Heather Ewings is a Tasmanian writer of mostly speculative fiction. With an MA in History, and a fascination with myth and folklore, her work weaves our world with the world of the other: of spirits, and mythological beings, and sometimes even magic.
This is a bit different to my usual read. I don’t usually read memoir, but I’ve heard Tony talk about his book a couple of times now, and he read a section of his book out at the Little Laneway Festival, in November last year, and I had to read more.
The story is heartbreaking. Tony and his wife Sue are travelling through South America when Sue suffers from a brain aneurysm while they’re in Bolivia. Bolivia is a poor country, and so of course it’s hospitals are not equipped as well as the hospitals Tony is used to, here in Australia.
Even when Tony manages to break through the language barriers and make it understood that his wife needs a hospital, it takes time to get her there, and as the weeks drag on it’s uncertain whether she will ever leave.
From the start, Tony’s writing propels the reader back to that terrifying moment when his wife has a seizure in the bed beside him, and carries the reader back and forward through his and Sue’s history, and the painfully long 14 weeks before Sue can finally come home, now suffering from a condition very much like dementia, putting Tony in a new role of carer.
Extremely well written, I highly recommend this story.
This story has been on my ‘To Read’ list for such a long time, and I’m so glad I finally got to read it.
It’s a beautiful love story/folk tale of a River Wife – fish by night, human by day – her human father, and the human man she falls in love with.
The River Wife has no name: “I have found in the naming of things, something happens,” she tells the human, Wilson James.
“There are times now in the forest when a flower appears, berries grow, a certain fungus blooms, and if I name it I can pass it by as if I have seen it already. I do not want to pass it by… The bark of each tree has a pattern that is unique, a constellation of small creatures and plants which grow there and make it home, and it may have a neighbour which stands also in bark of a similar cloth, but it is not the same because its name is the same.”
The River Wives have always lived in this river, and this particular River Wife has been here for many many years – so many years that her human father has turned into a tree so that he will always be nearby.
“My father once said that any story of a place was a story of sadness, because everything changed. So a story of belonging would always be a story of losing.”
She’s warned against humans by her father, and she does try to resist the lure of Wilson James for a while, but she’s curious, too. He shouldn’t be able to see her, for she exists across a veil that humans cannot cross, but he can. How?
In the end her curiosity proves the better of her, and she succumbs to meeting him, and ever so gradually reveals the truth about herself.
But then something happens to Wilson James, and the River Wife has to make a dangerous journey to find the oldest ones and see if they can save him.
“‘What do hearts get mended with? ‘
‘Sunshine, kindness, the touch of your child’s hand in yours, spring rain, the green wings of dragonflies, rainbow scales, the webs of spiders, the voice of a woman who loves you.'”
For someone who prefers to be a hermit and hide away at home this year has pushed me miles outside my comfort zone!
I’ve home schooled my children through grades 4 and 6, and started sporadic lessons a lot earlier than planned for my 4 year old who is insistent that she be taught how to read and write, NOW! While this is mostly, obviously, at home, we’ve done excursions to all sorts of places, visiting a whole bunch of different historical sites, bushwalking, swimming, getting lost in mazes, attending theatre productions, experiencing our local Indigenous culture at the Naidoc week celebrations, visiting Writers Festivals and Sustainable Living Expos, and so many other things!
I’ve chauffered the above mentioned children to a bajillion activities (no… I don’t know if bajillion is a real word, and yes it certainly felt like there were that many!) – dance,drama and music – lessons,rehearsals and performances. I spent a good deal of the year sitting in the car reading/writing while waiting for said children, or doing laps around our beautiful river.
I’ve made hundreds of Tasmanian beeswax candles; melting and colouring and pouring and levelling and packaging to send off to the handful of shops who stock the candles my husband and I make (with the children’s help, when they are feeling particularly keen).
And I spent some time volunteering – transcribing convict records. That was a fantastic experience – there was a new, fascinating, real-life story at every turn, some of which I hope to share with you all next year.
As for my own writing, 2018 has been a huge year for me.
I’m not sure if I’ve written about this before, but for the last few years I’ve had a goal to submit on average one piece of writing each and every week. Now, I need to specify that I don’t necessarily mean one new piece of writing per week. Most of my submissions are older short stories that haven’t found a home yet. However, some of my stories are brand new, and this year, amongst the 56 submissions I made 18 of them were new stories, written just this year.
