Bad diaries is a salon series where writers read from their early diaries, poetry attempts, first novels and juvenilia. Great, terrible, embarrassing and candid.
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Because I am tortured by the compulsion to not only write stories, but also document every little thing I see and do, here is a blog post about my recent writing retreat experience (condensed version!).
So, I’m off now to my writing retreat (read: isolated cabin out in the bush with no wi-fi or washing machine, but affordable). I’m going to work on my manuscript that terrifies me. Don’t worry, I’ll be OK …
I picture part of my novel set in a place where I lived in my youth. I should have realised that coming back here — where I haven’t been for years, except for funerals — would be confronting. A strange, hopeful yet empty feeling gripped me as I drove the flat, dusty roads. Like returning ‘home’, but knowing that no family or friends are waiting anymore. Every road, every turn, holds a memory: there’s the parking bay where we had to stop when my daughter was little and she got car sick; there’s the spot where I blew up my Camira because I didn’t put water in the radiator; that’s the turn-off to the house where we used to live …
Enough nostalgia! Crying to Ed Sheeran’s ‘Castle on the Hill’ is ridiculous!
Through the window of my little cottage:
Treated-wood porch — boards of clay-yellow and dust-grey. The screws in pairs look like eyes, the scratches below them like mouths. A fly is dying, kicking, spinning, spinning. A green-and-brown ceramic duck leans over the edge of the porch, into the dry air as if it were water. Above, from the awning, a gum leaf twists, dangling from a thread of spider’s web.
Long shadows are becoming one, covering the earth. Light filters through trees; breeze ruffles leaves gently. The landscape is almost colourless — Tom Roberts faded greens and yellows. Clumps of dry grass grow out of clay. Cracks in the earth. A stony, bitumen driveway leads to the road. The fences are in need of repair. The white letterbox leans sideways towards the give-way sign. Trucks gear down and rumble past on the main road. Sunlight glints off chrome.
Across the road, the cow-milking shed is more rust than tin. The tank behind the shed resembles a space-ship or a giant silver breast with a nipple on top. Cattle graze in the long grass of the paddock. They look like brown rocks in a sea of wheat-coloured foam.
The light takes on a golden hue. The distant sky is white. At the horizon, dark trees stand still, cow-coloured, tinged with blue.
Hints of pink. The cows are coming home. Headlights are flicking on. A kookaburra laughs.
The solar lights rimming the porch of my little cottage are lighting up. The trees are dark silhouettes against the sky. The clock on the wall ticks. Trucks zoom along the main road, lit up like Christmas trees — white, orange and red.
I am sharing my writing retreat with mice. In the dead of the night, in a cabin out in the bush, it’s hard to tell the difference between the sound of mice and that guy from Wolf Creek.
5–6 Get up (no alarm set)
9 Walk around property ½ hour
5.30 Walk around property ½ hour
6 Wine and music time
10–11 Bed, reading
Wine and potato chips for dinner?
No shower since Monday morning?
Oh well, maybe tomoz.
Mice were quieter last night, but I woke with a sore, throbbing right arm and pins and needles in my hand.
Me: I can’t feel my fingers!
Brain: I’m not surprised — after sitting and writing for so long at a very un-ergonomic table and chair. You need to adjust your posture, take regular breaks and do some stretches.
Me: I think it’s a stroke!
Brain: Can you poke out your tongue straight? Somebody told me that’s how to tell if it’s a stroke.
Me: [Rushing to bathroom, poking out tongue in mirror] Heart attack?
Brain: It’s not a heart attack.
Me: Some other illness …
Brain: Stop being silly.
Me: I think I can drive to the town, make it to a doctor in time.
Brain: No. We’re not leaving until we have a first draft.
Me: Maybe just to a chemist. Get some aspirin to thin the blood. And some bandages, just in case.
Brain: Sit down and get back to work.
Me: I can’t. I can’t breathe.
Brain: Breathe. If you’re good, we might go for a drive to the river later.
Me: You mean leave the cabin? [deep breathing into hands]
It wasn’t mice, but flies that kept me away last night. I’m not one to take fly-spray lightly, but the buzzing bastards annoyed me so much that I got up and sprayed them. And then stressed about the dangers of inhaling the chemicals from the spray in the air.
Hand is better, but now shoulders are aching and throat is sore (what could they be symptoms of?).
Through the window of my little cottage:
The warm night has melted into a cooler morning. The light, of indistinguishable colour — white / blue / grey — brushes over the darkness. The gum trees are silhouettes. A rooster crows. Birds chirp, warble and twitter. The constant traffic hum from the main road becomes heavier.
Oh, wow, look! A rubbish truck! It’s emptying the bin on the roadside. So interesting.
Time to leave the cabin for a bit?
