Be the fan you wish you had

Writers at Writing NSW
Here’s something I’m ashamed to admit: when I moved to Australia several years ago, I’d never read an Australian author. It wasn’t a purposeful omission. I grew up in small-town Canada, reading mostly Americans and Brits.

It wasn’t the move across the Pacific that changed my habits; it was my decision to pursue writing seriously. I assumed the quality of my writing was the only relevant factor in getting published. It wasn’t, of course, and I learned that at an event at Writing NSW. I’d thought my attendance would be a one-time only commitment: I’ll just spend a day learning about the publishing industry, then go home and get my book published.

I did learn a few industry tips that day but, more importantly, I was introduced to a cornucopia of local writers. This was my first awareness of what Walter Mason referred to as the ‘writing ecosphere’ in his article, ‘How to Be a Literary Citizen’. Mason suggests ways to be a better literary citizen and support the writing community: buy new books — from local bookshops — and read them, subscribe to literary magazines, attend author events, be a fan and campaigner, and embrace generosity.
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By the time Mason’s article appeared in Newswrite, I’d at least started reading local authors. But his suggestions made me realise there was much more I could be doing, and maybe it would help me towards getting published, as it did for Mason. I decided to dedicate a year to following his advice: in effect, I’d give this ‘supporting others’ thing a try to see if it would pay off for me.

A lot of Mason’s advice is straightforward and simple. I immediately subscribed to a few literary magazines I’d been reading online. Having their issues show up in my home as physical objects with heft and texture made their contents more memorable (especially compared to the endless blur of online reading). I got a better sense of what I might pitch to each and even did so successfully.

I scrutinised my reading and shopping habits. On the list where I track my ‘books read’, year by year, I began to highlight the Australian authors in yellow. Over the last year, almost every entry has been as close in shade to golden wattle as Microsoft provides.
Now I specifically buy Australian authors. To increase the number of local books I could purchase, I started giving my favourite local authors’ books as gifts. Not sometimes, but for most gifts I give.

When I mailed my sister an autographed copy of Zoë Norton Lodge’s Almost Sincerely, she wrote to say, ‘I adore that you had the author sign it for me. Even if I don’t like it, that makes it a definite keeper!’ She’d never had a signed copy before — maybe lots of people haven’t.

Attending a lot of author events, usually one a week, has taught me what works for me. Let’s be honest: I’m shy and am pretty sure people can see the word ‘awkward’ tattooed on my face. I feel more encouraged at smaller author events, where there’s a better sense of community than at larger festivals.

At library talks and bookshop readings there’s much more opportunity to interact with authors. I’ve made some of my best connections this way, including Walter Mason himself, who I first met at a book launch. But I’ve also been able to meet other attendees who are inspired by the same authors, and even ended up in my current writers’ group due to a connection I made at a writing event.

Mason describes the schedule of help and promotion he keeps, his Spreadsheet of Loving Kindness. I decided to try it for myself. There’s a reason it’s a spreadsheet, I discovered. It takes some organisation to pull off. It wasn’t an organic process, but a plotted one. I compiled a list of people I knew who were doing great things and started going through it person by person.

This was time-consuming. I often left it to the weekend, then scheduled a series of posts for the week. This did get me some social media engagement, and it was a great way to keep on top of all the interesting things my favourite people were doing. But scheduling my posts risked making them routine and predictable. Organisation stripped the spontaneity.

Another of Mason’s key points is to embrace generosity, to ‘be the fan you wish you had’. So, instead of giving up when things get challenging, I need to experiment with ways to bring more spontaneity and fun into my efforts.

At the heart of Mason’s article was the idea that if you’re aiming to get published, your efforts to support the writing ecosphere might end up helping you, as they did for Mason himself — and as they eventually did for me. But beyond getting published, everything else else I’ve gained is even more important to me.

