the main protagonist, but maybe there are enough swordfights and a bit of swearing to ensure there's fun for all the family.
I wanted to pay tribute to the great adventure stories of my childhood, and to the classic elements of the pirate genre (swordfights, evil captains, wild storms, the quest for long-lost parents, treasure hunts, mysterious strangers, maps, sea battles). And a little maritime slapstick never goes astray. But I also had to decide what to do about the standard pirate job description: capturing slaves; murdering innocents; robbing the rich, and then just getting drunk; sailing about looking evil.
Does a 12 year-old girl suddenly turn into a swaggering, lyin', cheatin', murdering rascal? The real-life women pirates of history certainly did.
Or should I take the Rafael Sabatini/Errol Flynn approach?
Wait and see...

Performance anxiety

When you set up one of these blogs, unless you are pretending to be someone else, you're supposed to provide a profile. This, I gather, is a little like forensic criminal profiling: gathering critical information so that assumptions can be made about the personality responsible.
Fair enough. But the questions include: What are your favourite books?
I ask you - what kind of demented torturer would pose such a question? It may seem innocuous enough, but it threw me into a spin. The title of almost every book I've ever loved instantly vanished from my mind. I don't remember ever reading anything. And if I did, I'm not telling you, because the only thing that pops into my feverish mind is The Children of the New Forest, which I read when I was ten, and what conclusions will you reach on that basis? Since I filled out that form, I keep remembering new "favourites" but one has to stop somewhere.
I'm clear about my favourite book: War and Peace. I read it when I was in my early teens and I've read it at least once a year ever since. No contest.
But anything else?
What does "favourite" mean, anyway?
I remembered the moment when my Aunty Judy put into my hands a small blue volume with gilt-edged pages - Jane Eyre. I'd never had a book with gilt edging before - in fact I don't think I'd ever even seen such a thing (maybe a Bible). I held it in my hands and smelled the fine, almost transparent, pages. That was the moment that I became a book collector. I was twelve, at the most. So when bushfires were roaring towards my house in the bush outside Sydney a few years ago, and I had to choose a few precious things to save, I said a soggy farewell to all my other thousands of books, and put Jane Eyre in my suitcase. (Luckily, they all survived.)
I remember all the long hours standing in the Nunawading Public Library, with my head tilted to the left, staring at the bottom shelf in children's fiction, where the authors T to W were shelved. Trease, Treece, Sutcliffe, Welch. It's their fault that I now write historical fiction for children (with lots of swordfights).
Mind you, I owe thanks to the librarians - it was good training for the muscles in my neck, in preparation for the endless hours spent since in bookshops, head tilted to left, looking for my next favourite book.

Writing about Patrick O'Brien in the New Criterion recently, Robert Messenger pondered the idea of "favourites":
The Aubrey/Maturin chronicles are really a single large book, in twenty-one volumes, all about love and war and home and hearth and hunting. Thinking about it, I am reminded of something the great economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron wrote about reading: "I have read War and Peace at least fifteen times, and it is still as rereadable as ever. I do not think it contains a paragraph that appears unfamiliar to me as I come across it. Yet on every perusal I never fail to discover something new in this inexhaustible store of observations, insights, ideas, and images that the previous readings have failed to reveal-to say nothing of the infinite pleasure of drifting again along the stream of that language, so simple and so beautiful, so true to the Horatian ideal of simplex munditiis. A book like this is rereadable senz'altro, and at least twice I began rereading War and Peace at once, starting again after having read the last page."

