Saturday, December 24, 2011

Radical lives

Fascinating mini-doc about Emma Goldman, her influence, and her 'resurrection' during Occupy Wall Street; it's also about the use of history and performance to influence, inform or - presumably - incite people now.

Emma Goldman and The East Village's Radical Past Final Cut from Chris Matthews on Vimeo.

You can read a bit more about it in the New York Times.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reviewing reviews

Hark! What's that?
It's the sound of someone blowing her own trumpet.

Since everyone else ON EARTH is reflecting on highlights of 2011, I'm gonna jump right on that bandwagon.

It seems like a very short year. Feels like I lost track of a few months somehow, starting a new day job, building up to and then focusing on the release of Act of Faith, and then spending October in France obsessively hunting down historical details for the Tragedie project.

If 2011 has flown past in a blur, luckily I have several artifacts to remind me: blog posts and social media updates, manuscripts and photos, a very handsome book out in the world and apparently going gangbusters, plus a whole range of people's reactions to it.

Here are a few recent reviews, important to me because they are from industry journals; from librarians or teachers or YA/children's book specialists who are passionate about writing for young people:

‘In the world of contemporary young adult fiction, Act of Faith runs against stereotype… A fine book for the classroom, especially at a time when religious tolerance, and tolerance of religion, is at a depressing low… a work of scholarship as well as a work of fiction. A novel that begs for a sequel.’
- Viewpoint 
'This is a very exciting and thought-provoking book which may very well open up knowledge for today's adolescent readers about what the world was like when such religious intolerance pursued everyone...'
- Reading Time (Children's Book Council of Australia)
'A good read for lovers of books and historical adventure stories.’
- Magpies journal

And I was deeply chuffed to be listed by Holly Harper amongst Readings' best YA books for the year, in some dazzling company.

Thanks to Readings, and to booksellers everywhere - large and small.

And of course to everyone who has had faith enough to read my book.

May yours be a happy new year.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

This is a challenge born of something approaching despair.

Last year, VIDA in the US released its survey of publishing data which showed exactly what anyone with half a brain already knew: dire levels of representation of women at all levels; the number of books by women that got reviewed, the number of female reviewers and book page editors, and women in senior positions in the industry.

Throughout 2011, more and more incidents came to prominence (as if inequality was a new thing!) including the lack of women writers on a number of key literary prize judging panels and shortlists.
My personal favourite moment was when Jennifer Egan  won the Pulitzer, and the LA Times reported instead that Jonathan Franzen had lost the Pulitzer, and ran his photo on the front page - not the winner's. Laugh? I nearly...

Of course, this is not unique to writing and publishing. Like nursing, librarianship and education, it's a field in which the majority (which happens to be female) are dominated by a minority, with males traditionally taking positions in management in publishing, libraries, writing courses, festivals and writers' centres (although the normally rowdy community is often strangely silent on those last two categories, I notice).

That's not to diminish the many amazing women in positions of power in the writing world. It's just a thing.

But unlike those fields, something unique and profound is also afoot, because the issue is also about how literary worth is assessed: which issues, what settings, language, topics and characters make up the sort of books that win prizes. It's about our culture.

I won't bang on about it: others have already done so very eloquently, and anyway it seems like the kind of no-brainer thing most of us have been saying since 1975. Or since we could speak.

But what to do?

Short of coming over all Emma Goldman (and don't tempt me), here's one wee thing we can all do, no matter what our gender: make 2012 the year you read a few good books written by Australian women.

The challenge has been issued. It runs as follows:

Goal: Read and review books written by Australian women writers – hard copies, ebooks and audiobooks, new, borrowed or stumbled upon.

Genre challenges: 
  • Purist: one genre only
  • Dabbler: more than one genre
  • Devoted eclectic: as many genres as you can find
Challenge levels:
  • Stella (read 3 and review at least 2 books)
  • Miles (read 6 and review at least 3
  • Franklin-fantastic (read 10 and review at least 4 books)

You can read more about it here.

My response?

I'm going to undertake the devoted eclectic challenge (of course, because that's how we roll here, at the best of times), and at least the Miles level.