I’ve discovered a community of people I connect with, made wonderful friends, learned a lot and felt inspired. My passion ended up leading me to a job that I love. And I feel more at home in the world and confident in myself. In writing this, there was no other way it could turn out than as a love letter to the Australian writing community.


A version of this article was first published in Newswrite back in 2016, before the chronic fatigue hit. Since then, it’s been hard to get to writing events; evenings are difficult, and my energy can be erratic. I’ve missed so many book launches and author talks. But I’m trying to find ways to become more involved in the community again.

Along with author Amanda Ortlepp, I’ve running a monthly writing meet-up. It’s free, you just need to be a member of Writing NSW. You can rsvp for upcoming dates via my events page. If you’re a Sydney-based writer, it’d be great to meet you there. Otherwise, find me online and say hi!

PS. Walter Mason is doing a talk at the Theosophical Society on 20 November. Check it out!

 

Hollywood’s great kookaburra con

Vivid lights on Sydney Harbour Bridge, blurred24 May 2018 [journal excerpts]
In the latest Jurassic Park, in the first establishing shot of the jungle, there’s the sound of a kookaburra call. We’re supposed to think it’s monkeys. I’ve noticed this in other US films as well. So I finally looked it up online and yes, this a Hollywood trope, the kookaburra call used for jungle scene setting. At some point, some Hollywood sound tech decided that kookaburras sounded more like monkeys than monkeys themselves do, and I was part of a generation raised with that lie.

Steve and I were sitting on the balcony discussing this today when a kookaburra flew right past, laughing! I’ve never seen a kookaburra fly that close to our apartment; usually they’re across the valley at least. But also, the timing.     

1 June 2018
Quite confident the bus driver this morning had never driven a bus before. Or any other vehicle. At one point before the last stop, he looked back, as if to check that everyone had gotten off. He gave me a really heavy look, then turned forward and continued with the route, as if my presence had foiled his plan to abscond with the bus.

4 June 2018
I feel down today. Not fatigued, just disengaged. I don’t know why. Self-doubt, maybe. Phoniness. So many useless feelings. Also there were weevils in my breakfast.

20 June 2018
I hate socks. Does anyone like them? Who wants cloth tubes twisting around their feet and crushing their ankles?

26 June 2018
Conversations about chronic fatigue
Me: It’s hard because I used to be very social and active.
Woman at social gathering: And that’s why you’ve got chronic fatigue.
Me: Uh …

At the pool, Steve swimming, me sitting on the edge.
Neighbour: What’s wrong?
Me: I can’t exercise, I’m sick.
Neighbour: Oh, I thought you’d broken your ankle or something.
Me: I wish.

Me: I’m not at the office much these days because I have chronic fatigue.
Man: Are you a vegetarian? Because I was a vegetarian for ten years and then I got chronic fatigue because I wasn’t getting the right balance of amino acids.
Me: Ah, no, my diet’s fine.
Man: So you’re not getting enough sleep?

I feel compelled to tell people I have a chronic illness because I need to justify to myself my dereliction of life. But it leaves me open to conversations like that. I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve, but now it seems like everything else is pinned there as well. My pancreas, my liver, my endocrine system. Everything. 

 

But have you tried eating mummified flesh?

One of the recovery strategies the doctors gave me for chronic fatigue was tracking my step count as a proxy for the amount of physical activity I can do in a day. “It’s not exact,” one of the doctors said. “You could spend a day on a stool painting a wall, and obviously your steps wouldn’t reflect that.”

I haven’t painted any walls since I got sick. But I have tracked my steps every day since January 2018.
Chronic fatigue syndrome 2019 step count recovery strategy

The first half of the chart shows a clear upward trend. The second half gets messier. There’s a lot more up and down. Some days are great. I broke a new post-illness step count record in September. I just never know when I wake up if it will be a good day or a flu-y, brain-fogged struggle.