I am leaving the cabin today. Didn’t yesterday. But, yes, today I am leaving the cabin! Going for a drive to the river. Although I’m worried that I won’t be able to find my way back here (maybe take my laptop with me, just in case).
Here I go …
(Later) Left the cabin. Tried to find my childhood home, but couldn’t. Found the river.
Dead leaves, dry grass and strips of bark crackle-crunch under foot. At the edge of the embankment, willows hang next to dying gum trees, half-uprooted, leaning, reaching towards the brown water. An almost vertical drop of pale-yellow clay leads the way down to the river. It meanders around slimy rocks, and fallen trees, bark-shed, grey, their snarly roots exposed. Blue sky and woolly grey clouds shimmer on the surface. Birds call, insects flitter and the breeze annoys the long wheat-coloured grass. It feels like somebody is watching. Just the trees — watching and whispering to each other. I don’t like it down here.
It wasn’t mice or flies or dead hands or trees that kept me awake last night. It was a prick of a mosquito — buzz, buzz, buzz in my ear all night long.
Spoke too soon — it’s raining here now. The drought has broken; the dust is being stirred up anyway.
Ten minutes later … Rain’s stopped now. Back to work.
Despite mice, flies, hypochondria, mosquitos and wild storms, I finished my first draft.
My little cottage in the wilderness was the perfect place to work on this stage of my novel. I think Sidney (my protagonist) would be pleased with how I have used the surroundings to build her world.
Where does Steve Villani go now? Will Joe Cashin be all right? What happens to Jack Irish? And what about Paul Dove’s story?
We (Peter Temple fans) have been waiting a long time for his next book but, sadly, it will never be. I did not know Peter Temple personally; I knew little about his life, and nothing of his illness towards the end. I am not entitled to the grief I feel. The tears that fall on my keyboard as I write this are irrational.
Of course, this mourning is not for the man I didn’t know — it is for his words. Temple’s books are more than ‘just books’ to me — they are connected to memories of times and places, they are a part of my life. They are the stories I have reached for during tough times. The ones that have travelled with me. Brought joy and comfort. Old friends.
Peter Temple sat on my bookshelf for a long time before I read him. I remember my partner telling me ‘You have to read The Broken Shore.’ I turned up my nose — I used to be one of those I don’t read crime fiction people. I also ignored Truth when it came out. ‘But you’ve got to read this one!’ my partner said. ‘He introduces 24 characters seamlessly in two pages.’ [This might be an exaggeration, but I’m too sad to count them now.]
I can’t remember why I eventually picked up Truth. Perhaps its Miles Franklin win, perhaps to stop my partner nagging … We had just moved to Northcote, our third child was still a baby sleeping in her bassinet beside me while I read in bed. ‘Oh my fucking God, this is the best book I’ve ever read!’ [If you have read any of my previous posts, you will know I am prone to exaggeration — but at the time, this was true.] I think I might have shouted it out, and woken the baby. And to my partner: ‘Why didn’t you make me read this sooner?’
I remember where I was when reading most of Temple’s books. Sitting in the car, early for kindergarten pick-up, with An Iron Rose — laughing out loud every time the Scottish character pronounced Mac’s name Moc [I’m still not sure why that’s so funny to me]. Struggling to write Please Don’t Leave Me Here in a hotel room (‘the box in the sky’ p256 Truth) in Surfers Paradise with Truth — looking down on the same beach where Villani goes surfing in an attempt to recapture his youth, but only ends up humiliated. Struggling far more to write Dead in the Water, reading The Broken Shore at night — in bed at Raymond Island.
I read The Broken Shore obsessively (and exclusively; some close to me might say ‘madly’) for a while — over and over, I couldn’t tell you how many times, dissecting every sentence. I’ve read Truth maybe only four or five times, and I still have to steel myself every time [spoiler alert] I get to the scene where Detective Inspector Villani, emotionless, sees the body of his drug-addicted daughter dead in a dirty alley way. And I always cry when Villani — in the next chapter — shows his pain.
… He sipped and a tear ran down his nose. He began to weep. For a while, he wept in silence and then he began to sob, softly at first, and then louder and louder.
It came to him that he had never cried out loud in his life. It was as if he were singing for the first time. (p355 Truth)
How would I describe Temple’s writing? Unique — shades of Raymond Chandler perhaps, but there’s really nothing I can compare it to. Not one unnecessary word. Tough, terse, colloquial. Possibly a little too blokey for some. Precise as a surgeon’s knife, but also poetic.
Temple’s characters are far more important than his plots (for me anyway). He wheedled the crime genre to tell stories about family, friendship and love. Stories about society, politics and human frailty. Stories full of grit and blood, of pain and loss, but not without humour or hope.
