Working Spaces

One of the most appealing features of this house when we bought it was the detached (but fully wired up) bungalow in the backyard, which the previous owners had used as an artist's studio. Low ceilinged, but with three windows, it was cosy but full of light, and I instantly claimed it as my study. We painted and carpeted the room and hung up some pictures. It was big enough to double as a spare bedroom, with a double bed, and also fit in several bookcases.

I wrote a handful of books in this room. It had drawbacks; I had to trek across to the house to make a cuppa or go to the loo, or check my emails, and it was very stuffy in summer. Also spiders loved it -- big spiders. But the room's great attraction was its separateness from the main house; even though it was only a few steps away, the psychological distance was significant. I would shut that door, and I was At Work. Not to be disturbed.

Then a few things happened. My younger daughter started school, and we built an extra living space onto the back of the house. This brought the bungalow much closer to the house (well, it brought the back door much closer to the bungalow), reducing the sense of separation. While the builders were working, I retreated to the front of the house with all the intervening doors closed to escape the noise and disruption. I started working on my bed in the front room, with my laptop on my lap. I quite enjoyed this position, in fact this is where I'm sitting right now. The front bedroom faces north and the winter sun streams gloriously through the window, and the view of the wattles in the front garden is uplifting. Also, working in bed (or on bed) feels so decadent, so Nancy Mitford.

When the back room was finished, I took my laptop to the brand new window seat and started working there. I loved the triangular cushion that propped my back at what Stephen Fry assures me is the ideal 45 degree angle. I loved staring out at the trees and the greenery, and the little birds darting down to the birdbath. I wrote most of New Guinea Moon on the window seat.

I had the whole house to myself during the school day, so there was no need to run away to the bungalow to find peace and privacy. The whole house was my workplace! But on the other hand, I missed having a dedicated space where I could dump reference books or papers and be sure that no one would move them. Also, on some days, the living room was so messy that I'd have to spend a precious hour tidying up before I could relax and start working.

So now that the novelty of the window seat has worn off, I'm finding myself craving the luxury of a separate study again. There are a couple of problems: my old table has been co-opted as the kitchen table, and I dislike the heavy, cramped desk that is currently sitting out in the bungalow. I can't wriggle my legs around under that desk, it oppresses me. But it seems wicked to buy a new one. The furniture has been rearranged so that the view from the desk is now gazing back at the house -- boring weatherboards, no glimpse of garden. We'd have to shift everything around again. And a lot more junk has found its way out there in the intervening years -- boxes and a weight bench and an uncomfortable couch. It feels crowded out there now.

But I think I want it back.


The Sound of My Own Voice

So it seems that my days of reading aloud might be almost over.

Since Alice was born, nearly twelve years ago, I have read to my children. Reading aloud was especially important to Alice because for a long time, her dyslexia denied her the books that she most wanted to consume -- books like Agatha Christie, Harry Potter, Little Women, PG Wodehouse. Audiobooks at bed-time have always been a part of our family ritual too, but the cry of 'Read to me, Mummy!' or more simply, 'Read-y!' would ring through our house several times a day. I must have spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours, reading aloud.

But now Alice's reading has improved to the point where she can read Harry Potter on her own and research websites about pet rabbits for hours on end. She still needs audiobooks, but she doesn't ask me to read to her any more. Evie has been an independent reader since she taught herself to read in kindergarten; now she ploughs intently through multi-volume sagas about clans of warrior cats in a forest, or tribes of lost dragons, and taps out her own versions on the laptop at top speed.

For a while, the girls liked me to read to them while they were in the bath. I must admit I resisted this, because, frankly, it's bloody cold and uncomfortable in our bathroom, unless you're the one sitting in waist-deep hot water. So gradually I stopped; and now they're too modest to want me in there anyway; and now the habit's broken, and it just doesn't seem to happen any more.

Perhaps the last hurrah of reading aloud was our last family holiday in WA, where I read several volumes of Ivy and Bean to both girls, in quiet moments between excursions. The other book that both girls loved and begged for was 101 Dalmatians, which I must have read to them four or five times.

Maybe reading aloud will be a holiday thing now. Maybe when the next holidays come up, I might pull out The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and give that a whirl. Maybe I could even get Michael to listen in to that one.


Back to the Well

It's weird re-reading books that you wrote yourself. Of course when you're actually working on them, you read and read again: combing through the words, rearranging plot strands, smoothing out an awkward sentence here, embroidering a metaphor there. You know the paragraphs almost by heart, you've typed and re-typed them so often. You scan the manuscript anxiously, trying to hold the wide view in your mind; you peer closely at each line when it's time to proof-read, pouncing on each word that's slipped out of place.