I'm not sure of all the books I'll read yet, because there are some beauties coming out, but the first few are:
  • Sensational Melbourne: Reading, Sensation Fiction and Lady Audley's Secret in the Victorian Metropolis, by Susan Martin and Kylie Mirmohamadi

  • Playing with Water: A Story of a Garden, by Kate Llewellyn

  • Bite Your Tongue, by Francesca Rendle-Short


And no doubt I'll read some YA titles, including the forthcoming:

  • Queen of the Night, by Leanne Hall 
  • The Howling Boy, by Cath Crowley 
  • Pulchritude (or whatever it ends up being called) by Fiona Wood.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Happily ever after

On a recent school visit, the teachers asked me to talk a bit about book reviews. Good timing, because I've been thinking a lot lately about the way the reviewing world has changed with so many peer-to-peer recommendation sites and a gazillion book blogs.
I love book blogs: this started out as one, in a way, many years ago. There are reviewers on blogs who are so perceptive about books, they astonish me; some who write beautifully; others who may do so one day, or who write perfectly good thoughtful pieces; others who write as fans - especially in genre - and unashamedly so.
Good on 'em all, I say.
Sites such as Good Reads, Library Thing and inside a dog* make it possible for all of us to share our thoughts on books we've read as, increasingly, do online library catalogues and book stores.
There are dangers, sure, and the occasional scandal, but the more the merrier.
Communities of book lovers, talking about books. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, nothing much, really.
But there is one thing I've noticed over and over again in discussions about books on Good Reads and facebook and various blogs: people really hate it when the book doesn't turn out how they expect. It makes them furious.
They equate this with failure - the plot doesn't unfold the way they imagined therefore the book sucks. And they will often take it out on the author, either through reviews, or more directly in a chat or forum, in a tone that can make your hair curl right up and slide off your head.
I've never been in that position myself but I hate to think what it does to an author.
Let's take a famous example: the death of the beloved Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The world was shocked. The death of "a major character" had been foreshadowed by JK Rowling prior to the book's release and it was even in all the media, but Dumbledore's death led to an outcry. Readers believed he wasn't really dead, and would reappear like Gandalf (of course he does, but he's still dead). As was usual in the Potterverse, complex theories were developed to explain it, dead or alive, and the discussion continues to this day.
But Rowling as the author was always quite clear, and why wouldn't she be? Apart from the fact that it's her book world and she can do whatever she likes, there were myriad plot twists wrapped around the death and, most critical, Harry's character development and quest (and Hermione's too)  required it.
That's not how many fans saw it: they saw it as a betrayal, as a failure of the logic they had established for themselves, as a mistake.
They have invested so much in the story - what a wonderful thing! But what else is going on there? We all love to have a theory about what will happen next. Part of the fun of online discussion of books, film and TV is that very element.
I reckon part of it, too, is the expectation that there will be happy endings. That there will be romance, and everyone will live happily ever after.
Sometimes that does happen. In life, and in art. But other things happen too - people disconnect from one another accidentally, or never connect; they argue about stupid things; they annoy you; they get scared when they should be brave; they falter and bicker and fall out of love and die. 
I remember well the shriek that went around the cinema when I was a kid watching Doctor Zhivago at the Anglesea Luxury Cinema and Lara DIDN'T TURN AROUND AND OMAR SHARIF WAS RUNNING AND THEN HE CLUTCHED HIS CHEST AND OH MY GOD AND SHE NEVER KNEW!
I nearly spat my Marella Jube into the hair of the person in front.

So if you feel betrayed by an author or a film-maker when that happens in your favourite book or series, don't take it out on them or the work they've created.
What it means is that they have created a world so engaging that we, as readers, are lost in it. We are annoyed because the author wants us to be annoyed, upset because that person we loved is gone and we just don't know what will happen next.
And that's a good thing. Right?

*Disclosure: I work with inside a dog as part of my day job, but these comments are my own.

Friday, December 09, 2011

We will fight them in the bookshops

Boy reading 'A History of London' - bombed bookshop during the Blitz (via The Atlantic)           

Tips for new authors: school visits

This morning I'm off to read my one and only (so far) picture book to a kindergarten class.
I love talking to the littlies. They ask such wonderful questions:
  • What's your favourite colour?
  • Do you have a dog? Why not?
  • Did you write Thomas the Tank Engine? Why not?
  • Are you married? Why not?
  • I went to the beach once.
  • Why is the sky?
Ever so easy to answer.

It got me thinking about what makes a great school or bookshop visit; for the author and especially for the kids. I can still remember the day Ivan Southall came to my primary school. That's the day I decided I wanted to be a writer.