I have high and low energy (the ‘boom and bust’ characteristic of chronic fatigue) on a day-to-day level, but I also now seem to have it on a macro level. I’ll have six terrible weeks, and then four pretty good weeks. So depending on when you talk to me, I might say that I’m feeling despondent about how ill I still am, or excited about how much better I’m getting. Both are accurate.

What I am feeling genuinely great about is that I’m alive and ill in Australia in the 2000s, and not in, say, Europe in the 1400s, when the cure-all craze was mummified human flesh.

Medieval Europeans believed that ground up human mummy could be consumed or even applied directly to wounds to cure everything from nausea to epilepsy. It grew so popular that Egypt began to run short of mummies, and entrepreneurs in Europe started taking bodies from cemeteries to create their own mumia.

This completely ineffectual health fad went on for hundreds of years, and I can just imagine, if I’d lived in Europe back then, how many well-intentioned people would have gotten in touch with me to ask if I’d tried treating my chronic fatigue with mumia.

And the thing is, I definitely would have tried it.

 

The latest great reads

A while ago, I started a list of great reads. I’m adding new books as I discover them, as well as books I read years ago and loved.

The list reveals that I’m an eclectic reader, flitting between fiction and non-fiction, literary works and lighter stories. I read different genres for different reasons. I don’t hold all books to the same standard. I might recommend one book because it’s incredibly entertaining, another because the writing is sublime, and another for the fascinating perspectives it explores.

Here are the latest additions.

Author Tamim Ansary cover
I read this book the first time for a clearer sense of world history and today’s geopolitics. But it’s one of the rare books I re-read, and that’s because of Ansary’s wonderful writing, his skill at weaving small details into the broad scope of historical events. At one point, he describes a cannon built for the Ottoman army that could fire a 1200-pound granite stone a mile. The cannon was so inaccurate, it missed the entire city it was aimed at, but this, Ansary notes, was beside the point. (Ansary himself reads the audio version, which really picks up on the humour in his anecdotes.)

~

Author Toni Jordan cover

I brought this on writing retreat in rural NSW this year, which was a mistake. I kept telling myself “just one more chapter,” until I eventually had to finish the book so I could get back to work.

~

Author Vicki Laveau-Harvie

Rarely do I manage to read prize-winning books in the year that they win their prizes; I’m always a little behind the curve. But I’m so glad I read The Erratics a few months after Laveau-Harvie won the Stella Prize, and attended a talk she gave. A fellow Canadian, she is as direct and wry in person as in her writing.

~

Author Walter Mason cover

Anyone who talks to me for five minutes knows I’m a huge fan of Walter Mason. His books are wonderful, and he gives excellent talks on a variety of topics. Walter is one of those rare speakers who can take any topic and make it whimsical and entertaining.

~

Author Tara Westover

After hearing many people recommend it, what made me seek this book out was Emily Maguire’s reference to it during the fabulous speech she made at my book launch. The connection she made resonated even more after reading Westover’s story.

 

Looking to buy mermaids in Melbourne?

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Walking through the Melbourne CBD, I passed a shopfront that had a plastic (I assume) skeleton posed inside one of the glass doors. The skeleton peered out, with its hand on the handle, like it was about to stroll onto the street.

The shop billed itself as a purveyor of “scientific curiosities”. I went in and turned to the first glass display case, a tall one beside the door. The guy working there appeared from another room and asked how I was going. I was saying the word “fine” as I looked at the glass case.

“Fine” isn’t a long word, but my voice caught in the middle of it, and it came out with a strangled upward inflection. Right as I was speaking, I caught sight of a spherical glass container, the size of a softball, that contained a preserved puppy corpse.

The puppy looked like a bulldog, or maybe a bull terrier, white fur with black patches. Its eyes were closed, and it was curled foetally, to fit the sphere. The liquid it floated in was clear, not cloudy the way formaldehyde normally is. (Maybe the formaldehyde – and the puppy – were fresh.)

The dude asked me if there was anything he could help me with.

