The Doctor (And Another Doctor)

So it's a year since Stephen Moffat took over the reins as executive producer and chief writer at Doctor Who, and it's time to consider what kind of a fist he's making of the job. In my opinion: a pretty damn good one.

In the new version of Who, I've always loved Stephen Moffat's episodes the best. His writing is simply breath-taking, and he understands the possibilities of time travel for clever, puzzling, deeply satisfying stories in a way that I don't think Russell T. Davies was ever really interested in. It seemed to me that RTD was so caught up in the mythology of the Doctor's character (a near-immortal, deeply lonely, almost god-like figure, stalking the wastes of time and space with the fate of worlds weighing oh-so-heavily on his shoulders, etc etc) that he rather neglected the sheer fun you can have with a time machine, zooming back and forth to five minutes ago with a silly fez on your head and contradicting what you're just about to say, if only you hadn't already said it.

I was quite prepared to not warm to Matt Smith's Doctor (too young, not serious enough) but he's won me over. It's been a wrench to part from David Tennant's No. 10, who did seem to me the perfect embodiment of the Doctor, but I think I've come to terms with it now. And I must admit, at times, RTD's Doctors were so freighted with all that history, all that meaning, that it sometimes became a bit... a bit much. A bit pompous, a bit earnest, a little bit too much staring soulfully into the middle distance with flames in the background. The Eleventh Doctor, Stephen Moffat's Doctor, is playful and merry and clever, and most of the time, he's having fun.

Having said all that, I do have reservations. I don't like the new Daleks. The cartoonish, clunky, brightly-coloured versions just aren't scary to me; I prefer the rough, industrial, ruthless originals. I'm not sure about all this business about being married to River Song; the Doctor doesn't do "married."Moffat doesn't seem to have the same reverence for the Doctor's mythos as RTD; he chucks stuff around a smidge too carelessly, perhaps.

But I can go with it. We all have our own visions of the Doctor. I was around when John Nathan-Turner reinvented the Fifth Doctor as a youthful action hero; there were gasps of dismay from fandom, but we all survived. And the Doctor and his TARDIS keep on spinning, through eternity.


Down To The River

I was in charge of four little girls yesterday and we all went down to the creek. The girls found two more friends from school already playing in their special hideout, so I left the kids to free-range while I sat nearby, but out of sight, by the water's edge.

From time to time the girls would appear. Once they brought long willow switches to "fish" in the creek; they'd run back to me to get drinks of water and fetch biscuits to bring back to their cubby; they'd come to report their injuries - a cut finger, a near-miss falling out of a tree. I could hear them playing, mostly peacefully.

For nearly two hours I sat and watched the creek. The air was full of thistledown, swirling like summer snowflakes. Cyclists whizzed by along the path at my back, dog walkers brought their pets to the water on the far side of the creek. The sun shone on the brown water and turned it the colour of milky tea. A family of nine ducklings and a mother duck bobbed and skittered downstream, followed a little later by the father duck, gliding just along the surface. Just before we went home, they returned, the ducklings scrabbling and waddling and hopping up the rocks to negotiate the little waterfall.

I remembered my long train trips to and from high school, when I would make myself really look at what I was seeing and describe it in my head, searching for exactly the right words.

I couldn't believe how quickly the time passed when I wasn't consciously trying to make it pass. The minutes and hours slipped by as effortlessly as the water of the creek. I listened to the breeze rustling the leaves and whispering in the grasses, and slowly the sun travelled across the sky, and then it was time to go home.

I wish you all a very Zen Christmas (if there is such a thing) and the happiest of New Years. See you in 2011.


School's Out For The Summer!*

It seems like only yesterday that Evie was crying because it was the first day of school, and this morning she was crying because it's her last day as a Prep. Ah me.

It's been an eventful year in our household. For the first time, both girls are going to school, which took more adjusting to (for me!) than I expected. We did our big renovation, which has transformed our house from a poky, cramped living-space to a glorious place to hang out. One of the best things we did was get a great big tank; it might not save us massive amounts of money, but oh! the smug is priceless.

The Western Bulldogs came fourth - beaten in the prelim again! - but we had a bad run with injuries, and with Bob Murphy at the helm (maybe??! nah, probably Boyd), 2011 will be our year. Fingers crossed.

I've kept up my record of a book a year (just) with Dear Swoosie coming out in January - the funnest book I've ever written, thanks to the divine Penelope (who also had a big year) - and definitely the fastest. Cicada Summer was short-listed for the PM's Literary Award, which was a huge thrill, and even better, I've had lots of wonderful feedback from readers who love it.

In same ways I've felt as if I was treading water this year, but it's not really true. Behind the scenes, a lot of work went into Crow Country, and I'm really excited about it being published next year, the most excited I've been about any of my books since The Singer Of All Songs. And Independence has also been chugging along quietly, slowly taking shape, being pruned and moulded and fertilised. Yesterday I had one of those eureka moments when a veil falls and suddenly a whole lot of things become clear...

... just in time for school holidays.

* Or at least it will be at 1.30pm today. Not that I'm counting the minutes or anything.


Queens of Shops

We watch too much television. One show that the whole family enjoys is Mary, Queen of Shops, one of a seemingly endless string of programmes where a bossy Englishwoman strides in and instructs people how to reorganise their lives (think Trinny and Susannah, Kirsty Allsop etc). In this case the bossy Englishwoman is called Mary Portas and we have all relished watching her cruel-to-be-kind efforts to revitalise sagging retail businesses.

It became obvious that Alice and Evie had been paying a little too much attention last weekend when they played shops at their grandparents' house. Alice set up a homewares business at the foot of the stairs, ransacking the kitchen cupboards for her stock of tea towels and lemon squeezers, produced a catalogue, and embarked on a marketing campaign that warned us to "Get in now, as prices are set to skyrocket!" A series of rapid calculations on the back of an envelope produced the reassuring information that she had made several hundred dollars in invisible profit.

Meanwhile Evie had set up her own business in the junk room and issued all of us, her employees, with phonetically spelled identity labels. I was "Kathren Cook", Nana became "Janes Canseltunt" while Papa was "Wellyum Inspekta." An emergency staff meeting was called to brainstorm ideas to improve turnover, which wasn't easy since none of us were exactly certain what the business actually did.

I learned that window-dressing is really not my forte, and that a freebie hotel soap can retail for up to twenty dollars. It was all very exhausting, but I must say it was educational.


Reading Aloud

There's a lot of reading aloud done in our house. Mostly it's me reading to the girls, though there should probably be rather more of it done the other way round. Listening is the main way that Alice, for reasons previously discussed, feeds her book addiction, and lately Evie has been asking for longer books too. They both like to be read to in the bath, for some reason... Currently I'm reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Alice (she's finally getting into the Narnia books, after a couple of over-eager, too-early attempts on my part to introduce them), while Evie is listening to The Starlight Barking, the sequel to 101 Dalmatians (anything with dogs is good for Evie).