And then it's gone. Out of your hands. Off to the printer, and out into the world and the (hopefully) eager hands of its readers. And after that, to be brutally honest, you never look at it again. By then you're already immersed in the next project; there's no reason to look back.

I wrote the first draft of The Singer of All Songs in 1999, in an Art Deco flat in Prahran. I'd just moved in with Michael; it was before babies, before we bought a house together. It feels like a lifetime ago. By the time it was published, we were living in Thornbury and there were three of us.

I've heard snatches of the Chanters stories in the years since then, because Alice and Evie have listened to the audiobooks many times. It's always been a disconcerting experience, to hear my own words rolling out through the car stereo, in the voice of the actress reading them. One phrase became a family joke, always rendered in a heavy American accent: Come on, you miserable worms! Wriggle out and get your dinner! But apart from that, I've never gone back and actually read the whole trilogy.

It's been a very odd experience. It's so long since I worked on these books, I couldn't quite remember what happened. I'd forgotten that one climactic twist that I'd planned had disappeared in the re-write, so the actual finale came as a true surprise. I got a lump in my throat when sad things happened. I found myself barracking for Calwyn and Darrow to get over their angst and snog already! I read descriptions of Tremaris as if I'd never read them before. I made myself laugh at dialogue I'd forgotten writing. And it was kind of cool.

And I remembered how much I loved living in this world of magic and adventure and romance. I think I want to go back there. It feels as if I've never been away.


Book Buyers Anonymous

My financial advisor (aka my husband) asked me the other day, 'How much do you think you've spent on books this year?'*

'Um, dunno.' I offered the hugest sum I could imagine. '$300?'


'What? Er, that is quite a lot, isn't it.'

It's funny how quickly it adds up. A bagful of second hand books from the library book sale here; a handful from Brown and Bunting there. A visit to a literature festival and you pick up a few books by the writers you've just made friends with, because, well, now you're interested. (My publisher once said to me, it's almost a self-sustaining industry... almost!) Bought a Kindle a few months ago and it's just so easy to idly look up a book, so easy to idly click BUY. Drop into that funny remainders shop in Tooradin on our way to visit friends in the country, and buy a book each -- it's a ritual! Birthdays and Christmas require presents, and what better gift than a lovely new book? Attend a book launch, and it's only polite to buy a copy of the book. Check out that rare title on Book Depository; never seen it for a lower price, better grab it now! Got a book group meeting coming up, must get hold of that one we're reading.

And before you know it, the Books column of the expenditure spreadsheet is into four figures, and you have a Serious Habit.

As vices go, I guess it's better than smoking.

* That's this financial year; in his world, the year runs from 1st July to 30th June.


Being A Writer When You're Not Actually Writing

So this week I was on the Sunshine Coast, at the Voices on the Coast Literature Festival. This was the view from my window in the morning:
Over three days I got to hang out with some lovely authors I'd met before, and made friends with some I didn't know. I gave six talks to groups of sweet and responsive kids, several of whom bought my books afterwards and got me to sign them, and some of whom told me that they had already read one (or more) and really loved it (or them). I arrived home last night exhausted but very happy.

The weird thing is that I have done quite a few of these events now, and every time, before I leave, I get so nervous that I throw up.

It's not the public speaking. I love talking about my books! That's fun.
It's not the socializing (though I am shy and I do get anxious before meeting new people).

I thought about this really hard and I realised what I'm most nervous about before these trips is the actual travelling. What if I can't check in; will I be able to find the bus at the other end; what if I don't know when to get off? It's the same if I'm driving myself to a gig. I fret about whether I'll get lost; will I make it there on time; will I find a parking spot, and if I do, will I be able to get into it?

What this fear boils down to, is that I will get into trouble somehow and have to Ask A Stranger For Assistance. This idea sends shivers of dread down my spine. I know it doesn't make sense, but there you go.

On a related but slightly different topic, it so happens that while I was away, I was reading a book about introverts (drained by spending time with people) and extroverts (energised by spending time with people): Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won't Stop Talking. I suspect that most, but not all, authors are introverts. So at the end of a day spent talking about ourselves or giving workshops, chatting to people we don't know well or have only just met, and mingling with festival organisers and sponsors, it's no wonder that we all stagger off the bus and collapse in a catatonic heap, unable to speak or move. It's a lovely experience, but, boy, it is fatiguing.