It started last year, really, with the invitation in December to submit my work to The People’s Library. That resulted in the editing and polishing of my novella ‘What the Tide Brings’, to bring it up to scratch, followed by months of checking and re-checking emails as news on the project dripped in – dates, covers, and most importantly – edits, while myself, Pearl and Isabel (two other members of my writers group who were also invited to include their stories) planned events to make sure we made the most of this fantastic opportunity!
When September hit, it seemed everything happened all at once.
I had a drabble (a story that is exactly 100 words) published on September 1st, and then on the 7th writers from all over the state made their way to Hobart for the opening of the library – what must have been the biggest book launch ever as 113 books were launched.
That was just the beginning. This reading was the first of three public readings, the next held a fortnight later in Deloraine (although I had lost my voice, so Isabel did my reading for me), and another approximately 6 weeks after that, at the Little Laneway Festival, also in Deloraine.
Throughout the year I’ve also been posting regular stories on my rarely mentioned Patreon Page. While most of these stories have been published before, most are not easily available – if at all, and I’ve started branching out into some newer, only-available-on-Patreon short stories. (If you’re interested to see what I’ve written, there are some free stories on the page, and for $1 you’ll have access to the entire backlog of stories for a whole month.)
And my year has ended with the acceptance of another of my flash-fiction pieces ‘Tea with Grandma’ on a new Australian website – Lite Lit One. This story was written for a ‘Zine’ my local writers group planned, but which unfortunately fell through, so I’m so glad to find it a home!
I don’t think I’ve managed to post even one book review this year, though I’ve read so many fantastic books. So here’s a list of my favourites. (Note: this is not necessarily a list of books published this year, but rather a list of my favourites of the books I read this year.)
The first has got to be ‘Flames’ by Robbie Arnott. I loved every bit of this bizarre and wonderful story – from the mother who temporarily returns from the dead with bits of landscape sprouting from her body, to the animism present in every aspect of the story – everything has a spirit and a consciousness, from the river rat swimming in the Tamar right up to the rain cloud hanging over Ben Lomond.
The second is actually a children’s picture book, ‘Old Hu-Hu’ by Kyle Mewburn. Kyle read this story aloud during her session at the Tamar Valley Writers Festival, and I have to admit I was blinking back tears. Old Hu-Hu has died, you see, and little Hu-Hu-Tu wants to know where he’s gone. It’s such a beautiful story I ordered a copy as soon as I got home.
‘The Kiss Quotient’ by Helen Hoang is next. Stella Lane is on the spectrum and struggles with relationships, so she hires a male escort to help her out. This was such a fun story, and I’ve never met a protagonist I related to so much! This is definitely for 18+ though, it contains sex scenes that don’t hold back on the description!
‘The Secrets We Keep’ by Shirley Patton is a wonderful story by a fellow Tasmanian author. Aimee is a social worker freshly arrived in Kalgoorlie, who has made one difficult choice already in her past, and soon faces another. One of the reasons I loved this story so much was the character of Agnes, who reads people’s futures in tea leaves, and explores the more spiritual aspects of life.
I discovered ‘Darker Shade of Magic’ by VE Schwab after watching her Tolkien Lecture, which in turn was recommended at the Tamar Valley Writers Festival. It’s a story of portals to other worlds, where things are similar, but also vastly different. I absolutely loved it!
‘Children of Blood and Bone’ by Tomi Adeyemi is a book I came across on Twitter. I read The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas last year, and she (among others) recommended this amazing fantasy of a world in which magic has been suppressed until young Zelie is thrust into an adventure to return it. It’s brilliant.
I bought ‘Nevermoor’ by Jessica Townsend for my kids, and my son devoured it in a day and thrust it under my nose with a ‘You have to read this!” I had soon devoured it too, and we’re eagerly awaiting the sequel. (Yes, I know, it’s out already – it’s on our ‘To Buy’ list!)
I bought The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland while visiting family in WA earlier this year. It’s such a beautiful story, of a girl who loses her family to a devastating fire, and is thrust into the collected family of a grandmother she never knew.
During this same trip I also bought ‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott. It’s the story of Tilly, daughter of an Indigenous man who she barely knows, and her reconnection with her community and their shared ancestors. It is devastating in so many ways, and yet also full of hope for the future.
I have so much to write about this weekend, I almost don’t know where to start!
I attended seven sessions:
Learning to Fly: Emerging Authors
Garments of Time: the many Guises of History
Numbers Never Lie! Writing a Bestseller
Matters Fantastical: Speculative Fiction
Moment of Launch: Emerging Writers
Honourable Mentions: do Literary Awards help or hinder?