I've been reading to Alice since she was very small, a babe in arms in fact. Evie's aural concentration span is not as long, so she hasn't sat and listened to quite as many books as Alice has, but she does all right. I've been trying to work out exactly how much time I've spent reading aloud in the last few years. Say I started seriously when Alice was two and a half, so make it seven years -- let's say, conservatively, half an hour an day (often it's a lot more than that, but then there are days when we don't read at all, so I'm sure it evens out). 365 x 7 (forget the leap years!) = 2555, divided by 2 = 1,277 and a half hours of reading.

Crikey. A thousand hours. How about that, eh. I think I should get a medal.

The upside is that I feel pretty confident about my reading-aloud skills now. And I'm certainly no Stephen Fry, but I may modestly say that I too have read the entire series of Harry Potter aloud, and I even sometimes did the voices. And whatever criticisms one may wish to level at the Harry Potter books (not that I do wish to level any, actually) it cannot be denied that they are a brilliant read-aloud.

Another upside is that I love doing it. I enjoy reading aloud, I relish the joy of introducing the books I love to my children, and getting the immediate feedback of their reactions. I love the cries of 'Keep reading!' when I try to put the book down. And surely, after a thousand hours, my daughters will carry with them some memory of these precious times we spent together, sharing books. For all my failings as a parent, that's one gift I'm determined to give them.


Decking The Halls

The festive season has arrived at our house! (After a bit of a slow start)

Rex has his own Christmas tree:

The dolls' house is adorned with teeny-tiny paper chains (the product of hours of painstaking work by Alice and me, involving microscopic slivers of paper and sticky-tape):

There is even a Littlest Petsmas tree:

And some slightly bigger paper chains which will go up as soon as I have time to finish making them:

Aren't they pretty?

We've decided not to have a full size tree this year. There doesn't seem much point since we always stay at Nana and Papa's house and the presents go under their tree; also most of our ornaments aren't much chop. But I felt slightly sad about having no decorations at all, and what kind of message is that sending anyway - it's only the presents that matter?

Hoping to fit some carols in at some point, too. I love carols. Though you must know by now how I feel about any form of collective singing.

What's your favourite part of Christmas?


Aiming Low

The theory behind my pitiful target of 250 words at a stretch (and they don't have to be wonderful words, they can be, and often are, utter drivel) goes back to a book that became my Bible in my depressive mid-twenties. Feeling Good by David D. Burns (otherwise known in my circle as "The Yellow Book") was one of the early texts on cognitive behavioural therapy. Essentially, it argued that your thoughts can influence your feelings, and therefore can be to some extent consciously managed; this was a bit of a revelation to me and my depressively-inclined mates.

Anyway, one of the many useful pieces of advice that I gleaned from its pages concerned the paralysing effects of perfectionism. Better to aim very, very low, and achieve, than to aim high and fail. As anyone who has been depressed knows, there are times when any activity at all seems impossibly hard, even getting out of bed. Therefore, better to write one sentence and feel good about doing it than to tell yourself, I must write 10,000 words today - a target you will inevitably fail to meet, and then beat yourself up about.

The magic trick of this technique is that almost always, you find yourself exceeding your very low aim. You say, okay, I'll write one sentence -- but before you know it, one sentence has become two, a hundred words becomes 250, and then a page, and the shot of amazed pride you feel in your achievement surfs you onward almost without you noticing it. Once you get started, it is so much easier to keep going.

Doing anything, however small, is better than doing nothing.


Discipline, Discipline, Discipline

8.59am Drop the girls at school.
Eat breakfast while browsing the internet. Feed lizard.
Write 250 words.
Break for housework - make beds, stack dishwasher, hang out washing.
Write 250 words.
Cup of tea. Check out WOOF.
Write 250 words.
Walk to shops. Plan dinner.
Write 250 words.
Lunch break. Listen to radio. Read while eating. Check WOOF.
Write 250 words.
Think about doing yoga. Have cup of tea instead.
Write 250 words.
Feel virtuous for achieving writing target. Sit in window seat and read. Reading is necessary part of working day -- stoking fires of creativity etc. Almost as vital as checking WOOF.
3.25pm Leave house to pick up girls from school. End of writing day.
Beginning of next work shift - provision of after school snacks, homework supervision, dinner preparation, post-school counselling service, dinner clean-up, after-dinner walk, baths etc. Watch TV.
Talk to husband. If possible.


Yoga Camp Part 2

So my dear friend Elizabeth and I went on our annual pilgrimage to yoga camp. This actually began with sitting in Friday night traffic on Bell St and snarling at the other drivers, "Move it, buster! We need to get to yoga camp!"

The experience continued with teeming rain, fallen trees and flooded roads, none of which inhibited our enjoyment. We didn't even find out what happened in the election until after we'd got home again, that's how cut off from the world we were. Bliss! Though I was so worried about missing early morning yoga that I leapt out of bed at the sound of Elizabeth's phone, flicked on the light and started getting dressed, until a sleepy Liz informed me (with admirable restraint) that it was actually only midnight...

This year, our course focused on meditation, which is something I know nothing about and feared I would be very bad at. During our 5.30am yoga class, the teacher told us that we should be still, and allow our breath to move through the physical body, without disturbing it; and suddenly I saw that in meditation, the thoughts should be allowed to move through the still mind in the same way, and suddenly it all made much more sense.

I think my favourite moment was when the whole class chimed ommmmm, the harmonies resonating, weaving in and out, and vibrating through us as if we were bells.

Om is the sound that created the universe, you know. In the beginning was the word, the breath of life, and the wind passed over the waters. And certainly all the dams were full. At the ashram, Swami Atma told us they'd been chanting for rain. She giggled. "Well, that worked!"


Library Update

Alert readers may recall that this was supposed to be the year of the library. Well, it has been a long and at times frustrating journey, but there is light at the end of the tunnel at last.

It turns out that the "purpose-built" library space is not, after all, particularly well-suited to housing a library, and the school has decided to use that big open space in the middle of the new Learning Centre (as we must now call it) as a double classroom space next year. (This means there will be six classes in the new building. I really hope it's not too noisy in there.) The same space will also double as an assembly hall, with students' desks folded away through some miracle of modern furniture technology.

Meanwhile, the library has been allocated one of the upstairs classrooms in the old building. It might seem that this decision has merely brought us back to where we started, but personally, I'm not unhappy with the outcome. The classroom given to the library this time is actually nicer than the original one, on the eastern side of the building, so not quite so hot, and with a lovely outlook onto trees and roofs. The room is spacious, light, airy and beautifully proportioned. I'm happy that the library has a discrete space of its own, a proper room, rather than a few shelves floating uncertainly in an ocean of multi-purpose space.

We're hoping to do a whiz-bang job of redecoration to really make the library a distinctive and inviting place; we want to incorporate some of the school's neglected heritage items, like some beautiful indigenous artifacts currently languishing in a glass case in the bottom corridor, and a huge collection of shells and coral that my mother remembers being at the school in the 1940s. It would be nice to use some of the fantastic archival material that was dug up for the school's 80th birthday a couple of years ago, too.

So at the moment, I'm feeling quietly confident that we can pull it all together. The best news is that the school has committed to a full-time library staff member next year. I hope we can show that it's a great investment.


Oh Dear

Look what happened to my glasses! I copped a ball in the face while playing cricket with Alice and this was the result (this, and a bruise on the snoz).

