Gonna Write It In An Attic...

Growing up in New Guinea, I was lucky to have access to the Mt Hagen library, which was positively stuffed with the greats of children's literature - E. Nesbit, Laura Ingalls Wilder, L. M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild and many others. I don't know how this tiny library managed to acquire such riches; perhaps I have a shadowy benefactor to thank for this good fortune, but the imaginative fertiliser that was laid down in my primary school years has enriched and nourished all my writing since.

Of course no author can set out to write a classic, but I must admit, when I started to write the book that has become Cicada Summer, there were two classic books I was influenced by (let's not say, shamelessly copying).

The first is Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, which celebrated its fiftieth birthday last year. Lonely Tom, exiled to his uncle and aunt's flat for the holidays, hears the old clock strike thirteen, and goes downstairs to discover a secret garden which doesn't exist during the day. During his visits, he befriends the equally lonely Hatty, and realises that he seems to have travelled back in time. The central mystery of the book has a beautifully clear and satisfying structure, and the ending always made me cry. Now I'm older, it still makes me cry, but for different reasons.

Another of my favourites was The Children Of Green Knowe, by Lucy M. Boston, in which the small boy Tolly wanders the very old house of his great-great grandmother and encounters the ghosts who live there. This was the first of six books, all of which brim with the same dreamy magic.

There is something irresistible about the idea of a lonely child exploring an (almost) deserted old house or garden. No doubt both of these beautiful books were in turn influenced by their predecessor, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which is about as close to a perfect children's story as you could ever hope to read. It would be incredibly sad to think that children are missing out on these wonderful stories, just because they're old. And I would love to think that in her own humble way, when Eloise sets out to explore her own wild garden in Cicada Summer, she is continuing a tradition that goes back a century.

(Cicada Summer will be out in May.)


Season Of Mists and Mellow Footballness

According to my wonderful Aboriginal calendar, we are now in early winter. It's cool, still and misty, and birds are heading north for warmth. Oddly enough, for a calendar centred on the Melbourne area, it doesn't mention anything about what is possibly the most important seasonal marker at this time of year: the start of the football season.

Footy begins this week. I'm not going to say too much about it, because if you're into it, you'll be reading plenty about it elsewhere, and if you're not, you'll just be bored... I was like you, once, before I found my team. But I do want to put in a plug for a member of my team, who also writes a newspaper column which is smart and funny and self-deprecating and sentimental. Robert Murphy writes about football as a player and a fan, but he's just as likely to talk about coffee, or trees, or Elvis. If you're someone who loves their footy, but generally prefers it when the players don't speak too much, you really should check out Robert Murphy. He just might change your mind.

Go Dogs!



One of my favourite books as a child was Arthur Ransome's Winter Holiday, where the noble Nancy comes down with mumps, plunging the rest of the gang into quarantine. This fantastic plot device gives them plenty of time to build igloos, sew rabbit skin hats and mount expeditions to the North Pole. At ten, I was full of envy at this wondrous stroke of good fortune, which gave them weeks and weeks of extended holiday. It never occurred to me then to see that for Nancy's poor mother, this was a catastrophe - eight kids to look after for weeks on end, just when she was about to pack them all off back to school!

Well, as luck would have it, I find myself in Mrs Blackett's shoes this week. Alice has whooping cough and has to stay in isolation for five days while the antibiotics take effect, and the rest of us have to dose up too. (Spent an hour last night trying to get the medicine into Evie, which was fun.)

The silver lining is that the kids next door have it too (that's where we got it from) so at least all the sickies can play together instead of expiring from boredom; and also, no one has it really badly, thanks to the wonders of immunisation. I wish I'd known that the whooping cough vaccine doesn't actually stop you getting it; it just stops you getting it really badly. We've had to warn all our friends, family, and all the people we breathed on before we knew we were sick (sorry, everyone).

It's just a pity it isn't snowing...


Cicada Summer

Did I mention I have another new book coming out, in May? Two books in one year! I'm quite impressed with myself, just quietly. Isn't this cover utterly beautiful?

And even better, it's just received its first review, from Bookseller & Publisher, who very kindly gave it four whole stars. This is what Liz Riley had to say:
Two years ago Eloise’s mother died in a car accident
and over time, sadness has taken Eloise’s voice.
She has ‘gone quiet’. Her father, preoccupied with
grandiose schemes that allow him to run from his
own grief, ignores what is happening with her. When
his latest scheme brings them back to his childhood
home, his mother is none too happy to have Eloise
foisted upon her for the summer. In this sad remnant
of a family, everyone has been damaged and none
of them are able to properly care for each other.
But then Eloise meets Anna, the girl from another
time, the girl from the summerhouse and slowly
and silently, things begin to change. In Anna’s secret
world, Eloise has the peace and safety she needs in
order to heal. Anna and the light-drenched world
of her garden give Eloise a vision of what could be,
bringing back her voice as she pulls her family into a
new and brighter future. This is a quiet, internal sort
of book about a quiet girl and her internal journey.
And in its silent way, it is about the big ideas in
life—grief and hope, courage and strength.