Blessed Disguises: Dressing up fact as fiction
There was some common advice shared in many of the discussions:
Write from your heart. I don’t know how many times I heard this during the festival, but I’ve written it at least 4 times in my notebook. The general consensus was that the joy you have from writing what you love flows out onto the page, and makes the reading much more enjoyable, and therefore it’s more likely to be picked up. Also – the books publishers are publishing now were usually picked up several years ago, there is no point writing to a current trend – publishers will have already moved onto the next one (which could be your book).
Enter everything. Awards, grants, competitions – even if you don’t win, the feedback can be invaluable. This was the focus of the ‘Honourable Mentions’ panel, where the general answer to the question ‘Do Awards help or hinder’ was two-fold: winning is a great affirmation that you’re on the right track, and can also be good advertising.
Develop a thick skin. Rejection is the norm. You could be rejected for any number of reasons, none of which have anything to do with you, or your writing.
Be persistent! This follows on from the above – rejection is the norm, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting! (But always remember to be professional).
I tried distilling my weekends worth of notes down to something brief and easy to read, but I found with my favourite two sessions, I just couldn’t – so here’s an overview…
‘The Garments of Time: the many guises of history’ with Rebe Taylor, James Dryburgh, Margaretta Pos, Louise Evans and Stephanie Parkyn.
#TVWF Session: The Garments of Time: the many guises of history – Rebe Taylor, James Dryburgh, Margaretta Pos, Louise Evans and Stephanise Parkyn
I love history, so this was probably my favourite session of the entire festival.
There was so much to take from this session!
Rebe Taylor pointed out that we can never step into the past – it’s never clear, and that to write history we must be as present minded as possible. She quoted Graeme Denning who said that to study/write history we must be ‘anthropologists of ourselves’.
James Dryburgh notes that History changes clothes (going with the theme of the panel title – ‘Garments of Time’) depending on who tells it, and how they gather their information. But history is not seperate from the present, threads from the past join with the present.
His book ‘The Balfour Correspondent’ contains actual letters written by a 13 year old girl living in Balfour, in North-West Tasmania, to the Weekly Courier (a Launceston newspaper), about her life in Balfour. As James pointed out, we rarely look at history through the eyes of a child, what we have instead is a very narrow view of history. There have always been dissenting voices.
Someone asked a question about how the authors decide on the historical ‘truth’ when there are so many stories. The authors seemed to be all in agreeance – there is no single, universal truth, if you ask a group of witnesses of the same event what they saw, everyone will have a different account, because we all view the world through our own understanding, which has been formed through our own experiences.
Matters Fantastical: Speculative Fiction chaired by Lyndon Riggall, with Amie Kaufman, Jodi McAlister, and Paul Collins
What a fantastic panel this was! I have three pages of notes for this one – a sure sign it was loaded with information! This post is already quite long though, so I’ll try and be concise…
Amie spoke about writing a series: in book one the obstacles/crisis feels immediate and terrible, but by book 3 those problems need to seem minor in comparison with what’s going in the book 3.
Lyndon commented that carrying a narrative in your head gets exhausting – living in another world for half the time. So that’s why I’m so tired all the time!!
Amie said it was really important to take time out from writing – you have to ‘put stuff in’ in order to ‘get stuff out’, and Jodie was of the importance of compartmentalising life: work/writing/life.
Jodi writes ‘Intrusive Fantasy’, where the fantastical intrudes on reality, which is a term I’d never heard of before, and really describes my writing.
Amie pointed out that fantasy allows us to examine our world from a distance, and that sci-fi/fantasy is where we get to rehearse the future.
For writers the advice was that you should always know more about your world/story than you share, that you need to make sure the story starts in the right place, and – for fantasy writers – always make the map first!
There were so many other wonderful little snippets of wisdom, but I’ll try to note just a few:
Adam Thompson (whose brilliant short story ‘Honey’ was recently published in the Kill Your Darlings Tasmania Showcase) spoke about the use of stories in educating people, how when reading fiction people tend to have their guard down, they’re more willing and able to see another’s point of view. He spoke about how readers want a unique voice, they aren’t after another Stephen King, for example.
Louise Allan spoke of the process she went through with her book ‘The Sisters Song’, which had at least 30 full redrafts (that made me feel better – I’m only at about redraft 24 with my novel), and the struggles she’s having finding the same authenticity with her second novel (Second novel syndrome is real, people!).
Cheryl Akle said the magic of fiction is that every person in the room could be given the same idea, and yet every story would be different.