In thirty-odd years of being a glasses-wearer, I've never actually broken a pair of specs before. Though in retrospect I should probably have attacked those big owlish eighties frames with a hammer.

I've had to resort to my old round wire-framed granny glasses, which make my face look strangely naked. I think I will need to invest in some new specs. The question is, what next? I borrowed some thin, pinky-purple, rectanglar frames from a friend, but they seemed too square or something. My face is too small to successfully carry off those really emphatic thick frames ("publisher glasses," ahem!). What's the next trend going to be?

Woe is me. I hate glasses shopping.


Forcing the Issue

When I went to prise Alice out of bed this morning, both girls were waiting for me, waving these tiny placards. "No school today! No school today!"

I made them go anyway.

Evie has decided that the only food she can bear to eat is Fruity Bites. Not the only breakfast food, the only FOOD. Michael claims to have thrived on an exclusive childhood diet of Coco Pops, so I suppose there is family precedent. As a picky eater, Evie gives Lola a run for her money. I hope it doesn't last forever, because it is very tedious trying to navigate through the ever-diminishing list of foods she will deign to consume. (For a gripping account of Evie's infected toenail, and the successful treatment thereof, please see her blog.)

On the bright side, last night Alice heaved herself off the couch and announced, 'I'm tired, I'm going to bed.' This has never, ever happened before. Of course, she didn't actually go to sleep until about an hour and a half later, after numerous trips out of bed for hugs and pleas for her doona to be straightened, but still, it's a step in the right direction.

As parents, we are not very good at discipline (to put it mildly), but sometimes things seem to work themselves out anyway.


The Chip On The Shoulder...

So, I was at the presentation of the Prime Minister's Literary Awards this week.

It was a lovely event (nice lunch too), opened by encouraging speeches from both the new Minister of the Arts, Simon Crean, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard herself, mentioning that this was the first time that Children's and Young Adult Literature had been recognised in these awards, and how appropriate this was, given the strength of Australian writing across all genres and ages. Then the awards themselves were presented: to Eva Hornung for Dog Boy, Fiction; Grace Karskens, The Colony, Non Fiction; Bill Condon, Confessions of A Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God, Young Adult; and Lorraine Marwood, Star Jumps, Children's Literature.

BUT (and this is where the chip comes in!) it was disappointing to note that some representatives of the media packed up and left after the two adult awards were presented; they didn't even stay to hear the winners of the YA and Children's categories.

And apparently a prominent national radio book show did discuss the adult award-winning books in some detail, but barely mentioned the fact that there had also been Children's and YA awards. Let alone name the winners. Let alone talk about them.

For heaven's sake. When will the snobs of the literary world come to their senses and realise that without young readers, there are no adult readers? That kids read more books than adults do? Don't they remember that they grew up on kids' books too, that the books they first fell in love with, the books that taught them to love reading, were kids' books? Or did they all start straight in on Jude The Obscure and The Brothers Karamazov?

Here endeth the rant.


Something About Trains - by Jane Siberry
One of my favourite songs. And it goes a little something like this...

something about trains
something about love
something about this old earth
and the way it looks from up above

something about satellites
something about down below
something about the hissing of that old steam iron
as you press your clothes

beam it up, beam it down, across the world from town to town
most of the time when I'm walking the line, I'm looking at the ground

but every time I hear that whistle blowing
every time I hear that old black crow
every time I hear that whistle blowing
I find myself a-shivering in my soul

something about love
when things go wrong
when you can't find the one that you love
you keep movin' on

you walk the lonely valley
you walk the line alone
but this old earth is always there
you don't feel so alone

beam it up, beam it down, across the world from town to town
most of the time when I'm walking the line I'm looking at the ground

but every time I hear that whistle blowing...

but you wake up in the middle of the night
and a train whistle blows and a dog barks
and something's not quite right
and a cry is sent up from this earth
into the silent sky

beam it up, beam it down, across the world from town to town
most of the time when I'm walking the line I'm looking at the ground

but every time I hear that whistle blowing
every time I hear that old black crow
every time I hear that whistle blowing
I find myself a-shivering in my soul

something about trains
something about love
something about this old earth
and the way it looks tonight


The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

This is my original childhood copy of The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, which I think was acquired through the Scholastic Book Club when we lived in New Guinea, back in the days when Book Club sold BOOKS rather than tacky pens, sticker diaries, cheap toys and novelty key-rings... but I digress. (Topic for another post, perhaps!) This cover is so old I couldn't find it reproduced anywhere on the net.*

This was one of my absolute favourite books, I read it over and over. As you can see, it is well-thumbed, creased and battered, and indeed even partially eaten. I've started reading it to Alice and she's loving it too. (" Read MORE, Mummy!") I'd forgotten just how smashing it is.

James Harrison finds that he's sharing their family's new house with a disturbing presence - a being that breaks vases, hurls glasses of water to the floor, and communicates through strange, old-fashioned notes. He quickly figures out that it must be a ghost. In fact it's the ghost of Thomas Kempe, a 17th century self-styled sorcerer and doctor of 'Physicke' who is keen to start up his old practice and enlist James as his apprentice.

At first Kempe is more annoying than scary, with endless opportunities to make James' life difficult, but events take a more threatening turn when the ghost begins to harass harmless old Mrs Verity, who according to him is a witch...

As often with Penelope Lively's books, there are strong themes of history, memory, and the passing of time. I remember being particularly struck by the passage where James reflects that people 'have layers, like onions.'

Somewhere, deep within stout, elderly Mrs Verity, with her rheumaticky hands that swelled up around her wedding ring, and her back that bothered her in damp weather, there sheltered the memory of a little girl who had behaved outrageously in Sunday School. And that, when you stopped to think about it, was a very weird thing indeed.

Thomas Kempe cannot adjust to the modern world, and what is initially a comic disjunction between his world and James' becomes slowly sinister and dangerous, and ultimately, poignant and rather sad. This is a brilliantly "layered" book itself.

I've been wanting to write a ghost story for ages, but couldn't figure out a way round the problem of keeping the ghost sufficiently "other"-- once they start talking and reacting, they might just as well be another human being -- but Lively solves this dilemma perfectly by making Thomas Kempe a cranky note writer. In fact it strikes me now, and slightly sadly, that The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is exactly the book I wanted to write. But Penelope Lively has already written it, thirty seven years ago.

* I've just checked and it's a 1975 edition, so I must have been nine when I first read it, too. Its recommended price in Australia is 95 cents. Sigh.


Chipping Away

The novel I'm working on now will -- hopefully -- be my tenth. (Double figures! Woo-hoo!) You would think I would have figured out by now what I'm doing.

But as I scratch my painful way to the 30,000 word mark, I've realised what this first draft actually is, and the function that it serves in my working process. What I'm writing now is, kind of, the film of the book. That is, I need to write to write down everything that happens. Just that, no more and no less. It's not polished, it's not pretty, it's not poetic. But it's as if I need to live through the whole story with my characters before I can go back and give myself the luxury of shaping and pruning, embroidering and spanglifying.

You know how sculptors say that they liberate the sculpture from the block of marble? Well, I think what I'm doing is making my block of marble. Only when I have that massive, rough, untidy stone in place, can I concentrate on chipping away at it until it becomes something that resembles a novel.

