Friday, 28 February 2014

Writing as compulsion

    Writing is a compulsion for me, but where does that force within come from, I wonder. I’ve never tried to explain it before, but perhaps it stems from reading. Librarians and teachers of literacy often express a desire for youngsters to “discover the joys of reading”. I’m guessing that joy of reading is behind my urge to write.

An adventure into another world.
     It is not a desire to recreate the great writers (as if) but to recreate the feeling reading those writers gave me, of entering a different world, a subconscious world, an imaginary world . From those earliest days of my own literacy, I was able to enter other lives, whether it be from the simple story lines and characters of school books to my mother’s magazines which seemed always to feature stories about exotic lives lived on tea plantations in Ceylon or India. Reading was mind expanding and other worldly. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, read as a child in Australia, opened a door to the world that has never been shut, as did Heidi, the story of the little girl who lives with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps. 

The Swiss mountains were a long
way from the Australian bush.

     In retrospect, the revelation of the inner lives of those and other characters, had a profound impact and influences the way I write and what I write about.
     Then there is inspiration. When I first read Faulkner’s, The Sound and the Fury, I remember closing the last page and thinking, wow, how did he do that. It was one of those profoundly moving novels that imprint themselves on the psyche; long after you have forgotten the plot details, you remember that moment of revelation; this writer is different to everyone I have read before. I think it inspired me in many ways to want to be a writer. Not so much to “write” like Faulkner, but to recreate the moment. It’s hard to explain.
     Writers come fairly quickly to the realisation they will not reach parity with the great writers of literature, but that does not stop them persisting, perhaps in a desire to find “the moment” or in an attempt to clarify their thoughts. As Faulkner said, ”I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.”

This post was first published at

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Reviews for Place of Many Birds

"Whilst I've never been to Australia I have read many books set there, Nevil Shute and Colleen McCullough both spring to mind and the descriptive language of these short stories, reminded me very much of the mood and sense of place that these authors give.
The tales are gently unfolding and there is a lazy moodiness which sets the tone and suits the subject matter of the stories.
The characters, wildlife and scenery are all brought vividly and expertly to life. Very enjoyable."
Sophia Gampton

" This is an excellent book, really well done! I don't tend to read short stories all that much and after reading this wonderful book, wonder why? I bought it because Australia interests me. The stories take place there and the reader is transported to a different time and place through them. To be able to create a story with a minimum of words that is compelling, gives the reader a complete sense of people, place and time, I think is sheer genius. If you're a fan of story stories, if you're interested in Australia, or if you simply want a good read, this one delivers. I can't recommend it highly enough!"
 Dianne Harman

Friday, 19 July 2013

Discovering an author you admire

     Discovering an author you admire, one you haven’t read before is always a thrill. A door opens to a different world as that new voice and style gets inside your head.
     Hans Fallada writing about Berlin during WW2 is my new discovery. Alone in Berlin is the story of Otto, an ordinary German who, after his son is killed at the front, is shocked into a silent campaign attacking Hitler. He drops anonymous postcards around the city in the hope he will spur others into fighting back against the Nazi war machine.
     Described as the great novel of German resistance, it’s an terrifying picture of a world in which even law-abiding citizens are helpless, in danger and able to trust no one. Yet it all sounds fairly familiar and you’d think a well worn subject such as the war period between 1938-45 wouldn’t have anything new to offer. But Fallada’s 1947 novel, reads as if it has just been published. There’s an immediacy to his characterisation in the way people struggle with or are destroyed by the world around them and how they might find meaning in their moral integrity and human decency.