With regard to writing a bestseller, the general consensus of this panel of writers was that you can’t actually sit down and write a bestseller. There are things that will help; like writing from the heart (see above!), and making sure you know the craft (spelling/grammar/structure etc). Having a publisher with good distribution channels is crucial – a book needs to be available online as well as in your local bookstore and the big chain stores. But really, so much of the process is down to luck, you just have to cross your fingers and hope for the best.
Welcome to my very belated post about the Tamar Valley Writers Festival! After a busy start to September with the opening of The People’s Library, and my reading from ‘What the Tides Bring’, followed a week later by the writers festival, I fell ill and spent the last two weeks of the month fighting off sickness so I could attend my children’s performances in the local Youth Drama Festival, and my own reading at the ‘Reading’s from the People’s Library’ event my writers group held locally (Unfortunately, by the time of my second reading I’d lost my voice, so my friend and fellow writer Isabel read for me).
Anyway – on to the Writers Festival!
The Tamar Valley Writers Festival is one of my favourite Writers Festivals. Not only is it so close to home, but previous year’s festivals have been held in Autumn, in marquees, and I loved the atmosphere of that. The festival was a little different this year – moved from Autumn to Spring, and down the road to the Aspect Tamar Valley Resort.
The first day of the Festival – the Friday – is Schools day – with a program aimed at School aged children. As someone who home schools her children, you would think that this would be up there on things-to-do-with-the-kids – especially as I’m a writer! But I’m ashamed to say this year was the first year I’ve taken my children along.
It was well worth it. They got to see a range of authors and illustrators speak about their craft: (for the Primary School Program) Jackie Kerin, Kyle Mewburn, Lian Tanner and Andrew Plant. It was a fantastic day of story-telling, with the authors not only sharing their own stories (both the ones they’ve written, and some amazing life experiences!) but also working with the kids to create a shared story – showing them the importance of obstacles and conflict in a story. We all discovered some wonderful new books (and I wished I’d saved a lot more money for the event).
Each presenter had some great advice for budding writers and artists:
Jackie Kerin spoke of writing ‘Pharlap’ in rhyme because one of the things about horses is that they have a rhythm (think of them galloping across the paddock!) and how hard it was to do that – there’s no repetition in Pharlap – every rhyme is different.
Kyle Mewburn said that she wrote her first book ‘The Hoppleplop’ in 3 hours, sent it off and it was published!! This incredible success was followed by two years of rejections before her next book was picked up by a publisher. Her Dinosaur Rescue books are around 5000 words each, and take about a month to write – depending on the editors thoughts on the book, there can be minor edits before a book is published, though in one case a book went through 14 rewrites before it was considered ready!
Kyle doesn’t see her characters in her mind as she writes – like me!
I’ve seen Lian Tanner speak a couple of times now, and she’s always fantastic to listen to. My favourite snippet of hers is: ‘Writing is like reading only better’ – the reason being that as a writer you get to live in the world of your book for a year or more, while as a reader it’s only for as long as it takes to read the book (a few hours, in my son’s case).
Andrew Plant is an illustrator. He talked about getting away from the story to help with ideas – his generally come when he’s walking the dog, or in the shower. He talked about the process of illustrating ‘Spark’ by Adam Wallace, and the difficulties of drawing characters which essentially don’t really have a shape or size (fire and wind).
Some of the common themes that came up throughout the day:
– it’s not the job of an author/illustrator to provide answers; just to ask questions, and perhaps show a few possible alternative answers for readers to consider;
– arts and science do not need to be two distinct paths – it is possible to be both scientific and creative!
– when writing, you need to make a story interesting – don’t let the main character get their goal straight up, their needs to be obstacles for them to overcome. Both Lian and Andrew did an amazing job of showing this, by setting up a situation and getting the kids to suggest problems, and then solutions, which somehow led on to more problems.
Overall it was a fantastic day – each author had a signing session after their presentation and so the kids all had a chance to have a quick chat. My son was especially impressed with Lian Tanner – he has an unusual name, and often people mishear his name, and then misspell it! But Lian caught it straight up and knew how to spell it, too!
Keep an eye out for my next post – covering the weekend days of the Festival itself. I have pages of notes from these two days, so keeping it brief and short might be difficult!
September is over all ready, and so is The People’s Library, which closed it’s doors yesterday after a packed month of readings and performances and digesting 113 books by Tasmanian authors.
I spent the last two weeks of the month feeling ill and sorry for myself, and almost a week of that unable to talk above a whisper, meaning I wasn’t actually able to read at the “Readings from The People’s Library” event my local writers group organised for authors from the North of the state (Thanks to Isabel who read for me).
However, we still had a wonderful time, and it was fantastic to hear from the works of the other authors who came along. Plus – we were in the newspaper!