Well, it makes sense to me. I think.


Library Book Sale

Behold my latest haul! Not bad for under ten bucks...

Market Blues, Kirsty Murray
To add to my Kirsty collection. (Do read her latest, India Dark, which is an utterly fascinating tale of a child theatrical troupe touring India at the turn of last century, and based on a true story.) Kirsty does love a good historical drama, and this is a Melbourne one, so goody.

Caspar in the Spotlight, Narinder Dhami
Evie told me to look for "puppy books, but with no sad bits." Hopefully this story of a dog starring in a TV soap opera will fit the bill.

Arthur: The Seeing Stone, Kevin Crossley-Holland
Kevin Crossley-Holland's Arthur trilogy are the most gorgeously written, poetic, moving novels, perhaps the best books I read last year. They parallel the story of a young medieval page with the legendary tales of King Arthur. I'm thrilled to have this in my library and hope I can find the lot. If you haven't read them, I beg you to do so!

The Witch in the Lake, Anna Fienberg
We're doing Witches for one session of our book group next year, and this is on the list. I was amazed at how many witch titles seemed to pop up once I started noticing them.

The Silver Branch, Rosemary Sutcliff
Part 2 of The Eagle of the Ninth which The Great Raven was discussing recently (I managed to find The Eagle itself in a second hand shop recently, too. Not the actual lost standard of the Roman Ninth Legion, obviously. The book.)

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brashares
Also coming up in book group. I already have a copy, but I thought I'd pick up a spare for my friend Heather.

The Peacock Spring, Rumer Godden
I need to read more Rumer Godden. Forbidden love, India, beautiful cover -- couldn't resist.

Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert
I really enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love (so sue me!), and this has only been out, what, less than a year? On the library cull pile already? I'm quite interested in ideas about marriage at the moment (apart from, you know, living it, marriage is turning out to be quite a central theme in Independence. Hmmm.) Worth a look.

Voices From a Lost World: Australian Women and Children in Papua New Guinea Before The Japanese Invasion, Jan Roberts
Speaking of Independence, I can call this research, even though it's dealing with a time period well before the 1970s, when Independence is set. Fascinating stories of Australia's colonial past. I can't wait to read this.

The Lucky Lamb, Lucy Daniels
The Queen's Cubby, Raewyn Caisley & Elise Hurst
Two more books for Evie (though when I read from the back of Lucky Lamb, "Woolly gets into all sorts of trouble...," she wailed, "I told you, no sad bits!" so we shall see.)

Poems For 7 Year Olds And Under, Helen Nicoll (ed)
Alice has been practising reading really well with poetry lately, so I might try her with some of these. I might need to type them out so she doesn't think they're beneath her dignity. I hate books labelled "For 8 Year Olds", "For 3 Year Olds" etc, it's so artificial and so limiting. Everyone should read what they want to read, regardless of "age suitability." I'm old enough not to be ashamed of reading books for kids, but when you're nine, it kind of matters.

Your Personality Tree, Florence Littauer
I always need to pick up at least one pop-psych volume! I came across this woman via Diane Levy's parenting book, Of Course I Love You, Now Go To Your Room, and I found her theories of personality extremely helpful and enlightening. She's adapted the ancient theory of the four humours to analysing personality types (sunny Sanguine, impatient Choleric, quiet Melancholic and peaceable Phlegmatic), each with their own needs and problems. Evie is a classic bubbly Sanguine, who can't bear to be criticised or to be alone for a second; Alice is a typical Melancholic, who falls apart when things aren't perfect, and needs lots of solitary time. Realising this has made parenting these two very different children much easier (especially since I'm a lazy, conflict-loathing Phlegmatic myself!) Warning: it's very Christian, which some readers might find off-putting.

Library of Curious and Unusual Facts: Inventive Genius
For Alice: weird little snippets about all kinds of inventions, from the safety pin to the ballpoint pen, to a "combined table, wardrobe and bedstead" from 1880 that never really had the success it deserved...

And finally, for my darling husband:
1000 Military Aircraft In Colour, Gerry Manning
Enuff said!

And In Other News...
... Rex now lives on Easter Island.


Dragon in the House

We live with a dragon - a bearded dragon, to be precise. He lives in Alice's bedroom and his name is Rex. Most of the time he sits quietly on his rock, basking under his sunlamp and thinking deep thoughts - well, we assume they're deep thoughts, because he can't speak, and despite Alice and her friends' best efforts, they have not yet succeeded in teaching him to read or write.

He is, however, communicative in other ways. He rushes up to greet us; he waves his little arm, and scrabbles against the glass of his tank. He gets very excited when he sees his dinner coming. Twice a day he receives a meal of crickets (laboriously plucked or shaken from their bucket by Rex's human servants) and a plate of chopped vegetables. He adores bok choi, spinach and carrots; he's less impressed by tomato, apple or asparagus.

At the moment he's shedding, because he's growing so fast that his skin no longer fits. It drops off in large crisp flakes, not unlike cornflakes. When we take him out of his tank, he skitters and leaps to the highest accessible point - the back of the couch, for example - and surveys his kingdom. We know he can see colours, because he tries to eat the green portions of the blanket. 

When you take him to the window, he stares in amazement at the immensity of the world. Rex was born in a reptile shop; he's never seen the desert, never climbed real boulders or caught wild insects. If you release a fly into his tank, he freezes, then launches himself into space with his mouth open to snatch it in mid-air. We find this reassuring. If for some reason Rex had to survive in the wild, we know he could catch himself some dinner.

Though he might begin to wonder where the servants with those platters of mixed salad have got to.


An Abundance of Katherines*

In the holidays we visited our local cemetery. Alice, being an emo in training, loves it there. She and her friends scrambled between the gravestones, respectfully apologising if they accidentally stepped on anyone, and scattering flowers from our backyard onto the graves that particularly appealed, especially if there was someone buried there who shared their own name. I remember the particular thrill of finding an inscription for a departed Kate or Katherine, the tiny sizzle of a bond with a long-dead stranger.

As a child, I was always drawn toward historical figures who shared my name, and there were plenty of them -- Henry VIII married no less than three Catherines! Katharine Hepburn was a forceful, glamorous Kate, and Kate Jackson from Charlie's Angels was the smart, sassy Angel. Best of all was The Taming of the Shrew. The 1967 film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made a big impression on me, especially Petruchio's speech:
You are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation.
Sigh! There was another bossy Katharine in Edward Eager's first two magic books (despite what Petruchio says, literary Kates tend not to be "sweet").

So tell me, what famous figures who shared your name (if any!) did you identify with?

NB I've just found myself listed as a "famous" Kate! How hilarious!

Not-Quite-NaNoWriMo Update
A week in, I'm up to 13,000 words. I'm trying each day to write 500 words, then do yoga, another 500, then lunch, another 500 and then I can read as a reward before hometime, and so far it's working pretty well. (I didn't do much at the weekend because we went away, but I still did a bit.) I don't know how people fit this around their normal lives and jobs - I dips me lid, proper NaNoWriMo-ers!