“I’m just looking. Unless you have anything particularly interesting?” I was giving the guy an open invitation to show me his favourite oddities.

“No, things are just how they look.”

“Right, yeah, I just caught sight of the puppy. Is it … just for aesthetics?”

He looked at me strangely.

“Like, there’s no scientific purpose?”

“Nope, it’s just a puppy corpse.” He paused before adding, “Stillborn.”

The puppy ball cost $495.

The shop is Wunderkammer, and their tagline is “chamber of wonders.” They offer an explanatory pamphlet that notes, “The word ‘wunderkammer’ translates as ‘wonder-chamber’. The term is German, although collections of curiosities have existed in Italy since as early as the 16th century. These were the first museums and housed both the familiar museum fare such as natural specimens, coins and minerals, as well as more aberrant and miraculous objects, such as religious reliquaries, double apples, ‘mermaids’ and the like.”

I regret not asking if they had any mermaids in stock.

Some things Wunderkammer did have in stock during my visit:
– a mummified fox and rabbit in a shadow box
– preserved crocodile feet
– a Singapore ball (a type of mace in which the spikes retract)
– a taxidermied porcupine
– a dissected frog, its organs neatly labelled, under glass
– a ‘Breast Believer’ pump in its original cardboard box (I couldn’t figure out what this was, even after several minutes of googling)
– a Hamilton bone drill
– a taxidermied bat impaled on a metal pole, wings spread wide, mouth open as if screaming (probably because of the pole shoved up its butt)

The last time I was in Melbourne, I stumbled upon the secret headquarters of the Royal Over-Seas League, and discovered the perfect epitaph. I didn’t think a second Melbourne visit could beat that. But Wunderkammer decidedly did.

Then I discovered that Melbourne’s fire truck sirens sound like they’re shooting lasers. Pew pew pew! 

We also visited the Melbourne Zoo, and in talking about it with friends later, learned of two separate incidences of people (men) breaking into the zoo’s lion enclosure.

In 1989, an adult karate student broke into the den in the middle of the night in an attempt to test his martial arts skills by fighting the lions. Zoo officials found what was left of him the next morning.

Then in 2004, a man broke into the lion enclosure during the zoo’s opening hours. The crowd watched him pull a Bible from his bag, hold it over his head, and invite them to join him and pat the lions.

When an Age reporter later enquired about how much danger the man had been in, a zoo spokesperson gave the best official response: “They are large male lions and there are four of them, so I’m sure you can work that out for yourself.”

And finally, my absolute favourite thing on this trip: a barista with the image of an evergreen air freshener tattooed on her forearm.

 

If a snake wants you, he’ll get you

One of my absolute favourite books this year has been John Cann’s The Last Snake Man. I wrote about it for the Newtown Review of Books, describing how it charts the evolution of snake shows in Australia, dating back to the early 20th century, through the life of Cann and his father, George.

George didn’t start the La Perouse Snake Show, but he did make it a Sydney institution. His sons eventually took over the weekly show, and even since they’ve retired, the snake show still runs every Sunday at 1:30pm in the city’s south east.   La Perouse Snake Show Sydney Australia
There’s nothing brilliant in the writing of The Last Snake Man. It reads like a bloke chatting with you over beers. At times, it can be a bit self-indulgent, and occasionally reveals slightly outdated prejudices (though Cann was more progressive than many of his generation). Put all that aside though, and this is an fantastically entertaining piece of Australiana.

Take this anecdote from George’s days as a snakey: ‘It wasn’t enough to be able to work with snakes, he also had to work the crowd, especially when snake shows attracted more than their fair share of drunks.