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Secondhand rose

When I grow up, I want to have my own bookshop. I have it picked out already, although its poor unsuspecting proprietor is perfectly happy, and no doubt planning a lengthy career. Little does she know.
My mother is not so sure about the whole thing (OK, I am already grown up, but even when you're 43 or 44 - I can never remember which - your mother still knows you better than almost anyone). She is quite sure I'll be utterly hopeless, because I'll refuse to sell any books. I'll want to keep them all.
She could be right. There are grounds for this fear. It's many years since I've been able to let any of my books out of my possession, and I still remember those people who have never returned books they borrowed years ago (don't worry, I won't name you here, but you know who you are: or, at least, I do; you've probably forgotten).
And I don't really know how it happens, but books just seem to attach themselves to me. I leave the house for a few stamps or a bottle of milk, and come back with a tatty compendium of The Forsyte Saga or my third copy of Treasure Island (well, it had such a nice blue cover).
I am not alone, of course. Here's Jeanette Winterson on the matter:
What am I to do? When I see a second-hand bookshop anywhere in the world, I will change my plans, behave brutally to others just to spend an hour inside it. My nostrils flare, my breath quickens, my heart pounds, my wallet opens. I cannot rest until I am alone in the farthermost edge, wedge, ledge of the shop, great or small, lying along the skirting board, legs propped, reading. It has to be second hand shops, (though alas they no longer sell corsets) because these are the only places where the books, and therefore the book lover, is free ... Above all, there are seldom any people. I do not like to do what I do in public, I like to be alone with my books, and I like them a little worn, a little knowing. I don't mind someone else's signature of ownership, though I am always careful to make a note of my own. I enjoy the past, compressed between the pages.
I'm going to keep an eye out for Jeanette Winterson in my bookshop. She'll be the one curled up in the corner with a dusty Ruskin. I'll be the one draped over the broken cash register with R.L. Stevenson.
To read her full confession, go here.

Poof reeding

If only somebody would ring up and ask me what I'm doing today.
Then I could say, "I'm proofreading the galleys of my book."
It looks almost like the real thing. Who'd have thought it?

On Harry Potter

I wish everyone would shut up about Harry Potter.
Don't get me wrong - I'm as compulsive a reader of every new installment as any twelve year-old, and I delight in JK Rowling's cheerful breaking of every rule listed in those manuals on How To Write Successful Children's Books.
Like those twelve year-olds, there are many times I wish I was Harry Potter. Or maybe Hermoine. Or maybe JK Rowling.
But anyway why oh why does every person on the planet now assume that every writer for children is about to become a millionaire? Damn it - a billionaire.
This is how it goes -
Polite person at party: And what do you do?
Me (blushing): I'm a writer [thinking ... Can I leave now? Nobody would notice]
PPP: How lovely. And what do you write?
Me (blushing even more): Adventure books for children
PPP: Ah! I see. Like Harry Potter!
Me: Well, not really. There's no magic in my books
PPP: Why on earth not? There's lots of money in that, isn't there?
Me: Um...
PPP: You'll make a fortune
Me: I don't think anybody does it for the money
PPP: Well, I haven't heard of you. What did you say your name was? Where can I buy these famous books?
Me: They don't come out for a few months yet.
PPP: Mark my words - you've made a smart move there [winks like Eric Idle]
... And so on. There's little point discussing the recent British survey which found that most children's writers (including quite famous ones) live on meagre incomes. Any self-respecting PPP simply wouldn't believe me.
Eventually I disentangle myself, which is only possible because the PPP thinks they need to keep in my good books, so I'll remember them when I'm rich. Sometimes they are being sweet and encouraging - at other times, they are sarcastic and deeply envious about my supposedly imminent and fabulous wealth, as if I'd somehow beaten them to a brilliant get-rich-quick scheme.
Still, I guess it's an improvement on the usual conversation which begins with the PPP (or taxi driver or shop assistant or anyone really) saying, "I've always fancied myself as a writer. I have this fantastic idea - perhaps I could dictate to you and you could scribble it down. It's the story of my life. Fascinating stuff."
And people wonder why writers become reclusive.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Islands of history

The Swashbuckler books are based in Malta, and in the Mediterranean, in 1798. It was a fascinating era, the final days of the so-called Golden Age of piracy, and a time of huge upheaval in Europe. The French Revolution had shattered the known world, and the armies and navies of Europe had been at war for years. In the middle of all this sat Malta, three tiny islands in the middle of the sea, which had been ruled for centuries by the Knights of St John.
In May, I travelled to Malta to see for myself all the many aspects of the islands that I'd been researching for years, at a distance.
I'd read dozens of books, crawled the web, stared at maps and photos for hours, and I had imagined for myself an island nation of great history, bright light and great food (not necessarily in that order). But nothing prepared me for the excitement of walking through these perfect Baroque cities, nor for discovering that everything was exactly as I'd imagined - and more. I'll talk more about the research and the islands later.
In the meantime, check it out: Visit Malta.

Fortress overlooking the ocean, Malta Posted by Picasa


Welcome to the Ocean Without End. It's my blog about the Swashbuckler books: researching and writing them, talking about them, thinking about them and the characters; and anything else that crosses my mind.