* which I must confess I haven't actually read yet


Material Girl

One day recently I was hounding Alice to get dressed (nothing new there). She disappeared into her bedroom and a few minutes later emerged wearing a dress I'd never seen before, a little pinny-type number with frilly sleeves, over a long-sleeved top and leggings.  (The dress is modelled above by Bunbun.)
'Where did that come from?'
'Oh, I made it,' she said airily. 'Just now.'
She'd taken a length of fabric given to her as part of a birthday present (great present!) and made it into a dress. 'But what's holding it together?' I asked in bemusement. She hadn't had time to sew anything. It wasn't even pinned together.
She widened her eyes and whispered, 'It's the magic of holes.'
All she'd done was snip a couple of arm-holes into the fabric and twisted it around her. But it looked amazing, and it was a perfectly serviceable little dress (if slightly ragged round the edges).

What's most exciting is that someone has just given us an old sewing-machine. If Alice can whip up frocks without sewing, I can't wait to see what she'll be able to create now!


Not Quite NaNoWriMo

I've never done NaNoWriMo. I'm not going to do NaNoWriMo. For one thing, it's October, and everybody knows that NaNoWriMo happens in November.

But it occurs to me that I could well do with the kind of kick up the rear that NaNoWriMo provides. I have been faffing around with this New Guinea novel for so long that it's embarrassing. I've changed it from junior fiction to YA to adult and back to YA. I've written 20,000 words and thrown them away. I've researched and workshopped and pondered and snowflaked. I think what I need to do now is just sit down and pound the damn thing out.

I need to write without fretting. I need to write without worrying about anything but the word count. I need to write a ton of junk in the hope that a couple of pearls will sift through the silt. I need to produce 50,000 words, and to hell with the quality!

And because it's really truly spring now, and I've already scrubbed the kitchen floor and reorganised the kids' clothes, I think I should start today.


Who Knew Electricity Could Be So Exciting?

As part of our big renovation/extension/new room project, we had solar panels put on our roof. Now at last we've acquired the special meter that measures how much we use and how much we make (well, how much the lovely sun makes, and the panels collect).

So now we are constantly running back and forth to yell out kilowatts at each other. "10.4 in! 6.3 out!" Though we're not absolutely sure what exactly these figures are referring to -- is it the total power that the panels have generated, or is it the excess that we've put back into the grid? Is the power we consume during the sunshine hours "free," and the power we use at night pulled out of the grid? It's all very muddling. Michael says he can feel a spreadsheet coming on...

But one thing's for sure, it's made us much more aware of TURNING STUFF OFF, which can only be a good thing.


I Always Said Freo were Terrible...

 ... and even though they've had such an unexpectedly fabulous year, it seems that some of them at least, agree with me!


Slightly Obsessive ***UPDATED***

So now I've finished reading At Home and I'm halfway through Toni Jordan's debut novel, Addition. Grace, the narrator, has an obsession with numbers, especially the number 10. She counts everything - steps to the supermarket, bristles in her toothbrush. She has to take exactly 10 strokes to wipe down the table; she cuts her fruit into 10, and exactly 10, pieces.

I feel sympathetic toward Grace because I reckon I am a tiny bit the same. Not that my life is ruled by numbers, but there are certain things I need to be just so, or I feel uneasy. I can't relax with an open drawer or wardrobe door in the room. I like the dishwasher stacked in a certain order. I can't leave my bed unmade. I have a complex 6-day haircare routine. I don't like to share my towel or toothbrush or my pens, though it's almost impossible to avoid this in a family home. I've recently realised that I don't care to share a suitcase either, even with my beloved on a romantic weekend. I know it doesn't make sense, but I just don't wanna.  I differ from Grace in that I don't need these rules to keep panic at bay, but order comforts me.

However, there are other things I will cheerfully let slide. Flowers can stay dead in a vase for weeks. Notices remain unreturned to school long after they're due. Dust doesn't bother me. And I don't feel compelled to wash and minutely sort every piece of rubbish, as, for example, my father does*, or keep a record of all household expenditure on a spreadsheet, as does my beloved**. Maybe we are all slightly obsessive about something, it's just that we're all obsessive about different things.

So what's your slight obsession?

* My father wishes it to be known that he is not "a batty old man," but sorts and cleans these items so that they may be recycled more readily. I apologise that this was not made more clear in the body of the post. (Love you, Dad!)
** My beloved points out that I can also leave the vacuum cleaner sitting in the hallway for up to a week. Hm, this appears to be true.


At Home

 I love obscure facts, and I love houses, and I love Bill Bryson. So the combination of all three in Bryson's At Home has proved perfectly irrestistible.

This delightfully corpulent book is sub-titled "A Short History of Private Life," and in it, Bill Bryson rambles through his English country house and along the way, wanders through the history of domestic comfort -- so far he's covered (among many other topics) the story of electricity, the telephone, landscape gardening, mice, sperm whales, tea and servants. There is a fascinating fact or anecdote on every page (often many more than one...) and the chuckle value is high, as is the "wow, I never knew that" factor.

Did you know that lobsters used to be so common round the coasts of Britain that servants "sought written agreements from their employers that they would not be served lobster more than twice a week"? That the aspidistra was uniquely immune to the ill-effects of gas lighting, hence its ubiquity as a Victorian houseplant? That caravans of camels up to seventy miles long carried salt across the Sahara from Timbuktu to the ports of the Mediterranean? That despite widespread panic over rabies-carrying bats in the US, more people die from food poisoning at church picnics every year than from the entire history of human contact with bats?

I gleaned each of these tidbits from opening the pages of At Home at random. So far, Bill and I have reached the study; there's only the garden and the upper floor to go before our tour concludes. I'll be sad when it's over.


A Pocket of Eden

We have a jungly garden. This is the view from our back step, and from the window of our new back room:

Many of our neighbours have backyards with space to run or kick a ball, a clothesline and a lemon tree; others have very productive yards, with vegetables and chooks. Some people have made their houses so big that there's hardly any backyard left.

But our garden is full of trees.

The couple who owned the house before us collected seeds while bush-walking (someone once told me, very disapprovingly, that this is actually illegal; still, it's a bit late now) and planted them here, so we have a patch of bush in the middle of the suburbs. Lorikeets and wattle birds visit our flowering gums; the tops of our trees tower high above the back fence, visible from far away. The glorious lemon gum in our front yard scents the whole street. After the magnificent rain we've had this winter, the garden is flourishing and everything that can flower, is flowering with exuberance.

And this weekend our wonderful friend Matt arrived with a box full of new plants, to make our garden even better, and he got up on Sunday morning and quietly went out and planted them.

Thank you Matty!


The Thwarted Reader

My daughter is passionate about books.

She devoured the whole of Harry Potter before the end of Grade 2; she knows the Chanters of Tremaris novels off by heart. After finishing Little Women, she eagerly hunted down Good Wives and Little Men and consumed them too. Her favourite book, by a long stretch, is Around the World in 80 Days; the elaborate language and the complications of the plot delight and absorb her. As a voracious reader, as a writer, as a proud mum, I'm thrilled by her evident love and need for literature.

But - and it's a huge but - Alice can't read.

She's in Grade 3 now and probably reading at a Grade 1 level. Deciphering the simplest sentences is a frustrating battle. We're almost certain that she has dyslexia (which after all means nothing more than 'difficulty with reading and writing'). All these books that she consumes, she has experienced either through audio-books or by me reading to her. The gap between what she wants to read, and what she is able to read, is so enormous that it might be never be bridged.