We will never see the likes of Peter Temple again. Please go and read one of his books now — even if you are one of those I don’t read crime fiction people.
A morning of sunlight on the round winter hill, above it cloud strands fleeing inland, and the wind on the long grass, annoying it, strumming it.
A bark at the door, another, more urgent, the dogs taking turns. He let them in and they surrounded him and he was glad to have them and to be there. (p345 The Broken Shore)
Up on billboards across Brisbane for Queensland Writers Centre’s #8WordStory competition.
This story was commissioned by Darebin Council for a project called ‘Writing this Place’, and originally published on the Darebin Arts website.
I have a photograph of my grandmother, Phyllis, taken in the Westgarth Cinema’s foyer. She’s about eighteen, standing by the marble dress-circle staircase, next to a man in his early twenties.
My mum and I found the photo in a shoebox while we were cleaning out Phyllis’s room at the aged-care facility.
‘Wow, Papa was cute,’ I said.
‘It’s not Papa,’ Mum said, moving on to clearing the next cupboard. After a minute or two she told me she thought the man’s name was Wesley.
Phyllis had talked a lot about somebody called Wes when she was really sick.
The photo is black and white, but hand-coloured so their cheeks are ethereally pink; Phyllis’s lips are too red and Wes’s eyes too blue. She’s smiling up at him from under her peek-a-boo hair-do. The rhinestone-rose brooch I remember from Christmases and funerals is pinned to her simple but shiny halter-neck dress, tiny hourglass figure — Veronica Lake. He’s holding his Humphrey Bogart hat by his side. Double-breasted suit, broad shoulders — Superman.
It was taken before the Greek-language films filled the house in the sixties and seventies. And long before the Valhalla moved in with its arthouse movies of the eighties and nineties — the High Street shopping strip was just derelict buildings and a fish and chip shop back then. No cafes, bars or organic foodstores bearing rooftop bicycle sculptures.
With the photo in Phyllis’s shoebox are letters from long-ago friends; cigarette cards of dogs, birds and butterflies; a Westgarth Theatre ticket to The Star Maker starring Bing Crosby and Linda Ware; and a picture postcard of the pyramids from Wesley Kennedy. Wes’s cursive handwriting is hard to read — tiny and squashed, as though he’d tried to jam too many words onto a surface that was never going to be big enough. And it’s smudged. By tears? the romantic in me wonders. More likely, time and wear has blurred the words. I can make out Dear Phil, still safe, practised action stations, pictures in the Officers Lounge, beautiful moonlit night, and the last line — just above the kisses — Can’t wait to take you to the flicks again when I get home.
Mum told me to stop looking at things and get a move on with the cleaning. I asked her if she wanted the shoebox. She thumbed through its contents and said she had enough stuff already, so I kept it.
Memory is like a camera — recording, illuminating, flashbulb moments. The unlit, blank and forgotten spaces we fill with stories.
It was the start of the war, before Pearl Harbour, and Australians were keen for mass entertainment, as well as war-news footage. Propaganda cartoons and messages from the prime minister would have screened before the main feature. And ads reassuring all would be well if we consumed Aeroplane Jelly and Bushells tea.
The Saturday night session of The Star Maker had been billed as A Grand Picture Evening. A glamorous occasion. That’s why a professional photographer had been there.
Phyllis’s smile was only for the camera; it would have slipped away as the flash faded, leaving her with the appearance of already having lost something. I can guess her thoughts: Please don’t go. And if Wes were to have read them, he’d have shaken them off with something like: ‘Let’s forget about everything for tonight and just enjoy the picture, live for the moment.’ From his crooked grin — a bit too clever or too cocky — I can tell he would have been all about fun. Perhaps a little heavy on bravado. Reckless?
The smell of popcorn, and Phyllis’s gardenia perfume, if she’d been able to afford it then. The heat from Wes’s hand on the small of her back. The youthful ache of expectation, for something to happen when the lights went down in the theatre. Maybe not a kiss — that was for later, under the streetlight on the way home — but she would have slipped off her gloves to hold his hand.
Today the cinema is pink in the autumn sun — a fairytale castle. In different light it might look imposing with its arched windows and patches of peeling paint. A Renaissance Palazzo tower. Below the parapet, a vertical sign of glass panels glints Westgarth Pictures.
At the box office a young woman in black scans the barcode on my phone and prints two tickets to Beauty and the Beast, while my daughter, Quinn, ponders the choc-top selection.
We cross the red-white-and-brown terrazzo floor and climb the staircase to cinema four. Back in Phyllis and Wes’s day there would have been only one cinema — the one with Art Deco light panels like giant Fruit Tingles on the ceiling. A couple of older women, with glasses of wine and a tube of chips, take the seats directly in front of us. Quinn has to sit on my knee to see.