Three Beautiful Books

Recently, quite by chance, I've read three books which have all taken inspiration from fairy tales. They are all quite different but each is wonderful in its own way.

Tender Morsels, by the incomparable Margo Lanagan, is a dark, beautiful and deeply emotional tale, based partly on the story of Snow White and Rose Red. Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl is pitched for slightly younger readers, and combines lots of familiar elements - magical gifts, imposters, a dispossessed princess who must live in poverty for a time to earn her rightful inheritance - in a fresh and lovely way. I haven't actually finished I, Coriander by Sally Gardner yet, but I'm loving it. Coriander moves between seventeenth century London and the fairy world; the language is rich and evocative, the images beautiful and surprising. In fact, the same could be said for all three books.

The power of fairy tales seems to be that they reach deep inside us, to the most shadowy parts of ourselves, almost beyond memory, beyond story, beyond words. We know these stories so well, even when we don't think we remember them at all. When we read of speaking animals, favours to strangers repaid a thousand-fold, silver shoes, dark forests, magical embroidery, the wronged child who must fight for what's hers, something inside us chimes like a bell, chimes with satisfaction. The patterns unfold as they should, and when they are in the hands of gifted writers like these, they are also endlessly astonishing, turning the old stories inside out and back to front, so we see things we'd never seen before. Unexpected fears and delights wink out at us like the facets of a diamond turned to the light. And these books are all diamonds.


Sleepless In West Preston

I woke up last night at 2.30 and couldn't get back to sleep. For three hours I tossed, I turned, I counted my breaths backwards from 200, I recited the names of the Western Bulldogs (I can never remember who number 24 is), I fretted, I planned lunchboxes and dinners, I watched the clock. Nothing worked. Finally I dropped off about half an hour before Evie came in to wake us up.

Anyone got any sure-fire tricks for putting yourself back to sleep??


Abominable Words!

Why, when there are so many stupendous, expressive, vivid and neglected words in the world, do people insist on using abominable excrescences like incentivation and motivising?

My husband works in the public service, and he often brings home beautiful examples of this kind of thing. To be fair, it's usually not so much the individual words that are offensive, but the way they're combined to produce a jaw-dropping, eye-glazing litany of incomprehensible tedium: vertical skill-sets, quantitative easing, negative growth, etcetera.

But this one has to take the biscuit. From an IT memo: "design and productionalise." I'm guessing they meant produce, or hey, what about simply make? Or create? All perfectly good, straightforward words, which don't deserve to be abandoned.

No doubt someone will tell me that productionalise has a special, technical meaning, and no other word will do. But you know what? I don't believe you! I think people use language like this because they don't want anyone else to understand what they're talking about. And the main reason for that is that they don't understand what they're talking about either!


What I've Been Reading

Last night I finished The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes' epic account of transportation to Australia. Because it's nearly 600 pages long, I'd put off reading it for ages, but it was riveting stuff.

Hughes has a wonderfully vivid turn of phrase. For example, his description of the hulks (old ships into which the overflow of prisoners were crammed, prior to transportation): "The bulbous oak walls of these pensioned-off warships rose sheer out of the sea... They wallowed to the slap of the waves, and dark fleeces of weed streamed in the current from the rotting waterlines... cramped and wet inside, dark and vile-smelling."

The story he tells is utterly compelling. Modern Australia was founded as a bottomless pit into which England could pour its criminals. When the First Fleet set off for Botany Bay in 1787, they might as well have been heading for Mars, so little was known about their destination. Convicts were shipped out to the colony for another eighty years. Some ended up as respectable farmers or tradesmen; others rotted in the hellholes of Norfolk Island or Port Arthur, where flogging and leg-irons were daily reality.

I did wish for a little more attention to the original inhabitants of this country, the Aborigines, maybe because I've done a lot of reading on that topic lately, but anyone who wants to read about the first interactions between the British and the Aborigines should seek out Inga Clendinnen's brilliant (and also highly readable) account in Dancing With Strangers.

I can't believe I ever thought Australian history was boring! All I remember from school was endless lists of dull explorers and a visit to Sovereign Hill. They left all the meaty bits out!