We've tried it all. She's had eye tests and ear tests and coloured glasses. She's had expensive assessments which told us what we already knew - that she has trouble decoding written symbols into words. She's had tutoring, which she hated, and we tried an at-home reading program which crumbled after a few weeks. She had a year of wonderful literacy support at school, but that program is only funded up to the end of Grade 2. Fortunately this year she's had a fantastic classroom teacher, who understands how to motivate her, and plays to her strengths.

Because Alice does have strengths. She is articulate and creative. She's confident and fluent in giving oral presentations; she's inventive and original. She is well aware of her difficulties with literacy and is convinced she's stupid. At the end of Grade 1 she was so frustrated and miserable that she was almost suicidally depressed, slumped on the kitchen floor, asking, "What's the point of me? What's the point of being alive?'

Thankfully she is no longer in despair, but sometimes I am. I fear for her future, I panic that she's never going to get it, that she'll be crippled by this disability for the rest of her life. Sometimes I think she'll be okay, that she's bright enough and creative enough to find her own path; sometimes I think one day it will all click and she'll be fine; sometimes I comfort myself by observing that she is, slowly, making progress.

But it breaks my heart to witness my child - a naturally solitary, imaginative child, who craves stories, who feasts on language, a born reader by temperament - shut out from the wondrous garden of books by the cold iron bars of this mysterious inability. She loves books so much. I hope and pray with all my heart that one day, she can have all the books she yearns for.


Father's Sons and Mummy's Boys

Disclaimer: this post contains gross, unscientific generalisations

Watching a little of the Ben Cousins documentary last night (and I'm not going to comment on it further), I was struck by the strong relationship that evidently exists between Ben and his almost equally famous footballer father, Brian. At one point Brian described himself along the lines that he was "Ben's best friend, his mentor, his role model, his mate," and expressed the hope that Ben seeing the suffering that he was causing him, Brian, would be enough to jolt him out of his destructive behaviour.

I found this particularly interesting because I'd already been thinking about the differences between men who have a strong relationship with their fathers (whether loving or competitive, or both) and men who are more strongly attached to their mothers. Michael has often observed that he, and all his friends, are Mummy's boys - often youngest sons - who are closer to their mothers than their fathers. Traditionally, this has been true of most, if not all, of my male friends. I'm not sure that I even know any men who are close to their fathers.

Are there two types of men in the world? Russel Howcroft, the blokey, aggressive panellist on The Gruen Transfer, spoke in a recent weekend paper about the importance of his relationship with his late father; he says he thinks of him every day. Hm, I thought, he's a Dad's boy; I wonder if Todd Sampson (his "sensitive," more progressive fellow panellist) is a Mummy's boy? And lo and behold, in last week's Sunday Age, there was Todd talking about how his childhood was dominated by his strong, eccentric mother.

Sportsmen often seem to be father's sons. Many of the men I worked with in the music industry were also this type (if it is a type!) - aggressively masculine, competitive, trying to prove something. The mummy's boys, on the other hand, tend to be more comfortable in the company of women, less comfortable with conflict, and yes, some of them are gay.

So what do you think? Go on, shoot me down - please!


Colonial Days

As a teenager, I had a brief obsession with the British Raj. It was probably sparked by the screening of The Jewel In The Crown,  a lavish British mini-series (well, it was lavish for the 80s!) set in India in the last days of colonialism, and based on the Raj Quartet novels by Paul Scott, which I duly devoured, along with the poignant Staying On. It seemed to me to be a romantic, tragic, exotic period of history, tinged with melancholy yearning.

Once I arrived at university I was quickly disabused of the notion that there was anything romantic about colonial oppression. But it wasn't easy to abandon my fascination with the Raj and its casualties on both sides of the colonial fence.

What didn't occur to me until recently (well, yesterday, if you must know) was that my fascination with the Indian Raj was almost certainly related to my own experience as a member of a colonising power: the Australians in Papua New Guinea.

Most Australians aren't conscious that Australia was ever a colonial power. We don't think of ourselves as imperialists. And yet for seventy years, generations of administrators, bureaucrats and patrol officers ruled the Territory. Most were conscientious, most were paternalistic, some were brutal. Many loved this beautiful, exotic, secretive country more dearly than their own. Expatriate society in New Guinea was its own doomed little world, just like the British Raj, and when Independence came to PNG, there were many Australians set drift, lost between two cultures and unable to fit comfortably into either.

This is the world of Independence, my current work in progress. It's a hard novel to write because I feel so ambivalent about the undeniable costs of exercising colonial power, and the smaller, personal cost to those individuals caught in the machinery when it grinds to a halt, as it inevitably must. All those stories deserve to be told.


Meat Free

Evie was dictating a book to me yesterday. It's called A Dog's Life: Huskies, and is part of a projected series about the lives of animals (all to be eventually published by Allen & Unwin, or she hopes... *)

"Chapter 3, How A Husky Stays Healthy.
Us huskies have to stay healthy by eating, running, jumping and drinking. A husky normally gets cold, but to stay warm we huddle up to each other. It keeps me very warm. An Eskimo sometimes comes and feeds us doggy biscuits. Sometimes Eskimos give us Milo to keep us warm."

At this point I stopped and said, "You know what Huskies really eat, don't you?"
She clapped her hand over my mouth. "I know, I know, but don't say it!"

A couple of months ago, Evie became a vegetarian. "It's not fair to eat animals. They should be able to die when they want to, not be killed for us to eat them." It's hard to argue with her logic, and since Michael and I have both had vegetarian phases (Michael's lasted well over a decade), we don't feel that we can.

It's made life quite difficult though, because, like her father, she is a vegetarian who doesn't really like vegetables. Michael survived on beans and pulses, but Evie isn't a big fan of them either. At the moment I'm trying to load her up with eggs and cheese and smuggling vegies into her when I can. And she has been known to weaken for home-made chicken schnitzel strips.

I have to admire the strength of her convictions. She reminds us several times a day that "I'm a vegetarian!!" She's also decided, rather regretfully, that she can't in all conscience become a fashion designer either, in case she has to work with fur (though I assured her that it probably wouldn't be necessary.) She really does love animals, and not just the little plastic ones she collects. Interestingly, a few of her prep classmates have taken a similar stand.

I don't think I had any ideological convictions when I was six (except maybe about the inherent worth of lollies). Surely these thoughtful, caring little people are a hopeful sign for the future.

*You can break it to her, Onions!


Was This The Election We Had To Have?

A new day, and I'm feeling much more cheerful about our political situation. Now I've heard two of the independents speak, and they were surprisingly impressive. They seem to be sincere, thoughtful, smart, and genuine in their desire to do what's right, not for themselves - not even narrowly, for their own electorates - but what's best for the nation.

Is it possible that all politicians are like this? That if only the spin doctors and the party apparatchiks and the sensation-seeking journos would get out of the way, our MPs might actually make a decent fist of running the country?

Maybe what's happened is the best thing that could have happened. Maybe it will make the major parties look long and hard at the reasons why we couldn't, and didn't want to, choose between them. Maybe we will see a rebuilding of our political process. Perhaps we'll see the emergence of a political system that is more responsive, more authentic, less cynical.