We sigh with Belle, singing and longing for more than her provincial life. And laugh at Lumiere and Cogsworth. I sniff and pretend to have something in my eye when the last petal falls from the enchanted rose, surely dooming the Beast and his castle’s cursed inhabitants forever. But, of course, a Disney happy ending ties everything together beautifully.
I blink away that after-movie dreaminess as we follow the wine-and-tube-chips women down the stairs. A teenage couple bluster past on their way up to see Ghost in the Shell, holding hands and popcorn, and taking selfies.
‘The roof looks like papier-mâché,’ Quinn says. ‘Or the inside of an egg carton.’
I look up at the fibrous plaster; the geometric shapes in the leadlight glow gold, green and red.
The same ceiling Phyllis and Wes stood under.
I found Wesley Kennedy’s service records online. He enlisted in the army on 16 May 1940. He was from Preston. Age 21. Single. Occupation — theatre worker. That’s how he must have been able to wangle tickets to the Grand Picture Evening. The record doesn’t say what his actual job was — maybe an usher or projectionist; I see him more as the sweets-counter manager. It doesn’t list his place of employment either, so it could have been Hoyts in the city or any of the other local cinemas, but I like to think it was the Westgarth because Phyllis used to work at the tailor’s shop over the road. Perhaps Wes’s shifts started just as Phyllis was knocking off for the day and they watched each other from across the street, until one of them built up the courage to ask the other out. It would have been Wes — I imagine it was always the boy in those days.
Wes’s battalion embarked for the Middle East in October. He died in Syria on 24 June 1941. KILLED IN ACTION stamped in red letters at the top of his Service and Casualty form.
A door slams, the coffee machine behind the sweets counter gurgles, the number 86 tram dings and squeals to a stop out the front.
I imagine Wes leaning against one of the pillars in the vestibule, cigarette in one hand, rose in the other, gazing — through the glass doors with bevelled edges that distort the streetscape like a prism — across at the shop that’s now a drycleaners, waiting for the girl with peek-a-boo hair.
Can’t wait to take you to the flicks again.
My thoughts on writing place are here.
Writer: Yes. A great group of writers.
Storyteller: And we got some terrific feedback: Shiveringly good imagery; love the intrigue and impending danger; can’t wait for more of this very mysterious psychological thriller.
Storyteller: What’s wrong? They liked it.
Writer: Psychological thriller, S.T. A thriller.
Storyteller: *widens eyes* *blinks*
Writer: I told you I didn’t want to write a thriller.
Storyteller: Thrillers sell.
Writer: I wouldn’t know, I don’t read them.
Storyteller: I’ve seen you reading them.
Writer: No, S.T, those are ‘literary thrillers’.
Writer: This is your fault.
Storyteller: My fault! If it wasn’t for me what would you have?
Writer: I’d be writing happily — just seeing what my characters do.
Storyteller: A pile of unconnected words you’d just keep polishing forever and ever.
Writer: Very shiny words.
Storyteller: If anybody is to blame, it’s Stephen King.
Writer: Stephen King?
Storyteller: I know you weren’t really reading Jane Austen back in high school.
Writer: Shut up!
Storyteller: You shut up.
Writer: Oh my God, S.T, how about the trailer for the new It movie?
Writer: Not that I really want to see it.
Storyteller: Sure. *rolls eyes* So about this book we’re writing?
Writer: I have doubts.
Storyteller: Surprise, surprise. Let’s just forget about genres and labels and try to write the best book we can.
Writer: You’re going to make it a thriller, aren’t you?
Storyteller: I have some great plot ideas.
Writer: Too much plot will ruin my character-driven exploration of the human condition from a flawed perspective. I think of it as like A Bar at Folies-Bergere — the angles of the mirror are skewed; in the reflection the barmaid leans forward to the customer in the top hat, but in reality she is standing straight, ambivalent to his attention. In the grand balcony, reflected impossibly behind the barmaid, a woman looks through opera glasses at something beyond the frame.
Storyteller: You know we’ll have to delete that chapter about the Manet painting before any editor sees it?
Writer: No we won’t.
Storyteller: We’ll see.
Writer: What’s beyond the frame is important, S.T.
Storyteller: Like in It?
Writer: No, not like in It.
Writer: Te he.
Storyteller: And a balloon? Come on then. How about a ‘literary thriller’?
Writer: I hate you.
Storyteller: Everything down here floats.
Sisters in Crime has announced the shortlists for the 2017 Davitt Awards for the best crime books by Australian women.
Looky at Dead in the Water there — right at the top! [OK, I know it’s in alphabetical order, but still …]
Here are all the shortlisted books in each category:
The 2017 winners will be announced on Saturday 26 August. You can book a ticket for the Davitt Awards Gala Dinner here