‘On one occasion a foul-mouthed blowhard was loudly pouring scorn on the dangers from snakebites, so Pop waited till he was distracted and clamped a harmless blue-tongue lizard on his hand. The drunk started screaming and flailing around, much to the entertainment of the assembled crowd. ‘

Another great anecdote I couldn’t pack into my review: ‘In the old days, some snakeys had tiger and black snakes that had calmed down so much they could put them around their necks or put their heads in their mouths, albeit with great care. Those tricks, which would never be done now, were performed by at least three of the early showmen I knew of – and one of them was my pop … until a black snake bit him on the tongue. His mouth swelled badly and Mum had to feed him soup or water through a straw for days.’

As you’d expect, Cann is full of quippy snake advice, such as this gem: ‘Some snake handlers think they’re too smart for snakes – they’re the ones who usually find out the hard way that if a snake wants you, he’ll get you.’

But perhaps my very favouritest quote is from Cann’s introduction: ‘I hope you enjoy this trip through a rich and varied life. Maybe once you start to read it, it’ll be you who says “he got me!”‘

The La Perouse Snake Show, ‘the longest continuous running snake show in the world’, is now run by volunteers from the herpetological society. When I attended the show, a child sat on the fence, dangling her legs into the space where a live eastern brown snake (the species that kills more people than any other in Australia) slithered freely. The juxtaposition of a deadly snake and a family at ease remains one of the most Australian sights I’ve had the pleasure to witness.

I highly recommend both the book and the show.

 

Surviving small talk with hairdressers

April 26 [journal excerpts]
Sydney
When I finally decided that the broken, miserable tangle past my shoulders needed to go, I made an appointment with a new hairdresser. He’d been recommended as someone who knew how to deal with thick hair. I loved my long hair – pulling it up in a bun, braiding it – but it was exhausting to look after. So I made a special trip to Surry Hills.

1. The salon was very bright and the music loud. One staff person greeted me. Another brought me a cup of tea. A third, a scrawny guy with bleached hair circa 1999 washed my hair. When he towelled it off, he stuck his fingertips in my ears. They were inside a towel, but still.

2. The hairdresser had the shoulders and arms of a weightlifter and the beer belly of a devoted drinker. He was probably late fifties, with salt and pepper hair, a black v-neck t-shirt, jeans and a single silver earring. He cut me off every time I talked, so I stopped talking. The only time he listened was when he asked what type of cut I wanted. He described the sort of thick, wavy hair I happen to have as “one of the evils of the world” and I thought, he gets it.

3. Am I terrible at small talk? Or just terrible at small talk with hairdressers? If you love hair styling enough to devote your career to it, chances are you and I have very little in common to start with.

4. He cut me off even when I tried to tell him that he came highly recommended. It was like our dialogue was on separate soundtracks playing out of sync.

5. He was hesitant about the cut I wanted. “It’s a dramatic cut,” he kept repeating. Finally I managed to convince him I’d had it quite short before. “Some women are fine to get a dramatic cut. Others, you cut their hair a millimeter and they’re devastated. Your achilles heel is very thick.” (Yes, and so is my hair.)

6. “My housemate a while ago was a guy from Canada. He said he was from the US, from New York, I guessed he was ashamed to be from somewhere so cold. One time I asked him if he wanted a margarita. He gave me a funny look and said, ‘We don’t really know each other that well.’
“I asked him what he thought I’d said.
“‘Do you want to marry me?’
“I said ‘No, a margarita.’ He was laughing so hard he fell to the floor.”

7. He stepped away for a moment, and one of the many staff came over to sweep up the piles of discarded hair. When he came back, he said to her, “Oh no, you’ve ruined it.”
“I was just sweeping it into a pile,” she said, confused.
“I was going to Instagram it, but that’s fine, next time.”
“I could put it back, spread it out.”
“No, it was all about letting nature take its course, being organic.”
“Well, I could –”
“No, it’s fine.”
He wasn’t rude exactly, but he wasn’t friendly either.

8. The cut cost $145, and to maintain it, he said I’d have to get it trimmed every 12 weeks. I said I’d see him in a year.
Not out loud, of course. In my head.