That's what I'm hoping for this morning, anyway.


A Bad Night For Rangas

Last night in the car, we were talking about seat-belt laws or something and Evie piped up, 'But there isn't any government now!'

Anarchy! Bring it on!

I'm not sure how I feel this morning.

It's thrilling (and surely significant) that the Greens have earned their biggest ever share of the votes, and stand to have a real voice in deciding policy, no matter which side ends up forming a government.

But it's bitterly disappointing that both the major parties conducted such negative, shallow campaigns when there are so many issues of real substance and urgency facing us (climate change, anyone? Indigenous issues? Didn't hear a peep). No wonder informal votes were at an all-time high: a pox on both your houses, seemed to be the prevailing feeling. "Liberal or Laboral?" to quote Evie again.

And to cap it all off, the Western Bulldogs were hopeless on Saturday night, and Cooney's done his hamstring.

What a great weekend!


* * * STOP PRESS * * *

International Beard Appreciation Day has been cancelled. At least, postponed till next year.

I can hear your groans of disappointment from here. Never mind, we will all get a chance to put on fake beards in 2011.
Starting in the Wrong Place

They say that you ought to start with character. Know your protagonist; know how they eat breakfast, know their hopes and fears; then make bad things happen to them. Make their worst nightmares come true.

Excellent advice. Except that I've realised that I never work like that. I've always found those "get to know your character" exercises artificial and mystifying. I feel as if I'm inventing stuff for the sake of it. Those characters, assembled from desires and needs and physical quirks, feel as if they're put together like robots, and like robots, they never really come alive. (This is just me, I hasten to say, I'm sure this approach does work for lots of writers.)

I've realised that where I start, almost invariably, is with a place.

I wrote pages of notes about Tremaris before I knew anything about Calwyn or Darrow or Samis or Halasaa. Calwyn and Darrow appeared in my head as figures in the scenery. I saw the Art Deco architecture of Eloise's abandoned house in Cicada Summer, long before I knew anything about Eloise's history. And Crow Country grew out of a determination to write a fantasy set in the Australian landscape; I had at least three separate plots and sets of characters before the story settled in its current form.

And now I'm wrestling with the New Guinea book. All I've known for certain about it for the past year or so is where it's set - in the Highlands of PNG, in the last days before Independence, in the weird cocooned expatriate society that existed in the 1970s.

I've had three characters dancing around each other, but I couldn't bring them into focus. Their personalities, their hopes and fears, were all blurry to me, I couldn't quite make them gel in relation to each other, their conversations and interactions didn't quite work. Was my girl protag too angry? Was my older male protag too breezy, my younger one too shy? I swapped their personalities, reinvented them, threw them away, changed their genders and their names (names matter!), resurrected them in altered form.

And now, at last, I think I can see Julie and Simon and Andy clearly. I can hear their voices. I'm digging out scenes I wrote six months ago and thinking, that's not too bad. If I tweak this piece of dialogue... if I change the voice a little... I can still use this stuff.

And who makes these rules, anyway?


Beards For Babies

For those of you who are not aware, Ben Hudson, the magnificent ruckman of the Western Bulldogs, is the official Guardian of The People's Beard, and what a beard it is.

To celebrate beardiness and raise beard awareness, Saturday 28th August has been declared International Ben Hudson's Beard Appreciation Day, aka Beards For Babies.*

That's right, you too can come along to the Western Bulldogs v Essendon game on Saturday night, buy a beard (and wear it!) and raise money to support the sterling work of Tweddle, an early parenting centre located in Footscray, right near the Whitten Oval, who assist parents with young children who need support.

Hoorah for Beards! Hoorah for Bulldogs! Hoorah for babies!

(And hoorah for the very very clever First Dog on the Moon, whose brainchild this event is.)

* Let's hope the Bulldogs are all over the flu by then. Imagine having the flu, then being asked to go out and play four quarters of grinding football, like they did last Sunday. In the pouring rain. In Adelaide. Jeez, those boys are tough! And they won!!


Why I Love Getting Emails From People Who Have Read My Books

This one came last week:
Dear Kate,
I was wondering if you would talk to Mattel and ask them to make barbie dolls from The Chanters of Tremaris Trilogy like: Calwyn, Darrow, Tonno, Xanni, Samis, Mica, Trout, Marna, Tamen, Ursca, Halassa, Heben and the twins, Keela, Gilly, and the other children from the palace of cobwebs. If you do and they agree than could you have them make different versions of the dolls from the different books. And could you also have them make different outfits for them when they changed their outfits within the book. And one more thing you should help design the dolls so they don't mess up. I'm sorry if I sound bossy. Thank you.

Bless. Seriously, how much fun would that be??


A (Slightly) Free Range Birthday
Alice decided that this year her birthday was to be a Day in the Forest. So we borrowed a big car and took a handful of friends to the Ferntree Gully National Park.

First we had a scavenger hunt and some exploring...

... and then a picnic...

... followed by cake and pinata at Alice's grandparents' house (conveniently located just up the hill).

Afterwards, we had intended to visit William Ricketts' Sanctuary, but it began to rain, so we took them for milkshakes in the village instead, and then gave them 50 cents each to spend on a knickknack stall at the weekend market...

... then we drove five slightly damp but very happy little people home again.

And the next day, we got Rex!Best. Birthday. Ever.


Goodbye Betty

Betty Collins was one of the loveliest women I have ever known. Unfailingly kind, generous and positive, she was the kind of person who made you feel better just by walking into the room. She trained and worked as a pharmacist in an era where such a career was extremely unusual for a woman. She faced many hardships, including the sudden death of one husband and the slow decline of another, with faith, cheerfulness and courage. She was a dearly loved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and a loving and thoughtful friend to many. She died last week on her 81st birthday.

She was the mother of my friend David, and Michael's friend Marg. If not for Betty, Michael and I would never have met, so I have particular reason to be grateful to her. But I'm also grateful just for having known her. Thank you, Betty.


Weekend in Boort

Mikey checking out the old railway station.

The top of my head, with the main street as backdrop.

The all important war memorial. This one, unusually, lists only those soldiers killed in conflict, not all those who served. Those names are listed beneath a mural on the wall of the RSL building down the hill.

Cracked mud under a bridge over the creek. This shot turned out a lot more arty than I'd intended!
Trees near Little Boort Lake. We walked all the way around it. Twice. There's not a lot to do in Boort on a Saturday afternoon when there's no footy on...

View of the lake from the window of our B&B. It was so peaceful, we could hear frogs croaking all night. And there were birds everywhere - swans and ducks and galahs and cockatoos and wrens - there were lots of others but I didn't know their names. And of course there were crows...

One of the many scarred trees by the lake. Boort was once an Aboriginal meeting place, and the people would remove long scoops of bark from the trees to make canoes, shields, containers and baby-carriers. Boort means 'smoke on the hill' - a signal for meeting, perhaps.

We made a visit to the cemetery, too. Mikey searched for fallen diggers, and found a few. Lucky we didn't bring the girls, I don't think they find old country cemeteries as fascinating as we do.