Now, I'm no big expert, but if you're just starting out, maybe this practical list will help - it includes things I've watched others do and need to work on too:

  • If you're going to read from your book, practice reading out loud, at home, and slower than you think possible.
  • Ask the teachers if there's anything specific they want you to cover - any topics being discussed in class, or queries about your own work or process?
  • Ask yourself why you're doing it. If the answer is that your publisher wants you to, that might not make for the most gripping speech the crowd has heard. So ask again. What do you want to share? Encourage? What have you got to say? Why did you write the book in the first place? Why do you write books at all? Why would anybody read them?
  • Make sure you are agreed and clear on all details: where, when, what year level, payment (if any), tech requirements.
  • It's work. A professional appointment. Dress respectfully.
  • Pose yourself a few sample questions (eg, someone will always ask: 'where do you get your ideas?' so your reply to this impossible question would be...?)
  • Allow time to get lost on the way or stuck in traffic, arrive, find the right room, cool down/warm up.
  • Take a bottle of water.

The big talk
  • Say thanks for having me - it's an honour and a privilege to have readers, and you have the opportunity to tell them so.
  • Start with confidence, even if you don't feel it. You are the ultimate authority on your own books. Shine.
  • Make sure everyone can hear you.
  • Move around a bit, if you can. You don't need to pace the stage, but try to present a relaxed body language that invites engagement.
  • Slow down. Breathe. Look up. And again.
  • Ask them a few age-appropriate questions: favourite books, films, X-Box games, characters - who likes Harry Potter? 
  • Some of those present have dreamed of becoming a writer or illustrator one day - target a few comments at them. 
  • Remember: one of them may be the next you, and this may be the day they decide what they want to be when they grow up.
  • It's OK to ask people to sshh, but if they are getting a bit too ratty (hot day, hard wooden floor, long talk) get them to stand up and have a stretch or play a little game. 
  • Take note of the room - feel what's happening as you speak, and adjust your tone and pace as best you can.
  • Look around you, make sure you appear to be making eye contact with people all around the room. And actually do it.
  • Don't go overtime. It's kinda selfish. If there's no clock, ask someone to warn you when you have three minutes left, and then wrap up fast.
  • End with a bang - even if it's just a big thank you, a call to action as simple as "Keep on reading", and a round of applause.
  • Enjoy yourself. Yes, really. 

  • Don't use it if you're not utterly comfortable with it - or coping without it if there's a technical hitch.
  • Powerpoint is great to give structure, present images and embed video. Handy for people who are visual. That's all. Don't rely on it.
  • You don't need to put everything on the slides. Images, maybe a few bullet points - not your whole talk.
  • Try not to look at the big screen, or even at the monitor or laptop - know the slides so well that you don't even have to look. It's your story. Just tell it.
  • Take the concept of each slide as the jump-off point for that bit of your talk, then have a chat about that concept. What you say should be different to the points on the slide - don't read the words out loud. 

  • Repeat audience questions or incorporate them into your answer, in case nobody heard it.
  • Ask people their names when you select them to ask a question and say hello.
  • If it's a complicated or hard question, ask the group if they have any ideas or experience of it - on some issues, more than one perspective is handy.

If you can, take something along you can leave with the bookseller, teacher or librarian - it might be a poster you can sign, or some bookmarks for them to give out later. That will help the kids remember your name and your book title after you've gone. Offer to sign the library's or bookshop's copies of your books.

Be happy if kids want you to sign books, posters, arms - anything. Ask them questions about themselves as you sign, check how they spell their names if there's nobody there to help you.

Over the years, I've watched world-famous authors (who shall remain nameless) at festivals and events not bothering to engage with kids at all, grizzling about signing their own books, gossiping with their publicists while kids are clamouring to ask them questions, blanking staff members, or getting volunteers up on stage and then humiliating them in front of the whole group.  You don't want to be that person - no matter how famous or rich they are, they probably won't get invited back.

On the other hand, I've watched amazing writers like Margaret Mahy, Antony Browne and Jacqueline Wilson (and closer to home the likes of Andy Griffith, Richard Newsome and Sally Rippin) really engage warmly with a group of kids, then do it all over again - just as genuinely - an hour later.

You may not be a big name. You may be shy. You may feel nervous. You might not be the person who cracks jokes and works the room like a US President.

But you might be the person who changes someone's life.