     A similar experience can be found in Fallada’s Little Man, What Now, written in 1932 in the lead up to the war. Again, it is his characterisation of an ordinary young couple and their struggle to maintain a dignified and decent life in an economically and morally declining Berlin, that drives the plot and brings the novel to life.
     “Old” subject matter and an author who died in 1947 doesn’t sound like a serendipitous recipe, but it’s a tribute to Fallada’s skill that his classic novels remain fresh and readable and able to reach new audiences. His ear for dialogue developed when he worked on farms and estates in Mecklenburg, Silesia and West Prussia:
  “I was with people almost all the time, I stood behind endless rows of women talking away while they chopped turnips and dug potatoes, and I heard the women and girls talking away. It went on from dawn till dusk...I could not avoid it, I had to listen and I learned how they talk and what they talk about, what their worries are and what problems they have. And as I was only a very minor official and not riding around on horseback - I just had a bike now and then to save time - they had no inhibitions about talking to me and I learned to talk to everybody.”
There’s a lesson for every writer. Fallada’s dialogue is not however, just a simple repetition of the overheard chitchat some modern writers employ. Fallada refines and details his conversations to reveal inner thoughts, fears, aspirations and circumstance. That’s why his novels continue to stand up to scrutiny.

     I wonder how many new novels, those we hail as masterpieces, will stand the test of time and be able to reach new audiences in 70 or 80 years.

UK readers:

Australian and US readers:

Friday, 28 June 2013

Visiting the novel's location

     Sometimes the setting is so integral to a novel it becomes one of the characters defining the story. In other words, you could not transport the action to another location and still have the same book. Death in Venice comes to mind, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums, Burmese Days and so on. Robert Frost’s poems could not be as effective and moving were they removed from rural life in New England. There are many examples.
     Yet some of the greatest works of literature are not defined by their locale or period. Shakespeare’s plays can and have been performed far from the setting Shakespeare intended. Coriolanus has recently been transferred to the Balkans, Romeo and Juliet to a Miami-resembling Verona Beach. This has not detracted from their universal themes.
     The same is not true though for many a work of literature and the description of the setting leaves as much impression on the reader as the characters or plot.
The Windmills of La Mancha
     Have you ever gone on a pilgrimage to a setting because it came to life so clearly between the pages of a book you just had to see it for yourself? I once travelled through Spain in search of the towns and villages on the plains of La Mancha where Don Quixote is set. The journey turned into something of a wild goose chase through this windswept desert like region as the exact locations Cervantes based his story on had eluded historians for four centuries, and although we visited interesting villages, none of them exuded a romantic aura associated with a chivalrous knight. The town of Villanueva de los Infantes has since been designated as The Place in La Mancha referred to at the start of Cervantes’ novel. It’s an unremarkable birthplace, but perhaps that was Cervantes’ intention suggesting a courageous knight was unlikely to emerge from such a place.
     Unimpressive with harsh environmental conditions, the dry arid plains of La Mancha and their windmills are nevertheless integral to the story and the ride of the delusional Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza through the dusty terrain is what makes the story.
     Sometimes places live up to expectations and sometimes they don’t. Two things drew me to Tasmania last January. One: the incredible art gallery, MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art. A limestone cavern filled with spectacular works of art, it is an experience and an education that lives up to expectations. Two: the wild bush setting of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, a spectacular journey into primeval Tasmanian forest, that is terrifying, dangerous and impenetrable.
Tasmanian Wilderness
     The setting takes over as character once the expedition to find the Garden of Eden commences. The landscape plays tricks on the characters and does not give up secrets readily. By observing the terrain, the various parties believe they can find a way through the bush by using geology and logical deduction but they become hopelessly lost to the living, breathing power of the remote setting. The English passengers don’t fit into these powerful surroundings and the physical difficulties the parties encounter even contribute to mental breakdown.

     That remote and impenetrable wilderness still exists in vast tracts in southern Tasmania where there are thousands of acres of land without roads and the only access is by foot. The startling thing is, the menace and danger of the English Passengers’ bush setting remains largely unchanged from when the story was set in 1857.

Sidney Nolan's Snake at the Museum of Old and New Art

Friday, 21 June 2013

Place of Many Birds free fiction download this weekend

Place of Many Birds is short literary fiction set in Australia in the aftermath of the wars and in the shadow of the Great Depression through to the 1960s. Themes are family, love and growing up.

It's available for free download this weekend: Saturday 22 June and Sunday 23 June.