We also investigated a 'dry' lake that wasn't as dry as it was supposed to be. We spent the next three hours scraping mud off our shoes.

So why did we drive for three and a half hours to spend a night in beautiful, historic, isolated Boort? You'll have to wait and see...



Cicada Summer has been shortlisted for the 2010 Prime Minister's Literary Awards, the first time children's and young adult fiction has been included. You can find the full lists here.

The shortlists were announced yesterday at Readings bookshop in Carlton, by the (extremely tall) Minister for the Arts (and lots of other things) Peter Garrett. That's me in the front, fitting snugly under the Minister's armpit.

It's such a tremendous honour to be included in lists featuring such kid- and YA-lit luminaries, but most of all I am pleased for Cicada Summer itself, if that makes sense. Though it touches on big themes (grief and loss, family and friendship, growth and change and trust), Cicada Summer is in some ways such a small shy book that I was always a little worried it might be overshadowed by flashier, noisier stories. It's like seeing your quiet, introverted child being led out onto the dance floor to glow, just for a moment, in the spotlight.


I Dig Time Lords, Too...

When I came across Chicks Dig Time Lords (via Lizbee's blog -- see, good things do come from googling oneself...) I knew I had to have it. This is a book about me, I thought. And lo, I sent away for it, and it hath arriveth, and I hath eagerly read it.

And discovered, no, it isn't about me after all. This is overwhelmingly a book about Fans of Doctor Who. And I've realised that I am a mere fan, not a fangirl. Squees and shipping and zines and cons and New Adventures have never been part of my experience of adoring Doctor Who; my long and loving relationship with the show has lived behind closed doors, inside my mind, and for the most part, secretly. I never felt that need to share my devotion -- only once, at high school, with one other friend, did I reveal the true extent of my secret life (hello FE, if you're out there).

Because my love has been solitary rather than communal, is it any less real? The mythology of the Doctor has been part of my identity since I was thirteen. I know I'm not the only person who's imagined their own version of the Doctor's story. I never identified with the Doctor myself, or with any particular companion, but invented my own companion and constructed an elaborate story arc around her.*

My high school friend and I referred to our secret life as "etcetera." Etcetera was extra, a parallel existence. The closest I came to fanfic was writing about Calwyn and Darrow's relationship in the Tremaris books. Yes, there was a little pinch of the Doctor in Darrow, and a little smidge of "her" in Calwyn, though they soon developed their own independent lives.

So I guess I'm not a true fan, even though the world of the Doctor is such a part of my own history; I must be something else, something less, something merely partial. A borrower, a visitor in another's world. I've knitted my own scarf out of the Doctor's wool; but it still keeps me warm.

And hey, the TARDIS is a big place. There's plenty of room for all of us.

*Yes, her -- not me, not exactly. She was a princess, for a start, and from another planet. She didn't have my name. And she'd mastered temporal mechanics and developed her own means of time/space transport. In fact the more I think about it the more I realise she was modelled on Romana -- an equal, not a hanger-on, not a damsel in distress. And her adventures weren't restricted to travelling with the Doctor (though he was certainly a handy way of accessing other worlds).


On the Irresistibility of Sand and Water

So we went to the beach.

We were invited for a couple of days to a friend's family beach house at Jan Juc, and I forgot to bring a camera. But we went to the same beach at the same time last year, and once again the three girls were drawn to the magic combination of running water, wet sand, stones and sticks.

Just imagine everyone slightly bigger, and with longer hair, and the banks of the stream not quite so steep, and Alice with a different hat, and you'll have a pretty accurate picture of how they spent every morning.

Liz wondered if the urge to alter the course of running water is hard-wired, or if it's culturally determined -- are there any societies in the world where children don't feel compelled to build a dam or dig a deeper channel? I suspect it's a primal instinct. No matter how cold or wet their feet became, how raw their hands from digging and scraping, they couldn't keep away.


Why Rewriting Takes So Long

It's a funny old job, being a writer.

Sometimes it's like flying; sometimes like pulling teeth. Sometimes it's like playing an endless game of "let's pretend". And sometimes it's like trying to put together a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle -- disturb one piece and the whole edifice comes crashing down.

Little do editors and other commentators realise the havoc they can wreak with their helpful suggestions. Recently one reader of my WIP suggested setting the action in a real small town in central Victoria which spookily matches the description of the fictional village in the manuscript. Great idea, embedding the story firmly in a real landscape (which is an important element of the book).

But -- if they live in X, why doesn't my protagonist go to the real high school there? Why doesn't her mother work at the real hospital in town, instead of miles away? The nearest regional centre is now an hour and a half away, rather than the conveniently fuzzy "about an hour" of the (fictional) big town in the original version. There's a real footy club, with its own colours and rivalries, different from the ones I invented. Where is the war memorial in this town? Where is the football ground? Every time my protagonist goes for a walk, I have to adjust my mental geography.

It's a fine line between adhering to reality and letting the edges blur, and everyone draws that line in a different place. I have no problem creating a fictional family to be the stalwarts of the footy club or the major landowners of the district, nor with shifting trees and even lakes around to suit my story, but it nags at me that Sadie's bus ride to school is now way too long. I think I might send her to the local school after all. But then I need to invent a plausible reason for her to meet her mum in the big town... And that conversation in chapter 7 doesn't make sense any more... But if I change that, I have to change that scene in the restaurant...

And the dominoes topple, one by one. You just have to have faith that when you've patiently picked them all up and fitted them back together, it makes something better than what you started with.

PS If you're interested, there is a thoughtful discussion of Winter of Grace here. Thank you, Lizbee.


Pieces of Nana

Today might have been my grandmother's 105th birthday (there was some confusion about whether her birthdate was actually the 16th or 17th June).

Doris Alice McCulloch was tiny, tough and stubborn. Having survived the Depression, she abhored waste; she kept a basket of half-dead batteries near her radio and rotated them, eking out the last spark of life in each rather than throw it away. She re-used teabags. Before her marriage, in the 1920s, she worked in the rag trade in Flinders Lane, and sometimes used to model the clothes for clients. (Maybe she modelled some of Phryne Fisher's fabulous outfits?) She was a keen amateur actor; she won elocution prizes, performed radio plays and toured country towns with a drama troupe.

At 80, Nana moved into a granny flat attached to my parents' house just as I was moving out. I picked up her armchairs, some saucepans, an antique stove-top coffee-maker (later broken by a careless housemate who didn't even have the decency to confess his crime).

I still have some relics of Nana: her sewing basket, complete with wooden darning mushroom; a china jug; an elocution medal; a book of household remedies called "Consult Me For Everything You Want To Know." But this week, I broke the knob off the lid of Nana's old saucepan that I've been using for the past 25 years, and I felt sad -- one of the last links to my grandmother is about to disappear from my daily life.

But then Alice came down from the attic brandishing a fur hat. "Can I wear this?" The same question I asked Nana when I rescued it from the top of her wardrobe as an 18 year old.

From hand to hand, down the generations, things pass on. Not the things you expect, not jewels or furniture or works of art -- what survives is a funny old hat, a vanity case, a darning mushroom. And I wonder what objects of mine my own grandchildren might end up with?

Happy birthday, Nana. Alice looks great in your hat.