2019 update: My new hairdresser has two dogs that hang out in his salon and sometimes I can pat them, and it turns out that’s all I’ve ever wanted from a hairdresser.

 

I am curious about your tattoos

Noosa beach, Australia

August 9 [journal excerpts]
Noosa, QLD

Shopkeeper referring to a whale-watching cruise: “The water out that way becomes chuck city.”
The same shopkeeper: “The best way to leave Noosa with a million dollars is to come with ten.”

August 10
The most Aussie sight: two teenage boys on the pavement, three surfboards between them. One rode a bike, a surfboard under his arm; the other pushed along on a skateboard, struggling with two surfboards at once.

August 11
On Noosa’s main beach: an older woman, maybe 60, with a single dreadlock starting at the base of her skull and hanging down past her knees. It swung as she walked, like a tail.

August 12
Tattoos spotted today:
1. a tiger face, full colour, the size of my entire hand, with a knife sunk between the eyes, the handle sticking out, on a man’s shin (he may has well have tattooed the words ‘creepy as’)
2. three slash marks with dripping blood, almost like the Zorro symbol, on a man’s chest
3. the word ‘serious’ in a cutesy font, not quite cursive, surrounded by little hearts, on a young man’s inner arm. Was he in love with someone named serious? The word wasn’t capitalised. Did he love being serious? Or did he take love seriously? Our burger order arrived, so I didn’t have to talk myself into asking him.

August 14
Waiting for burgers again, a skinny pale guy with shoulder-length hair came in. He had a tattoo that started at his wrist, and in huge cursive letters, ran toward his elbow, reading “Death before dis—”. I couldn’t read the rest, but he was running out of space, unless the third word wrapped right over his elbow. It might have been “Death before dishonour”, but he really didn’t have enough space, so I assume it read “Death before dishes”.

He also has a bunch of roses on his shin, and a cartoon cat face with a knife through the crown of its head, the blade coming out its mouth. What is it with dudes and tattoos of stabbed cat heads? Is it a secret code signalling membership in some sort of club? Obviously not one that actually stabs cats, that would be too obvious. So perhaps it’s men who refuse to do the dishes, and have sought solidarity in this via symbolic tattoos. When they spot each other on the street, they raise their eyebrows and exchange a slight nod of encouragement, maybe even tap two fingers against the centre of their chest if they do so slyly.

I can’t see any other potential explanation.

 

First Time Feels

Two months ago I started the first draft of a new novel, and I’m 16,000 words in. So at that rate it will take me … I don’t know, eight years to finish? But there’s been lots keeping me busy. Here’s a roundup of the latest news.

1. I had a fantastic interview about My Name Is Revenge with author Pamela Cook on the writing podcast she co-hosts with Kel Butler, Writes4Women, and you can listen here.

2. Armenia was the ‘journeys to come’ destination in this guest traveller post I wrote for Catriona Rowntree.

3. My latest book review, on JP Pomare’s Call Me Evie, is out now. This psychological thriller is captivatingly taut, with evocative settings and characters that thrash through their lives with an almost painful authenticity.

4. My monthly enewsletter comes out tomorrow, with a chance to win a copy of Toni Jordan’s new novel The Fragments! There’s still time to sign up.*

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5. I’m appearing on a writing panel with some fantastic Australian authors. If you’re an emerging writer in Sydney, this panel is for you!

First Time Feels with the First Time Podcast
Friday 20 September, 6pm
Gleebooks, Glebe
Co-hosts of The First Time Podcast, Kate Mildenhall (Skylarking) and Katherine Collette (The Helpline) talk debut publication with authors John Purcell (The Girl on the Page), Cassie Hamer (After the Party) and Ashley Kalagian Blunt (My Name Is Revenge).
Come along to a live recording of this popular writing podcast, and stay for a wine and a catch up with other writing folk.

 

*So many people have asked me about this: no, that is not my dog. It’s a stock image dog. He really wants to you to sign up to my newsletter. That’s the whole story.