If you don't have a kindle, you can easily download a kindle app for use on PCs.

Australian and USA readers:

UK readers:

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

I met the Farangi Girl today

 I met the Farangi Girl today. What a delight she is. Engaging, personable and full of vitality, you’d never guess she was the product of a tumultuous upbringing in pre-revolutionary Iran. 
     Speaking with knowledge, insight and affection for a country most of us know little about, Dartnell conveys an exotic aura of handsome British father, glamorous American mother and unconventional Iranian upbringing.
     Ashley Dartnell’s autobiographical, Farangi Girl, is a deeply personal account of her life and that of her parents and siblings in a foreign land, Farangi being Farsi for foreign. Filled with intimate details of the mother-daughter relationship, bankruptcy, prison and poverty, affairs and neglect, you can’t help wonder how these children emerged from such a childhood to grow up and make successful lives. Their experiences clearly made them strong and Ashley, always trying to prove herself, went on to graduate from Bryn Mawr College, to gain an MBA from Harvard Business School and an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths University.
Ashley with her glamorous but neglectful mother
     No one outside the circle really knows what goes on within a family. So the exposure of her and her brothers’ experiences and the descriptions of family dynamics make heart-rending reading for outsiders, and surely for her family too. When asked how her family reacted to her book, she is candid. At first there were objections as painful memories were raked over, but eventually acceptance of the writer’s desire to write won out and Ashley published her book.
     So how do writers deal with the delicate issue of recounting experiences shared within a family? Do you have a right to use private details of cherished memories or relate events that have long been buried and forgotten for good reason? Disclosure of private facts is tricky territory and needs to be handled carefully and thoughtfully if it is not to end in tears, recriminations or legal issues.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Does a movie ever live up to the book?

    Critics gave the new film of The Great Gatsby luke warm reviews, disappointed it did not capture the essence of this enduringly popular novel. But weren’t they being a little harsh, after all, it would be just about impossible to please the gate-keepers of this classic America novel,sometimes described as the greatest American novel ever written.
     Regarded as Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, it embodies the conflicts between the established sources of economic and cultural power and those like Gatsby of humble origins who make good, becoming wealthy and powerful in the process; in other words, it embodies the American dream that anyone can make it against the odds of class, background and old money, an ideal which is the linchpin of American society from its founding days to the present.
Leonardo DiCaprio shines as Jay Gatsby

     Baz Luhrmann’s film captures well the prosperous 1920s era, known for bootlegged liquor, organised crime, the birth of jazz and the garish flapper culture. Fitzgerald’s themes of decadence and idealism are well defined and the film is a sensory feast with glorious settings and costumes which speak clearly of the opulence enjoyed by the wealthy, of which Gatsby so desperately wanted to be a part, to impress and possess the shallow Daisy.
Classic novels set the bar high
     I guess this is where the critics have a point. These in your face sights and sounds get in the way of the audience thinking too hard. They distract in a way that doesn’t happen in the silence of the mind when reading a novel. Reading The Great Gatsby is a cerebral, poetic experience, requiring the use of the intellect, watching the film is not. Fitzgerald’s delicate prose is littered with abstract and indirect subtleties impossible to recreate in film. The language of the movie is blunt and to the point. The vagaries of the novel which require input from the reader are spelled out in the movie so there is no opportunity to participate as you might with the novel.

     Luhrmann could have taken a different approach and exchanged   blatant reality for nuance, but then that’s not what he does best. He doesn’t do subtle. His version is long (142 min) but entertaining and never boring. Could he have kept his trademark shenanigans without losing Fitzgerald’s layers? It would be a fine thing to see Luhrmann exchange style for substance. As it is though, audiences and critics should accept a film will never live up to the novel we place on a pedestal and just enjoy Luhrmann’s artistic style, which does suit the prosperous era in which The Great Gatsby is set.
     To understand just how revered The Great Gatsby is, a first printing of an American first edition, with dust jacket, can be valued at up to US$750,000. Treated almost as holy writ, could any film maker do it justice? Luhrmann was brave to try.