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.
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
Geh kleines buch!
This is the farewell and good luck note I wrote to my book (originally titled
Please Don’t Leave Me Here) the first time around:
I don’t know where you came from, why you chose me, or if you existed inside me for some time before I gave you life.
You were never easy to live with, but every day I nurtured you.
As you grew, I grew. I learnt so much about myself from writing you.
Some mornings I couldn’t wait to see you at 5.00am and some times I felt like deleting you, but I never gave up on you.
Leonardo da Vinci said: ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned’.
I will miss you and I’m scared of what could happen to you out there in the world, but it’s time to ‘abandon’ you, to let you go.
And here’s the playlist of music that inspired the book:
So your first book has been accepted for publication: congratulations! You’ve been through edits, the cover is chosen, and it’s about to go off to the printers. In the next few months your face will be all over television and you’ll be getting daily bank deposits of thousands of dollars. Right?
All authors’ experiences are different, but we (Jane Rawson and Annabel Smith) thought you might like to know what we’ve learned about the period just before and after your book hits the shelves.
Jane: Recently my fourth book – a novel – was published. I’m with a small independent publisher, and they’ve previously published another novel of mine, and a non-fiction book about climate change that I co-authored with an environment journalist. My other book, a novella, was published by a different, even smaller independent publisher. None of my books has been published outside Australia, and…
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